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Three things we learned on Sunday: D’Angelo Russell is growing up before our eyes

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LOS ANGELES — Here is what you missed in the NBA Sunday while trying to figure out what theater was playing “Hidden Fences”….

1) Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell maturing, evolving into leader Lakers need. Luke Walton sees it. D’Angelo Russell admits it. Anyone watching the second-year point guard play recently can see it — there is a little something different about him the last five games. It’s sort of there in the stats — 20.8 points per game, 39.7 percent shooting from three, 5.2 rebounds, 5 assists, and 1.4 turnovers per game in his last five — but it’s more more than that.

There is a maturity to Russell’s game that is growing, a confidence as the game slows down for him and his ability to be the floor general the Lakers have counted on comes to the fore.

“Just the way he’s been controlling the game and running his position has been really good…” Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said Sunday night after Russell had 17 points (on 7-of-10 shooting), 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and three steals leading a Laker win over the Magic.. “D’Angelo’s recommitted himself in the weight room. He’s been in there multiple times a week with his strength coach.”

Russell credits his improved play to his developing a real routine — like he’s seen veterans from Kobe Bryant to Lou Williams have.

“Luke kind of notified it to me, just said I should try (having a steady routine), and I did,” Russell said, adding this started four or five games ago. “I didn’t have a routine, I told you about that. The same routine after practice, after shootaround, just the same routine, the same schedule every day. It’s just been very successful for me, my aggression, just everything is more comfortable….

“I’m maturing,” Russell said. “Trying to make sure I treat the game right, come with that approach every day. It’s a habit, it’s a learning habit that we’re picking up.”

With his routine — and just getting steady run and responsibility this season, rather than being jerked around — you can tell his confidence is growing, and that the game has slowed down for Russell. He is seeing floor and making right play far more often than not. He’s figuring out what he can do well — he’s making clever pocket passes, he’s using his size as a point guard to post up smaller guys.

Make no mistake, Russell still has plenty to learn. He got stripped a couple of times late by D.J. Augustin when he tried to force things. Russell’s drives tend to be pretty straight-line and he needs to develop a larger variety of ways to score inside once he gets into the paint (a floater would help, for example). However, Russell is making strides of late this season — which in some ways is his first season being taught what to do, considering the “I’ll bench you, figure it out for yourself” coaching from Byron Scott last year.

The Lakers have seen rookie Brandon Ingram score a career-best 17 points in consecutive games (including vs. Orlando). Jordan Clarkson excites with his hustle and athleticism. They miss Larry Nance Jr. in the rotation. But if the Lakers are going to make a leap with this young core, it’s going to be led by Russell. He’s showing signs now he can do that.

2) James Harden is making his MVP case: Another triple-double, eighth-straight Rockets win. Russell Westbrook’s case for being MVP is obvious — he’s averaging a triple-double this season, and when he goes to the bench the Thunder offense looks like a D-League team. But James Harden is putting up crazy numbers as well — 28.2 points, 11.8 assists, and 8.2 rebounds a game — and his team is winning more games. That frames the MVP question:

The Rockets are on pace for 63 wins currently, if they win around 60 and Harden keeps up this pace, and the Thunder win fewer than 50 games, does Harden beat out Westbrook for the MVP?

It’s too early to answer that question, but Harden made his case Sunday night against a very good Toronto team. Harden had a triple double — 40 points (on 26 shots), 11 assists, and 10 rebounds. He shot 7-of-9 at the rim, and 4-of-9 from three. He was the best player on the floor and the Rockets look like the kind of team that could make the conference finals (a Spurs/Rockets second round series would be fun).

3) Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s three gives Pistons second-straight one point win. And they’ll take it. Detroit had stumbled, losing eight of 10 and falling out of the playoff picture in the East. Stan Van Gundy was grasping at anything that could spark his team, to turn the season back around.

A couple of one-point wins may have done it. First was the one in Charlotte on Thursday.

Sunday’s came via a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope three.

Detroit had almost won in regulation then in the first overtime in Portland, but C.J. McCollum was hitting shots to extend the game.

In the second OT, there were 11.6 seconds left and the Pistons trailed 124-122. On the inbounds play Caldwell-Pope came off a little screen to go down by the baseline, waited for a second, and while Allen Crabbe ball watched KCP made a sharp cut to the arc, Andre Drummond set enough of a pick to slow Crabbe a little more, and Caldwell-Pope got off a clean three. Ballgame.

Drummond had 26 points and 13 rebounds in the win. With the victory the Pistons are now 1.5 games out of the playoffs in the East. This is the kind of win that can help reignite a struggling team. (Portland remains tied with the Kings for the eight seed in the West, with New Orleans, Denver, and now even the Los Angeles Lakers within two games.) We will see if a couple of dramatic wins can resuscitate the Pistons’ playoff hopes.

BONUS thing we liked Sunday: Chris Paul in full point god mode against Heat. That man is just not fair. There was this move.

And this.

And with that the Clippers have won four in a row.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.

 

Celtics to get Marcus Smart back for Game 5 Tuesday

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It’s a series that has hinged on defense — Boston has played it well for the majority of five games, bottling up Milwaukee in the halfcourt. The Bucks only played it with real energy at home (and only for about six of the eight quarters the last two games) but when they do they have overwhelmed the Celtics, then converted turnovers and missed shots into transition and early clock opportunities the other way.

For Game 5 Tuesday night, Boston gets its best perimeter defender back — Marcus Smart. He has been out since before the playoffs following thumb surgery last March.

Stevens, via NBC Sports Boston:

“He hasn’t played in six weeks, so it’s hard to say how much (time he will get) but will certainly play,” Stevens said. Stevens said there would not be a minutes restriction on him, but added that the fourth-year guard wasn’t going to play 35 minutes.

Smart is a very good perimeter defender who is very physical and usually assigned to the other team’s best guard (or wing, depending upon the matchup). When Smart was on the court this season, the Celtics allowed less than a point per possession and were 3.6 points per 100 better defensively than when he sat.

Smart likely will get time against Eric Bledsoe and Kris Middleton of the Bucks. Just his presence brings needed depth to the Celtics in what is a critical Game 5 in a series tied 2-2.

Report: Pelicans have discussed offering DeMarcus Cousins less than max over two to three years

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Last month, Anthony Davis said he heard DeMarcus Cousins planned to re-sign with the Pelicans. Cousins was out a torn Achilles, and New Orleans was rolling with Davis playing more center. But New Orleans’ ceiling looked higher with Cousins, and Davis made clear he wanted to keep Cousins – in itself a big deal. More important than keeping Cousins is keeping Davis, which requires keeping Davis happy.

Then, the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, becoming the lowest seed to sweep a first-round series.

Is everyone still sure Cousins warrants a max contract, which projects to be worth about $176 million over five years?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans leaked this to test the waters. Word will get back to Cousins, and they can gauge how strenuously he objects. If they want, they can deny ever considering this and try to avoid offending Cousins.

But New Orleans has leverage.

It will be a tight market. Many of the teams with significant cap space are young and rebuilding, and they won’t want Cousins’ attitude. Even teams ready to win might not bring him into the locker room. Returning from a torn Achilles – hard for any player – will be especially difficult for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins.

That said, Cousins has leverage on the Pelicans, too. He’s extremely talented, and players that talented are hard to come by. New Orleans would still essentially be capped out if he walked, left with only the mid-level exception to replace him. Cousins and Davis play well together, and Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – wants Cousins around.

Confronted with a similar situation with Jrue Holiday last summer – capped out and no mechanism to adequately replace him – the Pelicans spent big. But Holiday wasn’t hurt and didn’t have any fit concerns with Davis.

For New Orleans, it’s clearly worth securing the 27-year-old Cousins for the next couple years. The upside is too high. But, especially given the injury, guaranteeing him money into his 30s is undesirable.

On the flip side, Cousins should want long-term security. This might be his last chance to get it.

So, maybe both the Pelicans and Cousins can meet in the middle. But finding that point is never simple.