LOS ANGELES — The Lakers’ lead over Phoenix had dwindled to one in the fourth quarter Wednesday when D’Angelo Russell returned to the floor after a rest on the bench.
There was a sense of uncertainty and dread filling Crypto.com Arena. The Suns were making a push, and a loss would have left the Lakers on the wrong side of the cutoff for making the play-in. Russell, intent on bringing energy to his team and to every corner of the building, brought the spark and clutch performance the Lakers and their fans so eagerly wanted to see.
Driving around defender T.J. Warren, Russell finished off a nifty finger roll to increase the Lakers’ lead to three, draw a foul, and get the fans roaring. His momentum carried him toward the pricey seats behind the basket, where he extended his hand toward a familiar face: Robert Horry, who won three of his seven NBA championships as a member of the Lakers.
In one smooth move Russell, who was reacquired by the Lakers last month in the three-team, eight-player trade that brought them Malik Beasley, Jarred Vanderbilt and renewed hope of playing beyond Game 82, accomplished all of his goals.
He brought the Lakers energy. He sparked them to a 122-111 victory in a game they couldn’t afford to lose. And he paid his respects to the past while offering promise of a successful future as the Lakers continue jostling with a tightly packed group of play-in and playoff wannabes.
“Obviously I was trying to be focused on the main task and get the win but in the midst of that trying to get the crowd going and not be distracted by who’s in the stands,” Russell said of greeting Horry. “But obviously, Rob Horry is a Laker great. I recognized him. I was in the area so I 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 17th this season. He firmly pulled out of a 3-point shooting slump by hitting 3 of 6 beyond the arc; he had missed 12 straight over two games before hitting four of eight three-point attempts on Sunday.
He contributed in many ways Wednesday. After giving the Lakers a 102-98 lead on that layup and hitting the subsequent free throw, his 26-foot 3-point shot put them up 109-100 with five minutes and 30 seconds left. He followed that by waving toward the crowd to make more noise. Fans were happy to oblige.
“He was huge. I mean, he’s a very smart and extremely talented ball player. Fun to be around. Loves getting the crowd going,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said.
“Obviously we have our guys that come in off the bench but the really most powerful sixth man is when you can have your crowd engaged, they’re chanting ‘De-fense,’ they’re chanting ‘MVP’ for Austin [Reaves], as he gets them going, they’re standing up and clapping as he’s waving them to stand.”
That kind of noise and exuberance — and success — used to be common around 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 winning, excitement, and joy. He did his part to bring a slice of it back, at least for one night.
“I’ve been here in the past and I remember that,” said Russell, who missed six games in late February and early March because of a sprained right ankle. “Kobe [Bryant] and guys like that controlling that environment from you just dominating the game, and the fans can’t wait to cheer for us. So even if it’s Austin Reaves, they love Austin, so whenever we can get him going, it helps our team. I know it. I think a lot of the guys know it. Whenever we can return the favor like that, I think it’s good for both sides.”
But he has brought far more than cheerleading skills. Anthony Davis needed a few minutes to list all that Russell has contributed.
“His scoring ability, his communication, his playmaking. He does a lot for us. And making big 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 him, because a lot of that ballhandling responsibility was on Dennis [Schroder] and [Reaves]. Now, they’re able to play off the ball, and we’re able to kind of manipulate different actions with them on the floor, as all of them are great ballhandlers.”
The Lakers’ locker room has been renovated and reconfigured since Russell first played for them, and his new stall is across the room from the spot he occupied back then. Dressing in a different spot is appropriate for someone who feels he’s a different person.
“I’m just at peace, to be honest. I’ve been at peace for a long time,” he said. “So, coming into any environment I’m already me as I can possibly be and I’m comfortable with it.
“And then when I was here, people judged me off being young and being here. So, going back and watching my interviews and watching how I was interacting and things like that, I see ways how I could grow and not make a distraction on my image. So, that allowed me to kind of lock in to that. And also, I’ve always been good at basketball. So, now people notice that when you don’t have distractions off the floor and things like that.”
He has found his way back to the Lakers, but he’s not settled. “I’m a free agent this summer. I’ve been traded midseason, so to get comfortable somewhere it’s not easy for me,” he said. “So, until I am, I won’t be comfortable. I won’t feel like it’s home.”
If he continues to be a crowd-pleaser and offensive asset, the Lakers should make him feel comfortable and sign him this summer. Having him back feels right for the fans, the Lakers and for him.