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NBA Fastbreak: D’Angelo Russell, former future of Lakers, lives up to hype with Nets

Brooklyn Nets’ D’Angelo Russell (1) moves the ball past Orlando Magic’s Evan Fournier, left, during
Nets guard D’Angelo Russell drives past Magic guard Evan Fournier en route to matching his career high with 40 points Friday night in Orlando.
(John Raoux / Associated Press)

Three games, three wins and three reasons to believe that the Brooklyn Nets are the best team outside of the Eastern Conference’s top tier.

Brooklyn beat Boston, Houston and Orlando this week, getting big performances from a trio of young players the Nets acquired to become the base for one of the NBA’s most difficult rebuilding projects.

D’Angelo Russell, the onetime future of the Lakers, has become a reliable point guard and significant piece for Brooklyn. He rounded out a strong week with a 40-point game in Orlando — the scoring paired with an elite passing ability that Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson thinks is still developing.

Brooklyn scrambled to steal an overtime win Wednesday in Houston thanks to 11 points from guard Spencer Dinwiddie in the final 90 seconds of regulation (three three-point shots came in the final 26.2 seconds).

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Monday in a win over the Celtics, 20-year-old center Jarrett Allen had one of the best games of his young career, finishing with 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots.

The three players — one found in a trade, one found in the G League and one found late in the first round of the draft — are huge reasons why the Nets are in sixth place in the East and the most promising team outside of conference contenders Toronto, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Indiana and Boston.

The Lakers dealt Russell to Brooklyn in 2017, using him as a sweetener to get Brooklyn to absorb center Timofey Mozgov and his albatross of a contract while setting the stage to land LeBron James in free agency.

Russell has developed in Brooklyn, averaging career highs in points (19.0) and assists (6.4) this season. Nets coaches and personnel people have raved about his willingness to be part of the franchise and his maturity — not necessarily the book on him in his time with the Lakers.

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“A lot of it’s maturity,” Atkinson said. “He’s been in the league awhile. He’s starting to get stronger, so it’s physical maturity. Emotional maturity. I’d like to think we’ve helped some. … I think our staff does a good job of developing players, but mostly, it’s on him and maturing. … He’s really taken a step up this year.”

Dinwiddie, Russell’s backup, could’ve been a lottery pick at one time if not for a major knee injury while playing at Colorado. With Russell injured last season, the Los Angeles native and star at Taft high in Woodland Hills proved he could be a contributor and was rewarded with a three-year, $34-million contract extension.

Allen looks like a star in the making. At 6 feet 11 — a few inches taller if you count his afro — Allen is a fearless rim protector who has rejected dunk attempts by LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Blake Griffin and James Harden.

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“You’re going to get dunked on every now and then,” Allen told the Times. “But if you don’t jump, there’s no way to know what’s going to happen.”

It’s all a testament to the work of the Nets’ front office, their war chest of draft picks significantly limited from the Paul Pierce-Kevin Garnett trade with Boston by the previous regime. They’ve found players that work; they’ve made players better. Add in another successful late first-rounder, guard Caris LeVert, who’s been sidelined by an ankle injury, and the Nets have a nice group of young talent.

A possible berth in the postseason and plenty of cap space next summer have the Nets feeling good about their future for the first time in years.

A mile-high fall to Earth

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The Denver Nuggets, one of the best stories in the West, were on the wrong end of a razor-sharp performance by the Golden State Warriors this week, a reminder that there’s a one-team tier at the top of the conference.

Still, the 142-111 loss to the Warriors doesn’t change how good Denver has been this season. Center Nikola Jokic — who is averaging 19.6 points, 10.0 rebounds and 7.6 assists — is a star, a genius passer who can score in a variety of ways. Point guard Jamal Murray (18.7 points, 4.9 assists) has a massive upside as a backcourt scorer.

Things will get interesting in the next few weeks as Denver gets healthier, with Isaiah Thomas set to make his debut, giving the Nuggets another scoring option. Starting guard Gary Harris has been out for most of the winter because of injuries, and his return will strengthen an already good defense.

If they’re going to challenge the Warriors, the Nuggets will need to be at full strength.

Tip-ins

New Orleans forward Anthony Davis is set to miss at least a week after he sprained a finger on his left hand, slamming the brakes on a quick stretch of full health for the Pelicans. … Buyout season, which normally starts after the trade deadline, is already here. The Nets waived Kenneth Faried on Saturday, with Houston the likely landing spot to help the Rockets survive without injured center Clint Capela. … Chicago rookie Wendell Carter Jr.’s season could be over if he goes through with a team-recommended surgery on his injured thumb.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports

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