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.

Play vs. Rest: For many NBA teams, it’s still a real battle

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 13: Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James #23  watch from the bench during the game against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Pistons defeated Cleveland 112-110 in overtime.  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 David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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MIAMI (AP) — There are 27 games remaining on Cleveland’s regular-season schedule, and perhaps only one person over that stretch will be able to stop LeBron James.

That would be Cavs coach Tyronn Lue.

He has to protect James from himself.

Finding the right time to rest players is a conundrum that many NBA coaches have wrestled with for years, even more so now given the ways teams have been able to apply technology to the formula and use personalized data to help their medical and athletic training staffs determine when someone simply needs a break. The rest topic seems to become more prevalent as the season winds down, particularly after the All-Star break, with teams in the playoff race trying to ensure top players are healthy for the postseason.

As James nears 50,000 minutes for his NBA career – a milestone that he’ll likely reach during the upcoming playoffs – he abhors the idea of taking nights off. Yet there will almost certainly be nights over the next few weeks where James’ uniform stays on its game-night hanger, and fans who plunked down big money to see him play will have to deal with disappointment.

“Me being a competitor, me loving the game that I’ve loved every single day, I don’t always have the right assessment of me playing a lot of minutes,” James said. “That’s why I have coach Lue and the coaching staff and the training staff to be like `Hey, LeBron … let’s take it easy today.’ Me, I don’t ever want to take a day off.”

Only seven players appeared in all 82 of their teams’ regular-season games in 2015-16. It is becoming more and more of a rarity; in 2005-06 there were 14 players who appeared in 82 games, in 1995-96 the number was 25.

“At times, it may be necessary for a guy to rest whether if it’s on the road or it’s at home,” Toronto guard DeMar DeRozan said. “It’s a thin line.”

Some coaches make no secret about their desire to rest players. Foremost among them, of course, is San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, he who famously sat Tim Duncan for a game in 2012 citing “old” as the official reason, and who decided that Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili needed rest in the third game of this season – which just happened to be the Spurs’ home opener.

“It’s ridiculous,” Popovich said of the Spurs having to play four games in the season’s first six nights.

The schedule starting next season will have the 82 games played over a longer stretch of time, which NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hopes relieve some of the rest issues. When the Cavs sat James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love for a game at Memphis earlier this season, even some Cavs fans in attendance expressed their disappointment .

“The science has gotten to the point where there is that direct correlation that we’re aware of between fatigue and injuries,” Silver said. “And as tough as it is on our fans to miss one of their favorite players for a game, it’s far better than having them get injured and be out for long periods of time. So we’re always still looking to strike that right balance.”

Memphis coach David Fizdale said he listens to the Grizzlies’ medical staff when deciding when the time is right to give one of his players a break. Unfortunately, if there are many Marc Gasol fans in Minnesota, his nights to sit included the ones that fell on both of Memphis’ trips to visit the Timberwolves this season.

“Fans pay their hard-earned money to see you play,” Golden State guard Klay Thompson said. “The young guys like me, I don’t need to rest, but the old guys, the old superstars, they need a game or two off here and there. . Yeah, you feel for the fans.”

The vast majority of players polled at All-Star weekend said if it were up to them and they weren’t dealing with an injury, they’d play every night. Houston’s James Harden, who last missed a game two years ago and that was because of suspension, said he takes pride in not only playing every game but playing particularly well on the second night of back-to-backs.

No one has played more games since the start of the 2010-11 season than James, in large part because he rarely sits and because each of his last six seasons have all gone until the NBA Finals.

He ranks No. 2 in average minutes per night this season – topped by only Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, by a mere 9 seconds.

“I’m comfortable with whatever coach wants me to do out on the floor,” James said. “Whatever he gives me to do, I can figure it out.”

Memphis has healthy roster for playoff push in stretch run

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates his three point basket for a lead over the LA Clippers with James Ennis #8 during the final seconds of the fourth quarter at Staples Center on November 16, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Grizzlies won 111-107.   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 Harry How/Getty Images)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis Grizzlies’ latest injury reports need a second glance, they appear a bit suspect.

Nobody is listed as hurt or nursing an injury. If someone is out, it’s simply for rest.

No knee problems requiring forward Chandler Parsons to sit. No ankle issues for reserve forward Brandan Wright. No lingering problems from point guard Mike Conley‘s broken back earlier this season, and no more groin issues for defensive stalwart Tony Allen.

There’s not even foot problems for All-Star center Marc Gasol.

Having no injuries to report is a relief for a team that has been hit hard the last two years. The Grizzlies are 34-24 and sixth in the Western Conference heading down the stretch.

“I think our chemistry is starting to come,” forward Zach Randolph said. “Guys are starting to fill into their roles and starting to play a lot better, especially on the defensive end.”

It was just a year ago on Feb. 20, 2016, that Gasol had season-ending surgery to repair his broken right foot, sending the Grizzlies spiraling into a historical season for injuries that finished with Memphis using an NBA-record 28 players . Memphis limped into its sixth consecutive playoff appearance and was mercifully swept out of the first round by the San Antonio Spurs.

Memphis’ injury woes seemed to pick up where last season left off for the first three months of this season. Conley missed 11 games, nine with broken vertebrae in his lower back . Wright, hampered by knee issues after signing with Memphis in 2015, dealt with left ankle issues the first 49 games. Parsons, the Grizzlies’ major free agent acquisition last offseason, missed 17 games with knee problems and still doesn’t look completely healed.

That left Memphis with only nine players for a few games.

“It’s nice to have more bullets, definitely,” first-year coach David Fizdale said. “It was fun winning with the Nasty Nine, but it didn’t feel good going into every game with the Nasty Nine, I tell you that.”

Fizdale, hired away from Miami where he assistant head coach, has had players miss a combined 130 games forcing him to adjust lineups regularly while settling into his first head coaching role. As the Grizzlies prepare for the stretch run, Fizdale says he feels prepared for anything.

“I think that was the good part about everything that has happened to us this year,” Fizdale said. “It has prepared me for different things. Our team doesn’t panic when guys go down or when we have to rest a guy. I think that part of it was good for me from a learning standpoint.”

Gasol has recovered so well that he made his third All-Star appearance Sunday. He is averaging 20.6 points and 6.2 rebounds, along with 4.3 assists. At Fizdale’s urging, Gasol has added a new weapon to his post play and midrange jumpers. The 7-foot-1 Spaniard has converted 77 3-pointers this season – a stark improvement from the 12 combined over his previous eight seasons.

Conley also has improved, averaging 19.3 points and 6.2 assists shooting 41 percent from outside the arc. He says he doesn’t notice the back bones he broke Nov. 28 against Charlotte at all.

“I (don’t) think twice about going in the paint or anything,” Conley said. “I’m excited about that and looking forward to a healthy second half.”

With 24 games left, Memphis is only two games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage to start the playoffs. The Grizzlies, who visit Indiana on Friday night, also have an eight-game lead ahead of Denver for the final playoff spot, putting them on course for a seventh consecutive postseason appearance. Only San Antonio and Atlanta have longer active streaks in the NBA.

If the Grizzlies’ current run of good health continues.

Report: Jazz have some interest in reacquiring Deron Williams, no deal imminent

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 01:  Deron Williams #8 of the Dallas Mavericks brings the ball down the floor against the Charlotte Hornets during their game at Spectrum Center on December 1, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. 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 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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I’m not sold that this trade idea has a lot of legs to it, I’d be surprised if it happened, but it is interesting.

The Utah Jazz have talked to the Dallas Mavericks about trading for — and bringing back — Deron Williams, reports Tim MacMahon and Marc Stein of ESPN.

No deal appeared imminent Tuesday night, sources said, but Utah has registered interest in bringing Williams back to his original team, with Dallas open to trading both Williams and center Andrew Bogut in advance of Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET trade deadline.

Williams can’t be traded without his consent, thanks to his one-year, $9 million deal with the Mavericks after he played the previous season in Dallas. The 32-year-old would have to forfeit his free-agent Bird rights if traded to another team.

The Jazz are considering another point guard they can trust come the playoffs, and someone who can lighten the load for George Hill, who has battled injuries for stretches this season. Williams has had injury issues this season as well, but he does love Utah and still has a home there.

The Mavs are looking to get assets for the post-Dirk rebuilding to come, guys who go around Harrison Barnes. Plus, they have rookie point guard Yogi Ferrell and J.J. Barea, the latter of whom is expected back from injury in the coming weeks.

DeMarcus Cousins says touching goodbye to Sacramento on Instagram

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 07:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings takes on the Dallas Mavericks in the second half at American Airlines Center on December 7, 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 Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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DeMarcus Cousins loves Sacramento.

While his reputation is that of a diva personality that can tear apart a locker room — and he has earned some of that — he wears that big heart on his sleeve in every aspect of his life. In Sacramento that meant he has been very active in the community, done a lot of charity work (and not dragging camera crews around to video it), and giving of himself to the people of the city.

The people of New Orleans are going to love that aspect of Cousins. But first Cousins wanted to say goodbye to the only NBA city he has called home, and that’s going to be emotional. Cousins posted this on Instagram.

Words can't even express how hard it is for me to have to leave the city of Sacramento and all of the amazing people that I have met while out here. I gave it my all for you and you gave it right back. The most amazing fans on the planet and I just want you to know that your support has meant everything to me. It's hard to believe that it was seven years ago that this young kid from Alabama showed up in Sacramento scared and not knowing a soul. As I look back upon my time here, I wouldn't trade it for anything. I have met so many amazing people, many of whom went out of their way to make me feel right at home from day one. Each and every one of you have played such an important part in my life and helping me become the person I am today. I don't just consider you all as fans, you all are my family…and a couple thousand miles aren't going to change a thing. Thank you Sacramento. #LoyaltyisLove

A post shared by DeMarcus Cousins (@boogiecousins) on