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D’Angelo Russell continues to play like third star Lakers have been looking for

It seems like we’ve been talking about the Lakers getting a third star for the last three years. Let me tell you, when D’Angelo Russell is playing like this, they already have one. 

Russell went nuclear on Friday with 44 points, including 21 in the fourth quarter, as the Lakers scored one of the biggest wins of their season — 123-122 over the Bucks without the services of LeBron James, who was out with an ankle injury. 

At this point in the season, with the Lakers two games back in the loss column of the No. 8 Mavericks and playing nightly teeter-totter with the Warriors on the 9-10 seed line, every win is huge. But knocking off the Bucks without LeBron is a win you don’t expect. It almost feels like it counts as two wins. 

The 44 is the most points Russell has scored during his time with the Lakers and the second-highest output of his career (he scored 52 against Minnesota in 2019 while playing for the Golden State Warriors). He made nine of 12 3-pointers. He dropped in what proved to be the game-winner with 5.9 seconds left — another in a long line of feathery floaters that Russell, probing with his sleepy pace, can seemingly get to whenever he wants. 

“I just tried to do whatever I could do, honestly — scoring, assisting, whatever it may be, whatever [the team] need[s] for me,” Russell said in his on-court postgame interview. “I tried to put guys in the best position to do what they do. [Le]Bron was out, so a lot of guys stepped up.”

It’s true. Austin Reaves was big with 18 points and seven assists, tag-teaming the creative duties with Russell. Anthony Davis was terrific in the first half before taking an elbow from Giannis Antetokounmpo, which appeared to connect with his shoulder/chest area and left him to effectively play the rest of the evening with one arm. Spencer Dinwiddie stuffed Damian Lillard’s attempt at a game-winning jumper. 

But Russell, who joins LeBron and Kobe Bryant as the only players in Lakers history to sink nine 3s in a single game, was the guy. He set up teammates early, and down the stretch, every single time the Lakers needed a bucket, he delivered, as he has been doing for some time now. 

“He’s just been ballin’, man,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said of Russell. “He’s been unbelievable.”

Since Jan. 7, a period of 28 games, Russell is averaging 22 points and better than six assists a game with an almost 3-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Most importantly, he is making 45% of his almost nine 3-pointers a game. 

It is impossible to overstate the importance of that kind of shooting and shot creation for a Lakers team that is in short supply of both attributes. Russell has always been able to score, of course. Just not this efficiently. And not this consistently. 

Russell needs to be an offensive focal point to be the best version of himself, which is tricky as he’s found himself on teams with the likes of Stephen Curry and James. It’s difficult to justify turning the ball over to Russell with two of the best players ever on the court with him. As a supporting player in spot-up duty, Russell is not generally effective enough to offset his defensive detriment. 

But the Lakers have green-lit Russell, and his confidence, which he’s always had an abundance of, is soaring. The conversations about his defense will no doubt arise when/if the Lakers find themselves in a playoff series, but those conversations will become moot very quickly if he’s playing like this. 

This is honest-to-god superstar stuff, and it’s happening in a mature, measured manner. Russell is not forcing anything these days. This is as bought in and committed to the big picture of the team and its layered needs as I’ve personally ever seen from him. The Lakers are dangerous because of James and Davis. Russell is the X-factor. If he keeps this up, this team can play with, and beat, anyone in a seven-game series. 

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