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.

Charles Barkley hung out with King Cake Baby to celebrate his birthday (VIDEO)

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One of the New Orleans Pelicans mascots is a Pelican. His name is Pierre, and after a makeover he’s looking pretty normal these days. But the Pelicans also have a second mascot of sorts. His name is King Cake Baby — named after the Mardi Gras pastry — and he’s horrifying.

So when you have an NBA All-Star Game in town, what do you do? Trot out a giant baby mascot to mix in with the league’s elite, of course.

Or at least have him bother Charles Barkley on his birthday:

Ok it’s actually weirder that Kenny Smith wanted to see what was under King Cake Baby’s bib. I can never unsee that.

Vlade Divac on DeMarcus Cousins trade: “I had a better deal two days ago”

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The DeMarcus Cousins trade to the New Orleans Pelicans just gets weirder and weirder.

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Sacramento Kings GM Vlade Divac said that he had a more appetizing deal on the table for the All-Star center. Why didn’t they take it?

Divac would not say:

Perhaps even more confusing is that Divac said that owner Vivek Ranadive did not have input on the trade process. That seems highly unlikely, given how hands-on Ranadive has been in the past regarding keeping Cousins.

“[Ranadive] didn’t have any idea,” Divac said of the trade. “I just told him what I was going to do.”

Let’s cut right to the chase here: this makes no sense.

First, because ownership in the NBA always has some kind of contact on trades, if only as a heads up. When it comes to franchise players, I’m hard-pressed to believe Ranadive wasn’t involved.

Meanwhile, what explanation could possibly be given for not pulling the trigger on a deal Divac admits was better than the one he got from New Orleans? That would appear to imply outside pressure not to take the better of the two trades, which again would point to Ranadive.

The offer from the Pelicans was one that Ranadive has reportedly been a big fan of, particularly because he feels that Buddy Hield is has the potential to be in the range of Stephen Curry.

That’s a lot to unpack.

Then we have to get to the Kings and their press release, which takes an unsubtle potshot at Cousins with regard to his character:

“It was time for a change and I decided this was the best direction for the organization, said Divac. “Winning begins with culture and character matters. With the upcoming draft class set to be one of the strongest in a decade, this trade will allow us to build the depth needed for a talented and developing roster moving forward.”

Ah, ok. Couple that with Kings play-by-play announcer Grant Napear going nuclear on Cousins moments after he was traded and you’ve got an extremely confusing, bad looking coming out of Northern California.

The Kings are a mess.

Rumor: Kings owner sees Buddy Hield having Stephen Curry potential

World guard Buddy Hield (24) of the New Orleans Pelicans (24) goes to the basket against U.S. guard Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns during the Rising Stars Challenge, part of the NBA All-Star events in New Orleans, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
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The Sacramento Kings made one of the more disastrous trades we’ve seen in recent years involving a superstar player. They traded DeMarcus Cousins — franchise center who sometimes torpedoes his own team with his temper — for a sharp-shooting rookie, a first round pick that sits outside the top 3, and a player they already traded away and are apparently unlikely to keep long term. Gross.

This is not going over well with Kings fans, but it is said to be sitting well with Sacramento owner Vivek Ranadive.

Via Twitter:

Ah, what?

Hield was an excellent scorer in college, and has the kind of range that makes him a prime candidate for the type of offenses being developed in the modern NBA. But that’s where the reasonable comparisons end for him and Curry. Come on.

For one, Hield is a true shooting guard. No part of his game is crafted to be the primary ball handler at an NBA level. He’s not the passer Stephen Curry is, nor was he even as good at that as Klay Thompson was in college.

It’s OK that the Kings like Hield in a vacuum. Within context it appears they’ve sold themselves on something patently ridiculous. We’ve never seen a player in Curry’s mold before. Hoping an incomparable player somehow matches up with his talent and skill set — and trading away Cousins because of it — is wild.

Sacramento is going to be bad. Call a Kings fan today, tell them you love them. They need you now more than ever.

Stephen Curry tries to pass off backboard to himself (VIDEO)

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NEW ORLEANS — LeBron James can do it.

Stephen Curry? Not so much.

The Golden State Warriors PG tried to pull the Trady McGrady in Sunday’s All-Star Game but found himself coming up just a little short.