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D’Angelo Russell shows look of a leader

Two nights after shouldering the blame for the Brooklyn Nets loss in New Orleans, D’Angelo Russell backed that up with a solid effort against Golden State.

Much of the offseason talk about Brooklyn Nets point guard D’Angelo Russell centered on him needing to become the team’s true on-the-court leader.

Shortly after he had been acquired from the Phoenix Suns in late July, veteran Jared Dudley reached out to Russell to send that very message directly.

While Russell, the fourth-year guard acquired from the Los Angeles Lakers in June 2017, is still very much a work in progress on many levels, his actions both Friday night after the Nets’ crushing loss to the New Orleans Pelicans and Sunday night against the Golden State Warriors were those of a leader.

First of all, Russell accepted the blame for the loss in the Big Easy, one in which the Pelicans outscored the Nets 9-0 in the final two minutes to escape with a 117-115 victory. It was Russell’s turnover with 7.5 seconds left that gave New Orleans possession with a chance to take the lead.

For a player who still takes his fair share of flak over mistakes he made as a rookie In L.A., this was a mature performance after what had to be a devastating mistake.

There was no finger-pointing. There was no “this was a team effort” talk. No, instead Russell stepped up and said in effect, “I did this. My fault. The buck stops here.”

For a team that added veterans in reserve roles such as Dudley, Ed Davis and Kenneth Faried, the Nets are still very young at their core.

Center Jarrett Allen is 20, as is rookie forward Rodions Kurucs. Russell is just 22, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is 23. Caris LeVert just turned 24 in August. Spencer Dinwiddie is 25.

With DeMarre Carroll out right now while recovering from an arthroscopic procedure on his right ankle, the elder statesmen of the rotation are Davis at age 29 and Dudley, who at 33 is the oldest Net overall.

On Sunday against the Warriors, some of the familiar issues with Russell were still there. He led the team with five of Brooklyn’s 15 turnovers. He had a couple of plays where his passes were laid into traffic rather than crisply delivered.

But he also kept the offense flowing, for the most part, and his hot shooting touch remained in effect, as he led the Nets with 25 points on 9-of-14 shooting and hit 5-of-8 from downtown. He also handed out six assists and blocked a shot.

Here’s where the leadership aspect really kicks in, however.

The Nets have improved significantly as a defensive team. Even in the loss to Golden State in which the club surrendered 120 points, they held the top-shooting team in the NBA in the Warriors to less than 50 percent shooting, as the Dubs were at 49.4 percent for the game.

And they held a team that is legendary in NBA history for its 3-point shooting exploits to 33.3 percent from home-run range. Stephen Curry was 7-for-15 on the night. Everyone else in a white jersey combined to go 4-for-18.

Russell — often criticized in the past for his aloof play at the defensive end — has been a key part of Brooklyn’s defensive renaissance. He’s engaged at that end. His hands are active. His feet are moving. His head’s on a swivel. He’s seldom caught out of position. He fights over screens.

Are we ready to anoint him as a lock for an All-Defensive team spot? No. But we also can’t fall back on the old “but he doesn’t play defense” criticism anymore, because Russell is definitely doing the work when the other guys have the ball now.

One of the biggest knocks against Russell — and I will freely admit to being on this bandwagon often — has been his consistency, or lack thereof.

After Sunday’s game, Russell is averaging 17.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists in 29.0 minutes per game and is shooting .444/.486/12-for-14.

He’s put up 49 points in the last two games while hitting 18-for-30 overall and going 11-for-17 from deep. Russell also has 18 assists in his last three games, posting eight in the win over Cleveland when his shot wasn’t falling particularly well.

After scoring 35 points in Brooklyn’s first three games, he has 67 in their last three. His effort in those three games has been consistent as well.

Next: 25 greatest individual games in Nets history

Some of his decisions with the basketball may not always be wise, but D’Angelo Russell has taken a big step forward in that he’s owning those errors and playing — and behaving — like the leader this young core needs as it looks to take the next step in the process into playoff contention.

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