Brooklyn Nets: D’Angelo Russell becoming the leader another GM craved

Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets D'Angelo Russell. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images) /

D’Angelo Russell provided the push the Brooklyn Nets needed Sunday to gain separation from the Chicago Bulls knocking down 2 3s to cap a critical 8-2 run.

Brooklyn Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell has emerged as the leader of the club as it continues to sizzle, scoring 28 points Sunday to lead the Nets to a 117-100 road win over the Chicago Bulls.

It was Brooklyn’s third straight win and its 12th in its last 15 games as the Nets held onto seventh place in the Eastern Conference by improving to 20-21 on the year.

For Russell, it was his fourth consecutive game with at least 20 points — matching the longest such stretch of his career.

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But after dishing out 23 assists in his last two games, Russell correctly recognized that against a Bulls defense that was aggressively double-teaming ball screens, what the Nets needed was buckets.

So he provided them, to the tune of hitting 10-of-19 from the floor and 6-of-14 from 3-point range while also dishing out four assists.

His back-to-back 3s in the third quarter capped a key 8-2 run that pushed Brooklyn back to a 12-point lead at 79-67 after Chicago had closed to within four.

With 6:27 remaining in the game, the Nets had the Bulls wobbling and it was Russell who applied the knockout punch.

Brooklyn had taken a 101-87 lead, but the Bulls had a break opportunity after an empty possession by the Nets. Kris Dunn moved the ball ahead to Bobby Portis, who had the ball in the paint against Shabazz Napier — who surrenders 10 inches to Portis.

All Portis had to do was keep the ball high and shoot over Napier, who couldn’t have challenged the shot without aid of a cherry-picker. Instead, the 6-foot-11 forward wanted to push the advantage and get to the rim.

Portis dribbled. Napier picked his pocket and a few seconds later, Russell drained an open 3-pointer above the break to make it a 17-point game.

Chicago got no closer than 14 the rest of the way.

It was a big shot, not in the vein of a buzzer-beater or something dramatic late in the clock. Rather, it was the shot the Nets needed to put the Bulls away for good. Russell saw an opportunity to step on an opponent’s throat and he took it.

It was a winning play, the sort of play a leader makes.

Coach Kenny Atkinson likes what he’s seeing from Russell, comparing him Friday to a player who currently wears the uniform of Russell’s former team, the Los Angeles Lakers, after DLo carved up the Memphis Grizzlies for 23 points and 10 assists.

But shortly after the Lakers traded Russell to Brooklyn in June 2017, Magic Johnson — the decision-maker on personnel matters in L.A. — took a swipe at the former No. 2 overall pick.

Russell has become that leader, that player teammates want to play with, in Brooklyn. His emergence as “that guy” for the Nets has been one of the transformational factors behind the team’s improvement this season.

This team, remember, lost its leading scorer in Caris LeVert just 14 games in. They’ve gone long stretches without Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll and are currently without defensive stopper Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.

But they just keep winning.

They ended an eight-game losing streak with an emotional overtime victory over the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 7. But we’re long past the point of that emotion carrying the team.

Instead, it’s a team that is learning to believe in itself, learning to close out opponents late in games … learning how to win.

Russell hasn’t always been on the floor to close out games this season. But when that has been the case, he’s been engaged while on the bench. No pouting. No blasting Atkinson in the media.

Instead, he’s been a professional and carried himself like a team leader, even though only three players on the roster — rookies Rodions Kurucs and Dzanan Musa and second-year big man Jarrett Allen — are younger.

D’Angelo Russell is figuring out how good he can be. He’s figuring out how to win and how to lead a team to wins.

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And at the pace he’s playing, he’s going to be applying a signature to a rather lucrative contract sometime in July.