Brooklyn Nets: D’Angelo Russell, Nets finally closing out games

D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets have been a revelation so far this season. A more in-depth look at some of the statistics behind their rise.

The Brooklyn Nets defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers in triple overtime on Wednesday night to go into the All-Star break above .500 for the first time since 2012-13.

Their growth has stunned many experts and critics alike, but those who watched the team last season will know that this sudden change in fortunes hasn’t come out of the blue. While the Nets were a miserable 28-54 last season, they were more competitive than their record suggested.

In fact, the Nets were involved in 50 “clutch” games — as defined by the NBA (within five points with under five minutes to go) — the second-most in the league. Their record, however, was just 19-31, the fifth-lowest winning percentage in such games in the league.

The Nets were competitive in most of their games last year, they just couldn’t close them out.

Admittedly, the lowly Cavs are not a formidable opponent, but this game was yet another example of the Nets’ newfound ability to close out games in the fourth quarter, a feature the team has slowly acquired over the past two seasons.

When the Nets acquired D’Angelo Russell in June 2017, they brought him in with the hope that they had found their point guard for the future, but they also knew that the Ohio State product needed time to develop and mature.

The Lakers jettisoned him and Timofey Mozgov to the Nets just two years after using the No. 2 overall pick on Russell. The Nets, though, were in a rebuild and had the necessary time and space to let Russell grow.

While coach Kenny Atkinson handed him the reins to the offense, Russell struggled to close out games during the start of his Nets career and after his knee injury in November 2017 often found himself on the bench as Atkinson let Spencer Dinwiddie run the show.

But Atkinson never gave up on Russell and the two used those late-game failures as coachable moments for the young star.

He kept playing the 22-year-old and sure, it may have cost the Nets a couple wins during the last campaign, but Atkinson saw the long-term benefits of developing Russell and his decision has paid off handsomely this time around.

In the 23 clutch games Russell played in last season, the Nets were just 8-15 as he struggled to assert himself in late-game situations.

His decision-making was poor on many occasions last year, and Russell ended the campaign slashing a lowly 33.3/25.0/61.1 in clutch situations, with as many turnovers as assists.

After D’Angelo’s injury last season, Dinwiddie emerged as a reliable late-game option, while Caris Levert showed he can be capable of carrying the load in crunch time as well with his performances earlier this season.

But Russell has really emerged as the Nets go-to option in important situations over the course of their recent run.

Since Dec. 7, when the Nets held off Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors to end an eight-game losing streak and kick start the subsequent 20-6 stretch that has pushed them into playoff contention, Russell has been huge, slashing 55.6/40.0/76.9 and leading the Nets to a 9-3 clutch record over that stretch, while his field goals made and attempted increased.

Not just that, he has been much more careful with the ball — his assists have doubled while his turnovers have nearly been cut in half during those situations.

Wednesday night was just another in a long line of impressive late-game performances from Russell. After DeMarre Carroll’s turnaround 3 to send the game to its third overtime, Russell took over in the final period, going 6-for-6 to seal the game.

When Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson shipped Russell to Brooklyn, he never questioned his talent, but instead his leadership.

Well, more than halfway through the NBA season, Russell has started to take control of his team, and is becoming that effective, assertive leader Johnson craved.