Even as a last-minute addition to the starting lineup against the defending champions, D’Angelo Russell wasted no time making his impact felt.
Russell stepped in at shooting guard in place of Nick Young (illness) and, four quarters later, finished the night with a career-high 40 points. However, the eruption came in the midst of a point guard duel with Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, who scored 46 himself to lead the Cavaliers to a 125-120 win.
“He’s a great young player,” Irving said of Russell. “We’ve been playing against him for a few years in the league, understanding what he means to the Lakers.”
Russell was practically the Lakers’ entire offense that night, gashing Cleveland (46-23) from the paint, mid-range and beyond the arc.
The 21-year-old shot 14-of-22 from the field while knocking down seven triples on his way to becoming the youngest player in franchise history to drop 40 points in a regular-season game.
“We’ve all seen him when he gets going,” head coach Luke Walton said. “He’s tough to handle. What was most impressive offensively to me — because I already know he can shoot the ball — (is that) he did a great job of mixing it up and trying to get into the paint and playmaking on offense.
“(He was) purposely calling certain plays to get people the ball and coming off picks and making correct decisions.”
Indeed, Russell was decisive, managing to collect six assists with only one turnover.
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Russell didn’t take his time setting the court ablaze, filling the bucket for 18 points in the first quarter alone.
“I feel like I was aggressive from the jump,” Russell said. “Usually when I get myself in trouble turning the ball over, it’s because I’m not being aggressive.”
And though Russell sat for most of the second quarter, the Lakers (20-50) rolled off 10 unanswered points midway through on their way to a 59-55 halftime lead.
He had one last volcanic showing in his 15-point third quarter, scoring all of the Lakers’ final eight points to put his team up by 10 entering the final period.
But then, LeBron and Irving took over.
After L.A.’s David Nwaba threw down a ridiculous, one-handed alley-oop to take an 11-point advantage, the Cavs began to make their move with an 8-1 run.
The Lakers clung to a 106-104 lead with less than five minutes left, but Cleveland rolled off the next nine points to take control for good.
When it was all over, James — who finished with 34 points, six rebounds and seven assists — and Irving had both scored 14 in the fourth quarter alone.
“Me and Bron kind of put the team on our backs and everyone just followed suit,” Irving said. “We did a great job of containing to attack. And in the fourth quarter we locked down defensively.”
Despite having Cleveland’s All-Star duo rip the victory away from the Lakers, Walton was encouraged by the way Jordan Clarkson (19 points, six assists) and Russell meshed as the starting backcourt.
For most of the season, Russell had started at point guard while Clarkson played shooting guard off the bench. But Walton plans to keep their current spots intact.
“Individually, they’ve both made great growth throughout the season,” Walton said. “But for whatever reason, the two of them on the court together — when we’ve tried it — hasn’t statistically been very good for us. But it was good to see that it worked tonight.”
Russell said he was fine with whatever position the coaching staff, claiming, “I’m a basketball player, not a point guard or a shooting guard.”
And Clarkson, who hadn’t lined up at point guard since his rookie year, felt that the two found success by attacking in different ways.
“I was trying to get in the paint, he was being aggressive knocking down shots,” Clarkson said. “We complement each other when we’re doing that. He’s shooting the outside jumper well and I’m getting to the paint.”
HIGHLIGHTS: D’Angelo Russell sets a new career-high in points with 40, connecting from downtown seven times. pic.twitter.com/halIIWjZYz
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) March 20, 2017
James, Irving and Kevin Love (21 points, 15 rebounds) all rested the night before in Cleveland’s loss to the LA Clippers. … The Lakers committed only six turnovers. … Corey Brewer had nine points and nine rebounds. … A crowd of 18,997 sold out Staples Center.