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.

Sixers sign Mo Williams off waivers, then waive him again, sign Chasson Randle to 10 day contract

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 22: Mo Williams #52 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with fans during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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This is how the salary cap game is played.

Mo Williams is dead money, owed $2.2 million this season by the Cleveland Cavaliers, he decided he didn’t want to play anymore. The Cavaliers kept Williams on the roster and the books in case they could use that salary in a trade, and they did shipping him to Atlanta as a throw in with the Kyle Korver trade. Atlanta then traded him to Denver, because the Nuggets wanted to add $2.2 million to their payroll and bring them closer to the salary floor. But they didn’t want him on the roster, so they waived him.

Enter the Philadephia 76ers.

But the Sixers were not done.

Now we see if one of the handful of teams with a worse record than the Sixers decides they would rather have the salary on their books.

To be clear, teams under the salary floor still have to pay that money to the players. Let’s say a team ends up $2 million under that floor, then the team pays $2 million to be divided among the players on that roster. So, bringing in a player like Williams just saves them cash.

NBA report: Wizards should have gotten technical for assistant coach being on court vs. Knicks

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The Knicks were down 113-110 with just 13.7 seconds remaining when Carmelo Anthony passed to an open Courtney Lee, who passed up a clean look at a 3-pointer from the corner, instead passing to Brandon Jennings, who turned the ball over, and the Wizards got the win.

After the game, Lee said he didn’t shoot because he felt and heard what he thought was a defender near him, but it turned out to be Wizards assistant coach Sidney Lowe, who came onto the court and barked words implying he was switching out onto Lee.

The NBA’s Last Two Minutes Report sides with Lee, saying the Wizards should have gotten a technical. From the report:

A WAS assistant coach stands on the floor close to Lee (NYK) for several seconds and should have been assessed a technical foul.

This is an area the NBA needs to crack down on, coaches walk out onto the court all the time. Far too often. Frankly, I have an issue with coaches on the bench stomping their feet or yelling at shooters near their sideline, but Lowe took it a step further.

Much like telling a six-year-old to stop licking their shoes this isn’t something NBA officials should have to deal with, it should be common sense, but the league needs to crack down on coaches stepping onto the court. Maybe this will push the league to start enforcing that rule.

 

PBT Extra: Russell Westbrook was snubbed as All-Star starter, but worse snubs coming

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Should Russell Westbrook have been a starter for the All-Star game over Stephen Curry? Sure. Going on stats from the first half of this season — when Westbrook is averaging a triple double — Westbrook deserves the nod. But I have a hard time getting worked up over the fans choosing the two-time MVP to start the All-Star Game.

The real snubs are coming.

When it comes to choosing the All-Star Game reserves, the coaches are facing some tough choices. How many point guards in the East? Does Joel Embiid deserve to go? Kristaps Porzingis? Out West the questions shift to Mike Conley, Damian Lillard and others.

I talk about those tough choices and who I would pick in this latest PBT Extra.

 

Bucks’ Greg Monroe says he’s not thinking of player-option decision

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 19: Greg Monroe #15 of the Milwaukee Bucks is defended by Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat during a game  at American Airlines Arena on January 19, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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The Bucks reportedly already planned for Greg Monroe to opt in after this season, a reasonable conclusion considering they tried to dump him in a trade all summer and found no takers.

But Monroe has quietly boosted his stock this season. Coming off Milwaukee’s bench, he’s still a skilled interior scorer. But he’s defending and rebounding better, using his quick hands to strip opponents and taking plenty of charges.

Could he even decline his $17,884,176 player option?

Monroe, via Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“I’m not thinking about anything like the off-season right now. There is a time and place for everything. If and when I have to make a decision, that time is not right now.”

The time might approach more quickly than Monroe expects. If the Bucks shop him again, potential trade partners will want to know Monroe’s intention. Some might prefer the flexibility created by him opting out, and others would like the certainty of having a productive player at a reasonable-enough cost next season. But all would want to know where they stand.

That said, it’s hardly a give Milwaukee moves Monroe. Though he has backed up John Henson and Miles Plumlee, Monroe (21.2 minutes per game) plays more than both. He’s a valuable contributor on a team jockeying for playoff position.

Most importantly, Monroe appears to complement Bucks franchise player Giannis Antetokounmpo well. Antetokounmpo scores more (23.5 to 26.3 points per 36 minutes) and more efficiently (59.0% to 65.7% true shooting percentage) from when he plays without Monroe to when he plays with Monroe, and Milwaukee’s offense improves accordingly (104.3 to 114.6 points per 100 possessions).