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.

Watch highlights of USA’s 111-74 rout of Argentina in exhibition game

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Argentina isn’t considered a medal contender heading into the Rio Olympics. Their golden generation — led by Manu Ginobili — has picked up a lot of speed on the downhill side of their careers at this point.

They didn’t provide much of a challenge for Team USA in an exhibition game Friday night in Las Vegas, one won by the USA 111-74. Kevin Durant impressed playing with his new teammates in dropping 23 points, Paul George had 18, and the Americans had their way in the game.

Which is what we’re going to see a lot of in Rio — the USA’s talent level is just steps above any other team in the tournament.

Kevin Durant: Nobody has said something negative to my face about joining Warriors

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 07:  Kevin Durant speaks to the media during the press conference where he was introduced as a member of the Golden State Warriors after they signed him as a free agent on July 7, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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When Kevin Durant chose the Warriors, he received criticism from all angles.

Fans burned his jersey. Charles Barkley decried the decision. Markieff Morris said, “That ain’t right.” Durant’s former Thunder teammates leaked their displeasure with the process.

Durant was so reluctant to face the backlash, he stayed in his bed luxurious rental house for two days.

It, uh, worked.

Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports:

Though he has heard some criticism from Barkley and fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, various talking heads and people in social media who believe he has cheated the system and cut corners to a ring, Durant said the reaction to his choice hasn’t been too bad: “All that stuff happens on the Internet. I haven’t had one person come to me and say anything negative. … It’s easy for the critics on the outside to tell you what to do, to tell you how to play. I’m the one that’s going through it, so I can’t really worry about the outside noise. The work don’t stop. Everything stays the same.”

This is a good reminder how insulated NBA players, especially stars, can be.

And it adds to why Durant signing with Golden State makes sense. While we’re debating his legacy and discussing the backlash (and the backlash to the backlash and the backlash to the backlash to the backlash and the…), he’ll be playing high-level basketball with his friends in a desirable city for a max salary.

Sure, it’s not all rosy. Durant altered his relationship with his friend Russell Westbrook, and Durant will have to return to Oklahoma City for a game. There, he’ll face plenty of booing fans.

But, all in all, Durant should have little trouble tuning out the critics.

They’re too far away for him to hear them much.

US romps over Argentina in first Olympic exhibition

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 22:  Paul George #13 of the United States passes the ball up the court against Argentina during a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on July 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won 111-74.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) New team. Same old result.

Full of new star power – and dominant on the inside – the U.S. men’s basketball team opened its bid for a third straight Olympic gold medal Friday night with a 111-74 exhibition romp over Argentina.

A game that was over almost before it began showed the U.S. has to improve its shooting and conditioning. It also showed that there is plenty of talent among a group of players that seem to want to play well for each other and their country despite the absence of Olympic stalwarts Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.

“There’s a willingness from these guys to work on anything we need and to work hard,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “These are very good guys.”

A U.S. team that hasn’t lost a game in 10 years had little trouble with Argentina, which some consider a medal contender in Rio. Paul George scored 14 first-half points, Kevin Durant added 12, and the U.S. blew open the game early before an appreciative crowd on the Las Vegas Strip.

Even with Bryant retired and James taking this Olympics off, there was no real talent drop off on a team heavily favored to win gold once again. The depth of the U.S. showed as coach Mike Krzyzewski rotated players in and out, searching for the right combinations on a team with 10 new players from 2012.

“Nothing is for sure,” Durant said. “We want to get this gold and right now we have a job to do. We have to prepare the right way.”

Count the Argentines among those who were impressed at the first real game for the Olympic team.

“Obviously, they have the best talent and the best size in the world,” Argentina’s Luis Scola said. “That’s a big difference in their favor.”

The game was the first of five exhibitions the U.S. will play before traveling to Rio to defend the gold medal. The U.S. team has spent the last week practicing in Las Vegas in preparation for the tour and the games.

There weren’t any opening night jitters, though the U.S. shot only 45 percent and missed all but 14 of 41 3-pointers. With DeMarcus Cousins pulling down 15 rebounds in just 16 minutes, the U.S. dominated inside, outrebounding Argentina 53-30.

“The big thing is getting in shape and they are not there where they will be,” Krzyzewski said. “But we really have an inside presence on the boards.”

For Durant the game was a chance to play with a pair of his new Golden State teammates, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. It was also a chance for Durant and Carmelo Anthony – the only two players from the 2012 team – to demonstrate that this will be their team in Rio.

Both players cheered from the bench as the minutes were spread around, jumping up to clap for teammates. Every U.S. player got quality time, with Green’s 12 minutes the least played by any American.

“We’re going to have fun and we’re going to enjoy ourselves,” Anthony said. “If it’s not fun it’s not worth it. We’re going to enjoy ourselves but at the same time we’re going to be focused in trying to get that gold medal.”

Durant finished as the game’s high scorer with 23 points, while George had 18 and Carmelo Anthony 17. Andres Nocioni had 15 for Argentina, while Manu Ginobili added 11 for Argentina, which lost to the U.S. in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics.

Though at times little defense was played, there was plenty of offense to keep the crowd at the new T-Mobile Arena happy. The teams combined to put up 70 3-point attempts, 41 of them from the U.S.

Oddsmakers had made the U.S. a prohibitive 29.5-point favorite in what at times looked a lot like an NBA All-Star game. But while the U.S. team is loaded with 12 NBA players, the Argentines had only three on their roster and the talent difference showed.

While the team is full of new players, the gold medal run will be the last for Krzyzewski, the national coach for the last decade. His teams have lost only one game during his reign, which will end after the Olympics with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich taking over.

Kevin Durant gets first taste of playing with Warriors teammates in USA exhibition

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 22:  Kevin Durant #5 of the United States drives against Facundo Campazzo #7 of Argentina during a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on July 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won 111-74.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS — It wasn’t the highest of stakes, but after a heavily hyped announcement and all the fallout that resulted from it, Kevin Durant has now played organized basketball with some of his new Golden State Warriors teammates.

In a 111-74 blowout win over Argentina in an exhibition game at Las Vegas’ brand-new T-Mobile Arena, Durant shared the court with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, who will make up three-fifths of the most formidable starting lineup in the NBA. Durant looked plenty comfortable, leading all scorers with 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting and making four three-pointers. Thompson and Green came off the bench, but the three Warriors shared the court in the second quarter.

Not that Durant was really thinking about it.

“I was just lost in the game,” he said afterwards. “I didn’t really notice, I was lost in the game and trying to play the right way. We worry about what Coach K wants us to do. I’m sure they felt the same way. We didn’t talk about it.”

Green concurred.

“It was great,” he said of playing with Durant for the first time. “You don’t really pay attention to the fact that we’re teammates [in the NBA]. We’re all teammates. We’re all going for the same goal.”

To be sure, these exhibition games — and even the real games in Rio next month — are nothing like what the Warriors will experience playing together when the regular season kicks off in the fall. The Olympics feature the top talent from all over the world, but the disparity in talent between the USA’s group and any other country is so staggering that most of the games are likely going to turn out like this one.

Green didn’t want to compare this experience with something like the NBA Finals.

“It’s a little different,” Green said. “Because when you’re in the Finals, No. 1 you play a team seven times, No. 2 you already know the guys. We know [Manu] Ginobili, [Andres] Nocioni, [Luis] Scola. We’ve played against those guys a bunch of times, but not at a level where you know everything they do. When you’re in the Finals, I know everything Kyrie does. It’s just a matter of, can you stop it or not? Just because you know he’s gonna do it doesn’t mean you can stop it. Here, it’s a little different because of these guys we’ve never played before.”

Next week, Durant will play his first game at his new home when the USA faces off with China on Tuesday in Oakland. They’re all looking forward to it, especially Green.

“Definitely looking forward to getting back home,” Green said. “I think it will be something special, especially with the KD announcement. Him coming in there for the first time with a USA jersey. It’ll be pretty unique.”

The last time Durant played at Oracle Arena, the circumstances were very different. Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder took an unexpected 3-1 lead over the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before dropping three straight games, leading to a Warriors trip to the Finals and, ultimately, Durant’s exit from Oklahoma City.

This time around, Durant will have the fans at Oracle on his side. Not that he needs any preparation.

Said Green, with a smile: “He knows all about Oracle.”