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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.

Danny Ainge: Lonzo Ball declined to work out for Celtics, who hold No. 1 pick

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LaVar Ball said his son, highly touted draft prospect Lonzo Ball, would work out for only the Lakers.

You thought he was bluffing?

Celtics president Danny Ainge, whose team holds the No. 1 pick, on 98.5 the Sports Hub:

We just tried to get him in for a workout, and they politely said no.

It’s not ideal.

Listen, we’ve drafted guys that wouldn’t come in for workouts before. I mean, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve watched them play a ton. We have a lot of information on them.

Good for Ball. Professional sports teams already hold inordinate power over players entering the workforce. In no other industry are top young employees assigned to a particular company, the worst-performing companies typically getting priority, with no ability to bargain with competitors.

Ball wants to play for the Lakers, who offer proximity to his family and hold the No. 2 pick. He can’t force Boston to pass on him or Los Angeles to pick him. But he can influence decision-making.

It seemed likely the Celtics would draft Markelle Fultz, and though they could still pick Ball, him declining a workout with Boston makes that only less likely. The Lakers will probably draft Ball, but this plan carries risk. If they pass, he could fall once he gets to teams less familiar with him.

Still, Ball deserves to decide for himself how to manage his career – especially in such a closed job market. Not working out for the Celtics is probably his best path to getting where he wans to go.

Donald Sterling’s wife petitioning NBA to overturn his lifetime ban

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Former Clippers owner Donald Sterling settled his lawsuit against the NBA and his wife. Reconciled with Shelley Sterling, Donald sounds – in a recent interview with James Rainey of NBC News – ready to move on.

Rainey:

But his wife, Shelly Sterling, also 83, said in a separate interview that she has not let go of at least one formal blot that remains on Sterling’s record: the lifetime ban from the NBA that was imposed on the long-time Clippers owner after his racist remarks against African-Americans attending games.

Shelly Sterling said she personally approached Silver and also had her attorney, Pierce O’Donnell, talk to the league office about lifting the lifetime ban, which prevents Donald Sterling from attending NBA games. Her intention is not to allow her husband to do business with the league, but to clear his record, in consideration of the 33 years he spent as an owner.

“”I couldn’t understand the severity of the ban. It just seemed a little bit out of line,” Shelly Sterling said. “I have talked to [the NBA] several times and I don’t know what they will do. Maybe they will and maybe they won’t [lift the ban]. Maybe it takes a little bit more time.”

The NBA won’t lift the ban for the same reason it implemented the ban: Associating with Sterling was costing the league money.

Time has cooled the resentment toward Sterling, but overturning the ban would return the venom – and much of it would be directed toward the league. There’s no good reason to open that box.

Besides, Sterling – with his lengthy record of racism and sexism – doesn’t deserve clemency. People like him deserve far more comeuppance than they’ve gotten.

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan staying in 2017 NBA draft

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Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan declared for the 2016 NBA draft, struggled at the combine, withdrew, got into great shape, had an All-American sophomore season, declared for the 2017 draft.

This time, he’s not turning back.

Swanigan:

Swanigan is a borderline first-round pick. He has a couple NBA-ready skills the good teams that typically pick late in the first round might covet, but thanks to trades, teams that didn’t win a playoff game this year hold most late first-round picks. They might pick someone with more upside than Swanigan.

Swanigan is a tenacious rebounder, particularly defensively. He has excellent fundamentals, size (6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan) and ability to read the ball, and he crashes through contact to hunt boards.

He’s also a quality post-up player who can finish with either hand and has the passing ability to make that play work.

But Swanigan is slow. NBA teams have become increasingly adept at running plodders like him off the court by dragging them into pick-and-rolls. Even when on the court, he hasn’t protected the rim at satisfactory levels.

Swanigan has overcome his athletic limitations as a rebounder. He hasn’t done so in other facets of defense.

He’s hardly a dinosaur offensively. He made 45% of his 3-pointers last season, and though I’m not confident that will translate to NBA 3-point range (give the small sample and his form), he should be at least a midrange threat.

Swanigan is also just 20, young for a sophomore. He can improve.

But it’s just hard to look past his defensive limitations.

Hawks hire Travis Schlenk as general manager

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The Hawks picked Warriors assistant general manager Travis Schlenk as their next general manager. All that was left was negotiating terms.

That’s done.

Hawks:

The Atlanta Hawks today announced the hiring of Travis Schlenk as General Manager and Head of Basketball Operations. He will start leading Hawks basketball operations on June 1.

Schlenk worked his way up the latter and helped the Warriors become the envy of every other NBA team. He deserves this opportunity.

But the job won’t be easy.

The Hawks are stuck between two directions. On one side, they have veterans Paul Millsap (a 32-year-old pending unrestricted free agent whom the owner has basically promised a huge contract) and Dwight Howard (who sounds unhappy). On the other side, they have a youth movement featuring Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince. Tim Hardaway Jr., who bridges the age groups, is about to enter a potentially tricky restricted free agency.

Keeping the core together offers the upside of a playoff-series victory or two annually, modest outcomes for the cost. But a fragile Atlanta fan base might not tolerate a rebuild.

Schlenk works for owner Tony Ressler, and Ressler sounds committed to maintaining the status quo by keeping Millsap. It’s now Schlenk’s job to execute that vision or convince his boss to approve a different direction.