Kyle Kuzma, Talen Horton-Tucker taking advantage of LeBron, AD's absence
Going into a game without your two superstars is less than ideal.
Add in your third-leading scorer, and that becomes even more worrisome.
That's the exact position that the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves in when they squared off against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night without LeBron James, Anthony Davis or Dennis Schroder in the lineup, meaning they were without 62.4 points per game.
However, with the Lakers squarely in the play-in round with three games remaining, currently sitting in seventh in the Western Conference standings, Wednesday created an opportunity for the Lakers' secondary pieces to step up, which is what the two youngest members of the Lakers rotation did in a 124-122 win over the Rockets.
A 25-year-old Kyle Kuzma and 20-year-old Talen Horton-Tucker were both members of the Lakers 2020 championship team, but they also represent the little bit of youth that the franchise has on a veteran-laden roster.
And in Wednesday's win, the two proved that they are once again ready to be part of a potential run to the Finals for the defending champions.
Kuzma turned in a 19-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist performance off of the bench, showing the type of versatility he has become known for as a key rotation piece for the Lakers over the last two seasons.
This came a night after he poured in 23 points in a 101-99 comeback win over the New York Knicks in overtime.
His recent performances represent the growth Kuzma has made since his rookie year to now, going from an inconsistent scorer to a high-quality, championship-caliber role player.
And it's growth that he has been able to recognize in himself.
And while Kuzma may still qualify as a young up-and-comer, he played a major role a season ago for the Lakers, playing 25 minutes per game while averaging 12.8 points.
Horton-Tucker, on the other hand, wasn't part of the Lakers' rotation just a season ago.
After spending most of his rookie season as a member of the South Bay Lakers, the Lakers' G-League affiliate, he was called up to join the Lakers at the end of the season and made his way into the Orlando bubble, where he was able to join the championship roller-coaster.
But this season, he has been far from a spectator, averaging 9.0 points per game and playing 20.1 minutes per game as one of the Lakers' primary ball-handlers off of the bench.
And his development has never been more evident than it was in the last two wins for the Lakers.
Starting at point guard in place of Schroder and injured backup point guard Alex Caruso, Horton-Tucker shined, scoring 23 points and dishing out 10 assists against the Rockets.
This was his second consecutive game recording double-digit assists, after handing out 10 dimes and scoring 13 points against the Knicks.
In addition, in both games, he has been part of the game-winning plays on both ends of the floor.
The key plays in clutch moments by the 20-year-old have not gone unnoticed by his superstar teammates, with Davis in particular praising Horton-Tucker after his game-winning three-pointer against the Knicks.
"The kid has confidence. He has heart."
On a night where the Lakers raised banner No. 17 in Staples Center, their two youngest players gave reason to be optimistic that there is still a chance they raise banner No. 18 when this season concludes.
And that represents a silver – or, purple and gold – lining for the Lakers with their star players out of the mix.
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