The latest chapter in the storied Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry featured plenty of star power in LeBron James and Anthony Davis on one side versus Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the other. However, the visiting Lakers held on to win 96-95 on Saturday thanks in large part to a hustle play by a role player, Alex Caruso.
“One of the best defensive plays of the year,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after Caruso saved L.A. down the stretch by breaking up a golden opportunity for the Celtics.
Caruso was stationed on the wing beyond the 3-point line when Kemba Walker was credited for a block on Davis with 10.8 seconds left, poking the ball away from the big man when Davis made his move into the lane.
Walker’s deflection caused Davis to bat the ball into the air as he tried to retrieve it, but Walker corralled it first, igniting a fast-break opportunity for the Celtics, trailing by one, with the chance to win the game.
Before Walker had even secured possession of the ball, Caruso turned his body toward the basket on the other end of the court. As soon as Walker started pushing the ball ahead and passed it to a streaking Brown, Caruso broke into a dead sprint back on defense.
“Once the ball popped up in the air, regardless if we were going to get it back or not, I was kind of making my way back on defense just because that’s kind of what we teach ourselves to do,” Caruso said afterward.
Caruso outran Brown to half court, where Walker’s push-ahead pass was directed, and got a hand on the ball before Brown could.
That burst of defense not only broke up what would have been an uncontested go-ahead score for Brown, but by the time Brown had gathered possession, Davis and Dennis Schroder were able to get back on defense too.
“Any time you have a turnover, you just want to have a quick twitch to try and get back and recover the play. That’s exactly what we did,” James said. “It started with AC getting back, and all of us just sort of formed a wall.”
Brown worked the ball around, and Walker had no choice but to take a pull-up 12-footer. With Schroder smothering Walker on defense, the shot missed with 2.7 seconds left. Daniel Theis’ putback attempt with 0.5 seconds remaining also fell off the rim, and L.A. held on to win.
Caruso said he initially went to make a defensive play “just expecting the worst, hoping we got the ball back and got a shot up,” but it worked out far better than that.
“Just being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
It’s plays like that one by Caruso that have earned him playing time as part of the Lakers’ closing lineup. On a night when Vogel shortened his rotation from 11 down to nine, keeping Markieff Morris and Wesley Matthews on the bench all game, the coach maintained his confidence in Caruso.
“That’s part of what the ‘Play Harder Than Your Opponent’ identity is,” Vogel said. “Whose team defends harder. Whose team is running the floor offensively. Who’s sprinting back harder defensively. The sprint versus jog mindset.”
The third-year guard, undrafted out of college and once a G League regular, is the ninth-highest-paid Laker, making $2.75 million this season. But Caruso has proved his mettle when the game is on the line.
“He’s a smart player,” Davis said. “He’s not the highest paid or [doesn’t] have all the accolades or credentials. A lot of people don’t notice him. But he plays the right way. He locks up defensively, makes tough shots, scrappy.”
While Caruso only had two points, three rebounds and one assist on Saturday, his plus-minus was a team-best plus-14 in 20 minutes.
Davis said that Jared Dudley pointed out to him after L.A.’s loss at the Detroit Pistons on Thursday that Caruso has a plus-minus of plus-29 in their five losses and hasn’t been in the minus in any of those games.
“I’m a really, really competitive guy, and the end of the game is when it matters most,” Caruso said. “So I don’t really care too much about starting, points, stats. I care a lot about winning. The fourth quarter, end of the game, is winning time.
“A lot of times, coming out of timeouts, I’ll just say that: ‘It’s winning time.’ I’ll go to one player, say it out loud. Kind of let everybody lock in and let everybody know what’s going on. For me, that’s my favorite part of the game.”