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.

Stephen Curry leaves game with knee injury

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In his first night back from an ankle injury that forced him to miss six games, Stephen Curry limped off the court not to return after in third quarter Friday night after JaVale McGee fell into his knee.

He limped to the bench then eventually to the locker room after the injury.

The severity of the injury is not yet known and should become clear on Saturday after an MRI.

Curry scored 29 points and grabbed seven rebounds before being forced to leave the game, and the Warriors held on to win the game.

Obviously, if Curry is out heading into the playoffs, that changes the dynamic in the West, where the Houston Rockets were already right on the heels of the Warriors.

Pacers use late surge to beat Clippers, close in on playoffs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 28 points and the Indiana Pacers used a late 9-0 run to hold on for a 109-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, putting them on the precipice of clinching a playoff spot.

The Pacers won for only the second time in five games but can clinch a playoff berth with one more win or a Detroit loss.

Los Angeles’ fading playoff aspirations were dealt another blow. The Clippers are now three games behind Utah for the final postseason spot in the Western Conference. Utah was playing later Friday.

Lou Williams led Los Angeles with 27 points and DeAndre Jordan finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds as the Clippers lost for the fifth time in six games.

They certainly had a chance to turn things around.

After the Clippers rallied from an 18-point deficit to take an 88-87 lead with 7:36 left in the fourth quarter, the teams traded the lead 10 times before Victor Oladipo made one of two free throws to leave it tied at 100 with 2:17 to play.

Bogdanovic broke the tie with a 12-footer and the Pacers followed that with seven straight points before Williams made a layup with 12 seconds left to end the run.

The Clippers were making shots early but couldn’t pull away from Indiana.

They led 28-27 after one and allowed Indiana to use a 9-2 spurt midway through the second quarter to erase a six-point deficit and take a 40-39 lead.

The Pacers scored the final five points of the half to break a 53-all tie and broke it open early in the third when Oladipo made his first three shots of the game, including two 3-pointers to make it 66-55.

Indiana then poured it on. Thaddeus Young‘s layup with 9:02 left in the third made it a 12-point game. Milos Teodosic‘s basket briefly halted the run, but the Pacers scored the next nine points to make it 75-57 with 6:19 to go.

Los Angeles closed the third quarter on a 12-5 run to get to 82-76.


LeBron James throws touchdown pass like Cleveland fans hope Sam Darnold can

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Cleveland fans can only hope Sam Darnold is as good a passer as LeBron James.

And that his receivers are better than Jose Calderon. Or at least taller.

LeBron James grabbed a rebound and threw a perfect touchdown pass to a leaked out Jose Calderon as the Cavaliers went on to beat the Phoenix Suns Friday night.

🙌🏽 @kingjames 🎯 @jmcalderon8 🙌🏽

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By the way, LeBron made a nice dish to the returned Larry Nance Jr., too.


Report: Rockets to waive Brandan Wright

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Finally healthy, it was easy to see where big man Brandan Wright would fit on Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets — he’s an athletic big man who can get up and down the court, he knows how to finish lobs above the rim, and could provide some front line depth behind Clint Capela and Nene. That’s why the Rockets picked him up in February after he was bought out by the Grizzlies.

It didn’t work out that way. Wright played in one game with Houston before his sore knee forced him to shut it down. He has not played since.

The Rockets are moving on, waiving Wright and bringing in forward Le’Bryan Nash out of the G-League on a 10-day contract, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

With center Brandan Wright unable to return from his knee issues this season, the Rockets will release Wright, who signed as a free agent last month, a person with knowledge of the move said…

He had a minor procedure and will work on his rehab with the Rockets staff, the individual familiar with the plans said.

 “Brandan did everything positive,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He just wasn’t physically able to hang in there. We hate it that the guy isn’t part of this.”

Wright has played in just 28 total this season averaging 5 points and 3.4 rebounds in 13.6 minutes. He’s battled knee issues for a few seasons now and has not played more than 28 games in the last three. If healthy he can help teams, but we’ll see if he ever gets back into the NBA.

The Rockets use Ryan Anderson as their backup center, using Nene less of late, although how much D’Antoni can use Anderson in the playoffs due to his defensive challenges remains to be seen.

Nash, who played a season at Oklahoma State, will get his first taste of the NBA. He was a highly recruited kid out of high school, and this season has averaged 8.5 points in 19 minutes per game for the Rio Grande Vipers this season.