D’Angelo Russell has bounce-back performance

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina writes about D'Angelo Russell returning from a scoreless Game 3 to help the Lakers win Game 4.

LOS ANGELES — After showing season-long inconsistency with trusting D’Angelo Russell’s decision making, Lakers coach Darvin Ham pulled him aside and conveyed his optimism on how Russell could handle a potential elimination game.

“I told him ‘To go crazy; be confident.,’” Ham said. “‘You’ve been doing this your whole life. Go crazy and be aggressive.’”

After showing season-long inconsistency with both his shooting accuracy and how it affected his play, Russell showcased the best version of himself on the night that the Lakers needed him the most. In the Lakers’ 119-108 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series on Saturday at Arena, Russell finished with 21 points while shooting 8-for-15 from the field and 4-for-8 from 3-point range along with four assists in 41 minutes.


“Try to be as humble as I can. I just think I’ve been through it all before and have prepared myself mentally before I go through it again,” Russell said. “I prepared for this all summer all season. I try to prepare myself for these times now when everybody is watching and everybody has something to say. I try to stay myself to my own opinions and my own emotions.”

Russell has received criticism during parts of his nine-year NBA career both about his inconsistency and attitude. Though he has surely blossomed as a more seasoned shooter and playmaker during his second reunion with the Lakers, Russell sparked scrutiny for his pervasive struggles in last year’s Western Conference Finals against Denver. Then, Russell averaged 6.3 points while shooting 32.3% from the field and 13.3% from 3-point range, numbers that resulted in a diminished role. The Lakers still retained him during free agency last summer because of his cap-friendly deal (two years, $37 million) and for how well he revitalized the team’s offensive balance with his shooting, passing and spacing. In the Lakers’ latest playoff matchup against Denver, however, Russell displayed inconsistency again. After scoring 13 points while shooting 6-for-20 and 1-for-9 in a Game 1 loss, Russell bounced back with a 23-point performance while going 8-for-16 from the field and 7-for-11 from deep. Despite losing on a Jamal Murray game winner, the Lakers maintained optimism partly because of Russell’s play.

In Game 3, however, Russell went scoreless while missing all seven of his shots, including six from 3. His play looked so bad that Russell logged only 24 minutes. His attitude looked so poor that he sat away from a timeout huddle while scrolling through his phone.

Afterwards, Russell conceded that he took a lot of  “tough ones” and that “my mind was made up when I got the ball.” Nonetheless, Ham maintained that he felt “very confident” that Russell would quickly rectify that performance. Hence, Ham’s message. Afterwards, Ham relayed that Russell called him “Big Dawg” and gave him a hug. Ham then said, “I’m so proud of that kid,” though that warmth apparently wasn’t as reciprocal.

“I appreciate that, but I believe in myself,” Russell said. “Simple as that, more than anybody. I don’t need that. But I appreciate that.”

Russell’s stoicism might reflect both his confident demeanor and his frustration with Ham’s inconsistent rotations. Regardless, the Lakers needed Russell to play at his best to ensure the Nuggets did not sweep the Lakers for a second consecutive season.

Granted, the Lakers reduced the Nuggets’ series lead to 3-1 and forced a Game 5 in Denver on Monday for reasons beyond Russell.

LeBron James led the way with 30 points on 14-for-23 shooting along with five rebounds, four assists and three steals. Anthony Davis added 25 points and 23 rebounds while also remaining the team’s defensive anchor. And the Lakers finally kept their double-digit leads after squandering their cushions in the second half in each of the previous three games.

With the Nuggets featuring plenty of depth with Nikola Jokic (33 points), Michael Porter Jr. (27) and Jamal Murray (22), however, the Lakers needed a definitive third option to relieve the burden from their two stars. Russell filled that role seamlessly.

“We need him to be at his highest level for us to be successful,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said. “Tonight that’s what he did. You tip your hat off to a guy like that. The world is killing him after Game 3 for the performance that he has. It probably is easier than a lot ya’ll think to just go home and don’t let that distract you. But he didn’t. You got to tip your hat to a guy like that. It shows how much we need him.”

It took time before Russell had a breakout performance.

He opened the game missing a floater on the first play. After making a short basket at the 9:31 mark, Russell then missed a 15-footer about a minute later. Through the rest of the game, however, Russell showed a healthy balance between creating for himself and others both for looks at the rim and beyond the perimeter.

“This isn’t a place where you come out and try to dominate the game when you got LeBron and AD right next to you,” Russell said. “So for me, to come out Game 3 and not score and then come out and be ultra-aggressive and try to do that extra stuff, it’s not really me. I know that’s what people were expecting me to do. It made it easier for me to prepare my mind for that approach. Let the game come to me.”

As a result, the Lakers extended both their season and Russell’s tenure by at least one game.

Mark Medina is a Lakers/Clippers writer for Sporting Tribune. Follow him on XInstagramFacebook and Threads.