Lakers’ Alex Caruso is sure of himself and his playoff role

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. >> Especially in the playoffs, LeBron James’ trust is not easily won. The 17-year veteran is known for controlling possessions with fanatical and sometimes possessive oversight, wanting to know for sure that a shooter will convert.

So it seemed like quite a nod in Game 4 against the Houston Rockets when Alex Caruso, a 26-year-old making his first playoff run, got James’ dish for a corner three over James Harden. Caruso had missed his previous three attempts, but this one sank, prompting a gleeful Rajon Rondo to yell that the game was over as the Lakers jogged back with an 8-point lead in the final 35 seconds.

James later said of the pass, “I didn’t have one second guess” when he gave the ball to Caruso — a sign of how much equity the former two-way contract player has built after laboring the last few years in the G League. But that history seems distant: With a 16-point effort in Game 4, where he was a pivotal defender against Harden, it’s clear he just belongs.

“I think his confidence is growing and growing and growing,” James said. “It’s a guy that we know we can count on. He doesn’t make many mistakes out on the floor, and just plays winning basketball. That’s just who he is.”

That’s what Caruso would say, too: When a reporter asked him what it meant that James trusted him, his response was that while he appreciates his teammate’s belief, the most important part of his game is his belief in himself.

In an interview with Southern California News Group, Caruso traced over the stories of him this year, as he carved out a role with the then-first-place Lakers and was treated a bit like the Little Engine That Could.

That’s not how he sees himself, and even though he’s never been in the playoffs before, he hasn’t sensed that’s changed nine games in: The Lakers have outscored opponents by 66 points in his 215 minutes, a plus-minus rating that is only outpaced by James (plus-82) and Anthony Davis (plus-79).

“You know it was interesting this whole year, it was kind of the theme of, ‘Alex is finding a role,’” he said. “I don’t know if people have gotten over it. I feel really comfortable with what we do. I just try to go out there and play winning basketball. It’s what I’ve done my entire life.”

Beyond game-clinching shots, Caruso’s impact is both hard to tangibly measure, but also inherently obvious. His 7.1 points, 3.1 assists and 1.2 steals per game don’t quite tell the story.

He makes quick, savvy cuts. He defends inbound passes, occasionally using his instinct to pick off steals. He’s not the best shooter (33 percent from 3-point range this year), but he’s good enough to draw attention. He’s a serviceable ball-handler who occasionally gets hot, like the sequence against Portland when he and Davis ran a high-screen action to death against the overwhelmed Blazers.

And, as the Internet is well-aware, he dunks.

The Lakers have thrown him on Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, part of a strategy that held both stars under their season averages. He’s guarded Harden and Westbrook, but occasionally has been best served as a help defender who can be pulled onto a double-team that forces those stars to give up the ball, then he can swiftly close to the corner when the Rockets swing the ball around.

Even when he struggled to shoot the ball early in the playoffs (he’s still just 8 for 28), Frank Vogel said Caruso was still an essential rotation piece.

“There are so many defenders that you’re either a great containment or you’re elite in the passing lanes with deflections and steals — and he’s great with both,” he said. “Then he takes charges and he has great verticality plays. So what he does for our defense is immeasurable and his versatility offensively is a huge plus for us as well.”

Caruso came back to the Lakers on a two-year, $5 million contract that he told SCNG was the biggest offer he had this summer. He was coming to a team full of veterans, including Danny Green and Rajon Rondo who had won championships.

While he had a good closing run to last season and shared obvious on-court chemistry with James even then, did he really believe that he was going to crack a veteran rotation on a potential title contender? Yes, he said, absolutely.

“I felt really good about the team they had, and I knew eventually in my heart of hearts that I was gonna find minutes,” he said. “I didn’t know it was gonna be 25 minutes, but I knew I was gonna play.”

Now nearing a 24-minute average in minutes in the playoffs, Caruso acknowledged he’s still learning a lot, especially from James and Rondo. In one playoff sequence during the series, Rondo told him to stand in the dunker spot near the basket — Caruso didn’t understand why until he ran a play for James, who cut in against Harden with the space.

“It’s really stuck out to me how easily they can pick you apart,” he said. “Being able to have one of those guys is a luxury. But two of those guys is a weapon.”

In the bubble, Caruso’s parents are his guests. The retirees who live in Texas are easygoing, he said, and spend time walking or biking on the grounds on the Coronado Springs Resort. On a recent evening, Caruso said, they got together for a glass of wine and watched a golf tournament — a simple way to unplug.

“As you get older, you get to realize what’s most important,” he said.

For the next month, Caruso hopes his focus will be on winning a championship. He doesn’t need to worry about legitimizing his role, or proving his playoff mettle. Those boxes are checked.

“There was no pull aside or detailed description of what to expect from my teammates,” he said. “I had played games to win in January and February, knew the level of detail that goes into big games against the Clippers, against the Bucks, and that kind of had a bit of a playoff feel. I think they just trusted me, how serious I take the game, and take the work of preparing.”