The Los Angeles Lakers are moving on to the second round, joining rare company as one of the few teams in NBA history to knock off the No. 2 seed in the first round. The last team to do so was the 2009-2010 San Antonio Spurs when they defeated the Dallas Mavericks in six games.
In the Lakers’ Game 6 victory against the Memphis Grizzlies, arguably the second-most significant factor that led to their win was the performance of D’Angelo Russell.
Russell led all players with 31 points while also having four assists. Russell, throughout the series and especially in Games 4 and 5, made essential contributions before ultimately breaking out in Game 6. In this breakdown, we will dive into how Russell unlocks the Lakers’ offense and why he’s potentially the Lakers’ X-factor for a deep postseason run.
Three-Level Scoring Ability
When Russell utilizes all three levels of the floor, he can be special offensively. Ever since his return to Los Angeles, one of my biggest criticisms of Russell has been that he tends to settle for 3-pointers and doesn’t get downhill as much as he could. So it’s very encouraging to see him do so here. Following the step-up screen from Rui Hachimura, Russell does a good job getting downhill and attacking Santi Aldama, who’s in drop coverage. He gets into his primary defender’s body and is able to finish the contested left-hand floater.
One of Russell’s best qualities offensively is his ability to pull up from three in transition. Russell is shooting 40.5% on 3-point attempts in transition and 36.2% on pull-up threes as a Laker. Very unfortunate that the Lakers can’t capitalize on this opportunity, as Hachimura doesn’t make the pass to Russell fast enough, but it then flows into an angled ball screen with Russell and Anthony Davis. Russell attacks and knocks down the contested mid-range jumper to help build the Lakers’ lead early in the first quarter. The Lakers seem to have found some success with this action, as head coach Darvin Ham discussed it during his post-game press conference.
Great way to attack the Grizzlies’ ball screen defense in this play by the Lakers. With the Grizzlies putting “two on the ball” during the screen, Austin Reaves does a good job quickly pitching it to LeBron James with Davis quickly rolling to the rim. Dillon Brooks has to tag on the roll just long enough to allow Russell to get a high-quality 3-point attempt. Since his return to Los Angeles, Russell is shooting just under 48% from three on open catch-and-shoot threes, which could be massive for the Lakers’ offense if that can continue.
Chemistry With Anthony Davis
One of the most impressive things to watch since Russell returned has been how quickly he’s gained chemistry with Davis. The Lakers run their “Horns Elbow Chicago” set on this possession, with the goal to be a downhill attack from Russell or for him to come off the screen potentially and hit a jump shot. The Grizzlies, however, decide to switch the handoff action by having Jaren Jackson Jr. leave Davis to guard Russell. Russell puts the pass on the money, leading to the easy Davis dunk.
Same set play on the next possession by the Lakers. However, this time Desmond Bane does a much better job avoiding the Reaves screen that initiates the “Chicago” action. Instead, it flows into another Angled ball screen which Memphis is forced to switch. With Jackson pulled out on the perimeter once again having to guard Russell, the LAkers guard throws a perfect lob pass to Davis, and once again, this play crushes the Grizzlies.
This possession starts with some “Pistol/21” action with Russell and Reaves. Reaves clears out, allowing Russell and Davis to initiate a handoff and then flow into an “Empty-Side Ball Screen.” Russell has grown accustomed to throwing no-look lob passes to Davis. This might not have been his best throw, but his ability to look like he’s making another read and mostly throw on-target passes is impressive. You also have to give Davis a ton of credit for catching and finishing through contact to draw the and-one.
When D’Angelo Russell is playing well, that is arguably when the Lakers’ offense is most dangerous. His ability to control the offense and either score at a high level or distribute the ball well allows James to conserve energy on the offensive end of the floor. Russell also elevates the Lakers’ favorite offensive actions. Since the trade deadline, the Lakers “Double Drag” and “Ram” series have improved dramatically compared to the start of the season.
Considering how teams are forced to guard Russell out of ball screens, there is no coincidence. If Russell can continue to play well, he could be a massive piece to a potential championship run.