The Lakers were trying to hold on to their lead which had grown slim and needed one of their weary players to step up for a tired and depleted team looking to finish a seven-game trip over 12 days with a winning record.
In their time of need, Alex Caruso delivered when Tuesday’s 101-93 win at Charlotte was hanging in the balance.
His clutch three-pointer in the final seconds pushed the Lakers’ lead to four. His tough defense following his big shot was another big moment. His rebound afterward was another key. His two free throws that sealed the game were the bow on Caruso’s impressive night.
In many ways, it was the typical all-around game the Lakers have come to expect from Caruso.
“No matter the game, no matter the time of year, I want to be out there and finish the game,” Caruso said on a videoconference. “That’s just the competitive spirit I have dating back to when I’ve been playing pickup in the park as a kid, all the way through high school, through college, through G League to NBA. There’s something about the end of the game that I love being a part of.”
His 13 points on four-for-six shooting and six assists told only part of Caruso’s story. His team-high plus-21 in the plus-minus department told another part. And his willingness to provide in the crucial part of the game told more.
The Lakers’ nine-point lead late in the fourth had been trimmed to 92-91, their offense stalling.
But as the 24-second clock was winding down, Dennis Schroder found Caruso on the wing. His three-pointer settled into the net with 43.3 seconds left.
Caruso turned toward the Lakers’ bench and yelled.
When asked if he enjoyed seeing Caruso come through with that three-pointer in the clutch, coach Frank Vogel was giddy with his response.
“Of course. For a lot of reasons,” Vogel said. “Obviously it was a big shot for us to seal the game. But he does so much dirty work for us. It’s ridiculous. And to see him able to contribute offensively, the way it did tonight, just felt good for everyone. And everybody’s happy for him.”
But the Lakers still needed a stop on defense after the shot, and there was Caruso again right in the middle of the play.
As Devonte Graham stepped into a three-pointer, Caruso quickly closed out and forced the Charlotte guard to miss.
“Even though he hit that big three, to me the biggest play of the game was the containment play on Graham, where he cut him off one way, Graham misdirected and then tried to get a three off and Alex came back and double-man contested that one as well,” Vogel said. “So, I mean, just a great two-way performance by him. And he’s definitely the star of the game tonight.”
Caruso hustled in for the rebound after his stellar defensive play, eventually getting fouled. He made two free throws with 28.1 seconds remaining, giving the Lakers a 97-91 lead.
And because of Caruso’s all-out effort, the Lakers return to Los Angeles with a 4-3 record from the seven-game trip, 3-2 from the East Coast swing.
They survived without injured superstars LeBron James (right ankle) and Anthony Davis (right calf strain). And they survived when other players went down with injuries on the trip and when they were forced to play so many different lineups.
“It’s been tough because people forget too, we’ve had AD and Bron out, but we’ve had different pieces in and out of the team, with a couple of 10-days, and Quinn [Cook] was with the team, wasn’t with the team, and then we added a couple pieces with [Andre] Drummond and Ben [McLemore],” Caruso said. “So, our lineups have been real …. And the injuries, too, with our other players piling up. So, we’ve had so much fluctuation within our team and our lineup, and just the grit we’ve shown to try to find a way to win games. It hasn’t always been pretty, and like you said, we have a standard to hold ourselves to. But I’m proud of the way that we fight. I’m proud of the way we compete.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.