His teammates were gone and D’Angelo Russell had just wrapped up a postgame television interview in the visiting locker room at the Pepsi Center. He picked up a folded-up sheet with the final box score from the Lakers’ 129-101 loss to the Denver Nuggets. He read the numbers, disappointed.
“Negative 32,” Russell said. “I led the team with the negative plus/minus. That bothers me a lot.”
As a whole, Monday night was difficult for Russell. It was the first time this season he was missing from the Lakers’ starting lineup despite being healthy. Jordan Clarkson started at point guard in his place, and neither player said he knew how long that would last.
Russell tried to keep his pregame habits the same. He tried not to let the switch impact him. But even as he tried that, he felt his routine alter.
“It’s not easy just changing everything like that,” Russell said. “I can’t sit here and lie to you. I’ll figure it out. I’ll adapt to it, though. If we finish the season off like this, I’ll adapt to it.”
Lakers Coach Luke Walton started Clarkson over Russell to evaluate how Clarkson did in that role and how Russell responded off the bench. But Walton never got to evaluate what he wanted to see. The game was too much of a mess.
The Lakers (20-47) competed with the Nuggets for about nine minutes, then the game devolved into Denver domination. Walton tore into his team in the postgame locker room, with a message he later said couldn’t be repeated.
“This is a game that we didn’t get better,” Walton said. “And we can’t afford to not get better.”
The Nuggets (32-35) played like a team fighting for a playoff spot. They built a double-digit lead in the first quarter, led by as many as 28 points in the second quarter with the help of a 22-2 run, and 32 in the third before coasting to the finish.
“We got embarrassed on the defensive end,” Brandon Ingram said. “I don’t think we were physical. We didn’t box out, we didn’t rebound. They got a lot of points in transition. That’s all of us. We’ve gotta do better.”
For the Lakers, Ivica Zubac scored a career-high 25 points with 11 rebounds for his fourth double-double of the season. In his fourth start this season, Clarkson posted 19 points, three assists and two rebounds.
As the game’s final seconds expired, Russell rested his hands on his knees on the court and looked briefly toward the Lakers’ bench. He finished the game with 10 points on four-for-14 shooting, with three assists and two rebounds in 28 minutes.
“That’s tough to really give a fair answer on,” Walton said, when asked how Russell played. “The team as a whole, we were just getting picked apart. They were getting whatever they wanted. I think D’Angelo continued to try to do the right thing throughout the game, but when as a team we’re not playing to a certain level, it’s tough to individually judge anyone’s game.”
This is the second time in two years that Russell has been removed from the Lakers’ starting lineup. Last season, then-coach Byron Scott benched Russell 20 games into his rookie year.
“It’s a way different feel as far as, you know there’s a reason behind it,” Russell said.
Clarkson, meanwhile, earned his start in part due to the growth the Lakers have seen in him this season. On Sunday against the Philadelphia 76ers, he came off the bench for 30 points, six rebounds and eight assists. Walton called his play “pretty damn good,” and admitted that factored into his deciding to start Clarkson.
He started with Ingram, Julius Randle, David Nwaba and Zubac. And this won’t likely be the last lineup shift.
“We’re gonna continue to look for opportunities to look at new things so we can gain as much information as possible going into the off-season,” Walton said before the game.
With the Lakers out of the playoff race, Walton had hoped to use this game as an opportunity for the team’s objectives at this point. Not wins, but development, motivation and evaluation.
The way the game unfolded, though, allowed for little of that.
“Unfortunately we didn’t really get to see what we were trying to look for with J.C. in the starting lineup,” Walton said. “The lack of competing that happened tonight never really allowed us to fully be engaged in the game outside the first six-eight minutes out there. But we need to regroup.”
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli