One of the strengths of the Lakers this postseason has been their malleability, a quality shared with the 2020 title team. A roster full of interchangeable pieces has swapped in and out each series depending on what has been called for.
One of the few exceptions to that has largely been D’Angelo Russell. While his minutes and production has dipped at times, he’s remained in the starting lineup throughout the postseason.
However, after his Game 1 performance, that could change. Russell was a non-factor offensively, going 4-11 from the field and 0-3 from the 3-point line. Defensively, he was targeted by the Nuggets and the end result was him being played off the floor.
With Rui Hachimura excelling off the bench, the natural inclination is to bench Russell for Rui and ride the hot hand. It’s something the Lakers have at least considered, but according to Dave McMenanim of ESPN, they’re worried about the consequences that could come from that.
Russell — who shot just 4-for-11 and played only nine minutes in the second half after registering a plus-minus of -23 in 17 first-half minutes — would naturally be under consideration; however, multiple team sources told ESPN that there is concern the team could “lose” the 27-year-old point guard if he views the adjustment as a demotion after starting every other game this postseason. Schroder has already shown he can be comfortable as a substitute, as he didn’t start until Game 6 against Golden State. Russell got up extra shots after the game on the court while still in uniform.
Offensively, Russell has had poor showings this postseason. Often, he’s bounced back directly from them. The last time he shot under 45% in Game 4 against the Warriors, he responded by going 13-25 over the next two games for 34 combined points. The last time he went 4-11 in Game 5 against the Grizzlies, he scored 31 points in Game 6.
The greater concerns aren’t offensively, though. On the defensive side of the ball, the Nuggets hunted out D’Lo, something Bruce Brown noted on Wednesday.
Bruce Brown said the Nuggets’ goal was to attack D’Angelo Russell defensively on every possession.— Tony Jones (@Tjonesonthenba) May 17, 2023
“He’s not the best defender, so we wanted to make it tough on him”
The numbers do back it up. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was 4-6 when defended by Russell. Brown himself was 2-2. As much as Russell struggled offensively on the night, his defense is going to determine how much he can stay on the floor.
Against the Nuggets, defending teams must stay hyper-focused throughout a possession with the constant cutting that happens off-ball. Russell was caught either ball-watching or out of position defensively too often.
Some of those defensive faux pas can be overlooked if he’s providing value offensively. If he’s as bad as he was defensively in Game 1 though, there isn’t going to be much wiggle room no matter how good he is offensively.
Perhaps an improved offensive performance would have him more engaged defensively, but that can’t be the case if Russell wants consistent playing time this series.
Certainly, Russell is aware of the noise and what the Nuggets were doing to him. He’s been a player, just like the Lakers, that has bounced back from losses and poor outings. It’s more likely than not he will still have an impact in this series, but he has quite a hill to climb.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.