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.

Adidas has unveiled the “James Harden 1,” his first signature shoe with company

James Harden 1
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The new James Harden signature shoe is out, and just like the player himself there is nothing quite like them out there.

Adidas signed Harden last year, and they went to work on a new signature shoe, a process Harden discussed in the press release about the shoes.

“This was my first time creating a shoe from the ground up,” Harden said. “With Adidas, we wanted to stand for something different, be true to who we are and that’s how we separate ourselves. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and all the work we put in together is what makes this genuine. We’re open to each others’ opinions and we weren’t going to just put shoes on the shelves and say ‘This is James Harden.’ It’s built for how I play and you’ll see my style, different moods, the little details and stories that represent who I am.”

We’ll see how the shoe-buying public responds, but Adidas has banked on Harden with that 13-year, $200 million contract. The Curry line with Under Armour are doing well, although LeBron James and Kevin Durant dominate the market of guys still playing (of course, Jordans still dominate the market). Adidas wants to get a better foothold in the market.

Adidas released four different colorways of the Harden 1. Here’s one more look.

James Harden 1 colorways

Sure they’re meaningless, but you should still watch best plays of preseason

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In the grand scheme of the NBA season, these plays are meaningless.

That doesn’t make them any less entertaining.

So for your Sunday morning entertainment, here are the best plays of the preseason, as compiled by the people at Yes, there is some Stephen Curry shake-and-bake, some Kyrie Irving step back jumpers, but mostly there are a lot of dunks.

What else have you got to do for the next 12 minutes? Settle in and enjoy.

Special pass: Cavs’ Kyrie Irving to give championship ring to dad

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)

CLEVELAND (AP) — Kyrie Irving is prepared to make a most memorable pass.

Cleveland’s star point guard said he’s going to give his diamond NBA championship ring to his father, Drederick. Irving, whose 3-pointer in the final two minutes of Game 7 helped the Cavs complete their historic comeback over Golden State in the finals, said following Saturday’s practice that he intends to give the keepsake to his dad.

“I give my dad almost everything,” he said. “So, every accomplishment, every MVP award, every trophy that I’ve had since I was probably about 13 or 12, I’ve given to my dad.”

Irving and his father, who was playing professionally in Australia, where the point guard was born, have an exceptionally tight bond. Kyrie’s mom died when he was young, pulling him closer to his dad.

The Cavs will receive their rings before Tuesday’s home opener against the New York Knicks. That’s also the night the Indians, who play next door to Quicken Loans Arena in Progressive Field, will host Game 1 of the World Series.

With the championship banner for any Cleveland team since 1964 also being raised, the Cavs moved the starting time up to 7:30 so fans would be able to watch the ceremony before the Indians play.

Earlier this week, superstar LeBron James and Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said they expect the ceremony to be emotional. Irving, too, said it will be great to reflect on the team’s accomplishment before beginning a new season.

“There definitely is a special aspect to it,” he said. “You don’t want to shy away from that, but it also is the start of a new journey. So you just try to find a middle ground between that and just try not to get too high or too low. The crowd will be very enthused, not only for us getting our rings but the world series is starting, which is unbelievable. So, I just try to stay even keel with it, not get too high or too low. I’m excited to give my dad the ring and really gift it to him, and now it will be time to turn over a new leaf.”

Irving is expected to play in the opener. On Tuesday, he left an exhibition in Columbus with a tight left calf but said he’s better.

Expectations sky-high as Jazz look to break playoff drought

PHOENIX, AZ - OCTOBER 05:  Gordon Hayward #20 (second from right) of the Utah Jazz stands with teammates in a huddle during the first half of the preseason NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on October 5, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Joe Johnson had options of where to chase a ring in the twilight of his career and the seven-time All-Star chose to sign a two-year deal with a Utah Jazz team that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2012.

Johnson, 35, bought into the widespread belief that the Jazz will improve from young up-and-comers to a competitive playoff team.

“It was the talent level and knowing from talking to (coach) Quin (Snyder), they wanted some veteran guys around these young guys and help lead the way,” Johnson said. “That was probably the biggest part.”

That’s the story on the Jazz entering the 2016-17 season: a team no longer on the cusp, but one with postseason expectations.

Snyder and general manager Dennis Lindsey have tried to temper those expectations, but the offseason moves to add veterans spoke volumes. The Jazz traded for George Hill and Boris Diaw and signed Johnson – ending the slow rebuild. The league, however, won’t see what this roster looks like at full strength for some time.

Gordon Hayward is out for an unknown amount of time with a broken finger on his non-shooting hand. Derrick Favors played just one preseason game due to a knee issue. Key reserve Alec Burks still hasn’t returned from arthroscopic surgery to his knee and ankle in June.

So the Jazz didn’t get to fully integrate the new veterans with the established players during the preseason.

“I feel like we’ve got a lot done in spite of (injuries),” Snyder said. “(Diaw, Hill and Johnson) have probably played more preseason minutes than I intended. … It has given them a chance to get acclimated. Their roles, particularly Joe’s, will probably change and evolve when Gordon comes back. Outside of that, there’s challenges. You just don’t know. Certain players, certain lineups. … I don’t think we were able to build quite the connectivity that we’d like at this point. But I felt like this was a team that was going to take a while to develop, too. Hopefully it doesn’t set us back too much.”

The Jazz begin the season on the road against the Trail Blazers on Tuesday. Eight of their first 11 games are on the road.

Things to watch as the Jazz prepare to tip off the season:

STIFLING TOWER: The 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert has already established himself as one of the best defensive centers in the game, averaging 2.27 blocks over the last two seasons, but he’s shown off a little more offense this preseason. He seemed to catch and finish better than in the past and averaged 14.8 points in six games. The most notable improvement has been Gobert’s free throw shooting. He shot 56.9 percent last year and 74.5 percent this preseason.

RETURN OF EXUM: Dante Exum is back for regular season games for the first time since tearing his ACL in the summer of 2015. The No. 5 overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft is fully healthy and still an upper echelon defender on the perimeter with his 6-foot-6 frame. He looks to become more active on the offensive end with a better floater in the lane and improved 3-point shooting. The point guard showed the ability to log minutes at shooting guard next to Hill during the preseason.

GROWTH AREAS: The Jazz hope the additions and another year of growth will affect three areas in particular. The Jazz were No. 28 in the league with a scoring average of 97.7 points per game. That must improve. Johnson, Hill and Diaw already improve the depth. The team also struggled in close games, finishing 14-28 in games that were within five points with five minutes or less left.

IMPRESSION TIME: Not making the playoffs could not only be disappointing, but a detriment to the future. Hayward has a player-option on his contract after this season and is expected to use it to become a free agent. There will be a large market for his services, so the Jazz need to prove they’re an organization that can compete for championships in the near future. Gobert will become a restricted free agent in July if he doesn’t sign an extension by Oct. 31. Favors is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2017-18 season.

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