The shots felt good as the ball left D’Angelo Russell’s fingertips. He had open looks. He squared up perfectly. And as shown when he points to the ice in his veins, Russell has never lacked confidence about his shots dropping into the basket.
That ice suddenly evaporated in the Lakers’ 109-106 overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday at Staples Center. Russell missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer just as time expired in the fourth quarter. He missed two more mid-range jumpers that could have extended the lead in extra regulation. He missed another 3-pointer in overtime that could have tied the game with just over a minute remaining.
Once the night ended, Russell finished with 12 points, while shooting 6-of-21 from the field and 0-of-9 from 3-point range. That marked a far cry from the 21 points he had last Friday against Denver or the 33 points he scored against the same opponent two nights later. To make matters worse, Russell also played a role in allowing Portland guard Damian Lillard to drop 30 points on a 10-of-17 clip.
All of which left Russell self critical about his own play.
“We had good looks as a team. Personally, it just wouldn’t fall,” Russell said. It hurt me honestly. Defensively and offensively, we have to figure out a way to get guys involved more than when the shot is not falling. It’s a learning experience.”
As Russell soon learned, Luke Walton’s reaction toward his game hardly compared to what former Lakers coach Byron Scott would have offered. Scott likely would have zeroed in on the few possessions Lillard had made shots uncontested. Or on Russell recording only one assist. Or on the one play when Russell tried to show off his post-up game against Lillard only to draw a whistle for elbowing him.
Walton focused on those concepts too. But he delivered them with a more nurturing touch laced with positive reinforcement.
“I encourage him to keep shooting them if he’s open,” Walton said. “Obviously it’s a feel thing, but there’s times he can. I think tonight he should have looked more to get some of his teammates looks. It’s not like he’s taking terrible shots to get shots up. A lot of the ones he was getting were wide open so I have no problem with him ever taking wide open shots. Next time I’ll assume they’ll go in.”
Walton did not stop there. He then focused on the other end of the floor that revealed the huge discrepancy that remains between Russell and Lillard.
“He had some good defensive possessions. He had some ones where it looked like he fell asleep a little bit,” Walton said. “But it’s Lillard. He’s one of the best guards in the league. You saw some of the 3’s he hit, from eight feet behind the line. So he’s a player I think that the more times D’Angelo plays against him, he’ll start to get familiar with just because he’s unique. You play defense a certain way your whole life and it’s good defense. But with a kid who shoots the ball like that, you have to change your mindset on what good defense is and how you want to guard him.”
To reinforce that message, Walton showed Russell some clips at halftime of the possessions he successfully defended Lillard. Walton also showed Russell ones that he did not. Throughout the game, Walton pulled Russell to the side and provided feedback. Despite Russell’s shooting inaccuracy, Walton had him close the game out in the final 7:06 of the fourth quarter and for all of overtime. Russell called that experience “big time.”
“It’s motivation and encouragement,” Russell said. “I appreciate that. My teammates said the same thing: ‘Keep shooting.'”
They sure did.
“Just come back and do what you do,” said Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson, who also felt Walton’s support after missing a potential game-tying 3-pointer as overtime ended. “You’re going to miss shots. He’ll come back next game.”
Russell hardly chalked his game up to a bad night and forgot about it. Unsolicited, he circled back on what he could have fixed regardless of the reality that he often missed open shots.
He zeroed in on defending Lillard, who had scorched the Lakers last season by averaging 31.7 points on 55.6 percent shooting and 8.3 assists through three contests. Although Russell reported he “feels a lot more” prepared than last season, he still has not figured out how to defend someone of Lillard’s caliber.
“I honestly don’t know what to do,” Russell said. “I have to look at film and ask Luke for more guidance. But I don’t know. He’s been doing it for a while now.”
Russell then focused on his offensive role. Throughout training camp, Walton has talked about the fine line Russell will navigate between taking advantage of his scoring instincts, while using his sharp vision to facilitate team balance. Despite Russell’s flair for the highlight-reel pass, he has often settled on looking for his shot.
“I still could have found a way to get guys involved more,” Russell said. “I didn’t feel like I was trying to force it. But some of them I could pass up. They wouldn’t fall for me. At the end of the day, it looks bad. But if we would’ve gotten the win, it would have been a different story.”
Yes, it would have been a completely different story. If Russell made that game-winning 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, a few developments would have emerged.
He likely would have pointed at his right arm to point out the ice in his veins. It would have marked a feel-good moment for Russell and Nick Young, who passed Russell the ball and truly showed he has moved past last season’s tension involving the leaked video that disclosed his infidelities.
Instead, Russell left the court after the overtime loss mulling over his weaknesses while feeling encouraged about correcting them.
“Being a young guy going in this league, you’re going to have that confidence until you get a reality check,” Russell said. “I got my reality check. Now I’m ready to go.”
Moments later, Russell made his way out of the locker room. Before he did, Russell stopped in Walton’s office. The first step toward growing from his latest setback already started.