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D’Angelo Russell is the leader Brooklyn never had

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Charlotte Hornets Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

On this date eight years ago, the New Jersey Nets traded for Deron Williams hoping that he would become the face of the franchise.

The man who would orchestrate success for years to come. The player who would instill hope in a franchise that hadn’t had it since Jason Kidd’s seven-year playoff run ended at the deadline in 2007. He was supposed to be that star for Brooklyn.

Ironically, the night before that anniversary, the Nets played as big a regular season game as they had since moving to Brooklyn. And instead of DWill, it was DLo who led them to victory.

Things are different than the DWill days. All of it is moot at this point. But you don’t forget where you came from, especially in Brooklyn. It’s what’s made them who they are today – humble, blue collar and prepared.

All the stuff DWill’s Nets were not.

The Nets escaped from Charlotte with a much-needed victory. With 21 games left, they’re all going to be tough, but as they entered Spectrum Center Saturday, Brooklyn stood just one game ahead of the Charlotte Hornets for the six seed and entered the night just 1 ½ games away from falling into purgatory – the ninth seed.

Don’t call it a “must-win” just yet but having lost seven of 10 with a seven-game road-trip lingering – this was a needed win, a critical win. A win not only helped the Nets, it hurt the team behind them.

Insert D’Angelo Russell. The kid had just turned 23 the same day the Nets were up against it in Charlotte, where he had played last weekend in his first All-Star Game. Thinking about Russell and all the things he’s been through – the highs and lows – he feels like a veteran. More importantly, he’s playing like a veteran.

Saturday showed why. Despite the team-first mentality the Nets preach, this Brooklyn Nets team will go wherever Russell takes them. That doesn’t take away from their collective identity, but it’s clear who the man is in Brooklyn. Who, as of right now, is the face of the franchise. And yes, he is now that star for Brooklyn.

With the Nets down six with 2:26 remaining, Russell continued to pour it on against the Hornets. He was already having a career night leading the team on his back while going head-to-head with Kemba Walker. A betting man would go with experience.

But Russell keeps showing why you bet on Brooklyn.

First, Russell hits an eight-footer in the corner. Next, he hits a three-pointer. Suddenly, the Nets are down by one and Russell is scorching hot. He exchanges buckets with Walker, Nets’ possession down by one point with 49 seconds left.

The Nets had very little offense aside from DLo. They had played stagnant iso-ball with him on the bench.

Fortunately for all of them, he saved the day and on the most important possession of the game —right up there with the last possession that ended their eight game winning streak, the ball was in his hands. He dribbled up the floor and pulled-up for a simply audacious 30-foot three-pointer, putting the Nets up 117-115 with 40 seconds left.

And the Hornets joined the Cavaliers on the list of teams whose players mocked DLo’s ability to turn things around and win games. Had to be invigorating...

“He’s done it all year,” Kenny Atkinson said of Russell’s clutch shots late. “That’s who he is and he’s playing with a ton of confidence. I think the all-star bid really helped him. The guys look to him, 23, his birthday today, maybe they were two birthday shots but great game from him.”

Caris LeVert just barely poked the ball with his elbow as Walker fails to draw a foul on the final possession. The Nets won yet another improbable game behind the lead of D’Angelo Russell. He does his post-game interview with Michael Grady of YES – something that’s become a regular thing – and gets water poured on his head.

It’s a tradition he started.

It’s organic.

It’s real.

Unlike DWill, you’ll never hear the Nets call DLo the “face of the franchise.” Nothing close to that kind of talk.

With that said, you cannot dispute that Russell isn’t the leader of this team. They go where he goes. And for the moment while Spencer Dinwiddie is out, Russell continues to do the improbable, and that’s leading the Nets into a playoff spot with a quarter of the season left.

And he’s only 23 — a 23-year-old who will be a restricted free agent. If the Nets don’t pay him after this season, somebody else will.