LOS ANGELES — D’Angelo Russell starred Friday night in his own Hollywood story: The Eliminator.
With all eyes on Russell’s return to face the team that traded him away, he helped lead the Nets to a 111-106 win Friday that knocked the Lakers and LeBron James out of playoff contention.
Even if Russell won’t cop to any schadenfreude, the Nets fanbase will do it for him. With hashtags like “ThankYouMagic,” they have reveled in Russell’s emergence as an All-Star. And he looked like one in front of a sellout crowd of 18,997 at Staples Center, including Giants star Saquon Barkley among the glitterati seated courtside.
Russell had 21 points and 13 assists, while Joe Harris had a team-high 26.
“The season’s too valuable now to have any lapses,” said Russell, who helped the Nets (38-36) move within a half-game of the Pistons for sixth in the Eastern Conference. They’re two clear of the Heat.
James had 25 points, 14 assists and nine boards. But all the buzz had been about Russell, for obvious reasons.
The 2015 No. 2-overall pick got traded away by the Lakers in June 2017 and was both privately and publicly criticized on the way out the door. But he returned Friday not only an All-Star and coming off a career-high 44-point game in Sacramento — with 27 in the fourth quarter — but with a chance to knock his old team out of playoff contention.
“You know you go into a situation like that, and everybody is obviously speaking on my success, individual accolades, or the start here, there’s always a new title,” Russell said before the game. “I’ve come here last year and when we played we were in a different situation: We weren’t in a playoff push, or the pressure wasn’t as high.
“So with all the pressure that they’re making and building for me coming back, it’s good. It takes the pressure off our team because we’re coming trying to win. We’re not worried about what I’ve got going on, or if it’s going to rain in LA or if the beach is nice; we’re really worried about coming trying to get a win and take our asses back the East Coast. That’s our business approach.”
They got that win, and looked professional in the endgame. Down 97-96 with 5:40 left after a 3-pointer by Kyle Kuzma — who was drafted with the pick sent to the Lakers in return for Russell — the Nets responded with an 11-2 run.
The Nets forced the Lakers to miss five of their next six shots, and Harris’ basket gave them a 107-99 lead. They held on from there.
After James hit a 3-pointer to pull his team to within 107-104, Russell missed a 3 of his own and the Lakers had a shot with a half-minute left. But DeMarre Carroll — who got the start at small forward and the unenviable job of guarding James — forced him to step out of bounds with 22.8 seconds left.
Spencer Dinwiddie (19 points) added a free throw to stretch the lead to four, and after the Lakers missed a last-ditch 3, hit another to ice it.
And if the Nets had any hangover from their historic 25-point fourth-quarter rally at Sacramento — just the fourth in NBA history — they overcame it with defense.
“I’d hope where we are, our sense of maturity — where we are, what’s at stake, how important each game is — wouldn’t matter if me and [a reporter] were on the opposing team,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said beforehand. “We’ve got to find a way to get it done whoever’s out there.
“I do like the fact that [James is] playing. It’s great, great for the NBA, credit to him, credit to the organization that he’s finishing it out. I think that’s the way you want it. Wouldn’t want it any other way in a competitive environment like this.”
The Nets overcame a career night by JaVale McGee (33 points and 20 rebounds).
Clinging to a one-point lead, the Nets ran off seven unanswered points to pad the lead to 76-68 on an Ed Davis tip-in.
The Nets did cough up a 17-8 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters, with a McGee basket putting the Lakers ahead 85-84 and sending Atkinson calling for a timeout with 9:04 to play. But the Nets closed it out professionally.