ORLANDO — It was the next-to-last assist, D’Angelo Russell’s 11th of 12 on the evening. Orlando Magic defenders were in the paint. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was not.
From the left wing, Russell saw it all happening before anybody else did. He whistled his pass to the cutting Hollis-Jefferson, a blur through traffic, right on the mark, for a dunk and a 19-point lead midway through the fourth quarter of the Brooklyn Nets’ 111-104 win in Orlando.
“I feel like my vision’s always been my blessing,” said Russell. “When it’s not working, it’s a turnover and you get hounded for that. As many times as I can make the right play, the simple play, and limit my turnovers, I think it’s all fun for that part.”
It was part of a double-double, Russell’s 12 assists, as he finished with 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting – plus five rebounds. It was Russell’s second big assist night in less than a week, following his 18-point, 13-assist double-double against Toronto last Friday.
“He really manipulated the pick and roll to his advantage,” said Nets coach Kenny Atkinson. “He knows how to get angles. He’s not a downhill, speedy player, but he knows how to get an angle. He knows when someone bites, either on the perimeter or on the roll. He just has elite vision. I thought he was really good tonight, shot selection.”
“Elite court vision” is a phrase Atkinson has used in association with Russell all season long. It’s part of the reason why, when asked about Russell’s position a few days ago, he declared rather definitively that he saw him as a 1, as a point guard.
That’s the position he’s been in in over the last seven games, during which Russell is averaging 7.0 assists per game, compared to his season average of 5.1. And over the last five games, that number is up to 7.6.
But it’s not just the numbers. A handful of times a game Russell unleashes a dime with a whip-quick release, delivered on point to a spot only he can see, sometimes even to the surprise of his teammates.
“Oh my gosh, yeah,” said Joe Harris. “He is able to thread the needle. He had some pretty incredible passes today. It’s one of those things where you’ve got to have your head on a swivel, keep your eyes on him, because he’ll find you, and if you’re open he’s going to get you the ball.”
“It’s amazing,” said Jarrett Allen. “Sometimes, how does the ball get there? And it just ends up in your hands. He’s an amazing passer.”
Russell knows that sharp assists make for happy teammates -- “It’s all good, especially when you see guys smiling from getting on the board.” – and the Brooklyn offense has been humming over the last two weeks.
In the last seven games, the Nets have an offensive rating of 113.2, fourth in the NBA, well above their season-long rating of 104.4.
“I think we’re driving the ball,” said Atkinson before Sunday’s game against Cleveland. “We’ve got back to driving it to the rim. D’Angelo’s done a heck of a job. I felt like even in that Toronto game he had great command of the game. He got in a rhythm. That’s when your quarterback is feeling comfortable. I think that helps a lot.”
Russell’s forays to the rim have helped open up things on the perimeter. Over the last seven games the Nets are shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range, with Joe Harris (53.6), Caris LeVert (45.8), Allen Crabbe (44.1), and DeMarre Carroll (43.9) all shooting over 40 percent.
“Everybody talks about our 3-pointers, but our first effort, we want to get to the rim,” said Atkinson. “That’s our first thrust and our first priority. The rim, and then you get free throws from that, and then threes open up. They kind of work hand in hand. I just think we’re getting to the paint and the threes are a little more open. And I think he’s a big part.”
“He’s a card-dealer,” added Atkinson. “He knows how to kick out to guys. He’s got great feel.”
Russell is in the process of putting a strong finish on his first season with the Nets, one that was interrupted by a knee injury that cost him 32 games.
“I give him a lot of credit,” said Atkinson. “Coming back from that injury, that’s not easy. I think he’s had his ups and downs. You can see it. But he’s definitely trending upwards. I just think he deserves a lot of credit for fighting through, being resilient and getting his body better and better every day. I think that’s really helping him. We just feel he’s going to keep improving.”