It has been overshadowed by the litany of recent last-minute losses by the Nets, but it appears D’Angelo Russell gradually is getting his groove back. Russell returned to the starting lineup 14 games ago, but his production has spiked over the past seven in which he averaged 19.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists.
That marked improvement was highlighted by Russell’s first career triple-double performance in yet another last-minute loss Friday in Toronto, where the point guard totaled 18 points, a career-high 13 assists and 11 rebounds. It was the second straight game in which the Nets blew a double-digit lead, but Russell’s resiliency was a reflection of the Nets’ competitiveness against the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors.
“I thought he was good all-around,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I thought he was good on the defensive end. He obviously came back and rebounded and competed and then controlled the game. He had command of that game. And that’s such a relief as a coach when you have a guy who knows what he wants, knows where guys are. It’s great to see.
“He missed a couple of those paint shots at the end, but I think as he gets more mature and gets stronger, those are going to go down. I just loved it. I think he took one bad shot the whole night, which he heard about. But much better shot selection and really good command of the game.”
Russell downplayed the significance of his first triple-double, crediting his teammates for building his numbers. “They put me in that position,” Russell said. “They boxed out when I got the rebounds, they made shots when I passed it. They made it easy for me.”
The Nets’ record doesn’t reflect it, but progress has been made and Russell’s growth in a season that was interrupted for 10 weeks while he recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery has been a vital part of that process. They are 2-3 in their past five games with the three losses coming by six points or less in games where they held late fourth-quarter leads, but they face another difficult task against LeBron James and the Cavaliers (43-29) Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center.
The missing ingredient for the Nets (23-50) has been consistency, and that’s what Russell is focused upon in terms of personal growth. Asked if he can sense his progress, Russell said, “I think it’s more coming in focused and being consistent with whatever I bring to the team. I’m inconsistent right now. That’s what I’m working on. I want to wait until the season is over and then you all tell me. I just want to keep coming with that same business approach to the game.”
While Russell was circumspect, his teammates have taken note of his improved command. “It’s not a surprise to us,” Allen Crabbe said. “We’re day-in and day-out with him and see the talent that he is and the skill set that he has. For him to do what he did [against the Raptors] was great. It’s flashes of what he can really do as a player.”
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added that Russell’s improvement can be measured by more than statistics. “Even outside of his production, as far as his communication and just trying to talk to more people and spreading energy is good,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “It’s good for him, especially being a point guard because you’ve got the ball in your hands a lot.
“At the end of the day, it’s like, ‘We’re following what you do,’ and he’s been doing good. He feels more comfortable making those decisions, calling plays without having to look over at coach. The more we grow together, the better that is. It’s going to be fun and exciting.”