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.

JaVale McGee apparently makes Warriors regular-season roster

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 15:  JaVale McGee #1 of the Golden State Warriors brings the ball up the court against the Los Angeles Lakers during their preseason game at T-Mobile Arena on October 15, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Golden State won 112-107. 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 Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Steve Kerr warned us, but it’s still difficult to digest.

The NBA’s best team will have the league’s most foolhardy player.

Yes, the Warriors are apparently keeping JaVale McGee.

Golden State waived its other three players without guaranteed salaries today: Elliot Williams, Phil Pressey and Cameron Jones. That drops the Warriors’ roster, including McGee, to 15, the regular-season limit. Unless Golden State prefers to open the season with a vacancy, McGee made the team.

McGee earned the job with a strong preseason. No Warriors match his rim protection, giving him clear value in certain matchups

Zaza Pachulia remains Golden State’s starting center, and Draymond Green will play plenty at the position. But I wouldn’t be surprised if McGee outperforms an aging Anderson Varejao (whose primary skill is flopping) and a rookie Damian Jones (who’s recovering from injury) to become a rotation regular.

McGee also has potential to add comic relief to what’s already a tremendous viewing experience.

Report: Kings and Thunder were ‘seriously engaged’ on Rudy Gay-Cameron Payne trade until Payne got hurt

DALLAS, TX - MARCH 03:  Rudy Gay #8 of the Sacramento Kings during the first half at American Airlines Center on March 3, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Kings are still looking for answers at point guard.

Darren Collison? Not for the season’s first eight games, at least.

Ty Lawson? Um…

Seth Curry? Too late.

Ricky Rubio? Not right now.

Goran Dragic? I mean, maybe, I guess.

Cameron Payne?

If it weren’t for Payne’s foot injury, perhaps Rudy Gay would play for the Thunder.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The Kings were seriously engaged with Oklahoma City on a Rudy Gay deal that would’ve included the Thunder’s second-year point guard, Cameron Payne, but those talks stalled after Payne broke his foot in September, league sources said.

This suggest the Kings are not as steadfast on keeping Gay as they’ve suggested, so perhaps we’ll see more trade rumors involving him.

A deal based around Gay and Payne would’ve made sense for both teams.

Sacramento would get a younger player (22 to Gay’s 30) and someone under greater team control (three more years on a rookie-scale contract then restricted free agency rather than Gay planning to opt out and become an unrestricted free agent). Payne would give the Kings much-needed hope at point guard, and he could grow with a team trying to retool around DeMarcus Cousins.

Oklahoma City is far more capable of winning now, even without Kevin Durant, and Gay would help by replacing some of Durant’s scoring punch at small forward. Such a deal could hinder the Thunder down the road, but they seem so intent on making a statement behind Russell Westbrook this season. The bigger concern than swapping Payne’s future for Gay’s present might be Gay opting in and interrupting Oklahoma City’s bigger goals for next summer.

Alas, Payne’s injury puts such a trade on hold, if not closing the window for it entirely.

Elton Brand retires ‘for real, this time’

BOSTON, MA - MAY 12:  Elton Brand #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers celebrates a shot in the first quarter against the Boston Celtics in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 12, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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Elton Brandretired” last year, though he left the door open for a return.

The 76ers, desperate for a veteran presence, signed him last January. They even re-signed him this offseason.

But Brand wont stick with Philadelphia into the regular season.

Jessica Camerato of CSN Philly:

Brand had a $1 million guarantee on his contract. It’s unclear how much, if any, of that money he’ll get. The first $980,431 would come from the 76ers, any more would come from the league. Philadelphia is far enough below the salary floor to give him a parting gift with minimal team-building constraint.

There had been talk of Brand surviving from the 20-man offseason roster to the 15-man regular-season roster, but this provides clarity for the 76ers. Undrafted rookies James Webb III, Brandon Paul, Cat Barber and Shawn Long are the other likely cuts.

If this is truly the end for Brand, he had a fantastic career since the Bulls drafted him No. 1 overall in 1999. Neither his peak (seventh in 2006 MVP voting, leading the Clippers that year to their first playoff-series victory in Los Angeles) nor longevity (17 seasons, including eight averaging at 20 points and nine rebounds per game) have been properly appreciated.

J.R. Smith denies racism toward Jeremy Lin

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 19:  Jeremy Lin #17 of the New York Knicks reacts with teammate J.R. Smith #8 during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at Madison Square Garden on February 19, 2012 in New York City. 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 Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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Jeremy Lin sensibly noted how his Asian-American heritage has influenced his basketball career, for better or worse.

Among the negatives: It made it harder for Lin to gain acceptance as a basketball player.

But did J.R. Smith show that prejudice against Lin while they played together with the Knicks? That’s what Craig Carton claimed when Lin appeared on Boomer & Carton.

  • Carton: “Let me say directly what we think went on, and you tell me if you felt it or if I’m right. There’s the thought – and I believe this, so I’ll say it’s my thought, maybe no one else’s – that there’s a racial component that because you’re a Chinese-American player, that certain African-American players in your locker room, J.R. Smith being one of them, did not want to accept you as a ballplayer. And when you were offered money to play and this big contract comes your way, there’s resentment because of where you’re from and who you are. Did you ever feel that?”
  • Lin: “Yeah, I don’t know. That’s such a hard question, because I’ve never spoken to him or anybody directly about it. So, it’s all speculation. Do I think that – I’ve never spoken to J.R. about it. I’ve never spoken to whoever else you might think about it. And so it’s hard for me, because I don’t want come out and speculate. I will just say, the one thing I will say is that race has been a huge part of my journey ever since I was a child trying to play basketball. So, I do think there’s always that type of component that would be involved, but again, I’ve always said, it’s a double-edged sword. It comes with the good. It comes with the bad. And the bad is, yeah, sometimes I’m different. I look different, and I’m treated different, and that’s a negative thing. And in some ways that’s a really positive thing, too. Linsanity wouldn’t have been Linsanity if I was white or black or whatever. Part of the reason why it was so crazy is because I’m Asian. So to answer your question, I do think race definitely plays a part into it. I think it always has. And to what degree or to how much or to who felt what, that I can’t really specifically give a good answer for you.”

Smith responded emphatically:

I can’t speak to what’s in Smith’s mind, but I’m going to need better evidence than Carton’s unsubstantiated claim that Smith showed racism toward Lin before I believe it.