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Newsletter: Lakers like where they are heading at the All-Star break

Lakers forward LeBron James congratulates guard Alex Caruso (4) after he scored late in the second half against the Nuggets in a game Feb. 12, 2020, in Denver.
Lakers forward LeBron James congratulates guard Alex Caruso (4) after he scored late in the second half against the Nuggets on Wednesday in Denver.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times, here with your Lakers newsletter.

The All-Star break is here, and the Lakers like where they’re sitting.

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That’s because Wednesday’s game in Denver wasn’t just one of 82. The Lakers had a series of goals.

They wanted to go into the break on a high note. They wanted to give themselves a mental edge over one of the Western Conference’s top teams. They wanted to put some extra space between themselves and the Nuggets in the standings.

By virtue of an overtime win in Denver, the Lakers did all three.

LeBron James was asked postgame how he judges where the team is right now.

“We are where we need to be,” James said. “We’ll come back off the break and get ready for the final stretch of the regular season. You don’t put too much into it. You understand you played some good basketball along the way, played some not good basketball. But you want to continue to get better and continue to trust the process.”

James won’t get much of a break since he’ll be playing in the All-Star game on Sunday in Chicago. But because of how good he feels about how things are going right now, he doesn’t really want one.

“I’m very excited for my teammates to be able to get some rest, decompress and get away from the game and come back fresh,” James said. “And myself will be locked in for them no matter how much rest I can get. It doesn’t matter.”

Once they’re back from the break, they’ll face a sprint to the finish.

We’ll recap all that happened this week, but first …

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Alex Caruso, secret weapon

Lakers coach Frank Vogel smiled coyly when he said it, and he liked the line enough that he repeated it during his postgame news conference on Wednesday.

“Alex is our secret weapon.”

That, of course, is a reference to Caruso, the guard who didn’t get much playing time against the Phoenix Suns on Monday but played an important role in Wednesday’s win over the Nuggets. Caruso played 22½ minutes and had a plus-minus rating of plus-23. He and Dwight Howard were the catalysts for the Lakers’ second-quarter run that helped them dig out of a double-digit hole.

On Monday he lost playing time to Rajon Rondo, who had his best game of the season. Caruso’s role isn’t consistent, but that’s something he’s able to handle.

“I did it for the last two years — two-way contract, that’s what I did,” Caruso said. “They brought me up, I didn’t know when I was going to play, if I was going to play. It was just about being ready.… I’ve been preparing for this the last couple years.”

Vogel has teased a few times that he has thought about increasing Caruso’s role. He was asked about that Wednesday night too.

“There’s a possibility for it expanding,” Vogel said. “Right now, he’s my secret weapon. I break him out when I need him, he’s certainly earned a rotational spot, he’s in the rotation and like I said, when we need him to grow into a bigger role, he delivers.”

Since we last spoke ...

  • Our Bill Plaschke wrote a masterful piece about Ben Hong, the cellist who played “Hallelujah” during one of the Lakers’ tribute videos to Kobe Bryant in the first game at Staples Center since his death. Hong connected with fans’ suffering precisely because he himself was suffering — having lost someone close to him less than two months earlier. “Yet somehow, on the wings of the magical memory of Kobe Bryant, he soared,” wrote Plaschke.
  • James and Anthony Davis got tattoos honoring Bryant in the days after his death. They weren’t alone. Our business section took a look at the trend.
  • The Lakers second road game since Bryant’s death was in San Francisco, and the Warriors, like the Sacramento Kings before them, paid tribute to Bryant.
  • Their third road game since then was in Denver and the Nuggets did not do any pregame or in-game tribute, but toward the end of the game a cluster of fans began to chant “Ko-be.”
  • Bryant’s widow, Vanessa Bryant, shared publicly the way she is struggling to process her grief in a post on Instagram.
  • The Lakers beat the Suns in part because of a 23-point explosion from Rondo. It was a season high for him.
  • Five Lakers were included as finalists to play for Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics this summer — James, Davis, Howard, JaVale McGee and Kyle Kuzma. They each have their own reasons for why it would be special to play on the team, but my favorite was McGee’s. His mother has a gold medal and a WNBA championship. To catch her, he needs a gold medal. I asked James if he plans to play this summer and he sounded interested but said it would depend on how he felt as the date neared.
  • James was focused and serious heading into Wednesday’s game. His teammates could see it in his demeanor. The story of how the Lakers toppled the Nuggets in overtime.
Until next time...
As always, pass along your thoughts to me at tania.ganguli@latimes.com, and please consider subscribing if you like our work!


Newsletter
All things Lakers, all the time.

Get all the Lakers news you need in Tania Ganguli's weekly newsletter.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
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