The threes were bottoming out, one after the other, seven in a row for D’Angelo Russell in the first quarter Tuesday night against the Raptors, and Barclays Center was electric with anticipation each time the ball left his hand. This was the vision, the dream for the Nets last summer when they traded for the No. 2 overall pick from the 2015 draft.
What followed was a lone basket over the next two quarters and six points in the final period when Russell looked aggressively for his shot only to see several good looks spin out or fall off the rim on drives as the Nets squandered his 24-point first quarter in a disappointing loss.
“We missed a lot of shots at the end that dictated the game, bunnies at the rim, wide-open threes, stuff like that,” Russell said. “If we make those shots, it’s a different game.”
Part of it was the smothering defense he faced when the Raptors switched backup guard Fred Van Vleet onto him. Part of the problem was that fellow perimeter scorers Allen Crabbe (six points on 2-for-7 shooting) and Spencer Dinwiddie (7 points on 2-for-11 shooting) had rough nights. And part of it was that the Eastern Conference-leading Raptors were more physical and more talented, especially on defense.
Asked if it felt as if the Nets wasted Russell’s early exploits, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said, “He was unbelievable. That was an elite performance in the first half. Give Toronto credit. They went after him. Van Vleet was part of that. They started blitzing his pick-and-rolls.
“D’Angelo played 35 minutes. I thought he got a little winded at the end, but I felt like he had a good night going. A couple of those rim finishes just didn’t go his way, but by and large, he had a heck of a game.”
Russell has made nine straight starts since the All-Star break after previously coming off the bench following a 10-week absence for arthroscopic knee surgery. In those starts, his scoring average has ticked up to 17.4 on 42.1 percent shooting, which is virtually the same as all season. But his three-point percentage has made a huge leap of 14 percentage points to 41.5 in those nine games.
Describing the reason for Russell’s improvement, veteran DeMarre Carroll said, “He’s just being aggressive and taking his shots, open shots. It’s not those forced shots he used to take. You can tell he’s maturing now and taking shots the defense is giving him and not trying to force it.”
Russell’s past two games of 26 and 32 points, especially, indicate he is regaining his early season form. But Russell said that’s not where his head is at.
“It’s not the offensive end for me,” Russell insisted. “I really try to focus on the defensive end and making the correct rotations and being there for my teammates when I need to on the defensive end. Offense is not really my focus right now.”
It’s been a season of adjustment for Russell, a season interrupted by injury, but now you can see the progress and feel the anticipation at Barclays Center of more to come.