Russell flashes All-Star form in 3-OT thriller
Scores 36 points in morale-boosting pre-break win over Cavaliers
D’Angelo Russell managed just two points in the first half and missed all but one of his first 11 shots Wednesday night in Cleveland.
But the Brooklyn Nets implored their lone All-Star to keep shooting.
“They kept pushing me,” Russell revealed after scoring an eye-popping 24 of his team-high 36 points during three wild overtime sessions to spearhead the Nets to a much-needed 148-139 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in front of 17,434 fans at Quicken Loans Arena.
Losers of two in a row and five of their previous six games, the playoff-hopeful Nets (29-28) didn’t want to enter this weekend’s All-Star break on yet another downer — or slip below the .500 mark for the first time since Jan. 14.
After DeMarre Carroll bailed them out with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the second overtime, Russell flashed the form that earned him his first-ever All-Star nod earlier this month.
“[My teammates] weren’t letting me get down. I made sure I got the ball,” Russell noted.
It’s what he did after he got the ball that dazzled most in attendance, including his own teammates.
The 22-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, native drained six shots in a row following Carroll’s game-saving 3-ball, pouring in 14 points overall in the third overtime and making sure Brooklyn entered its week-long hiatus with a plus-.500 record.
“That was one of those weird games before the break,” Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson said after his team maintained sole possession of the No. 6 spot in the ongoing Eastern Conference playoff race.
“It would have been tough with a loss, but this really keeps our morale up.”
Russell’s virtuoso performance embodied his two-year stint with the Nets.
After a slow start that forced Atkinson to leave him on the bench for long stretches of the second half, the Ohio State alum displayed just how far he has come under his coach’s tutelage.
He knocked down a pair of pretty floaters in the lane to begin the third extra session, then drained a 3-point bomb before making a pull-up jumper and another shot from beyond the arc to give the Nets what proved to be an insurmountable 144-137 advantage with 43 seconds left.
Russell, who arrived in Brooklyn two summers ago after two rocky seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, has proved to be Atkinson’s star pupil during his three years at the helm.
“Confidence. Bravado. Work. Maturity,” were the words Atkinson used to describe his top scorer and assist man.
“I think all those things have grown in the last year, since we’ve had him,” the coach added. “I think he got in the right program at the right time.”
It has been Russell’s commitment to working on his game during practice and being more open to general manager Sean Marks’ strenuous conditioning program that has helped him burgeon into Brooklyn’s most important player.
“I joked with him when he first got here, this is like a college program,” Atkinson noted.
“You don’t have to go to study hall, but you’ve got to do your performance work.”
And Russell has done virtually everything asked of him after sitting out 34 games last season due to a left-knee injury.
His leadership, once questioned publicly by Lakers Team President Magic Johnson, is now one of his biggest strengths, making him Brooklyn’s go-to guy in crunch time.
“I told D’Lo when we got in that third overtime, ‘You’ve been playing around too much, you’re an All-Star now,’” Carroll said after finishing with 18 points and seven rebounds in 46 minutes off the bench.
“You saw what he did. He took off and did his thing.”
Russell and Carroll certainly weren’t alone in helping the Nets put up their most points ever in a road game.
Joe Harris scored 25 points in a team-high 48 minutes, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson added 17, Allen Crabbe had 14 and Caris LeVert contributed 12 in his best performance in three games since returning from a 42-game absence due to a broken foot.
Jarrett Allen amassed 10 points, 12 rebounds and a season-high six blocked shots while veteran point guard Shabazz Napier added 10 points and seven assists for Brooklyn, which will be off until next Thursday when it hosts Portland at Downtown’s Barclays Center.
Though he is the only Nets player who will see minutes in Sunday’s All-Star Game in Charlotte, Russell won’t be alone in representing Brooklyn this weekend in North Carolina.
Harris will participate in the league’s annual 3-Point Shooting Contest on Saturday and Allen and rookie Rodions Kurucs will be playing against one another Friday night in the Rising Stars Challenge, a game showcasing the top first- and second-year players in the league.
Traveling down south for this weekend’s festivities will doubtlessly be more enjoyable for Russell and his three teammates following Wednesday’s exhilarating victory.
“This was a must-win,” Russell emphasized. “For what we’re playing for, this was a must-win for us.”
Nothing But Net: Harris, who went 9-of-12 from the field overall Wednesday, warmed up for Saturday’s 3-Point Shootout by draining 4-of-5 from long range against the Cavs. Atkinson praised Harris, not only of his shooting prowess, but his character. “Just an outstanding person. It’s like, ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.’ Everybody loves Joe,” Atkinson gushed. “Media. Janitors. It doesn’t matter. Performance coaches. And all the players, everybody loves Joe. I think he took advantage of his opportunity. Growth, beyond just being a shooter. Now he’s defending, being a driver, makes passes. He really takes advantage of his opportunity. I love that he’s not this one-dimensional player anymore. He keeps getting better.” Harris will face some tough shooting competition in Charlotte as three former champions of the event, Golden State’s Steph Curry, Dallas’ Dirk Nowitzki and Phoenix’s Devin Booker, will be among the eight participants.
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