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D’Angelo Russell is stepping up when Nets need him most

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Los Angeles Clippers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Caris LeVert knew he was going to be out for an extended period of time after his ugly crash in Minnesota. Grateful that it wasn’t worse than it looked, LeVert texted his teammate, friend and running mate in the backcourt, D’Angelo Russell.

He told him, “We have everything we need, even with me going down. We just need everything from everybody.”

And after last night’s game, DLo revealed how he responded. “I told him he was blessed. Still blessed. I told him we’re praying for him, we’re going to keep praying for him. He’ll be back...”

It was the word of trust – something the two have established over the past two years playing together. And although the nickname, “Brooklyn’s Backcourt,” was forced during the Deron Williams and Joe Johnson era, this pairing is pure and maybe worthy of the nickname.

LeVert became Brooklyn’s closer this year. The team was winning, and the backcourt combo was at the center of it all. It wasn’t that Russell was playing bad by any means, but he had become somewhat of an afterthought because LeVert’s early season success could only have been predicted by those who were watching the Nets closely.

Somewhat in the shadows of the 24-year-old LeVert’s shine has been the 22-year-old Russell. Atkinson acknowledged the value of the pairing in his first post-game press conference after LeVert went down.

“It’s a big void. It’s both ends. He and D’Angelo (Russell) were sharing it so well. The chemistry, they shared the ball handling duties a ton.”

So, when LeVert went down he knew who he was going to text. It’s year three for LeVert, year four for Russell. Contract year. Crucial year for the Nets.

Time to step up.

Russell was one of the many teammates on the sideline in near tears as he watched his teammate go down. While the rest of the team was understandably bummed and maybe shell-shocked, Russell kept his focus and kept the Nets alive in Minnesota with nine three-pointers to complement his season-high 31-points.

None of it mattered at the time, but it now looks like it might have been the start of something for DLo.

He’s averaging 21.8 points, 6.6 assists plus 46 percent three-point shooting in the five games since LeVert’s injury. He’s been doing it on both ends of the floor – rebounding and getting his hands in the passing lanes now more than ever. And protecting the basketball.

But the most important thing? Wins. The Nets are 2-3 since LeVert went down. Tuesday night the Nets faced a crucial game. They were 7-10 and marched into Miami for the first game of a back-to-back. They’re 0-4 on the second night of back-to-backs, so that alone made this a game they needed to take. Not to mention the Miami Heat might be a team they compete with for that final playoff spot.

With Miami gaining momentum and cutting the deficit down to three, Russell scored eight straight points to give the Nets an eight-point lead with 2:13 left. It was a burst from DLo that essentially capped off another good night for him and a good victory for the Nets.

There was growing concern with him sitting in crunch time three times in the first month of the season, but he reminded folks why he used to often say he has ice in his veins. He sounded like he had some of that confidence back on Tuesday.

“We got a lot of great talent over here, guys that are specialists at what they do,” Russell told Michael Grady of YES after the victory. “I like to consider myself one of the closers on this team. We got a few, but I’d like to consider myself one that could make it happen any given night.”

It’s refreshing for Russell and the Nets to see him take over a game in the late stages when they needed it most. It’s also very good that he’s performing with the spotlight on him. Granted, it’s a small sample size of five games where he’s stepped up, but it’s better to be discussing him helping the cause rather than the opposite.

Furthermore, his development in this system is something that ought to be discussed ... loudly. His defense has gotten much better. He’s getting his hands in the passing lanes and snagged a career-high tying four steals in the victory over Miami. He’s averaging more than two in the past five games.

“Listen, he’s played great basketball,” Atkinson said before Tuesday’s matchup against Miami. “There’s no doubt about it. He’s in a good way right now. I think his defense is improving, and he’s an improving young player.”

Defense has been a focal point of development for DLo since he first came to Brooklyn, as was his three-point shooting. He shot 35 percent in Los Angeles and regressed in 48 games with Brooklyn shooting 32 percent from deep.

Thus, given what we’ve seen, it’s hard to ignore his improvement from beyond the arc. He shows signs of brilliance on the offensive end in many ways and if he’s able to stay consistent beyond the arc, he can be lethal.

Take a look at his shot chart this year.

He’s clearly most comfortable when shooting from the top of the key and left corner with the chart indicating that he’s 10 percent better than the league average from those areas. Furthermore, it’s how he’s getting his threes and the situations in which he’s hitting them.

In 17 games thus far, he’s shooting 44.6 percent in catch-and-shoot situations on 3.8 attempts per game; 32.5 percent on pull-up threes on 2.4 attempts per game. That’s a difference of 9.9 percent in terms of frequency -- or how many he’s taking when catching the ball versus dribbling up and shooting.

Compare it to last year where he was just 36.4 percent in catch-and-shoot situations on 3.1 per game; 29.2 percent on 2.5 attempts per game. The frequency difference is only 4.8 percent in catch-and-shoot versus pull-ups.

The point to all of this is to emphasize his growth as a three-point shooter who plays just as well – if not better – away from the ball. Instead of dribbling up and heaving a three, he’s running around off-ball screens or finding the open area and taking more efficient shots.

Again, it goes with everything this well-oiled developmental machine in Brooklyn is trying to create. They want versatile guards that can be just as effective with or without the ball in their hands.

Despite a small sample size, this is a trend worth watching as the season goes on and the decision grows closer regarding Russell’s future in Brooklyn. Between all the hype and drama he’s endured, and the tenure he already has in the league, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 22-years-old.

Perhaps people thought he would be perfect right away, being that he was the No.2 overall pick. But none of that matters anymore. What matters – and what’s going to get him paid – is going to be based on whether he can show signs of improvement and help his team get wins as one of the primary options.

It’s too early to tell if that’s going to be the case, but it sounds like Caris LeVert trusted the right guy to text.