LOS ANGELES — The passes looked so crisp when D’Angelo Russell found teammates that his defenders did not notice were open. The shots looked so smooth as Russell squared up from the both behind the perimeter and in the post. The defensive activity looked sharp as Russell contested shots and pointed out rotations.
In a season in which the Lakers hoped their second-year guard would blended all those ingredients together consistently, Russell mixed the right recipe to ensure nearly a complete game in the Lakers’ 119-108 loss to the Washington Wizards on Tuesday at Staples Center.
Lakers coach Luke Walton described the team’s third-quarter execution in which they scored 37 points on 15-of-16 shooting as “beautiful.” So was Russell’s play, which Walton called “great” and “brilliant.” He scored nearly anytime he wanted to as he posted 28 points while shooting 10-of-21 from the field and 4-of-12 from 3-point range. He provided the kind of playmaking that both produced nine assists and contributed to backcourt mate Jordan Clarkson posting 22 points on a 10-of-19 clip. And while no one will mistake the Lakers for displaying a defensive clinic against Washington’s John Wall (34 points) and Bradley Beal (16), Russell impressed Walton for “being active on defense.”
“It’s all about consistency. It’s something I’m trying to build on now,” Russell said. “I’m trying to be defensive minded from the start. It takes my game to another level.”
Russell has taken his game to another level recently. After struggling with a short-lived bench role so Walton could evaluate Clarkson at point guard with traditional lineups, Russell has lived up to the message the Lakers’ front office and coaching staff preached about staying aggressive.
In the past five games, Russell has averaged 24.6 points while shooting 48.8 percent from the field and 42.5 percent from 3-point range while tallying 5.6 assists. He logged a career-high 40-point game on March 19 against Cleveland where he showed more efficiency with his shot (14-of-22 from the field; 7-of-12 from 3-point range), his passing (six assists) and his ball handling (one turnover).
Against Washington, Russell maintained that same production by opening the game with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the first quarter. Walton observed Russell was simply “taking what the defense gave him.”
“I try to stay aggressive the whole time,” Russell said. “The position that I’m in forces me to be aggressive and make plays. Tonight, fortunately my shot was going in.”
And with Russell’s shot going in, Walton saw that positively affect the rest of his game.
“D’Angelo’s play picks up when he hits his first couple of shots,” Walton said,. “He seems to be in a much better rhythm for the rest of the night. When we’re getting after it defensively as a team and getting stops, we can get into more of an uptempo type of game. That energizes him.”
Russell showed that in various ways.
He looked for Lakers rookie center Ivica Zubac early for open floaters and layups. Russell made quick passes to Clarkson when he cut along the baseline or toward the basket, resulting in both open jumpers and an open lob. When Walton found his players “waling around too much offensively, Walton offered Russell with some simple instructions.
“We need to push the pace faster,” Walton said.
So, Russell pleaded for the ball nearly anytime the Lakers made a defensive stop or he found the Wizards laboring on defense following a missed or made shot.
After Lakers forward Larry Nance Jr. grabbed a rebound on two late first-quarter possessions, Russell sprinted to set himself up for an open jump shot and 3-pointer, respectively. After Russell rebounded the ball on the last possession of the first quarter, he set up David Nwaba for a fast-break layup before the buzzer sounded. When Lakers forward Julius Randle cleaned the glass on a third-quarter possession, Russell ran again to set himself up for an open jumper.
“You have to get stops first. If you get stops first, get a rebound in my hand and push it, it works out good,” Russell said. “If you don’t get stops, all of that is eliminated.”
In other words, more work awaits.
“He’s come along. He’s definitely gotten better at it. When he plays at that next level as far as the tempo and the way he can pass and size and everything, we’re a much better team,” Walton said. “He’s done better. He’s gotten better. He’s working on it. We’re going to stay even more on it because we want more of it.”
The Lakers would also like more in their overall consistency. After all, the Lakers (21-53) lost for the eighth time in their last nine games. The Lakers allowed Washington (46-28) clinched a division title (Southeast) for the first time in 38 years and swept the regular-season series for the sixth time in Lakers’ franchise history by prevailing in crunch time. After opening the fourth quarter on a 9-0 run, THe the Lakers went more than three minutes without scoring.
Russell’s consistently also waned. He went 1-o-f7 in the final period. Russell made a costly turnover that led to a John Wall dunk to tie the score at 101-101 with 5:41 left. After missing his next two shots, Russell then made a basket and a pair of foul shots. Wall (14 for 25 from the field) later made a 3-pointer over Russell for a 117-108 lead with 56.9 seconds left.
“We got the same shots; we just stopped making them,” Russell said. “Missed shots and they scored on them.”
Yet, Walton said he did not care about those misses since Russell still played with the same mindset. Though Russell played the entire fourth quarter, Walton also cited his substitution patterns in the fourth quarter in which Randle and Clarkson did not enter the lineup until nearly the halfway point.
“I don’t care,” Walton said. “Obviously I want the shots to go in, but he had good looks and we want him taking those. I thought he had a brilliant game.”
All of which apparently came down to a simple development.
“I felt like I was making shots. That made it easier,” Russell said. “My teammates were in the right position to make plays at the same time.”