The Los Angeles Lakers barely staved of a disastrous defeat and assured play-in fate on Wednesday, earning a too-close-for-comfort 124-122 win over the 16-54 Houston Rockets in the regular-season finale at Staples Center.
For the second straight night, the Lakers relied on last-second heroics of their Next Men Up — notably Wesley Matthews, Talen Horton-Tucker, and Kyle Kuzma.
Kuzma – who may have been the Lakers’ best player in a game that was played with the defensive intensity of the Drew League — bailed THT, his team, and moneyline bettors out with a poised last-second drive to the cup to put the Lakers up by two with 6.9 seconds remaining. The bucket broke a 9-0 Rockets run and untimely three-minute scoring drought for L.A.
“I just saw the floor was flat,” Kuzma said post-game. “Took my time. Waited for everyone to flatten out. He shaded me left, and I just made the play. Tried to get an angle. Worked out well.”
Kuzma absolutely bails out anyone who had the Lakers ML tonight 😳
Lakers ML -440 💰 https://t.co/zTyymTWJ7r
— ClutchPoints Betting (@CPBetting) May 13, 2021
On the next possession, Matthews snuffed out Kelly Olynyk’s fake handoff and stripped the ball (Wes said postgame he knows Kelly likes that move). THT dove on it and earned two free throws with 0.9 seconds left. Game over.
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) May 13, 2021
On a celebratory evening when the franchise unveiled their 17th championship banner, the Lakers didn’t exactly play like champs. That’s OK — they aren’t champs with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in street clothes, and they’ll take any W they can get as they fight to avoid a one-game matchup with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Afterward, the fourth-year forward — who also happens to be the longest-tenured Laker — shared his unique and emotional perspective on finally seeing that hard-earned gold banner.
“It meant a lot,” he said. “I’ve been here the longest. I’ve been here through some ugly times, some real ugly times. Whether it was the rookie here, second year, same crazy stuff. I’ve seen it all. So for me to be here from the jump, be a part of turning around the organization…it just means a lot. Being a kid from Flint, Michigan, I never really thought about raising banners in Staples Center, so it’s real surreal to me. I’m just really grateful that I’m able to play the game that I love and contribute at a high level to winning. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a banner. It’s up there forever and it’s never going down, and I’ll always remember this moment.”
The Lakers went 72-92 over Kuzma’s first two seasons, and he was nearly shipped out of town in the overhaul that brought AD to Hollywood.
Since then, Kuzma’s humility and winning attitude have been one of the more commendable and — to some — surprising elements of the group’s transition into a championship-caliber squad.
Wednesday night, the 25-year old reflected on his improbable hoops journey, which has taken him from the bench at Utah to a champion at the highest level.
“I just love the game of basketball, plain and simple. My freshmen year in college, didn’t play at all, really. I played 5-7 minutes a game on a Sweet 16 team. Could’ve transferred, but for me I just stuck with it and just continued to build and build.”
Kuzma averaged 3,3 points per game for the Utes in 2014-15, then turned himself into an All-Pac-12 First Team selection by his third year (16.4 PPG). He was drafted no. 27 overall by the Brooklyn Nets and was traded to L.A. on draft night in the Brook Lopez-DeAngelo Russell deal.
Kuzma averaged 17.3 points on 14.5 shots per game over his first two years, but has genuinely committed to helping in other ways as the acquisitions of James and Davis have lessened the need for Scorer Kuzma.
“Eventually got to the NBA and had a lot of adversity since being here,” he said. “Role changes and obviously big dogs coming here and my role diminishing more and more. But I’m a strong person, I’m from Flint, Michigan. I’ve been through a lot. Nothing is really too big for me. I love the grind.”
Kuzma offered a self-aware assessment of how he’s perceived, and what the casual viewer fails to understand about his commitment to his craft.
“I think there’s this misconception about me as a person, people think I don’t love basketball, they see how I dress, how I dye my hair, and everything else,” he said. “But if you really watch basketball and you understand where I was from my rookie year to where I am now, I’ve really turned myself into a complete, all-around player. That’s from the grind, that’s from studying and from wanting to be as great as I can be. So I wouldn’t change my journey for anything. I think it’s been very valuable for me. It’s been very valuable to take a seat and watch Bron and AD play. That’s helped me tremendously in my growth.”
That holistic improvement was on full display vs. Houston, as Kuzma returned from a back injury to drop 19 points (8-of-12 shooting), 10 rebounds, seven assists, a block and a steal in 32 minutes off the bench.
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) May 13, 2021
In general, the Lakers were at their best when Kuzma was pushing the ball and looking to create or attack (L.A. set a franchise record with 86 points in the paint.)
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) May 13, 2021
LeBron, Frank Vogel, and other Lakers have consistently lauded Kuzma for his dedication to the little things across all facets of the sport. His defense, offensive rebounding, general hustle, sense of tempo, and play-making have all seen dramatic improvements since 2019.
By the end of the Lakers’ bubble triumph, Kuzma had undoubtedly proved that he can be an essential cast member of a title team. He was rewarded with a three-year, $40 million extension that arguably looks like a bargain.
Kuzma is averaging 12.9 points on 11.3 shot attempts this year — nearly identical to his numbers in 2019-20. However, his three-point accuracy has improved by five percentage points (to 36.0), and he’s setting career-highs in rebounds per-36 minutes (7.7) and Win Shares per 48. Of course, his contributions transcend the box score, but not the Lakers’ film room.
And, as Wednesday’s final seconds showed, he can still get to the bucket when necessary.
The Lakers (40-30) have won three games in a row, but still seemed destined for the play-in tournament. In order to gain the no. 6 seed, they’ll need to win their final two games and hope either the Portland Trail Blazers or Dallas Mavericks (both 41-29, with tie-breakers over L.A.) lose their final two contests.
Lakers move closer to play-in
LA needs Blazers to drop final 2 games (@ Phx Thurs, vs. Den Sun), & Lakers need to beat Hou tonight then sweep B2B @ Pacers & Pelicans.
Lakers could overtake Dallas if Mavs lose their last 2 games. Mavs face Raptors and TWolves, so… https://t.co/J3uEiJWbNr
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) May 13, 2021
Kuzma, for one, isn’t concerned about the lack of court-time together with the playoffs fast approaching. After all, the Lakers have LeBron.
“No, I’m not. For him, he knows himself and he knows his body better than anyone else. I don’t really care if he comes back and he plays Indiana, Pelicans, whatever, and he shoots 45 times just to get a rhythm. He’ll find it. We’re not worried about that. We’re not worried about no chemistry issues because of the way he plays. He gets everyone involved.”
The Lakers will get a welcome two-day rest before a road back-to-back at the Indiana Pacers and New Orleans Pelicans to finish the roller-coaster campaign. James, Davis, and possibly Schröder are expected back for Saturday, though nothing is definite.
Regardless, you can bet Kuzma will embrace his role.