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.

LeBron James scores 44, reaches assist mark as Cavaliers down Hornets

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CLEVELAND (AP) LeBron James scored 17 of his season-high 44 points in the fourth quarter and reached another career milestone as the Cleveland Cavaliers won their fourth straight, 116-105 over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday night.

James did it all, adding 10 assists and nine rebounds in 43 minutes. He took over in the fourth quarter, scoring 13 straight during one stretch to help the Cavs hold on.

As the final seconds ticked off, James stood at midcourt and spun the ball on his index finger as the crowd roared.

James, who moved into ninth place on the career scoring list Friday, recorded his 7,000th assist in the first half, becoming the first frontcourt player in NBA history to reach the plateau. James is the only player with 27,000 points and 7,000 assists.

John Wall, Bradley Beal spark Wizards in late run to beat Bucks

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WASHINGTON (AP) John Wall had 24 points and 11 assists, Bradley Beal added 20 points, and the Washington Wizards used a late 11-0 run to beat the Milwaukee Bucks 110-105 on Saturday night.

Kelly Oubre, Jr. scored a career-high 19 points for the Wizards, who have won three of four.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee with 28 points and 13 rebounds. His two free throws gave the Bucks a 100-95 lead with 4:28 left, but the Wizards rallied while the Bucks went cold.

Wall’s driving layup gave the Wizards a 101-100 lead with 3:03 left. Oubre then got a steal and his dunk at the other end made it 103-100.

Bradley Beal’s driving layup pushed the lead to 105-100 and Wall soon added a free throw.

Mirza Teletovic‘s 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds left pulled the Bucks to 108-105, but Beal hit two free throws to seal the win. Teletovic finished with 25 points on 8-for-12 shooting.

Wall scored nine of his points in the fourth quarter.

The Bucks, who committed 20 turnovers, have lost three of four.

Trailing by eight early in the third quarter, the Wizards went on a 16-3 run and led 70-65 before the Bucks answered to make it 77-77 after three.

The first half featured seven lead changes.

Washington trailed by nine after one quarter, but opened the second with a 12-0 run fueled by their reserves and the score was tied 52-52 at halftime.

TIP-INS

Bucks: Milwaukee shot 14 for 23 (60.9 percent) in the first quarter, including 4 for 7 from 3-point range. … Bucks have hit at least 10 3s in each of the last three games. … After scoring 27 points in each of his last two games, Jabari Parker had eight points.

Wizards: It was Wall’s 12th double-double of the season. . Gortat finished with nine points and 14 rebounds. . Wizards have won four of their last five versus the Bucks. . The Wizards have won back-to-back games for just the second time this season. . Markeiff Morris (15 points) and Otto Porter, Jr. (10) were the other Wizards in double figures.

UP NEXT

Bucks: At Toronto on Monday.

Wizards: At Miami on Monday.

Paul George has 37 points to lead Pacers over Blazers 118-111

Indiana Pacers forward Paul George reacts after scoring a basket against the Portland Trail Blazers in the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/R Brent Smith)
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Paul George scored a season-high 37 points to lead the Indiana Pacers over the Portland Trail Blazers 118-111 on Saturday night.

George made five 3-pointers, and Thaddeus Young hit six 3s while getting 24 points and nine rebounds. Myles Turner added 14 points for the Pacers, who had lost five straight regular season games to Portland.

C.J. McCollum made a career-high seven 3-pointers and had a season-best 34 points for the Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard had 33 points behind five 3s.

George scored 13 straight points in the fourth quarter for Indiana. He was fouled on the go-ahead basket with 4:36 remaining and completed the three-point play to give the Pacers a 108-105 lead.

Indiana didn’t even take its first lead until Al Jefferson was fouled on a basket and made the bonus free throw to put the Pacers ahead for the first time 99-98 with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter. Then McCollum scored seven straight points to give the Trail Blazers the lead again before George took over.

The Pacers trailed by 20 points at one point after Portland didn’t waste much time taking a lead right from the start.

Lillard, who scored 28 points in Portland’s 131-109 win over Indiana on Nov. 30, had a big first quarter with 19 points and five 3-pointers.

He made back-to-back 3s to put the Trail Blazers ahead 26-11 with 5:59 remaining in the first and McCollum’s 3-pointer with 8:09 left in the second quarter gave the Trail Blazers a 58-38 lead.

George made back-to-back 3-pointers with under a minute to go in the first half. His 3 with 25.3 second remaining put the Pacers within seven to trail 71-64 at the half.

TIP-INS

Trail Blazers: Their 44 points in the first quarter were the most Portland has scored in a quarter this season. … Portland finished with 16 3-pointers. … Lillard had nine assists. … Mason Plumlee had eight points and nine rebounds.

Pacers: Jefferson finished with 10 points off the bench. … Monta Ellis had 10 points and five assists.

UP NEXT

Trail Blazers: Monday they travel to Los Angeles to play the Clippers.

Pacers: Monday they host Charlotte and try to snap a four-game losing streak to the Hornets.

Stephen Curry says the Warriors “sucked” but his Christmas light necklace is cool (VIDEO)

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Stephen Curry had one message after the Golden State Warriors lost to the Memphis Grizzlies, 110-89, on Saturday night.

Well, maybe he had two.

  1. “We sucked tonight.”
  2. Check out this sweet Christmas light necklace.

I’ll show you what I mean.

Via Twitter:

That’s a pretty sweet postgame fashion choice, even while the Warriors had an abysmal 88.5 offensive rating in the loss and Curry himself scored just 17 points on 4-of-15 shooting, including 3-of-11 from deep.

Memphis found a way to stifle Curry all night, including forcing him into airballs and rejecting his attempts at the rim with thunderous blocks.

Golden State was without center Zaza Pachulia, who missed the game with a right wrist injury. Anderson Varejao started in his place, but there wasn’t a Warriors starter who finished the game with a positive +/- despite Memphis playing somewhat pedestrian.

Cool necklace, bummer for Golden State fans as the team drops to 20-4. That makes them, uh, well still No. 1 in the Western Conference I guess. No need to panic in the middle of a road trip that ends with New Orleans, Minnesota, then back home for New York and Portland.