PORTLAND, Ore. — It was just more than a week ago when Kyle Kuzma sat out in Milwaukee and could only watch as the Los Angeles Lakers mustered a season-low four bench points without him in a loss to the Bucks.
That was the fifth straight game he had missed as he rested a lingering left ankle injury.
Following Saturday’s 128-120 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, it is safe to say Kuzma is officially back. In his third game after returning to the lineup, he tallied a team-high 24 points on 9-for-17 shooting. The Lakers racked up a season-high 72 bench points, with their star sixth man leading the way.
“I’m just healthy now,” Kuzma said after his 20 first-half points helped the Lakers jump on the Blazers. “I’m confident in my body. I took a little bit of time off, sitting out for five games and really just self-collected what I needed to do and got it done.”
For Kuzma, whose points (down from 18.7 per game to 11.9), shooting rate (45.6% to 43.8%), rebounds (5.5 to 3.5), assists (2.5 to 0.8) and minutes (33.1 to 23.2) have all taken a dip since last season, it was a continuation of an upward trend since he decided it was time to play again.
“I’m just being in attack mode at all times,” Kuzma said when asked what has changed. “Being the third option, you don’t have the luxury of taking it easy sometimes, so just being in attack mode.”
It was a group attack off the bench for the Lakers in Portland. Dwight Howard pumped in 11 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored all 13 of his points — including a 3 for 3 mark from the 3 line — in the second half. Alex Caruso chipped in nine points, three assists and two steals. And Rajon Rondo scored 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting in 18 minutes.
“These are the type of games where the bench needed to come in and give a lift,” Rondo said.
The Lakers’ bench outscored the Blazers’ bench by 33.
“The bench gets the game ball if you do that sort of thing,” said Lakers coach Frank Vogel. “Those guys played really well, very aggressively. The defense in particular with that group was really strong. Kuz has just given us a huge lift the last two games off the bench and sort of elevates that group.”
As Anthony Davis added, “Kuz’s been playing out of his mind since he’s been back, and we’re looking for him.”
When asked if the social media speculation helped him lock in for the Portland performance, Kuzma rejected the premise.
“Nope,” he said. “Not at all. I’m locked in because I’m trying to be good.”
James, who tied a season high with 16 assists against just one turnover to go with his 21 points on Saturday, credited Kuzma’s effort against the Blazers and detailed how there is even more room for Kuzma to help the Lakers.
“Kuz is keeping up his streak of scoring the ball and the punch we’ve been wanting all year, obviously. He’s been trying to get back his groove,” James said. “We want him to be that third scorer for us, someone that can consistently get the 18 to 20 points a night. But more importantly, you know it’s just the efficiency right now that I love. He’s just been very efficient mixing it up with his 3s, with his paint touches. You saw it tonight on the break, as well, just mixing it up.”
Kuzma sounded comfortable with those expectations.
“Just thought about that Milwaukee game; we had about four bench points,” he said. “And that’s what the team needs me to do: score. That’s what I’m best at, and that’s what I’m going to do all season.”
He is intent on putting pressure on the defense moving forward now that he doesn’t feel the strain of getting his ankle right.
“It’s not about the points,” Kuzma said. “It’s just the way I played. When I’m aggressive, all eyes are on me, and it opens it up for other players. Regardless if I’m playmaking or passing to guys, it just opens it up because people are looking at me.”