The Lakers lost their best player to injury in game one. They lost the Summer League MVP just hours before the championship game tipped off.
Kyle Kuzma made sure none of that mattered.
The 27th pick of the NBA Draft was scorching hot in the Summer League title game, piling up a game-high 30 points while battling for 10 rebounds and stroking six 3-pointers, as the Lakers won their first-ever summer championship with a 110-98 victory over Portland.
Kuzma, the championship game MVP, stepped up for a team without Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball.
He finished through contact for and-1 layups, splashed quick-trigger triples and even guarded Portland’s 250-pound beast of a big man, Caleb Swanigan.
“I didn’t know I was that aggressive,” Kuzma laughed. “I wasn’t like that in college. Definitely not that aggressive. When I’m locked in and focused, I can do pretty much anything I want.”
Kuzma said that part of his confidence came from looking down at his Lakers jersey and getting a sense of having made it to the big leagues.
He didn’t care about being voted Second Team All-Summer League earlier that day. All that mattered was willing his team to a trophy ceremony.
“You’re going to have people that are high on you one day and low on you the next,” Kuzma said. “For me, it’s just to stay levelheaded and stay working.”
Kuzma was just “OK” at the Lakers’ brief summer training camp, according to head coach Jud Buechler, but he took his game to a new level in Vegas, scoring 20-plus points in all of the Lakers’ final four games.
His ability to carry the offense sans Ball (mild calf strain) was no shock to the Summer League MVP.
“Nothing new for him,” Ball said. “He already had one (30-point game), got another one. He just did what Kyle does out there.”
Kuzma provided the tipping point in what was largely a tightly-contested game. With time expiring in the third quarter, he received the inbounds pass and set up for a 3-pointer from three feet beyond the arc.
Already blazing hot at the time, he sunk the deep ball as the buzzer sounded for a five-point lead.
The Lakers then road that momentum into the fourth quarter, as Alex Caruso finished an and-1 layup, Matt Thomas knocked down a trey and Ivica Zubac struck from mid-range. The 13 unanswered points made it a 92-79 lead that Portland would never overcome.
The championship game marked a run of six straight wins for a Lakers team that had begun Summer League 0-2.
Buechler credited his role players for stepping up and playing unselfishly when called upon.
“Everyone wants to shoot every single time, because they think shooting and scoring is going to get them a job (in the NBA),” Buechler said. “Our guys bought into: ‘We’re going to move the ball and whoever’s open we trust to make shots.’
“You see the joy they had in that. … That’s what we need to get with our (regular-season) team.”
Indeed, Kuzma was flanked in the title game by an undrafted rookie and the reigning NBA G League MVP.
Matt Thomas scored 23 points, shooting 8-of-9 from the field and hitting all five of his 3-pointers. Meanwhile, Vander Blue — who celebrated his birthday with victory — added 20 points and six assists while assuming much of the ball-handling responsibilities with Lonzo sidelined.
“With Zo out tonight, I had to do a little bit of everything,” Blue said. “… I think (the Lakers) got a good chance of seeing me run the team, show my leadership.
“I know coming up in the G League it might have seemed like I was a selfish player or just all about myself because of the amount of points I was scoring and the rate I was scoring, but my whole life I’ve been about winning and I want to play with winners.”
Swanigan led the Trail Blazers with 25 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, while Jake Layman had 21 points. … Caruso had 15 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. … Zubac scored 12 points with nine rebounds.