‘I’m never afraid of confrontation’: Why D’Angelo Russell shined in Lakers win over Bucks

By | March 10, 2024

Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell celebrates after hitting a three-point shot against the Bucks at Crypto.com Arena on Friday.

D’Angelo Russell walked back to the court where an hour earlier he had just finished his best basketball game as a Laker.

He grinned as he looked at a mostly empty Crypto.com Arena.

The Lakers had just defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 123-122 without LeBron James. Russell made the go-ahead goal, giving him 44 points. He had scored 21 of the Lakers’ 27 points in the fourth quarter, while being tied for the lead with a Lakers player in the final quarter.

It was his moment.

In his mind it is always that way.

He cast his eyes around the empty stands late Friday night and said he was ready without James, a packed building and a national TV audience.

Read more: D’Angelo Russell scores 44 as Lakers beat last-second Bucks in thriller

“It’s like all these people are here for me,” he said. “That’s my mentality.”

Russell’s high self-confidence was not always seen as an asset. The circumstances of his season in Los Angeles should have shattered that perception months ago, but they never did.

Discussed in virtually every trade scenario of impact, in and out of the starting lineup and losing rhythm, Russell saved his season – and likely the Lakers’.

“When I talk to my people, they know what I am capable of. I just talk to those around me. I brag to them,” Russell told The Times in court late Friday. “All the people are tweeting about me, we’re talking about it. And it’s just motivation. It just gives me energy.”

On Friday, Russell was gasoline.

With Anthony Davis’ left arm dangling after colliding with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks taking a late lead, Russell sank a big three to keep the game within reach. And when he was given the opportunity to create the biggest chance of the game, he did so with confidence.

Russell attacked Damian Lillard and Brook Lopez with a pick-and-roll, and as he quickly moved in and then out, he floated a 14-foot ball through the rim with his left hand for the game’s final points.

“That’s DLo, man,” coach Darvin Ham said.

Since returning to the starting lineup on January 13, Russell has been sensational, averaging 22.8 points and 6.4 assists while making 45.8% of his shots from three on more than eight attempts per game.

The Lakers have won 16 of those 25 games.

Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, left, slips a pass around Bucks center Brook Lopez during the first half Friday night.Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, left, slips a pass around Bucks center Brook Lopez during the first half Friday night.

Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, left, slips a pass around Bucks center Brook Lopez during the first half Friday night at Crypto.com Arena. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The heater itself is no surprise when you consider Russell’s talent: his unorthodox style masks a widely respected set of skills, such as a silky smooth shot and elite field vision and passing.

It’s a bit strange, though, when you consider that Russell’s trade value – or lack thereof – was one of the big stories surrounding the Lakers at the trade deadline.

“He and I had a conversation. I won’t go into details, but he and I had conversations about that,” Ham said after the match on Friday. “And you know, it’s, I don’t call it unfortunate, but it’s just the reality of our business. His name is thrown around because he has value and is worth something; other teams see that.”

Yet people with knowledge of trade negotiations, who are not authorized to speak publicly, paint a different picture of Russell’s value at the deadline. His $18.7 million player option for next season was viewed negatively around the league as teams asked the same questions evaluators had been asking about Russell for years.

Yes, he’s talented, but does he have an impact on winning?

The non-existent trading market left little doubt about the response teams.

“With my craft and my talent on the floor, I always felt like I could do things. When it gets warm, it becomes a little more exciting during a match,” Russell said at his post-match press conference. ‘From the floor, of course, you know what I’ve been through. Public humiliation only shaped me into the killer you all see today. And I never lack confidence. I am never afraid of confrontation. I want all the smoke.”

Russell credited a three-game absence around New Year’s with opening his eyes to ways he could better be himself.

“Just recognizing the pockets where I could be more aggressive and efficient,” Russell said. “And I saw it and attacked it as soon as I got back.”

He also promised that he would no longer be disrespectful, but would trust that he would do the right thing when the moment called for it.

Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, center, talks with guards D'Angelo Russell, left, and Max Christie on Friday night.Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, center, talks with guards D'Angelo Russell, left, and Max Christie on Friday night.

“I don’t want to say he didn’t care anymore, but in a sense he had stopped doing something,” Austin Reaves told The Times. “I don’t know exactly what that something was.”

It wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t Friday.

One of Russell’s three misses from three-point range Friday was a rushed shot from the top of the key in the third quarter, an air ball. Davis immediately told him he thought it was a bad shot. Russell’s highlights this week were also surrounded by tough nights with losses to Denver and Sacramento.

But as Russell becomes more comfortable asserting himself, the Lakers also become more comfortable trusting him to do so.

“DLo was DLo,” Davis said. “Took the game over from us.”

Fittingly, Russell wasn’t the only player to rewrite his own value on Friday. Spencer Dinwiddie, a player who saw his role change this season in Brooklyn before being traded and waived, made his biggest play in his first start for his hometown Lakers.

After Russell’s go-ahead floater, Dinwiddie blocked Lillard’s potential game-winning shot thanks to some beautiful defensive play.

“It’s everything. I mean, I’m not going to lie to you, because I’ve been an offensive guy my whole career that used a lot, I mean, even when I was a kid, stuff like that, I kind of dreamed about those moments in terms of hitting of the ones shot, not necessarily getting the block,” Dinwiddie said. “But it feels almost as sweet. So it’s fun to step into a new role with my youth team and be productive in the sense of helping us get wins. So that’s not lost on me, and it’s something I will definitely cherish for the rest of my life.

Lakers teammates Jaxson Hayes, right, Spencer Dinwiddie, center, and D'Angelo Russell celebrate their win over the Bucks.Lakers teammates Jaxson Hayes, right, Spencer Dinwiddie, center, and D'Angelo Russell celebrate their win over the Bucks.

Over the past two months, Russell has had a handful of moments like this, with his return to the Lakers, the franchise that drafted him, trending after a series of moments where it seemed destined to end.

“I just feel confident in what I bring to the game of basketball,” Russell said. “When it comes to film, watching it, helping young players, I just know what I have to offer. So no matter which room I walk into, I feel confident.”

Trade rumors couldn’t deter it. Criticism of his game could not change that. It is a core feature.

“There are only a handful of people on this earth who have the confidence he has on the field,” Reaves told The Times. “…I wish I could have it. Really and truly.”

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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