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D'Angelo Russell returns to Brooklyn and brings defensive matchup concerns

Minnesota Timberwolves' D'Angelo Russell reacts after a basket

Minnesota Timberwolves' D'Angelo Russell reacts after a basket during the second half against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 27, 2021. Credit: AP/Matt Slocum

Former Nets star D’Angelo Russell, who was sent to Golden State as part of a sign-and-trade deal for free-agent Kevin Durant in 2019, returns to Barclays Center Friday night.

But now, he is part of the Timberwolves’ "Big 3" along with center Karl-Anthony Towns and forward Anthony Edwards, and he recently said a Minnesota team that won seven of its previous nine games was putting the NBA "on notice."

That was before the T-Wolves lost Wednesday night in Washington, but Russell was bound to arrive in Brooklyn with a chip on his shoulder. He came in averaging 18.9 points and 6.2 assists but actually is third on his team in scoring behind Towns (24.0) and Edwards (22.1).

Following practice on Thursday, Nets coach Steve Nash worried most about covering Towns, but he took a scary fall at Washington and was listed as questionable with a tailbone contusion.

Although James Harden was expected to start at point guard for the Nets opposite Russell, it figured that either starting forward DeAndre’ Bembry or reserve Bruce Brown would be called upon to spend significant time defending Russell.

"BB and Bembry will be the main candidates," Nash admitted. "But probably everyone is going to take a shot. Someone’s got to guard Edwards. They have plenty of guys that are going to test us defensively, and we’re going to need all those defenders to take opportunities on both those guys."

Given Durant’s length, he was likely to be the leading candidate to guard Edwards. It also made sense that the best matchup for Russell might be Brown coming off the bench because of the size fit and Brown's tenacious defensive style.

"D’Angelo is a good player," said Brown, who was playing for the Pistons when Russell was on the Nets. "Plays at his own pace, hard to speed him up. But I just think we have to be physical with him, keep him away from his left hand, make him use the right and contest every shot that he puts up."

Clearly, Brown relished the challenge. He even went so far as to say he "liked" guarding Russell. "I just pressure him," Brown said. "It might have been my first NBA start was on D’Lo, and I think I did a pretty good job. I just try to be physical with him, keep him to his right hand and speed him up a little bit, but it’s hard to speed him up."

Brown started the 2018-19 opener against the Nets as a rookie, played 19 minutes and helped hold Russell to eight points in a Pistons win. That’s the kind of defensive effort the Nets need to build on a streak in which they have won 13 of 16 games.

It was second-half defense that fueled their last win over the Knicks on Tuesday when they allowed only 49 points to pull out a two-point win. In that case, Brown suggested the offense actually sparked the defense when the Nets opened the third quarter with a 14-0 run and eventually built a 16-point lead they later gave back.

"We played with a lot of pace, and that just gets us going," Brown said. "We feel good. We know we’re a half-court defensive team. We struggle in transition right now, so once we’re in half-court and we can get our defense set, we’re fine."

As hot as the Timberwolves have been, they were coming off a loss at Washington, in which Russell had nine assists but scored only 10 points and shot 3-for-18 from the field. So Brown wasn’t too worried about Minnesota’s hot streak.

"I guess they’re winning games," he said, "but they’re going to have a tough matchup [Friday night]."

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