Column: Pieces of Lakers puzzle falling into place as they take series lead over Warriors

Lakers guard D'Angelo Russell gives the No. 1 sign after making a shot against the Warriors in Game 3.
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell reacts after making a shot against the Warriors during Game 3 on Saturday night. He scored 21 points in the win, all in the first half.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

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 the Lakers 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 Western Conference. 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 night at Arena put the Lakers in position to take a 3-1 series lead with another home win Monday night. The series isn’t over. It’s not nearly over. Simply looking back to Golden State’s 27-point victory 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.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis starred as the host Lakers blew out Golden State 127-97 on Saturday night to take a 2-1 lead in the second-round series.

May 6, 2023

But the Lakers were so resourceful, so deep, so disciplined 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 with 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 points 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, five assists, three rebounds and one steal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis and their Lakers teammates were about focus and resiliency in routing Golden State in Game 3 to take a 2-1 series lead.

May 6, 2023

“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.


Pictures: The Lakers and Anthony Davis retake control of the NBA Western Conference semifinal series Saturday by routing the Warriors in Game 3.

May 6, 2023

“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.