The Lakers’ lead over Phoenix had been cut to one in the fourth quarter Wednesday when D’Angelo Russell returned to the court after a break on the bench.
There was a sense of uncertainty and dread in the Crypto.com Arena. The Suns were pressing, and a loss would have left the Lakers on the wrong side of the line to make the play-in. Russell, intent on energizing his team and every corner of the building, brought the spark and performance the Lakers and their fans wanted to see.
Driving around defenseman TJ Warren, Russell finished off with a nifty finger spin to increase the Lakers’ lead to three, fouling out and making the fans roar. His momentum carried him to the expensive seats behind the basket, where he reached out for a familiar face: Robert Horry, who won three of his seven NBA championships as a member of the Lakers.
In one fluid move, Russell, who was reacquired by the Lakers last month in the three-team, eight-player trade that brought Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt and a renewed hope of playing past Game 82, accomplished all of his goals.
He brought the energy of the Lakers. He led them to a 122-111 victory in a game they couldn’t afford to lose. And he paid his respects to the past as he offered the promise of a successful future as the Lakers continue to compete with a tight group of play-in and playoff hopefuls.
“Obviously, I was trying to focus on the main task and getting the win, but in the middle of it, I was trying to get the crowd going and not get distracted by who was in the stands,” Russell said of greeting Horry. “But obviously, Rob Horry is a great Laker. I recognized him. He was in the area so he could show some love.”
Russell finished with 26 points, six assists and two blocks, his fourth game with the Lakers of 25 or more points and his 17th this season. He firmly snapped out of a slump of 3-point shooting by going 3-for-6 from beyond the arc; he had missed 12 straight in two games before hitting 4 of eight 3-point attempts Sunday.
He contributed in many ways on Wednesday. After giving the Lakers a 102-98 lead on that layup and making the next free throw, his 26-foot 3-pointer put them up 109-100 with five minutes and 30 seconds remaining. He followed that up by waving to the crowd to make more noise. The fans were happy to oblige.
“It was huge. I mean, he’s a very smart and extremely talented ballplayer. Fun to be around. He loves to get the crowd going,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.
“Obviously, we have our guys coming off the bench, but the really most powerful sixth man is when you can get your crowd involved, they’re chanting ‘Defense,’ they’re chanting ‘MVP’ for Austin (Reaves), as he gets them going. They stand up and clap as he motions for them to stand up.”
That kind of noise and exuberance, and success, used to be common for the Lakers. Russell, who spent his first two NBA seasons with the Lakers before being traded to the Nets in the summer of 2017, remembers the sounds of victory, excitement and joy. He did the part of him to get a part back, at least for one night.
“I’ve been here in the past and I remember it,” said Russell, who missed six games in late February and early March with a sprained right ankle. “Kobe (Bryant) and guys like that control that environment while you just dominate the game, and the fans can’t wait to cheer us on. So even if it’s Austin Reaves, they love Austin, so anytime we can get it going, it helps our team. I know. I think a lot of the guys know that. Anytime we can return the favor like that, I think it’s good for both parties.”
But she has brought much more than cheerleading skills to the table. It took Anthony Davis a few minutes to list everything Russell has contributed.
“His goalscoring ability, his communication, his game. He does a lot for us. And making great shots. He’s getting the crowd involved, like he did tonight,” Davis said. “So having a player like that takes a lot of pressure off everyone else. The time that he was out, obviously, we missed, because a lot of that ball-handling responsibility was on Dennis (Schroder) and (Reaves). Now, they can play without the ball, and we can manipulate different actions with them on the pitch, since they all handle the ball very well.”
The Lakers’ locker room has been renovated and reconfigured since Russell first played for them, and his new position is across the room from where he was then. Dressing in a different place is appropriate for someone who feels that they are a different person.
“I’m at peace, to be honest. I have been at peace for a long time,” she said. “So going into any environment, I’m already who I can be and I’m comfortable with that.
“And then when I was here, people judged me for being young and being here. So going back and looking at my interviews and seeing how I was interacting and things like that, I see ways that I could grow and not distract from my image. So, that allowed me to focus on that. And also, I’ve always been good at basketball. So now people notice it when you don’t have distractions on the floor and stuff like that.”
He’s found his way back to the Lakers, but he’s not settled. “I am a free agent this summer. They traded me in the middle of the season, so it’s not easy for me to feel comfortable somewhere,” he said. “So until I am, I won’t be comfortable. I won’t feel like it’s my home.”
If he continues to be a crowd pleaser and offensive asset, the Lakers should make him comfortable and sign him this summer. Having him back feels good for the fans, the Lakers and him.