Are the Oklahoma City Thunder contenders now?

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Oklahoma City is your trade deadline winner.

Last season in the playoffs, the young and athletic Thunder tested the Lakers in the playoffs first round, but when push came to shove the Lakers shoved harder. They had Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol and the Thunder had no answer. Same thing when the two teams played a few weeks ago.

Now the Thunder have an answer.

A big answer. Kendrick Perkins, one of the most ferocious defenders in the paint the league has to offer. A shot blocker and good one-on-one post defender. A guy who will stand his ground. And he is backed up by Nazr Mohammed, so they Thunder bring a good defensive big off the bench, too. All that allows Nick Collison to play more four, where he will be more comfortable.

Combine that with the scoring you know you get from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and…

Are the Thunder title contenders?

Maybe. When a good team addresses its biggest deficiency, you have to take notice.

The key is if the arrival of Perkins sparks an overall defensive turnaround. Last season, while we were all being wowed by Durant and the Thunder offense, they were a solid defensive team. This season they are giving up 3.5 more points per 100 possessions than they did a year before as teams are shooting better and being forced into fewer turnovers. Not having a big man in the middle to protect the rim was an issue, but the Thunder didn’t have a rim-protecting big last season and did better on defense.

Plugging in Perkins and Mohammed alone will not be enough. The perimeter defense, the contesting of shots, the willingness to fight through picks has to improve also. Everything has to get better.

There are other questions. As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz points out, Perkins has no shooting range. Having him in the game allows the big man from the other team to stay close to the rim and help defend better. Teams now will sag off the Thunder, clog the lane and dare them to beat them with the jumper

This move also comes with risks. One is Perkins knee, which is just 13 games off major surgery and already he has tweaked it again.

And there is the fact Perkins is a free agent this summer and could walk. Boston GM Danny Ainge seemed dismayed by what Perkins was asking in his next contract, so he decided to move him now. But most NBA players really only get one or two kicks at the can — the chance to get a contract that will set them up comfortably for life. In Perkins case maybe his family for generations. He gets one shot and he wants to go big, and you can’t fault him for that. This is his chance. And that may be too rich for Oklahoma City’s blood.

Whatever the outcome this was a brilliant move by Thunder GM Sam Presti. Jeff Green was going to make more than the Thunder wanted to pay him, so they shipped him out to fill their biggest need.

And if Perkins defensive energy becomes contagious, they may have a contender in Oklahoma City. And this trade will look even better.

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”