One syllable and two letters easily cut through the artificial noise.
“Yo,” Kyle Kuzma yelled.
It was not the first time Kuzma has thrown his hands in the air, calling for the ball when its on the other side of the court. But Sunday night, the 25-year-old deserved the pass more than ever in his Laker career.
He had swished home his first four threes, swatted a pair of shots at the rim, and even with his right hand burning up, Kuzma didn’t force any shots. He even turned down a potential dunk in transition to get Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and easy basket without anyone defending.
But this time he was the open one — and he was wide open — so he yelled.
Dennis Schroder zipped the ball to the 25-year-old, and for the first time all half, Kuzma made a mistake. Yeah, he swished home the jumper, but his toes were on the three-point line.
That one point didn’t matter in the Lakers 127-91 win, but Kuzma’s complete game (and not just his scoring) showed that the Lakers are ready to handle the swerves the season is surely going to provide.
They can do it with the pass, by finding the hot hand and by adapting quickly to the situation.
“No one should ever feel pressure to do too much,” LeBron James said.
With Anthony Davis sidelined because of a strained right calf muscle, Kuzma slid into the starting lineup and delivered a complete performance. His energy was impossible for the rest of the Lakers not to match as they quickly stomped any life out of the upset-minded Timberwolves, who were on the second night of a back-to-back and playing without Karl-Anthony Towns because of a wrist injury.
Kuzma scored 20 points, all in the first half, with the Lakers’ regulars getting to enjoy the final quarter resting on the bench and readying for Monday’s game with Portland.
With Kuzma leading the way, the Lakers had made seven threes by the time the Timberwolves connected on one, quickly turning the game into a blowout.
It was all a product of the Lakers’ ball movement, passing so swift and precise that you could almost hear “Sweet Georgia Brown” being whistled through the empty Staples Center.
“It’s just a fun brand of basketball,” Kuzma said.
The Lakers 32 assists only told a part of the story, so many of those beautiful passes being set up by one or two unselfish plays before them.
But if one player best exemplified the collaborative spirit on the night, it was Marc Gasol.
Gasol struggled in the team’s first two games, but Sunday, he was sublime, flirting with a triple-double in 21 minutes with 12 points, seven rebounds and eight assists.
Earlier this week, James described the kinds of plays he looks for from young opponents, the kind of ones that stop him in his tracks and make him say, “Wow.”
“Guys that can make plays happen before you can read, before a lot of players on the floor can see them,” James said Thursday. “It’s not about the actual scoring the ball. It’s about making passes and reads.”
After Gasol hit a striding Caldwell-Pope for a layup in the third quarter, James ran to Gasol and pounded him on the chest. He had just witnessed one of those plays from the Lakers’ new center.
With the Lakers minus a star in Davis — the hope is that his calf improves enough for him to play Monday against Portland — the team thrived, completely comfortable even though a major piece was missing.
It’s the Lakers’ expectation that this isn’t the only time they’ll be in this position. Whether it’s a sore calf or the league’s COVID safety protocols, wholeness is a luxury most rosters won’t have all that often.
It could happen again on Monday. In the first half, James went to the court and reached for his left ankle before re-tying his shoe and staying in the game. He stayed in the game against Minnesota but he’ll be questionable to play against the Trail Blazers.
“We’ve been talking about this since day one. The expectation and the norm for us, for most of the league, is that there will be guys out,” Vogel said pregame Sunday. “We just have to make sure we understand that’s the norm and don’t let it slow us down at all. I feel like we have one of the deepest teams in the league and can handle something like this as well as anybody.
“But tonight will be the first test.”
And yo, they definitely passed.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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