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Pieces of Lakers puzzle fall into place in series vs. Warriors

D’Angelo Russell was the second major piece added to the puzzle that was the Lakers at midseason. He landed back where his career had begun a few weeks after Rob Pelinka, the team’s vice president of basketball operations and general manager, acquired Rui Hachimura to kickstart the heavy lifting of remaking them into something palatable.

Transforming a guard-heavy, turnover-prone, identity-challenged group into a playoff contender seemed too much to ask. Even Russell wasn’t sure it could be done.

“I didn’t know what we had. I was kind of just going with the flow,” Russell said of his thoughts when he returned to the Lakers in February in a three-team trade that also brought them Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt.

“I told Rob right away that I didn’t know what our team was going to look like. He kind of laughed. And then we continued to make a few trading pieces and I was just like, ‘OK, our team is kind of filling out. We got some bodies here that gets us over the hump.’ ”

Pelinka’s moves helped the Lakers get into the play-in tournament and earn the No. 7 seed in the West. To prove that was no fluke, they took out the flashy but immature No. 2-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. And the Lakers are still going, with no end in sight.

Their 127-97 rout of the defending champion Golden State Warriors on Saturday at Crypto.com Arena put the Lakers in position to take a 3-1 series lead with another home win on Monday. The series isn’t over. It’s not nearly over. Simply looking back to Golden State’s 27-point win in Game 2 is a strong reminder that if the Lakers relax the slightest bit, the Warriors could wrench this series back in the other direction.

But the Lakers were so resourceful, so deep, so disciplined on Saturday that they gave the Warriors a lot to think about and respond to in Game 4.

“I didn’t think the progression would be as efficient and as soon,” Russell said of the team’s growth after the trade deadline. “I thought we would need a lot more games under our belt to get that flow going, but as y’all saw, as soon as we stepped on the floor we had this pop to us that allowed us to keep going with it, going into the next game, going into all these games that mattered, to finish off the season.

“We had injuries but everybody had the mentality to kind of step up and fulfill that, and that allowed us to go right into the playoffs with this momentum to where we feel like we can beat anybody, we can guard anybody.”

On Saturday, they beat the Warriors by getting Draymond Green in early foul trouble. The Lakers went to the free-throw line 37 times, compared to 17 for the Warriors. Russell scored the Lakers’ first 11 points. They won a game in which LeBron James didn’t attempt a shot in the first quarter and didn’t score a point until he made the first of two free throws with 6:32 left in the second quarter. He finished with 21 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.

Each playoff game is its own story. Momentum rarely carries from one game to the next, as in this series: a close Lakers win, a blowout for the Warriors, and a blowout for the Lakers that allowed them to rest James and Anthony Davis for nearly all of the fourth quarter. But if the Lakers can carry one thing from Saturday to Monday it should be how well they adapted after falling behind by 11 with 7:53 left in the second quarter, never panicking, never forcing anything, never losing sight of what they’re capable of doing.

“Obviously, they’re going to adjust. We gotta figure out how we’re going to adjust to that and try to prepare for what they’re going to adjust for,” said Russell, who finished with 21 points, three rebounds, five assists and one steal.

“I don’t want to speak too much on what our game plan is, but the game at its purest form is simple, you know? And that’s what we see right now. We’re in a position right now that if they take A away, you gotta go with B. If they take B away, you’ve got to go with C and it will be right there for you to take advantage of it. We’ll check the film and go from there.”

It turned into an emotional evening for James, whose son Bronny, a standout at Chatsworth Sierra Canyon High, announced he had committed to USC next season. James mused aloud that as far as he knows, Bronny will be the first member of the family to go to college. His mom, Gloria, might have gone to community college, “but she had my little ass running around so she couldn’t spend much time in the classroom,” he said, smiling.

“It’s very, very, very exciting and very humbling, a great moment for our family. And it’s super cool. He’s a great kid, USC’s getting a great kid. Obviously he’s there to play basketball, but they’re going to be super surprised at how great a kid he is even though they’ve been recruiting him for quite a while.”

James’ long-ago mentioned vision of playing in the NBA alongside his son is still alive. “And I’m still serious about it. Obviously gotta continue to keep my body and my mind fresh, I think my mind most importantly. My mind going and my body will just be, ‘OK, what are we doing?’ ” he said.

“But at the end of the day, either if I am or if I’m not, I’ve done what I had to do in this league and my son is going to take his journey and whatever his journey, however his journey lays out, he’s going to just do what’s best for him. His dad, his mom Savannah, his brother and sister, we’re going to support him whatever he decides. Just because that’s my aspiration and my goal doesn’t mean that it’s his and I’m absolutely OK with that.”

Every journey begins with a single step. The Lakers’ unexpected journey deeper into the playoffs continues Monday. There’s no telling when it will end.

This story originally appeared on LA Times

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