By now, most NBA fans have come around to the idea that D’angelo Russell might be a good player. But there are still some that have a hard time believing that the fourth-year Nets guard has evolved past his ball-hogging days in a Lakers uniform, and use old habits to judge his current playing style.
One such person was Hornets broadcaster Eric Collins. In the third quarter of the Hornets-Nets game on Saturday, the ball made its way to Russell who stared down his defender, Kemba Walker, while more or less standing still in a triple-threat position with seven seconds remaining in the shot clock. About three seconds would pass before Russell decided to do anything with the ball at which point Collins said, “[the] ball just stops with Russell sometimes.” As Collins finished his sentence, Russell’s three had already gone in.
It was that kind of night for Russell, who celebrated his 23rd birthday with a whopping 40-point performance in Charlotte. Sure the timeout-inducing shots were there—especially in the second half—but there was a slight tinge of disrespect when it came to his defensive assignments at times. For example, on back-to-back possessions, Russell ended up having Cody Zeller as his defender. The Hornets didn’t do much, if anything at all, to try and stop this switch so he took advantage.
But then Russell sat and the Nets offense failed to maintain anything close to the production that their All-Star guard was putting out. The Hornets were able to gain enough momentum during his rest period that even when Russell returned they were able to not only erase what was once a 19-point deficit, but also end up with an eight-point lead with 3:12 left to go in the game.
As a pair of Joe Harris free throw’s cut the Nets’ deficit down to six, something happened with the team’s offense. Had Collins not been watching the entirety of this game, he would have called it stagnant, and he’d technically be justified in doing so. Each Brooklyn possession, the ball would keep going back to Russell’s hands and stay there for good chunks of the shot clock. But just like the last time such a comment was made, the legitimacy of the criticism began to fade once the ball made its way into the net, and it would completely fade into nothingness through all 12 of the consecutive points Russell would score in the final couple minutes of the game.
The wild run had almost everything you’d expect a star basketball player to pull out of his bag of tricks when it matters most, but it became clear that it was going to be impossible to stop Russell when whatever the hell this was put the ball into the basket.
By the time Russell got to his game-clinching shots with less than a minute left, not even Collins could contain his excitement.
After years of being one of the most walked-over franchises in the league, the Nets are finally starting to push back against their competition and make noise as a legitimate playoff team. Any team that lets their guard down against them will get blown back by the offensive equivalent of getting punched in the mouth. If there was ever a guard ready to lead a team like this, whose on-court redemption story nearly mirrors this exact situation, it’s Russell and games like these show why.