LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kyle Kuzma said not much, if anything, could have stopped him from taking the game-winning 3-pointer in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 124-121 victory Monday night — including a Denver Nuggets defender measuring 7-foot-2.
“I think Jesus could be in front of me and I’ll probably still shoot,” Kuzma said after making the first go-ahead shot in the last five seconds of a game in his career. “Don’t really matter to me. Got an open look. Play we kind of ran in practice a few times prior to the restart. Coach had in faith, called my number and it paid off.”
Mired in a three-game losing streak since clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and struggling down the stretch against a Nuggets team that had already pulled its starters, Lakers coach Frank Vogel drew up a timeout play with 4.5 seconds left in regulation and the game tied.
LeBron James inbounded the ball from the sidelines to Anthony Davis, who came off a Kuzma screen in the paint to catch it in the short corner. Kuzma then set a slip screen on James’ defender as James made his way toward the opposite wing and he curled back toward Davis, where Kuzma received a handoff pass as he planted his feet beyond the arc and let it fly.
“I could tell you who I stole it from, if you want,” Vogel said, revealing that his team had only used the play once before all season in a game, springing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope open for a shot. “I got it from the Atlanta Hawks when I was the Pacers coach. It’s something they used to run — Coach [Mike] Budenholzer used to run — for Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap.”
Kuzma launched it over the 7-foot-8 wingspan of Denver rookie Bol Bol, and the ball fell through the net with 0.4 seconds remaining, giving Kuzma 25 points for the game. L.A.’s record improved to 11-2 on the season when the third-year forward goes for 18-plus points, and a team that had been underwhelming in the Orlando bubble thus far got a boost.
“We knew that wasn’t their finishing lineup, but we wanted to work on things that can help us get better,” Davis, who scored 27 points, said of Denver’s second unit that was on the floor at game’s end. “It kind of gave us — it feels good to get a win again.”
For Kuzma, acquired from the Brooklyn Nets in a draft-night deal in 2017 and seemingly mentioned in endless trade scenarios ever since, it felt good to remind the world — and the heavens, it would appear — just how valuable he is.
“I mean, I’m starting on most teams in this league, and everyone knows it,” Kuzma, who filled in as a starter for the injured Caldwell-Pope on Monday, said when asked about his regular bench role. “But it just so happens that I play behind the best two players in the NBA. You know, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just trying to fill in my role. Trying to find a niche. Trying to win. That’s kind of all that matters. Because if we don’t win, it’s bad news.”
If the Lakers are to win the way they hope to in the coming months, taking the title for the first time since 2010, James said they will need more nights like this one out of Kuzma.
“In order for us to win a championship, he has to be our third-best player,” said James, who scored 29 points. “And if I’m struggling or AD’s struggling, he has to be our second-best player on any given night. It’s just, we can’t win a championship if Kuz doesn’t play well.”
Vogel said Kuzma would be “unlikely” to remain in the starting lineup when Caldwell-Pope’s right foot heals. Still, when Kuzma is eating a bigger piece of the pie, the Lakers often have reason to celebrate. L.A. is now 2-1 this season when James, Davis and Kuzma all score 20-plus points.
The start to Kuzma’s campaign was compromised because of the lingering effects of a stress reaction in his left foot suffered last summer during USA Basketball training camp. The NBA hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic gave Kuzma a chance to fully heal. The time off translated to increased production and confidence; Kuzma told Spectrum SportsNet that he called his game winner to teammate Talen Horton-Tucker before the huddle broke.
“It just shows that my teammates and my coaches, they trust in me,” Kuzma said. “The trust that they have in me. You know, every time that we ran that play in practice, I kind of hit the shot. So they kind of just went to me. Obviously, the play, nine out of 10 times, is going to LeBron; but you know, called my number, and it’s all about trust.”