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Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell confident before playoff opener

It’s going to take more than the memories of eight missed shots, or having to watch his team without him on the court, to shake something that seems unshakable.

Three games into his return to the Lakers, it was clear D’Angelo Russell was different in this way, a player not only confident in his abilities but also wildly comfortable in calmly expressing it.

“I like the way I do things. I really appreciate … I’m a fan of me,” he said after the All-Star break. “I’m humbly saying that.”

He wasn’t kidding.

The Lakers are going to count on that bravado after a forgettable shooting game in the play-in tournament, a one-for-nine performance in which Russell sat down the stretch with coach Darvin Ham choosing to play backup point guard Dennis Schroder.

Speaking for the first time since that game, Russell said his rough outing against the Minnesota Timberwolves, one when he had eight assists, wasn’t going to change anything about his approach as the Lakers enter the playoffs Sunday in Memphis against the No. 2-seeded Grizzlies.

“I think I can get it going at any point in the game. I just got to be there to do it,” Russell said after the team practiced Friday. “If I’m not in the game, coach felt a different route, I’ve got to live with that. But if he did come with me at the end of the game, I could easily … make 10 shots in a row. Just that type of a player.

“… We needed to win, honestly. We needed to win. For me to dwell on it and be upset or confidence low, I don’t think that’s the right approach. Definitely want to do anything and everything I can do to not be in that position in the future.”

Russell has shown the Lakers his ability to respond to adversity. Following subpar nights in losses to the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets, Russell closed the season by shooting nearly 54% from the field in his final eight games, averaging 16.9 points during that stint.

Keeping things as normal as possible, with the Lakers playing as closely to the style that helped them become one of the best teams in the West after the All-Star break, is a top priority, though changes in postseason style are inevitable.

The Lakers attempted a NBA-best 28.3 free throws after the All-Star break, 7.5 more per game than Memphis did over the same stretch. The Lakers also don’t foul much — their 16.4 per game after the All-Star break was the league best. And only the Toronto Raptors drew fewer fouls than the Grizzlies after the All-Star break.

Lakers point guard D'Angelo Russell, left, slaps hands with teammate Dennis Schroder after making a three-pointer.

Lakers point guard D’Angelo Russell, left, slaps hands with teammate Dennis Schroder after making a three-pointer against the Clippers.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“A whistle is blown or not blown, we have a job to do. That’s been my message to my team the entire season,” Ham said. “And also on the flip side of that, the message has also been to not settle and try to win the free-throw line. So I think the duality in those messages, they fit hand in hand because now the onus is on us to go make the play. If we’re soft, or we’re trying to get a bail-out (call) or whatever, then that in turn affects our defense cause we’re complaining instead of sprinting back and participating on the other end.

“The referees, we get emotional. It’s an emotional game. We’re passionate about what’s happening out there. But at the end of the day, you just have to go play basketball. You have to play with force. And usually, the team that’s playing the hardest usually gets a favorable whistle.”

Guard Austin Reaves, who has been on the right end of a lot of those whistles, shot only three free throws in the play-in game.

“I figure it’s going to be a little bit more physical brand of basketball,” he said. “And obviously Memphis, the way they play, they’re also a super-physical team. So I think that that’s just going to be the nature of this series. It’s going to be kind of the same as what it was the other night. So you just approach the game with that mentality and nothing really changes. It’s still basketball.”

The Lakers, who have benefited from two days without practice before ramping up Friday, should be better equipped to meet any physical and emotional challenges Sunday because of their break.

In their first full practice following their play-in win, only Schroder didn’t take the court after rolling his ankle Tuesday, with Ham calling it precautionary.

“The last month and a half, two months, every game was very crucial, so it was like a mental war. You had to attack every game as a must win,” Reaves said. “And obviously now is the same, but the last couple days have been really nice.”

The Lakers left Los Angeles on Friday for Memphis to acclimate to the time zone change ahead of an early start Sunday at 2 p.m. in Tennessee. Ham joked Friday that when he was a player, his teams would’ve flown into town Sunday at 10 a.m., but rest specialists and team doctors now help dictate those decisions.

By the time the Lakers play Game 2 on Wednesday, they’ll have been in town for five nights.

“I think it’s great. Just to get there early and get situated and acclimated,” Russell said. “I want to make the hotel room feel like my apartment. Candles. My own blankets. Things like that. To get a day to kinda make … my hotel a home. That feel.

“I think that’s a good thing.”

Whatever it takes to get Russell comfortable off the floor is icing, because on it, he swears nothing has changed.

“I try to show that I’m that type of player. I could’ve had 20 assists that night. Could’ve had 15 assists that night. If I’m not making shots, I can still control the game. Simple as that,” Russell said. “If I’m making shots, the game’s probably over. So, just knowing that I’m that type of player, not losing any confidence with whether coach doesn’t decide to go with me or if he does. Just knowing that I’m that type of player.

“And people that know, know.”

Russell is certainly one of them who does.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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