No deficit seemed too large for the Lakers as their point guard led a furious comeback. He made timely shots. He attacked the basket. He converted on foul shots. He organized the offense.
It still wasn’t enough to stop the outcome. The Lakers still lost, 120-109, to the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday at Staples Center in what marked their second consecutive year they opened the season with four unanswered defeats. But the Lakers still depended on a point guard whose commanding presence at least gave them a chance.
But that man was not D’Angelo Russell, whose seven points on 3-of-11 shooting and six assists coincided with sitting in the entire fourth quarter. Instead that role belonged to Lou Williams, who scored 14 of his 24 points in the final period. His shooting performance looked somewhat similar to Russell’s, going 4-of-11 from the field and 0-of-5 from 3-point range. But Williams offset that by sinking 16 of his 19 foul-shots.
All of which left Russell unsure on how he goes about trying to crack the crunch-time rotation.
“I have no idea,” Russell said. “It’s something I’ve got to deal with.”
That’s something Russell has had to deal with in more than just one game. Russell sat in the entire fourth quarter in the Lakers’ season-opening loss last week to Minnesota. In that game, Russell also appeared more uncomfortable because he surprisingly played at shooting guard after never spending any of training camp at that position. Russell then played in the final 4:04 of the Lakers’ loss to Sacramento, but that appeared to be garbage time in a double-digit blowout.
Russell offered the diplomatic answer after his first fourth-quarter snub.
“Coach does a great job doing what he does,” Russell said. “His job is to coach. So if I’m on the floor, I’m on the floor. If I’m not, live with it.”
Russell still called his latest bench-sitting a “great learning experience,” sharing how Metta World Peace mentored him with tips about spacing and defensive coverages. But Russel then conceded, “it’s a different story when you’re out there.”
So why wasn’t he?
“If Lou wasn’t playing the way he was playing,” Scott said, “I would’ve brought [Russell] back in.”
Scott took Russell out with 5:54 left in the third quarter after collecting his fourth foul. He never returned again. Russell sat on the bench, as he saw Williams nearly help the Lakers end their three-game losing streak. He opened the quarter with a steal and four foul shots that cut the Nuggets’ lead to 97-91 with nine minutes left. Williams then made a 19-foot jumper, a layup and four more foul shots to cut the gap to 103-100 with 5:04 left. But then Denver closed out the game on a 17-9 run.
“The focus should be on winning, period,” Williams said. “It shouldn’t be on individual goals or scoring. It should be on winning and putting four quarters together.”
That is something Russell could not do, causing him to miss out on something that have accelerated his learning curve.
“I have to balance that knowing he’s young and he will have to experience this stuff in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line,” Scott said. “That’s the only way he will learn.”
But Scott did not fulfill that balance. That left Russell to take a long time to emerge into the locker room and address some questions where he could not provide any answers.