Lakers rookie Talen Horton-Tucker makes surprise playoff debut

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The most surprising substitution of the playoffs came at the 9:46 mark of the second quarter.

Alex Caruso spied Talen Horton-Tucker, the team’s 19-year old rookie, running to the scorer’s table. He had been listed as active, but the coaching staff hadn’t told his teammates that he might see action Thursday night in Game 4 of their playoff series against the Rockets. Now here he was: checking into his first career playoff game to guard the likes of James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

“It was like, ‘Well all right, here we go,’” Caruso said. “I don’t have any doubt in his ability, but 19 years old playing against two MVPs in the playoffs — he played great. Played great.”

The Lakers haven’t hesitated to throw everything they can at the Rockets in their series, now with a 3-1 lead, but in the 110-100 win, Horton-Tucker’s appearance illustrated the depth of that willingness to pull any card.

Horton-Tucker has been active for the past two games since Dion Waiters (strained groin) got hurt. Coach Frank Vogel anticipated needing another guard or wing for the rotation once the Lakers started committing to go small, but without Waiters, Horton-Tucker, the No. 46 draft pick out of Iowa State just over a year ago, emerged as the next-best option.

He didn’t shrink, scoring five points and adding two rebounds and two steals in just over seven minutes. The Lakers increased their lead by nine while he was in the game. Vogel said he was not surprised at all.

“He’s a talented kid,” he said. “And he’s unafraid. He plays beyond his years.”

Horton-Tucker had only played in six games for the Lakers this year, and four of them came in the bubble. But after arriving to the team hobbled by a stress reaction in his foot last summer then grinding through the G League, Horton-Tucker used the hiatus to get in better shape and work on his game.

Vogel said Horton-Tucker has stood out in team scrimmages, especially on offense where he shines. Caruso said he routinely takes the team’s best perimeter defenders — including Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and himself — off the dribble and gets downhill to the basket.

“That’s just his special ability,” Caruso said. “He’s offensively super-gifted, and he’s got that Chicago defense: the pressure, long arms, getting deflections like you saw tonight, steals. That’s just who he is, man.”

Horton-Tucker has a strong connection to LeBron James, particularly as a Klutch Sports client. He’s been part of offseason workouts and runs attended by James and Anthony Davis, and those relationships have helped grow his professionalism teammates noted.

James was one of the ones who motivated Horton-Tucker in a timeout, telling him: “Don’t think about (expletive). Just play. We’ll cover you if you mess up.”

It’s unclear how many games Horton-Tucker will play in the rest of the playoffs, but the Lakers now know this: He can take advice. James didn’t mention Horton-Tucker by his name — only acknowledged him by “Rook” to convey his freshman status — but he appreciated what he saw.

“He was huge in his first stint in the postseason,” James said. “I thought Rook was really good tonight when (Markieff Morris) got in a little foul trouble, and he came in and gave great minutes.”