EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — For nearly 20 minutes after Lakers practice on Sunday, first-year coach Darvin Ham had made it clear to the assembled reporters that these West finals weren’t done just yet.
Not in his mind, anyways, and perhaps even theirs — the Nuggets’ 3-0 series lead be damned. They had beaten long odds before, making this unlikely run after the 2-10 start to the regular season and all those months of uncomfortableness with Russell Westbrook, and it was time to summon that collective spirit again. They’d only lost these three games by a combined 21 points, after all, so maybe they were closer than it seemed.
But when the latest question about possible adjustments came his way, with Ham surely aware of how he has been heavily criticized for continuing to start struggling Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell in all three games of this series, his answer spoke volumes about what is likely to come in Game 4 on Monday night at Crypto.com Arena.
“Sometimes the greatest adjustment is just to play better,” Ham said. “Play harder. Play better. Sometimes that’s the most key adjustment. It’s funny, (how) it’s almost becoming cliché. (People say), ‘What’s your adjustments, adjustments, adjustments?’ Sometimes you go in there, and you take a long, hard look at the film to clean up what you need to clean up, and you try to do what you’re doing better. You know, there’s a difference between strategy and individual performance. Sometimes you can have the right strategy but poor individual performance. You have to be able to navigate through all of that, and recognize and pinpoint what exactly is causing us to fall short. And once you do that, reveal it to the team in simple form, and you go out and execute.”
What happened next may have been revealing. After Ham made his way across multiple courts at the team’s practice facility, he pulled up a chair alongside Russell for a discussion that, regardless of the specifics of what was said, is of utmost importance to their present and possible future.
There’s a strong argument to be made that Russell should have lost his starting job early on in this series, as it was quickly evident the Nuggets’ plan of attacking him on the defensive end was sparking their historically good offense. Add in the fact that Russell has been unable to provide the scoring punch that made him such a good fit in these past few months, and it’s been the kind of unmitigated disaster that will likely make free-agency discussions with the Lakers far more complicated than most had expected just a few weeks ago.
Lest anyone forgets, it was just two weeks before when Russell was making a significant impact against the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the second round and — as evidenced in our interview at the time — oozing with confidence about what it all meant. But this series is a brutal matchup for Russell, whose minus-53 mark thus far is by far the worst of the 40 players who had played conference finals minutes entering Sunday (Miami’s Kyle Lowry has the second-worst at minus-32, and the Lakers’ Anthony Davis has the third-worst mark at minus-30).
Russell — who played 26 minutes in Game 1, 32 minutes in Game 2 and 20 minutes in Game 3 — is averaging just seven points against the Nuggets while shooting 29.6 percent overall (8 of 27) and 14.3 percent from 3-point range (2 of 14). He’s also averaging four assists and two rebounds.
It’s a drastic drop-off from his prior Lakers production, to be sure. To wit…
Russell in 17 regular-season games after the trade with Minnesota in early February: 17.4 points per game on 48.4 percent shooting overall and 41.4 percent from 3; 6.1 assists and 2.9 rebounds per.
Russell in the first two rounds of the playoffs against Memphis and the Warriors (12 games): 15.7 points on 44.5 percent shooting overall and 34.7 percent from 3; five assists and 3.3 rebounds per.
As ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported after Game 1, it’s clear there is a reluctance to bring Russell off the bench for fear of how he might view the move in a larger sense. There were occasional signs of his discontent during the first two games in Denver, among them the sight of Russell showing his frustration when he was taken out late in the second quarter of Game 2. (He threw his arms up when he saw that he was being taken out, then walked very slowly back to the bench before banging the top of a nearby Gatorade bucket.) As Ham shared, Russell will simply need to play better if he’s going to salvage his part in this series.
“We know he can make those shots,” Ham said of Russell’s 3-point struggles. “So the biggest thing is not to get depressed, not to get down, continue to be aggressive, continue to be assertive, and eventually that ball will go in.”
Judging by the body language between the two in their interaction on Sunday, Russell was still in a good place after Game 3. They shook hands affectionately before sitting, then prepared to take on this basketball fight that looks virtually impossible to win.
“I think (Russell’s offense and defense go) hand in hand, man,” Ham said. “We need him to be great in his (defensive) coverages. (But) also, no one man is on an island when it comes to offense or defense. The whole unit, they have to give support to whoever is in whatever situation or scenario. So I think it goes hand in hand — both sides of the ball. And we definitely need him to make 3s.
“We need to make more 3s, so him being able to do both and being solid within our defensive structure and him being aggressive, again — make your next shot your best shot. That has to be his mentality.”
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(Top photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)