SAN FRANCISCO – There are at least a couple reasons why the Warriors are not likely to trade the profoundly imperfect D’Angelo Russell in the coming weeks, and one of them was on full display Friday night.
He’s an offensive closer, and his scoring in the final minutes put away the New Orleans Pelicans and lifted the Warriors to a 106-102 victory – their first win in two weeks.
“Well, that’s who he is,” coach Steve Kerr said of Russell.
Russell has a closer’s mentality. He craves that role. His offensive presence, particularly in the final minutes of close games, keeps the Warriors from raising the white flag to full height before the halfway point of the season.
Put another way, if Russell leaves this roster before Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson return – whenever that is – finding buckets in the last few minutes of a tight game will be, um, something no Warriors fan wants to see.
It’s also something the franchise cannot begin to sell.
Understand, now, D-Lo’s fourth quarter was an adventure. He had three turnovers. Shot an air ball. Got burned on defense a couple times. There were moments when it appeared that he was trying to do too much on offense. Playing hero ball.
But resorting to hero ball on offense is OK on this team, at this time, and Russell is the best fit for it. The only natural fit.
“He really likes that time in the game, and he makes big shots,” Draymond Green said. “That’s more about what’s inside of you and less about your actual shot. Some people make a great shooter, but, in those moments, they don’t like those moments.
“He loves those moments, and he tends to come through in big moments like that.”
Two free throws by Green and two more by Damion Lee put the finishing touches on a night that delighted the sellout crowd (18,604) at Chase Center, but every Warriors field goal over the final five minutes came off Russell’s spindly fingers.
A 3-pointer with 4:43 remaining pulls the Warriors within three, 92-89. A pullup floater cuts the deficit to three, 95-92, with 2:06 left. A step-back triple ties it, 98-98, with 1:30 to play. A jumper just inside the arc provides a 102-100 lead with 32.9 seconds on the clock.
One man, 10 points, less than five minutes, good night.
Russell through three quarters had 15 points, on 5-of-14 shooting, including 2-of-9 from beyond the arc. His accuracy came and went as it pleased. His shot selection was spotty. There was, according to center Willie Cauley-Stein, a purpose to it all.
“He just took over the game with his pace, and he set those (late) shots up the whole game,” he said. “That’s why D-Lo is special. He be playing a game within a game. That’s why he got free at the end, becaue he set those shots up and that’s why he’s where. And that’s why he’s at this level, those plays that he’s able to just make by himself.”
Russell, 23, is a unique player insofar as he’s solo artist within a team scheme. His extended one-man possessions, dribbling and probing, as the shot clock ticks down, can leave him on an island, away from his teammates. It can look selfish. It can be selfish.
But it’s his greatest asset, the ability to score with little more than a well-set screen. And that skill often is essential in the final minutes of a close game, particularly on a team that struggles to put up points.
“Experience is key in this league,” Russell said. “I’ve been in positions where you’re down 20 with 10 minutes left and you just see a player take over a game and you just think it’s over as a young player. Or I just remember specifically playing against Chris Paul and he would just pass, and he had a strategy in the first quarter, and in the second quarter he had a different strategy. Third quarter and the fourth quarter is kind of his and he remembered. Also, I remember Kobe saying things like that as well.
“Remember, that shot is going to be there at the end of the game and stuff of that sort, so it’s just experience.”
As the talk of moving Russell continues, what must be considered by anyone interested is the cost. He’s in the first season of a four-year contract worth $117 million. He’s making $27.3 million this season, with a million-and-change bump in each of the next three seasons. It’s a tough contract to move.
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But Russell’s value to the Warriors right now is high, perhaps even worth it. They need him around to keep pumping air into this deflating balloon of a season. To remind themselves what it sounds like to hear a full-throated crowd at home.
A sound that, without D-Lo to ignite it, might not otherwise be heard until Curry and Thompson are back on the court, drowning opponents with 3-pointers.