Kyle Kuzma has been one of the few encouraging stories for the Lakers inside of the Disney bubble, and he just gave them their biggest lift yet. Not only did he score 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting, but he hit the game-winning 3-pointer with only 0.4 seconds remaining in a 124-121 victory over the Denver Nuggets. While the Lakers didn't have anything to gain by winning the game itself, the win was a huge moral victory for a team that had started 2-4 in the bubble with the worst offense of any of the 22 invited teams.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, can hold their head up high after their backups went toe-to-toe with the Lakers for the entire fourth quarter. The starters looked good in their own run as well, as Michael Porter Jr. didn't miss a shot on his way to 15 points. The Nuggets remain almost assured the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, while the Lakers have long since clinched No. 1. While this wasn't exactly a playoff preview given the extensive minutes played by Denver's backup, it was a solid showing for both sides. The Lakers and Nuggets got exactly what they needed out of this game.
1. Kyle Kuzma is making the leap
It's finally happening. After three seasons worth of teases, trade rumors and premature coronations, Kyle Kuzma is finally growing into the sort of player the Lakers need him to be. Kuzma had been averaging 13.8 points on 41.9 shooting from behind the arc in Disney while playing the best defense of his life, but he took it to another level on Monday. He roasted the Nuggets for 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting, culminating with this gem of a game-winner.
The shot came with the outstretched arms of 7-2 Bol Bol in his face. It didn't matter. "I think Jesus could be in front of me and I'd probably still shoot," Kuzma said after the game. He isn't going to keep shooting this well from behind the arc. That would be completely out of line with what he's done throughout his career. But he doesn't need to be a 40 percent 3-point shooter to be effective in this form. Kuzma is finally playing defense. He's moving without the ball and has been unstoppable in transition. He's found immediate chemistry with Dion Waiters off of the bench, giving the Lakers some sorely needed scoring punch when LeBron James sits.
It would be premature to call Kuzma the third Lakers "star." A star is someone who can thrive in any setting. Instead, he is the perfect third wheel, someone who has learned to fit in with the team as constructed and produce in whatever ways he can to supplement James and Anthony Davis. If this is who Kuzma is going to be in the playoffs, the Lakers should feel much more optimistic about their championship hopes than they did two weeks ago.
2. Frank Vogel is finally settling on a rotation
The Lakers have used just about everyone in Orlando. They played 13 players against the Oklahoma City Thunder last week. Season-long benchwarmers Jared Dudley and Quinn Cook have been given real chances to earn minutes. J.R. Smith was as well. Even rookie Talen Horton-Tucker has seen real run in these seeding games. It made sense from the perspective that the Lakers had already locked up their No. 1 seed, and didn't need to run their best players into the ground, but it also made it hard for those key pieces to develop any rhythm.
Monday answered a lot of questions in that regard. Kuzma moved into the starting lineup to replace Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and after the way he played, he probably isn't leaving it. Dion Waiters was the choice to replace Alex Caruso when he got hurt in crunchtime, suggesting Vogel has settled on him as his fourth guard. The last piece of the puzzle is removing JaVale McGee from the rotation. The Lakers have been outscored in his minutes in all six bubble games he has played in. Otherwise? The majority of Monday's rotation is likely to be the core in their first-round series, with Caldwell-Pope replacing Horton-Tucker's and Markieff Morris' minutes.
3. Denver doesn't have to worry about Porter Jr. fitting in with their starters
No, the Nuggets didn't have Gary Harris or Will Barton Monday, but they have to be encouraged by the sharing Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray did. There was no squabbling over shots. The two combined to shoot 12-of-16 from the field, both feeding off of Nikola Jokic's superb passing. Porter, a shot-creator in his own right, found his shots entirely in the flow of the offense. That he can create for himself more is going to be valuable in the playoffs, but tonight was more proof that he can coexist with Denver's real starters, and that he won't be returning to the bench any time soon.