When D’Angelo Russell was ascending to All-Star status earlier this season, his self-critique always stressed the need for consistency. But now Russell is stepping up consistently at crunch time in the Nets’ playoff push, doing all he can to get them across the finish line.
He did it in Saturday’s win over the Celtics with a 20-point third-quarter explosion. The Nets will need him to stay hot on Monday night at Barclays Center against the Bucks, who own the NBA’s best record at 57-20 but might not have the services of MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has a sprained right ankle.
Assessing how Russell has matured, Jared Dudley praised him as a player who seeks advice from veterans more than any other young star he has known. “I think he knows it’s a contract year and everything is right here in front of him, and he stepped up to all the pressure,” Dudley said. “Now it’s about winning time. No one cares about your stats. Are you going to make the playoffs or not? If you don’t make the playoffs, for our season, it’s a failure. We’ve come this far. Can he lead this team to the playoffs?”
That really is the measuring stick with five games left and four teams fighting for the final three playoff berths in the Eastern Conference. The Nets (39-38) are hanging tough because of how Russell has produced in the past six games (3-3), averaging 29.7 points, 10.2 assists and 2.2 steals and shooting 46.5 percent from the field.
The Bucks will be in the second game of a back-to-back, but they rested Antetokounmpo, All-Star forward Khris Middleton, starting point guard Eric Bledsoe and key reserve Tony Snell in Sunday’s overtime loss at Atlanta. “Him sitting out or him missing a game would be huge for us,” Russell said of Antetokounmpo. “I’m not sure what they’ll do. We’ve just got to focus on us right now.”
Nets opponents have focused heavily on devising ways to slow Russell. Coach Kenny Atkinson applauded how Russell went from scoring in the third quarter to his passing game in the fourth quarter when the Celtics blitzed him. “The unique thing about D’Angelo, when teams double him, he can make passes a lot of guys can’t,” Atkinson said. “He knows how to get the ball out of the double-team as good as anybody I’ve seen. It’s amazing.”
Thanks to Russell’s leadership, the Nets need only two wins for a guaranteed .500 record. The final number doesn’t matter to Russell, just the bottom line. “As long as we’re in the playoffs,’’ he said, “it will be great.”
With his recent growth, Russell has changed the perception of himself as lacking leadership ability. “Everybody was wrong about me,” he said. “I don’t have to say anything.”
His actions are speaking loud and clear.