It doesn't take much these days for head coach Byron Scott to rile up fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, but not even the fans most aggravated with him could have foreseen his latest move. Scott benched the team's two most recent lottery picks, Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell last Monday against the Toronto Raptors, an experiment he says will continue over the next 5-10 games. The Lakers' two youngest players were understandably upset about the move, with Russell telling Baxter Holmes of ESPN that Scott had yet to explain what he was doing wrong so he could correct it.
Russell and Randle were left with two choices: they could feel sorry for themselves, or they could put their heads down and play. "You can't worry about things you can't control," Randle told reporters, as transcribed by Serena Winters of Lakers Nation. "[D'Angelo Russell and I] have been talking back & forth constantly. We know what we mean to this team."
Randle says he and Russell knew what they meant to the Lakers, and in the teams' Wednesday night loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the two showed it. Russell and Randle debuted an age old solution for players unhappy with being benched: they played so well that their coach could not take them off of the floor. Russell dropped 3 desperately needed assists, all of which came in the fourth quarter along with 13 of the rookie guard's career high 23 points. Russell played well enough to get the chance to play some good old fashioned hero ball, going toe to toe with Wolves' guard Andrew Wiggins and coming away with a bucket to send the Lakers to overtime:
D'Angelo Russell forces overtime, beats Andrew Wiggins
D'Angelo Russell forces overtime for the LA Lakers with a TOUGH shot and Kobe Bryant was looooooooving this.(Credit: Time Warner Cable SportsNet)Posted by Silver Screen and Roll on Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Kobe Bryant loved that shot, but it wasn't the only thing he liked from Russell on the night. According to Scott, it was Bryant who persuaded him to stick with the Lakers' kids down the stretch while the 19-year veteran sat on the bench for the entirety of the fourth quarter and overtime.
"It's an honor," Russell told Mark Medina of the L.A. Daily News when asked about Bryant's vote of confidence."He easily could've told coach he wanted that shot to add to his collection." Randle was also appreciative of "coach" Bryant's decision. ""I would've loved to have Kobe out there, he's huge in those clutch moments, but the fact that he trusted us, that says a lot about us."
But as Bryant's multitude of teammates over the course of his 19-year career were always quick to find out (usually when he was calling them "soft as Charmin" or some other, less safe for work version of his now legendary practice tirade), Kobe's respect is earned, and Russell and Randle earned it on Wednesday night.
Fittingly the two brothers in arms in a war for playing time began the game with a pick and roll together, a two-man dance the duo will have to master if they want to become a successful and long lasting one-two punch:
Russell's biggest strength right now offensively is that set, and Randle will have to master that little jumper, because defenses are going to continue to give him space. When they don't give him space, like Wiggins on this post up in overtime, he can leave them in the dust with his lightning quick first step:
Or simply smash through them like a bowling ball, as he did to Adreian Payne, who will be feeling a different type of "pain" in his chest tomorrow:
Randle scored 20 points in the game, but his 12 rebounds were just as impressive. Randle always plays with intensity, but since being relegated to the bench, he has seemed to have an extra glint of anger in his eyes, snatching contested boards away with a newfound ferocity. Whether it's disdainfully shoving Payne to the side like in the prior clip, or fighting through multiple Wolves and his own teammate for a putback And-1, Randle has to be at least fulfilling Scott's desire to play with "fire" during his time on the court:
"He's play angry," Wolves' color commentator Jim Peterson noted after that play, and Randle isn't the only one. Russell has also played with a controlled ferocity, the ice to Randle's fire. The rookie guard who noted to Mike Breshnahan of the L.A. Times after the Lakers' loss to the Raptors that the bench unit offered "more ball movement" has often been the one moving said ball.
Whether as a product of coaching or out of an increased willingness to ignore the offense, the Lakers' have been running less of the garbled mess they were calling the Princeton earlier this season, and more of Russell's aforementioned strength, pick and rolls. Down the stretch against Minnesota, Russell got a chance to show his preternatural knack for passing on a night most will remember for how much he scored.
In the play above, Russell receives a simple ball screen from Robert Sacre. The threat of Russell's shot (3-9 on three-pointers against the Wolves) causes Gorgui Dieng to jump out at him. When neither Shabazz Muhammad or Payne rotate to Sacre, Russell simply wafts the ball over the defense to a WIDE open Sacre, who scores one of the easiest baskets of his career.
Russell again receieves a ball screen, this time from Randle, and as the Timberwolves defense collapses into the paint to contain the two, Russell notices Marcelo Huertas out of the corner of his eye and hits him with a well-timed overhead jump pass. He was so wide open due to the defenses red-alert to collapse on the Lakers' young duo that even the shot-phobic Huertas was forced to take and make his only field goal attempt of the night.
Bryant may have had to talk their coach into it, but Russell and Randle earned every opportunity, every second of playing time they got against Minnesota in one of the most fun Lakers' games in recent memory. "Eventually, it's going to be like this anyway. Just so these guys can grow," Scott told reporters of the pair's playing time in the clutch after the game. The way Russell and Randle's play is trending upwards, combined with how little the Lakers have to play for in a lost season, that "eventually" should be "now" soon enough.