Lakers, D’Angelo Russell avoid succumbing to Nuggets and history (for now)

LOS ANGELES — During a timeout midway through the third quarter Saturday in Arena, three young Lakers fans stood in a corner of the lower bowl and held up separate placards. They read: PLEASE … PLAY … HARD.

The request of the Lakers was understandable considering their Lakers were battling history as well as the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets, who had won 11 in a row against Los Angeles and were one victory from sweeping them out of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

But that’s the thing about sports — you never really know what’s going to happen. And this night would turn out to be as surreal as it was surprising. I mean, who could have predicted that Los Angeles guard D’Angelo Russell would go from maligned to magnificent, or that Nuggets star Jamal Murray would do his best bad Russell impersonation?

On this night, the Lakers not only played hard, they won, beating the Nuggets 119-108 to force a Game 5 in their first-round playoff series.

“We’ve given ourselves another life,” LeBron James said after scoring 30 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter. “We’ve given ourselves another lifeline, and it’s a one-game series for us.”

It would have been easy for Russell and the Lakers to arrange vacation plans after a dispiriting loss to the Nuggets two nights earlier. Russell had failed to score in 24 minutes and the Lakers had collapsed in the second half for the third consecutive game this series, leaving them not only on the cusp of playoff elimination but also battling an undefeated opponent: history.

No NBA team has ever rallied to win a best-of-seven series after trailing 3-0 — 151 have tried and 151 have failed. The Lakers could add to that list (and so could the Suns and Pelicans) as early as Monday night.

To believe that Saturday night was anything other than a delaying of the inevitable is to believe Russell can continue to play as well as he did Saturday when he scored 21 points and had four assists and four rebounds. And at this point, there is nothing in his past to suggest that. Nor is there anything to persuade me to believe Murray will shoot 9-for-23 from the field and 0 of 4  from behind the arc again, as he did Saturday.

The Pulse Newsletter

The Pulse Newsletter

Free, daily sports updates direct to your inbox. Sign up

Free, daily sports updates direct to your inbox. Sign up

BuyBuy The Pulse Newsletter

No matter what the Lakers said afterward — and they used the one-game-at-a-time mantra — this was likely their last stand. The game was about respect more than a true belief that they go from 11 consecutive losses to four consecutive wins against the Nuggets. Trusting James and Anthony Davis, who had 25 points and 23 rebounds, is easy. They’ve been phenomenal in the series. It’s the supporting cast that’s the problem.

Was the group good enough on this night? Yes. But a broken clock is right twice a day. The challenge is to have the role players step up consistently. When they do, the Lakers can play with anyone. We saw that Saturday and have seen it at times during the series.

Fact is, the Lakers don’t win Game 4 without Russell’s key contributions in the second half, notably midway through the fourth quarter. With the Nuggets seeking to make one of their patented late runs, he stalled the charge with a layup, an offensive rebound that was tipped to Davis for a layup, an assist to James for a dunk, and a 3-pointer of his own. He was a factor on four consecutive scores as the Lakers turned what had been a 97-84 advantage into their largest lead of the evening, 106-87.

“He was amazing,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said. “He had one of his signature runs where he gets two or three quick buckets that feel like 12-0 runs itself. Just the style of basketball that he plays, we needed him to be at his highest level for us to be successful. And tonight that’s what he did. You have to tip your hat to a guy like that. The world is killing him after Game 3 for the performance that he had. It’s probably a lot easier than y’all think to just go fold and let all that distract you. But he didn’t. It just shows how much we need him.”

A level of immaturity has shadowed Russell for much of his career. It’s one reason the eighth-year pro is now with his fourth team and second stint with the Lakers, who originally drafted him second overall in 2015. The talent has always been there, but the focus and consistency have not, which is why it’s difficult to see the Lakers getting past the Nuggets.

So many things went right for them Saturday. Russell played well, while Murray did not; Denver managed only five second-chance points and nine offensive rebounds; and, for once this series, the Lakers kept pace in the third quarter. They were outscored 32-30 in the period, but that’s a far cry from the previous games, including Thursday night when they were outscored 34-22.

“We have a lot of confidence in our team,” Davis said. “We’ve had the lead a lot in this series; it’s just been our second half, actually our third quarters, where we haven’t been able to execute. Our confidence was never lost at any point.”



For Lakers and Darvin Ham, another blown lead leaves more questions than answers

Several players said they did not focus on Game 4 being an elimination game because everyone knew the reality of the situation. Instead, they did as coach Darvin Ham suggested — they leaned into the opportunity to compete and the joy of playing loose and free.

“Everything that we’ve been through as a team, on the court, off the court, we deserve tonight,” Ham said. “We’ve just got to bottle it up and really keep it pushing and really understand that, it can be our time. Why not us?”

The answer could come Monday night in Denver.

(Photo of D’Angelo Russell (1) high-fiving Spencer Dinwiddie and Gabe Vincent: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top