1. Russell’s shooting slump coming at a bad time
There is no two ways about this: D’Angelo Russell is the reason the Brooklyn Nets are in a position to secure the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2015.
He earned his first All-Star selection by carrying the club through lengthy injury absences from Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie and has put himself in position to earn a huge new contract as a restricted free agent this summer.
But Russell has gone ice cold over the Nets’ last five games and for the first time during that span, the rest of the club couldn’t pick up the slack in Brooklyn’s 108-96 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday.
Russell did some good things against the Thunder with seven assists and three steals. But he scored only 14 points on 6-of-18 shooting and was just 2-for-8 from downtown.
Over the last five games, Russell is averaging 16.2 points per game on 36.8 percent shooting overall and is at just 27.5 percent on 8.0 attempts from 3-point range a game.
The 7.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game have been very solid over that stretch, but the Nets desperately need Russell to find his touch — particularly from beyond the arc — as they enter the final 12 games of the season with a 4½-game lead over the Orlando Magic and Charlotte Hornets in the battle for the final three playoff berths still in play in the Eastern Conference.
While only the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors have officially punched their postseason tickets, the Philadelphia 76ers, Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics are all but locks.
With eight of the final 12 games on the road and 10 of them against teams currently at or better than .500, Brooklyn needs Russell to be productive as a scorer to ensure they can hold off the contenders and grab a playoff spot.
And if the Nets can stay out of the eighth spot and avoid — presumably at least — the Bucks in the first round, so much the better. Milwaukee has dominated the first two meetings of the season against Brooklyn and the teams will play twice more down the stretch.
Russell has silenced a lot of the negative narrative surrounding his career with his performance thus far this season, but a poor finish could bring a lot of that bubbling back up to the surface, because in the information age, no one ever forgets.