D’Angelo Russell returned to the Los Angeles Lakers’ lineup on Sunday after missing one game with a knee injury, and it’s fair to say the results were mixed. Russell went 3-11 from the field in the Lakers’ 118-110 loss to the Chicago Bulls, with nine of his attempts coming from behind the arc.
Russell said following the game that he wanted to play because NBA players always play through injuries like the one he’s currently dealing with, but he also admitted it affected his game.
"I tried to be real cautious,” Russell told Tania Ganguli of the L.A. Times after the game. “I think I shot all threes I think. But it’s all good."
One of those threes came late in the game as the Lakers were attempting to make a comeback. Russell came off of a screen from Julius Randle with under a minute remaining and 18 seconds on the shot clock, firing up a three in an attempt to cut the deficit to just two points:
The shot was criticized as a bad one in some circles, and maybe that’s true. What is also true is that many criticizing it as such would have praised Russell and tweeted about the ice in his veins if he had made it, and to critique it seems like a fairly results based criticism.
Yes, Russell shot poorly against the Bulls. But what he also did was attempt to keep the ball moving, tying his second-best assist total of the season while dishing seven helper. And while plus-minus and single-game net ratings are noisy stats, he was tied for team-highs in the first (4) and posted the best net rating on the Lakers (the team outscored the Bulls by 9.6 points per 100 possessions with Russell on the floor).
When Russell isn’t being criticized for shooting too much this season, he’s usually getting whined about for not passing enough, or for not being a proverbial “true point guard.” Against Chicago, his good decision making as a facilitator was on full display.
There was Russell quickly hitting Randle on a kick-back, as they’ve done so many times this season:
Or waiting patiently for a play to develop and hitting Nick Young in perfect rhythm for a three-pointer:
These are simple passes, and that was the theme of the night for Russell. If his knee led to him mostly staying on the perimeter, it also seemed to have him making the simple decision more often than trying to create something himself.
One one of his few forays inside the arc, Russell whipped a pass to Mozgov out of a post-up the second a small angle to squeeze the ball through opened up:
In the second half, he again took the easy option when he saw Luol Deng was open in semi-transition while he was isolated against Jimmy Butler. Instead of trying to force the issue against one of the NBA’s toughest defenders, Russell let his teammate do the damage for the Lakers:
Late in the game, before the shot that angered quite a few, Russell ran the same pick-and-roll with Randle, and when the defense didn’t give up the jumper as they did on the final play, he quickly hit the big man in stride to lope in for a dunk:
Was Russell perfect against the Bulls? Not by any means. He had a silly foul against Nikola Mirotic in the first half on a three-pointer, didn’t play particularly great defense, and obviously had a cold shooting night.
He wasn’t the only one with a frigid shooting percentage, as Jordan Clarkson shot 1-12 from the field. Russell also wasn’t the only one not defending well, as evidenced by Jimmy Butler scoring 40 points and going to the free-throw line 14 times.
The Lakers played poor defense for most of the night and gave up 28 free-throws. We can get mad about Russell, or as friend of the site Darius Soriano of Forum Blue and Gold put it after the game:
The Lakers played terribly. I'd lament that Russell shot, but that's pretty pointless considering all the poor play in the 47 minutes prior.— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) November 21, 2016
So, yeah, Russell took a bad shot down the stretch. I'd prefer we look elsewhere to complain. But maybe that's just me.— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) November 21, 2016
Russell clearly wasn’t his best against the Bulls, but he also wasn’t the main problem for the Lakers. Whether he should be playing at all with his knee injury clearly hampering him is a valid question, but he did find ways to be effective while not shooting particularly well.
All stats per NBA.com. Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen, or listen to our latest episode for some discussion of Russell’s knee and much more: