Russell Westbrook, Matt Barnes

Five things to watch: Thunder-Lakers

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The playoff race is heating up and with the Lakers battling for the division and the third seed and the Thunder haggling with the Spurs over the top seed in the West, Sunday’s game is the rare late season meeting with meaning. The Lakers need to get a win to lock in no-worse than fifth and drop their magic number over the Clippers to just one. The Thunder have to hang on as long as possible and hope the Spurs, facing an easier schedule, pull their starters and actually lose.

Plus, you know, these two have some history. So here are five things to keep an eye on when the Thunder face the Lakers.

1. Have  You Ever Seen The Rain?: The Thunder can score in a torrent, with Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, all capable of putting up 40. The Lakers’ defense has backslid considerably, and have the fourth worst defensive efficiency over the past four games. Ramon Sessions, Metta World Peace, and Kobe Bryant are going to have to do serious work on the perimeter to contain the Thunder trio. Having help defense from Andrew Bynum (when he cares) isn’t enough. It’s going to take perimeter containment because OKC’s top three can all hit the mid-range jumper consistently off the screen. Sessions has to get through screens faster and more forcefully, Bryant has to attack Harden’s dribble to get the ball out of his hands, and MWP has to just hang on and hope KD doesn’t have a good night. He can do damage against Durant regardless, but if he’s hot, he’s hot, and that’s all there is to it.

2. Ain’t That A Kick In The Teeth?: The Thunder can bully you. They’re not a great defensive squad, but a good one, and they tend to sheepdog opponents into bad positions on the floor where they can trap. They bring help immediately and Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and Nick Collison are all more than willing to give you a stiff forearm to the back down low. Meanwhile, the Lakers can absolutely brutalize their opponents with MWP, Matt Barnes, Josh McRoberts, and Andrew Bynum. The battle between Perkins and Bynum for low-post supremacy remains a key matchup and whoever can establish their physical superiority is going to have a huge edge. Bynum should win based off of just physics, but if he’s not engaged, Perkins can stonewall him.

3. A Mid-Range Oven: In the first two games, Serge Ibaka was 6-11 from mid-range for 55% shooting from space when Pau Gasol was on the floor. He’s usually a 38% shooter from there. Gasol usually shoots 47 percent in the paint, non-restricted area. Against the Thunder, he shot just 33 percent, despite taking a higher than average percentage of his shots from there. Basically, whoever can take over from mid-range is going ot give their team a sizeable advantage. Gasol needs to hit a few over Ibaka using his height advantage to spook the youngster. Once that happens, Ibaka will go for the pump-fake and Gasol can create higher looks for himself and others. This is a crucial matchup for the Lakers, one they have to win.

4. Awkwardness and You: Derek Fisher is embroiled in a bitter dispute with the Players Association, with the Executive Committee having voted 8-0 for a no-confidence vote against the President Fisher and asking him to resign. Fisher refuses. In the middle of all this, Fisher has to go out and be a leader and calming influence on the Thunder, providing valuable backup point guard minutes. Fisher’s a professional, and it’s unlikely that this off-court matter will affect his on-court play. But it’s something to watch, especially in relation to how his teammates approach him.

5. Fresh Legs: The Lakers have to start thinking about resting key players. They need to get healthy and in good condition for the playoffs. They’re a win and a Clippers loss away from clinching the 3rd seed and the Clippers would need a lot of help to overtake them. If the OKC game gets away in either direction for the Lakers, Mike Brown needs to rest his guys. If they catch the Thunder napping, let the bench mob close out the game. If they get blown out of the building, sit Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum and let the Thunder have their way. Burning them out with a week to go makes little sense. Big picture is always more important.

Cory Joseph scores career-high 33 as Raptors beat Nets (VIDEO)

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NEW YORK (AP) DeMar DeRozan‘s double-double and Cory Joseph‘s career night propelled the Toronto Raptors past the free-falling Brooklyn Nets.

DeRozan had 36 points and 11 rebounds, and Joseph set a personal high by scoring 33 on Tuesday night in Toronto’s 119-109 victory over Brooklyn.

After shooting 3 for 14 in the first half, DeRozan found his stroke and finished 13 for 28.

“I just kept playing the same way,” he said. “You know, getting good looks and just going out there and I know it’s going to come, it’s just more so being patient, not really worrying about the misses.”

Toronto won its fourth straight game and extended Brooklyn’s losing streak to 11 in a row.

Joseph started in place of Kyle Lowry, given the night off to rest.

“Kyle provides a lot of scoring for us,” Joseph said. “I knew that slot would be missing today, so I took it upon myself to be more aggressive, try to be aggressive and take what the defense gives me. They were giving up a lot of layups and short floaters, so that’s what I was taking and so I happened to be making them.”

Terrence Ross added 15 points for the Raptors, who opened the game with an 11-0 run but fell behind after the first quarter.

Still, the Nets have not won since Dec. 26.

“You’ve got to keep going,” center Brook Lopez said. “We have a young group and we’re learning a lot on the fly, so you’ve got to just stay positive. We’re doing a lot well, just has not translated in the win column. I think we’re definitely going to break through soon. We’ve just got to give ourselves a chance every night.”

Lopez had 28 points for the Nets. Caris LeVert and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson scored 14 apiece.

Toronto took a 92-85 lead into the fourth quarter and never looked back. DeRozan led the way with 10 points in the third period, equaling LeVert’s total in the quarter.

Lopez and Joseph each scored 14 in the second.

After the 11-0 spurt by the Raptors at the start, Brooklyn rallied to take a 29-26 lead at the end of the first quarter.

TIP-INS

Raptors: Coach Dwane Casey was asked what his expectations are for this season after losing in the Eastern Conference finals last year. “We always want to advance. I’m not going to put a level on where we’ve got to get to or anything like that. Our thing is to continue to get better. We can’t just try to get as many wins as we can and hope it works in the playoffs,” he said. … Joseph started for the first time since April 8, 2016. … Lucas Nogueria experienced blurred vision and was checked for a concussion in the locker room after being hit in the head during the first quarter. He did not return. . Patrick Patterson (sore left knee), Jared Sullinger (left foot surgery) and Delon Wright (right shoulder surgery) were out.

Nets: Coach Kenny Atkinson discussed what he’s seen from veteran Quincy Acy, who is nearing the end of a 10-day contract. “Love his energy. Love his pop, his aggressiveness and how competitive he is. We’ll talk about it after the game with our group. I’ve been pleasantly surprised in his limited minutes,” Atkinson said. … Jeremy Lin (strained left hamstring) was out.

UP NEXT

Raptors: Visit the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday.

Nets: Visit the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday.

Watch Wesley Matthews hit the game-winner as Mavericks beat Bulls

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Wesley Matthews is a tough guy, and perhaps Tuesday night’s game-winning shot over the Chicago Bulls will see the Dallas Mavericks guard back to his old form.

Matthews, who tore his achilles in March of 2015 and has scarcely looked like the same player since, took it to Chicago with a go-ahead 3-pointer with 11.7 seconds left.

It was a good thing too, as Jimmy Butler had come down the play before to give the Bulls a two-point lead.

After Matthews hit the trey, Dwyane Wade would go on to miss a 21-foot jumper for the win as Dallas beat Chicago, 99-98.

Meanwhile, Matthews does appear to be on the verge of a mini-resurgence. In the last three games — all wins for Dallas — the former Portland Trail Blazer has averaged 16 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 2.6 assists. Perhaps more importantly, Matthews has scored in bulk from 3-point range while shooting an eye-popping 53.4 percent from deep.

The Mavericks aren’t very good, but Matthews getting better is the first step into at least giving teams like Chicago a hassle on their home court like they did on Tuesday.

Minnesota Timberwolves kick in more money to renovate Target Center

Flip Saunders, Glen Taylor
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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx owner Glen Taylor is kicking another $9-12 million into the Target Center renovation project.

The Timberwolves announced the additional funds on Tuesday. The team says the new money will be used to get new seats, railings for the lower bowl, a new skyway off of the backside of the arena and a more improved Wi-Fi platform.

Taylor says the new money is geared toward making sure the project to refurbish the dated arena in downtown Minneapolis is as effective as possible. It will push the total cost of the project to between $138-141 million.

Renovations are underway and the city-owned building is scheduled to close this summer so the project can be completed in time for the start of the 2017-18 NBA season.

John Wall, Bradley Beal and defense keying Wizards’ 12-game home streak

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 04: John Wall #2 celebrates after Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards hit a three point shot against the Atlanta Hawks in the fourth quarter of the Wizards 95-92 win at Verizon Center on November 4, 2016 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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WASHINGTON (AP) The same fans who John Wall once joked get more excited for a free chicken sandwich when an opponent misses two free throws than a victory are now being treated to something even better: A winning streak.

Wall and the Washington Wizards have won 12 in a row at home heading into the midpoint of the NBA season and haven’t lost at Verizon Center since Dec. 6. Better starts and improved defense and bench play have sparked this run, pushed Washington to fifth place in the Eastern Conference and made home feel pretty sweet.

“We like playing on our home floor, there’s no question we have a comfort level,” coach Scott Brooks said. “The baskets, everything seems to be good for us. I think our guys are comfortable, they like playing here. We want to make this a special place. Crowd’s been great. We just got to continue to give them something that they can be proud of.”

Brooks tells his players that Wizards fans don’t expect perfection but want 48 minutes of great effort. After a disappointing .500 season last year depressed turnout, this retooled team plays a more exciting, up-and-down brand of basketball that’s worth watching.

The Wizards have eclipsed 100 points in 17 of their past 20 games with Wall on pace to set a career high in points and steals. Backcourt mate Bradley Beal is also on the way to a career-high scoring season, but he points to the other end of the floor as the reason for Washington’s success and home winning streak.

“In terms of us, it’s just been our defense and just us getting after it and playing with energy,” Beal said. “It makes everything easier on offense when we get out and run. That way we don’t necessarily have to call plays all the time, we just get out and flow, and it works. In order to do so, we have to play defense and defend, and we can’t do that if we’re always taking the ball out.”

Brooks wanted the Wizards to become a defensive-minded team that could score instead of an offensive team that defended when it felt like it. Second-year guard Kelly Oubre showed that progress with on-ball defense by locking down the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard on Monday and said that aspect of the game is better now with more familiarity of scouting reports.

Beyond starters Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat, the second unit led by Oubre, rookie Tomas Satoransky, Trey Burke and Jason Smith is coming along.

“Guys know their roles now,” Oubre said. “We’re a solid defensive team. We’re getting better. … We have a good home-court advantage coming on now. We got 12 in a row? We’ve got to keep that rolling, man. These fans want to see wins. We’re here to give it to them.”

Wall took some heat last year for suggesting that the free fast-food chicken sandwich fans get if an opponent misses both free throws in the fourth quarter generates the most excitement. It’s oftentimes the loudest cheer of the night, but not lately thanks to the Wizards winning.

He definitely notices a difference.

“We start to win, we go to the starting lineup, the gym is kind of packed more than empty and not getting packed later on,” Wall said. “There is a lot of excitement, and it’s great to know that when they call our names they are cheering for us. It’s something we can use as an advantage.”

After the finale of this home stand Wednesday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Wizards play five of their next six games on the road. Their challenge now is to adapt the home winning recipe to winning in less-friendly confines.

“We have to now view it the same way, respect our opponent no matter who it is and just come out with energy knowing that the crowd is against us, nobody’s there to cheer for us,” Beal said. “It’s us against everybody. Just having that same mindset in our approach to the game is probably all we need to do.”