SACRAMENTO — With the return of scoring leader D’Angelo Russell to the starting lineup and the return from injury of energizers Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, it feels as though the pieces finally are coming together for the Nets to fashion a strong finish over the final 20 games of the season starting Thursday night against the Kings at Golden 1 Center.
But sometimes, when you deconstruct something and try to put it back together, the pieces don’t fit exactly the same way. That’s the adjustment Russell is trying to make even after scoring 25 points in a last-minute loss Tuesday in Cleveland that was his best outing since coming back from knee surgery.
It was Russell’s third straight start, and it came after a win over Chicago that snapped an eight-game losing streak. But when asked about the impact he has made as a starter, Russell downplayed it. “Like I said, coach makes the calls and I just go along with it,” Russell said. “As a team, I think we’re going the right direction. And we can keep building as much as possible.”
When it was suggested he might be approaching the early-season form he showed, averaging 20.9 points over his first 12 games before he suffered an injury that kept him out nearly 10 weeks, Russell agreed.
But he added, “It’s a different role. I’m playing off the ball. I don’t think I’m trying to get back to that (original) point. I’m trying to create a whole new avenue for myself. It’s a different situation.”
Although Russell began the season playing at two-guard alongside Jeremy Lin, that changed abruptly when Lin was lost for the season after a knee injury in the opener. Russell then assumed the point guard role he has played most of his life. But during his absence, Spencer Dinwiddie established himself as an effective starting point guard, leading the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Still, Russell has averaged 16.7 points and 6.3 assists in the three games since he returned to starting, and it seemed the Nets were looking to him down the stretch in Cleveland, where he scored 11 fourth-quarter points. Asked if he shared that sense, Russell said, “I have no sense. No sense. Nothing. Nothing as far as that.”
Despite his improved production in the starting lineup, Russell appears to be taking a cautious approach to a more prominent role in terms of deferring to his teammates and trying to satisfy the demands of head coach Kenny Atkinson and his staff.
“It’s just finding that consistency and gaining that trust back,” Russell said. “I think that’s where it starts, getting that trust and being consistent on top of that.”
Atkinson’s message to the team has been that everyone must earn their minutes and their responsibility, and Russell apparently has taken that to heart. But he was aggressive at opportune moments in the fourth quarter against the Cavaliers, and his teammates see that.
“It was only a matter of time,” Hollis-Jefferson said. “That’s D’Angelo’s game. He can score, he can pass, make plays. There ain’t much he can’t do. It just feels good to have him back.”