On Friday night, the Los Angeles Lakers secured their first win of the season, beating the Utah Jazz by a 95-86 scoreline that indicated a far closer game than was true. While the Lakers were ahead for nearly the entire game, there were times when their route towards a win seemed murky, especially as the team gave up a double-digit lead in the first half.
At halftime, head coach Frank Vogel made an unexpected adjustment, substituting Alex Caruso in with the starters in place of JaVale McGee and moving Anthony Davis to the center position. The decision, as Vogel put it, had two reasons behind it. First, putting Davis in the five spot would take Jazz big man Rudy Gobert out of the paint defensively. Secondly, Caruso would provide some extra ball-handling and playmaking for LeBron James, who to that point was being asked to do all of that for the starting lineup.
Davis’ effect as a center ended up being the story of the game, as it has been discussed for nearly his entire career. The star big man clearly has more of a matchup advantage offensively when he moves up a position but in the interest of keeping him healthy over the course of a full season, his teams generally only use that weapon as a last resort.
But that has been talked about ad nauseum before and after this game. What deserves almost the same amount of attention is the impact that Caruso had within that starting lineup in the second half. The point guard, who had not played a single minute this season before being inserted alongside Avery Bradley in the backcourt, played 20:27 of the final 24 minutes of the game and while his numbers may not look impressive (two points on one-of-three shooting and one steal), his effect on the game was palpable.
Defensively, Caruso made all the right plays, routinely digging down to tag the roll man (usually Gobert) in Jazz pick-and-rolls and still recovering to guard his own assignment. While not always showing up in the boxscore, Caruso’s valuable help defense routinely disrupted the Jazz, leading to turnovers or poor shots taken against a short shot clock.
Besides creating offense out of defense, Caruso managed to have a tangible effect on that end of the floor despite his meager stat line. His cutting ability was sorely needed for a team that has so far struggled in off-ball movement. Additionally, the simple task of bringing the ball up the court allowed James to get into more advantageous positions where he could then become the primary playmaker in a designed set.
Obviously, this is all through the lens of a single half of a single game. Caruso struggled in the preseason offensively and will need to hit shots in order to permanently be placed in the guard rotation. His ball-handling, while useful in alleviating some pressure off James, still needs improvement and a team more willing to press him down the length of the court could potentially take advantage of that.
That said, Caruso’s combination of smart defensive principles and dynamic offensive ability is something that none of the other guards on the team possess. The Lakers managed to outscore the Jazz 31 to 18 in the third quarter, effectively ending the contest given Utah’s struggles to score the ball all game. His addition into the fold changed the entire picture of how the Jazz played both offensively and defensively and the Lakers – with that lineup leading the way – were able to pull away in order to secure their first win of the season.
We’ll have to wait and see whether Alex Caruso’s effort was enough for him to crack the Lakers’ ever-changing guard rotation. But his season debut certainly has made Frank Vogel’s decision a lot more difficult.