DENVER — When the Nets absolutely had to have it, D’Angelo Russell delivered his best clutch performance in 10 games since he became the focal point of their offense. The Nets had lost forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to an injury just before halftime and then had kicked away a nine-point, third-quarter lead to trail the Suns by a point Monday night when Russell returned for the final 9:02 of the game.
That’s where Russell took over, going to his bread-and-butter by getting open out of the pick-and-roll to score 13 fourth-quarter points and dish out two assists to send the Nets to a 98-92 victory that snapped their four-game losing streak before heading to Denver to complete a back-to-back against the Nuggets Tuesday night.
Ordinarily, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson wants Russell to play within the motion offense, but the Nets were struggling to score and the timing was right for Russell to do what comes naturally to him, running off high screens set by center Tyler Zeller. “I thought Tyler really set some solid screens,” Atkinson said. “We talk about guys playing their roles. He was getting great hits and freeing up D’Angelo for his jump shot.”
The early part of the season has been an up-and-down ride for the Nets, who were the NBA’s highest-scoring team for the first five games before they lost their offensive rhythm. Russell’s decision-making learning a new system has been a major focus for him and for Atkinson.
Asked if Russell’s ability to run the pick-and-roll can mesh with his motion principles, Atkinson said, “Tonight, he did a good job mixing it up. My thing is, he can’t do it all game. If every play you’re playing pick-and-roll, it’s easier [for the opposing defense] to lock in.
“Today, he let the ball move, he let our motion offense run a little bit. Then, at the end of the game, he got into the pick-and-roll. There was a better balance of the two.”
Russell downplayed his contributions, saying anyone could have scored based on the screens his teammates set and how they played their roles. But of course, they were struggling to score when the Suns grabbed a 75-74 lead.
Conscious of the need to be a good soldier and fit in with his teammates, Russell stressed the need to run the system in addition to creating his own shots. “Yeah, point guard is the hardest position in the league,” Russell said. “You’ve got to get guys involved, and if you can score the ball, you’ve got to figure out that balance of when to do it.
“I just appreciate the system. It allows everybody to touch the ball and create, and everybody is put in position to do what they do best — be a shooter, slash. It’s great for everybody. The more we play together, the better we’ll get.”
Russell accounted for 17 of the Nets’ final 24 points, counting the baskets generated by two well-timed passes that produced easy layups. It was the kind of uplifting performance that should help Russell earn the trust of his new teammates.
“We knew he was going to come in and make plays for us,” said Allen Crabbe, who had 15 points. “I think that’s what’s good about our win tonight. We got down. They made their run, and we countered with our run and made the stops we needed to get. It was a good, collective team effort.”
Repeating it in Denver figured to be a difficult task because the Nuggets came into the game rested while the Nets were without injured big men Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker and Jarrett Allen and were playing their second game in as many nights. Still, it was a solid step forward for Russell and his new team.