D’Angelo Russell bounced back from a frustrating week in a big way on Sunday, taking advantage of an opportunity to return to the Los Angeles Lakers’ starting lineup by absolutely exploding on the Cleveland Cavaliers:
With veteran Nick Young sidelined against the defending NBA champs by gastroenteritis, Russell stepped back into the starting five and played like a man intent on staying there, pouring in a career-high 40 points on 14-for-22 shooting from the floor and a 7-for-12 mark from long distance to go with six assists, two rebounds and two steals in 41 minutes of playing time. He went toe-to-toe with shotmaking titan Kyrie Irving, playing a game of “Can you top this?” that the Cleveland flamethrower eventually won, scoring 46 points of his own to lead the Cavs to a 125-120 win at Staples Center on Sunday night.
Russell’s breakout performance elicited praise from All-Star Irving, according to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:
“He’s a great young player,” Irving said. “… I understand what he means to the Lakers. It’s always good to have some great competition out there.
… along with a charge to the sophomore playmaker — who’s now the youngest Laker ever to hang 40, and the third-youngest player overall to put up 40 with six assists (only LeBron and Kevin Durant did it at a younger age) — to keep grinding and stay at it.
“[Irving] said he supported me,” Russell said after the game, according to Ganguli. “He knows I want it. Just told me to keep working.”
And so, in the hours after Sunday’s final buzzer, that’s just what D’Angelo did:
*drops 40 on the defending champs*
*back in the gym that same night* pic.twitter.com/7I6jJuiewS
— Dillon Hiser (@DillonHiser) March 20, 2017
Russell’s post-game workout might warm the hearts of Lakers fans who fondly remember Kobe Bryant putting himself through a similar late-night shooting session after a loss to a LeBron-led team just over six years ago. Since then, the after-hours session has become something of a go-to move for star players looking for a response to sudden and unacceptable struggles — see: LeBron in 2012, Kyle Lowry during the playoffs last May, Kevin Durant after literally the first game of his tenure with the Warriors — but it’s not often you see a player returning to the court to get shots up after the best performance of his career.
Maybe Russell decided to put the work in because, Sunday’s success aside, he knew he’d come into the game against the Cavs shooting just 42.7 percent from the field since the All-Star break — which actually represented a step up for his 39.2 percent mar before mid-February — and he knows he’ll need to continue presenting a dangerous off-ball threat if he’s going to keep working as the Lakers’ nominal shooting guard alongside fellow ball-handler Jordan Clarkson in the L.A. backcourt, as he did on Sunday.
“I feel like when you’re playing shooting guard, you’ve got to score the ball or make plays for your teammates,” Russell said after the game, according to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. “Playing the point guard, it’s harder to do that, be aggressive, try to score the ball every time, because you’ve got to make at least one pass. But figuring it out, whatever position I’m in, I’m going to try to make the best of it.”
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“Making the best of it” is very much the order of the day for a Lakers team that has heavily emphasized its youth movement down the stretch of another losing season. L.A. sits at 20-50, the Western Conference’s worst record and the second-worst mark in the league; if the Lakers finish the season with the NBA’s second-lowest winning percentage, they’ll have a 19.9 percent shot at landing the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, and a 55.8 percent chance of finishing in the top three in the draft lottery.
That, as we have discussed, is vital, because if L.A. doesn’t land in the top three, that pick goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, by way of two past trades — the 2012 deal that brought Steve Nash to Lakerland from Phoenix, and the 2015 three-way deal that landed Brandon Knight in Phoenix and Michael Carter-Williams in Milwaukee. Making matters worse: if the Lakers do wind up sending their pick to Philly this June, they’ll also have to convey their 2019 first-round pick to the Orlando Magic, to satisfy the terms of the 2012 deal that shipped Dwight Howard to Hollywood. If they keep their 2017 No. 1 selection, though, the Lakers’ debt to the Magic gets reduced to a pair of second-round choices one in 2017 and one in 2018.
So, yeah: there’s a lot riding on the Lakers not being very good for the remainder of this particular season. Hence the “youth movement” and, perhaps, head coach Luke Walton’s newfound interest in giving the Russell-Clarkson backcourt — in whose shared minutes, prior to Sunday, the Lakers had been crushed by an average of 23 points per 100 possessions, about three times worse than the league-worst Brooklyn Nets’ season-long net rating.
“We’ll continue to try to that lineup going forward, and see if we can make that chemistry between the two a normal thing,” Walton said after the game, according to Mark Medina of the Southern California News Group.
Whether the two young playmakers can at long last find that rhythm remains to be seen, but Russell seemed pretty enthusiastic about getting a longer leash for the balance of the season.
“That’s dope, honestly,” said Russell when informed of Walton’s plan, according to Medina. “Hopefully we can get some experience together and figure it out.”
Some shared wee-hours on-court work probably couldn’t hurt. We’ll keep our eyes peeled on various social media platforms to see whether D’Angelo’s one-man show has become a double act.
Hat-tip to Harrison Faigen at Silver Screen and Roll.
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