EL SEGUNDO — It’s now take two for D’Angelo Russell’s second stint with the Lakers after one misstep cost him more time than even he thought it would.
For the first time since Feb. 23, when he twisted his right ankle stepping on the foot of Golden State’s Donte DiVincenzo, Russell is expected to take the court again for the Lakers on Friday night against Toronto. Coach Darvin Ham said he’ll return to the starting lineup in place of Dennis Schröder.
Russell, 27, has always had more of a below-the-rim game, which he says might help him play through what discomfort he has remaining in his ankle.
“The main thing for me is if I can do it in the weight room, on the treadmill, things like that pain-free, I think I’ll be fine on the floor,” Russell said. “My style of play kind of allows me to not overload any injury like that when it comes to the ankle or knee or things like that because I don’t play that explosive. So it kind of benefits me in that sense.”
The Lakers have had a rough run of injuries since the trade deadline, the most significant being Russell and LeBron James, who is out for at least two more weeks and possibly longer. The team got more unwelcome news on Thursday when they acknowledged that center Mo Bamba, another one of their deadline acquisitions, will miss the next four weeks with a high left ankle sprain – essentially the remainder of the regular season.
Still, that hasn’t slowed them down: The Lakers are 7-3 since changing over their roster at the deadline, have yet to lose back-to-back games and have a 107.6 defensive rating over that stretch – the best mark in the NBA. Adding Russell, who is averaging 6 assists and shooting nearly 39% from 3-point range, to that mix should liven up the group’s potential even more, Coach Darvin Ham said.
“You can never have enough shooters, and he’s a high-level thinker, IQ basketball-wise, just his moxie, his ability to control tempo, understand momentum, understand the different strike zones, who has the hot hand,” Ham said. “He’s an All-Star, so it’s everything that comes with that. It’ll be good to have that back out there on the floor on our behalf.”
Russell’s return puts Schröder back into a reserve role, but not out of the mix to close games, Ham said. While Russell was injured, Schröder was the Lakers’ second-leading scorer (14.3 ppg) across the six-game stretch behind Anthony Davis (33 ppg), and while his shooting percentages were rough (20% from 3-point range) he averaged a team-best 8.5 assists.
Even Russell acknowledged that Schröder was a more-than-adequate fill-in.
“He carried the team, led the team, did everything he could possibly do,” he said. “The way he was guarding (Desmond) Bane in that Memphis game was huge and he’s always been that guy. Just super competitive and leads by example as well, offensively and defensively.”
But Schröder and Austin Reaves, who also filled in as a playmaker with Russell and James out, should give the Lakers’ second unit more of an identity. The two players have a plus-5.0 net rating when they share the court, and with a few complementary skillsets and their collective competitiveness, Ham said he thinks they’ll bring some fire despite being shifted elsewhere in the rotation.
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“Man, those two kids, I love them to death,” Ham said. “They are competitive, highly, highly competitive. No quit. Multiple efforts. Just their abilities to make plays in big moments and not be afraid of the moment is huge. And I look forward to them being in a good rhythm coming off the bench together.”
The Lakers have been able to enjoy finally cracking into play-in territory after beating Memphis on Tuesday, but they know that means little in a tightly-packed Western Conference standings battle with just 16 games remaining. Going into Thursday’s slate of games, No. 5 and No. 13 in the conference were separated by only three games.
As well as the Lakers have been playing of late, they know they have to keep it up – no matter who is available.
“It’s crazy. We were just talking about it,” Jarred Vanderbilt said. “The first team to win three in a row could separate themselves. This is an important time, this is a pivotal time right now for the team to lock in and take these next games, really all of these games, playing like it our last and locking in and focusing in on those games.”