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.

D’Angelo Russell said he used to play as Luke Walton on NBA 2K; Stephen Jackson calls that crap

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 30: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks during a news conference to discuss the controversy with teammate Nick Young before the start of the NBA game against the Miami Heat at Staples Center March 30, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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Did anyone ever fire up NBA 2K9 back in the day, decide to be the soon-to-be-champion Lakers, look at a roster with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom then say “I’m going to be Luke Walton”?

D'Angelo Russell says he did.

The Lakers young point guard has praised the new Laker coach at every turn — Russell and Byron Scott did not get along, the point guard is much happier now — and that includes talking about Walton’s playing days to Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.

“I told him I remember playing with him on (NBA) 2K; I used to always play as him. I’m a fan. I’m definitely a fan. Because he was a point forward. I can’t speak on Elgin Baylor and all those guys, but my era, I know he was a point forward.”

Really? NBA veteran and current analyst Stephen Jackson called Russell out on that.

Jackson has a point.

Report: No, J.R. Smith isn’t talking to Sixers

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 22: J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with the fans during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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What is with the ridiculous, unrealistic Philadelphia 76ers rumors of late? Last I checked recreational use was not legal in Pennsylvania. Not that the law is stopping anyone.

The latest silliness follows this logic:

This summer the Sixers made runs at veteran guards such as Jamal Crawford and Manu Ginobili (and they forced the Spurs to pay up for the Argentinian to keep him).

The Cleveland Cavaliers and J.R. Smith are in a staring contest, and Smith remains a free agent.

The Sixers have more than $22 million in cap space still.

So…

No. Not happening.

Or, we could have just asked Smith who has said he is not talking to other teams and doesn’t want to play anywhere but Cleveland.

I can get why Sixers management would want to bring a veteran and beloved, hard-working pro such as Ginobili in to lead and mentor a young team. Does Smith bring that same demeanor? I get that Smith in Cleveland has developed his game, and that he has matured and backed off his hard-partying ways (he gets a hall pass for the days after winning a championship), but is Smith the veteran you bring into a young locker room?

Can we move on from the ridiculous in Pennslyvania? Well, probably not until after the election, that is a battleground state.

Paul George says “I’m ready” to challenge LeBron James for supremacy in East

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 29: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks for a pass while under pressure from Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on February 29, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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LeBron James is the best basketball player walking the face of the earth. The only guy who could start to challenge that supremacy the past couple of years has been Stephen Curry, and last season’s NBA Finals answered that question for now.

In the Eastern Conference, for years now it has been LeBron James and his team then a step back to everyone else — LeBron has been to six straight NBA Finals, four in Miami and the last two in Cleveland. Most pundits (myself included) think that’s going to be seven in-a-row because the Cavaliers are clear and away the class of the East.

Paul George says he and the Pacers are ready to change that narrative. Here is what he told Michael Lee of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“Honestly, I look at us challenging them. I’ve been in the East and I’ve been No. 1 with LeBron being on a team,” George told The Vertical in a recent telephone interview, harkening back to when the Pacers finished with the best regular-season record in the East in 2013-14, the season before his gruesome Team USA leg injury….

“I’ve always matched up with him like, ‘I know he can do this, I know he can do that,’ ” George told The Vertical about James. “Not in an awe fashion, but it’s more so, ‘I’m not supposed to win these games. This is supposed to be the best dude in the NBA. I’m trying to challenge him. I know what I’m up against.’ Now it’s, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready for you. I’m a veteran. I know you, you know me. Let’s meet here, let’s get this job done.’ I’m prepared. I’ve had time to figure this out. I’ve had time to lick my wounds. I’m ready.”

Good for George — this is exactly what you want an elite competitor and top player to say heading into the season. He sees Everest in front of him, and he wants to climb it.

I’m also higher on the Pacers than most; I think they are a top-four team in the East that can finish top two. They upgraded at the point with Jeff Teague, plus they added the underrated Thaddeus Young (although they will miss Solomon Hill) and depth up front with Al Jefferson. I don’t get Larry Bird pushing Frank Vogel out the door at all, but Nate McMillan is a solid NBA coach to take his place. I think the Pacers are taking a step forward this season, maybe a fairly significant one.

But they’re still not in the Cavaliers’ class.

The East is still Cleveland then everyone else. Last season Toronto won 56 games and had its best season in franchise history, and they were still a step or two below the Cavaliers. No team in the East — not the Raptors, not the Celtics, not the Pacers — are making up those steps. Unless injuries or something else unforeseen brings the Cavaliers back to the pack, the Eastern Conference once again will look like Secretariat at the Belmont.

Russell Westbrook says he will not kneel for national anthem “as of right now”

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook spins the ball as he poses for photos during the 2016-2017 Oklahoma City Thunder Media Day in Oklahoma City, Friday, Sept. 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
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Without question, some kneeling/raised fist protests of the National Anthem are coming to the NBA once preseason games start in a couple of weeks. Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers has already come out saying “there’s no more American thing to do than to protest.” Teams are discussing the need for social change.

While the NBA has a rule that players must stand for the anthem, the NBA and players’ union are already discussing exactly how and if that rule should be enforced.

While some players will kneel, Russell Westbrook will not be among them. Probably. Here’s is what he told Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript.

Obviously, Westbrook is leaving himself some wiggle room here. Also, if there is one NBA star you can expect to be blunt about the situation when talking to the media, it’s Westbrook (when he feels like opening up to the media, anyway).

I expect few if any of the NBA’s top stars — the guys with the biggest international brands — will join the protests. However, there certainly will be players taking part. For a league that sees itself as progressive — and has a more politically progressive fan base compared to other American sports — how the league handles this will be watched.