‘I never fear confrontation’: Why D’Angelo Russell shined in Lakers’ win over Bucks

Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell celebrates after making a three-point shot against the Bucks on Friday at Arena.

Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell celebrates after making a three-point shot while scoring a season-high 44 points against the Bucks on Friday night at Arena. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

D’Angelo Russell walked back onto the court where, an hour earlier, he’d just wrapped up his best basketball game as a Laker.

He grinned as he looked at the mostly empty Arena.

The Lakers had just beaten the Milwaukee Bucks 123-122 without LeBron James. Russell made the go-ahead basket to give him 44 points. He’d scored 21 of the Lakers’ 27 points in the fourth quarter, tied for the third most by a Lakers player in the final quarter.

It was his moment.

In his mind, it always is.

He darted his eyes around the empty stands late Friday night and said that with no James, a full building and a national TV audience — he was ready.

Read more: D’Angelo Russell scores 44 as Lakers edge Bucks at last second in thriller

“It’s like all these people are here for me,” he said. “That’s my mind-set.”

Russell’s supreme confidence hasn’t always been viewed as an asset. The circumstances of his season in Los Angeles should’ve punctured that perception months ago, but it never did.

Discussed in virtually every trade scenario of impact, in and out of the starting lineup and losing rhythm, Russell saved his season — and probably that of the Lakers.

“When I talk to my people, they know what I’m capable of. I just talk to my circle. I brag to them,” Russell told The Times on the court late Friday. “All the s— people tweet about me, we talk about it. And it’s just motivation. It just fuels me.”

Friday, Russell was gasoline.

As Anthony Davis’ left arm dangled after a collision with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks took a late lead, Russell sank a big three to keep the game within reach. And when he had a chance to make the game’s biggest shot, he did so confidently.

Russell attacked Damian Lillard and Brook Lopez in a pick-and-roll, and as he moved quickly in, and then out, he floated a 13-footer through the rim with his left hand for the game’s final points.

“That’s DLo, man,” coach Darvin Ham said.

Since returning to the starting lineup on Jan. 13, Russell has been sensational, averaging 22.8 points and 6.4 assists while making 45.8% of his shots from three on more than eight attempts per game.

The Lakers have won 16 of those 25 games.

Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell, left, slips a pass around Bucks center Brook Lopez during the first half Friday night.

Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell, left, slips a pass around Bucks center Brook Lopez during the first half Friday night at Arena. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The heater itself isn’t crazy when you consider Russell’s talent — his unorthodox style masking a widely respected set of skills like a silky shot and elite court vision and passing.

It is, though, kind of crazy when you consider Russel’s trade value — or lack thereof — was one of the big stories around the Lakers through the trade deadline.

“He and I had a conversation. I won’t go into detail, but he and I had conversations about that very thing,” Ham said after the game Friday. “And you know, it’s a, I don’t call it unfortunate, but it’s just a reality of our business. His name’s being thrown around because he has value and he’s worth something; other teams see that.”

Yet people with knowledge of trade talks not authorized to speak publicly paint a different picture of Russell’s value at the deadline. His $18.7-million player option for next season was viewed negatively leaguewide, as teams asked the same questions evaluators have asked about Russell for years.

Yeah, he’s talented, but does he affect winning?

The nonexistent trade market left little doubt the answer teams had.

“With my craft and my talent on the floor, I’ve always felt like I was capable of doing things. Getting hot makes it a little more exciting throughout a game,” Russell said in his postgame news conference. “Off the floor, obviously, you know what I’ve been through. Public humiliation has done nothing but molded me into the killer that y’all see today. And, um, I never lack confidence. I never fear confrontation. I want all the smoke.”

Russell credited a three-game absence around New Year’s with opening his eyes to ways he could better be himself.

“Just recognizing the pockets I could be more aggressive in and be efficient in,” Russell said. “And I saw it and attacked it as soon as I came back.”

He also vowed to stop being deferential, to trust that he would do the right thing when the moment demanded.

Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, center, talks with guards D'Angelo Russell, left, and Max Christie on Friday night.

Lakers head coach Darvin Ham, center, talks with guards D’Angelo Russell, left, and Max Christie during the first half Friday night. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“I don’t want to say he stopped caring, but in some sense, he stopped caring about something,” Austin Reaves told The Times. “I don’t know exactly what that something was.”

It has not been perfect and it wasn’t Friday.

One of Russell’s three misses from three-point range on Friday was a rushed shot from the top of the key in the third quarter, an airball. Davis immediately told him he thought it was a bad shot. Russell’s high points this week were also surrounded by tough nights in losses against Denver and Sacramento.

But as Russell has become more comfortable asserting himself, the Lakers have become more comfortable relying on him to do it.

“DLo was being DLo,” Davis said. “Took over the game for us.”

Fittingly, Russell wasn’t the only player rewriting his own value on Friday. Spencer Dinwiddie, a player who saw his role change in Brooklyn this season before being traded and waived, made his biggest play in his first start for his hometown Lakers.

After Russell’s go-ahead floater, Dinwiddie blocked Lillard’s potential game-winning shot thanks to a wonderful defensive play.

“It’s everything. I mean, I’m not gonna lie to you, having been a high-usage offensive guy my entire career, I mean, even when I was a kid, stuff like that, I kind of dreamed of those moments in terms of hitting the shot, not necessarily getting the block,” Dinwiddie said. “But it feels pretty much just as sweet. So it’s fun to step into a new role with my childhood team and be productive in the sense of helping us get wins. So that isn’t lost on me, and it’s something that I’m definitely gonna cherish the rest of my life.”

Lakers teammates Jaxson Hayes, right, Spencer Dinwiddie, center, and D'Angelo Russell celebrate their win over the Bucks.

Lakers teammates Jaxson Hayes, right, Spencer Dinwiddie, center, and D’Angelo Russell celebrate their win over the Bucks after Dinwidde blocked the potential winning shot on Friday night at Arena. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Over the last two months, Russell has had a handful of these kinds of moments, his return to the Lakers, the franchise that drafted him, trending up after plenty of moments when it seemed destined to end.

“I just feel confident in what I bring to the basketball game,” Russell said. “If it’s film, watching it, helping young players, I just know what I bring to the table. So whatever room I walk in, I’m confident.”

Trade rumors couldn’t dent it. Criticism of his game couldn’t alter it. It’s a core trait.

“There’s like a handful of people on this earth that have the confidence that he has on the court,” Reaves told The Times. “…I wish I could have it. I really do.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter on all things Lakers.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.