What has to happen Friday for NBA to have labor peace

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We are close. Very close.

By Monday we could be talking about what the Heat/Lakers/Celtics need to do in free agency, not luxury tax details. There are real signs of hope. David Stern watched the NBA players’ union press conference Thursday from the back row of the room, and both he and union head Billy Hunter were laughing and saying to each other “tomorrow.”

So what has to happen? What has to be covered Friday for there to be a handshake and a deal?

Here are three key hurdles.

• Basketball related income (BRI). This is the elephant in the room — how you divide up the league’s revenue. How you split up the money. It has not been discussed the last two days and Hunter said it will be the first thing discussed Friday morning. Pray it is a long meeting, because if it is a short it means they discussed BRI and remain so far apart they walked away from the table.

BRI is the league revenue, all the money that flows into the league from ticket sales and national television contracts, as well as part of the money from luxury suites, local television and radio, even parking and concessions. In the old deal, the players got 57 percent (of what is left after the owners take a cut off the top for expenses).

Last we left off, the players came down to 52.5 percent, the owners were at 50 percent. That’s looks close but it is still about $100 million a season. If neither side will budge off their line then the talks are dead again. But if the owners gave in on some system issues — for example softening the luxury tax and keeping Bird rights (so teams can go over the cap to resign free agents) — would the players come down closer to 50 percent? Will the owners come up a little? Can they agree to a band that slides up and down depending on revenue? They are close, there are ways to make this happen.

But how to split up the money is what this whole thing is about in the end. It’s not going to be easy.

• Exceptions for luxury tax teams. One thing the owners want in the new agreement is a way to rein in big spending teams, to level the playing field (or so they think). One is a new luxury tax that increases the more teams spend, one that would escalate fines the more years teams are paying the tax.

The remaining stumbling block here is what are the exceptions to the tax, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo.

Before tackling the revenue split, the biggest hurdle left to solving the system issues appears to be with the use of midlevel and bi-annual exceptions for tax-paying teams.

While details were still unclear how a punitive luxury tax system would work for teams exceeding the salary cap, one league source involved in the talks told Y! Sports on Thursday night: “The tax is not the issue. The exceptions are where the fight is.”

• The hardliners not messing things up. This is what has happened when deals have been close before — Kevin Garnett comes in and stares down the owners and says the players will not go below 53 percent of BRI; or owners like Dan Gilbert and Paul Allen push for more from the players and don’t give any more. Even keeping the union’s attack-dog lawyer Jeffrey Kessler out of the room the last few days seems to have mattered (he is in Russia on other business). Keeping those guys at arm’s length until there is a handshake matters — you can sell this deal once it is in place, but those guys could mess it up before we get to that point.

There are other little things to be covered — for example the draft age limit has not been a topic yet — but those are relatively minor and not deal breakers. The three above are the reasons we would not see a deal in the next 72 hours or so.

And if we don’t see a deal then, it may be a long, cold winter without NBA hoops.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.

Clippers blow 18-point lead, lose in final 2 seconds on putback to Kings (VIDEO)

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The Los Angeles Clippers had a rough go of things against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. Up by 18 with more than five minutes to go, LA blew their lead and were left to watch as the Kings sealed the game late.

The final possession for Sacramento came on a missed corner 3-pointer by Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. The Kings got the outlet pass out on the rebound, but Ben McLemore took it to the rack and missed. That’s when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped in, cleaned up the board, and put the game-winning shot home with less than two seconds left.

Los Angeles lost in spectacular fashion, and became the only team this season to lose given their game situation.

Here’s a compilation the NBA put together of Sacramento’s epic comeback:

Meanwhile, Chris Paul called it the worst regular season loss of his career.

The Clippers peaked too soon. Like, the first 20 games of the season too soon.

Russell Westbrook throws incredible halfcourt bounce pass vs. Rockets (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook had yet another triple-double on Sunday. The Oklahoma City Thunder star notched 13 assists in the loss to the Houston Rockets, 137-125, and one of them came on a nifty pass to teammate Victor Oladipo.

The play happened with the Thunder on the fastbreak early in the third quarter. Westbrook was moving from left-to-right across the middle of the floor with the ball while Oladipo streaked down the right wing.

With the Rockets defense collapsing, Westbrook reached halfcourt and fired a bounce pass that sliced through the opposition.

Oladipo finished with the clean dunk.

Still not sure it beats this one, but I think we’ll have to compare once the season comes to a close.