Kurt Helin

Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard went head-to-head last night and put on a show (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook and James Harden are battling it out at the top of the MVP race this year. But the second tier of that race — spots three through five on your ballot — has to include Kawhi Leonard, who is having a career year.

Tuesday night Westbrook and Leonard went head-to-head and put on a show.

Westbrook finished the game with 27 points on 17 shots, but he did not get a triple double (he has never had a triple-double against the Spurs in 46 games). However, Westbrook was 0-of-4 in the fourth quarter with Leonard dogging him, while  Leonard himself had a quick 12 points in the quarter (36 for the game) to help seal the Spurs win.

Rumor: Cleveland Cavaliers interested in Mavericks’ Deron Williams

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The Cleveland Cavaliers remain in search of a backup point guard who can be another playmaker for the team. They reportedly worked out Mario Chalmers, Jordan Farmar, Lance Stephenson, and Kirk Hinrich yesterday.

Deron Williams is better than any of them.

Which has led to the rumor, as reported by Sam Amick of the USA Today, that the Cavaliers are interested in Williams.

The Cavs could take the trade route too, of course, and they are known to have inquired about the Dallas Mavericks’ Deron Williams. The 32-year-old, three-time All-Star is in the final year of his deal ($9 million), and it’s worth noting that Dallas has shown interest in the Cavs’ Iman Shumpert previously when he was a free agent (he’s owed a combined $31 million for this season and the next two, with a player option for 2018-19).

Around the league, the sense is Williams is not actually available.

The questions about whether this deal would go down start here: How serious is Dallas about making a run at the playoffs? They have won seven of their last 10 and are 3.5 games back of Denver in the sad race for the eight seed in the West. It’s conceivable Dallas could close that gap, but they would keep Williams to do it.

Williams is 32 but has accepted a smaller role and become a solid NBA point guard, averaging 13.5 points and 7.1 assists per game this season and shooting 35.7 percent from three. He’s more a floor general than a dynamic scorer anymore. Williams is not a great defender but he’s smart on that end.

This deal is not unreasonable, but don’t expect to see it or any move by Dallas — if it makes one — until closer to the deadline. They may be willing to wait a few weeks to see if the hot streak continues, and with that how realistic their shot at the playoffs is.

Denver’s Danilo Gallinari had huge and-1 dunk against Ivica Zubac, Lakers (VIDEO)

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Danilo Gallinari can do more than just knock down shots from the perimeter.

Late in a close game with the Lakers, Gallinari got the ball back at the top of the key off a pick-and-pop with Jameer Nelson, and rather than shoot over Nick Young‘s late defensive rotation, Gallinari put the ball on the floor and had an open path to the rim. Rookie Ivica Zubac tried to slide over but Gallinari just put him in the poster.

Young had 26 points on the night to lead the Lakers to the 120-116 win. That’s a tough loss for a Denver team trying to hold on to the final playoff slot in the West, Portland is now just half a game back. Does anyone in the West actually want the eight seed? Nobody is playing like it.

Thunder rookie Domantas Sabonis dunks, David Lee isn’t going to stop it (VIDEO)

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Let’s be fair to David Lee here: he is rightfully watching and focused on how to stop Russell Westbrook as he tries to weave into the paint and get the last shot of the first half. He should be watching Westbrook — have you seen that guy this season?

But all that attention allows Thunder rookie Domantas Sabonis to slide along the baseline, make a little cut in the paint, get the pass and dunk. Lee tries to rotate over but he’s a step too late. Poster.

The Spurs went on to win the game 108-94 thanks to a monster 36 point night from Kawhi Leonard, who also guarded Westbrook for long stretches.

Three things we learned Tuesday: The Wizards are legit. Second best team in East?

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Here’s what you missed around the NBA Tuesday while you scoured stores looking for the Tostitos chip bag that has a breathalyzer on the bag

1) Wizards drop Knicks for 15th home win in a row, Washington may be the second best team in the East. Remember when the Wizards started the season 2-8? All the talk was about how John Wall and Bradley Beal didn’t get along, how Marcin Gortat was ripping the bench’s play, and what the heck was Scott Brooks doing?

If you don’t remember, that’s okay. What you need to know is that since Dec. 1 the Wizards are 22-9, the best record in the Eastern Conference for that stretch. After dropping the Knicks 117-101 Tuesday, Washington has won 15 games in a row at home. Beal had 28 points, while Wall was making it look easy, spinning around the Knicks’ defenders.

What’s gone right in Washington starts with health. Beal and Wall are both finally healthy at the same time, and it turns out when they play together for an extended stretch they do have chemistry — when those two are on the court together, the Wizards have outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions this season. Coach Scott Brooks deserves some of the credit for this health. Former coach Randy Wittman was old school and would run three-hour practices at times, rarely relented on making the team work off the court, and by the end of the season the team was worn down and injured (with Beal battling stress fractures). Brooks is a modern coach who keeps his practices tight and is a big believer in time for recovery. It shows.

The Wizards five starters (Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris, Marcin Gortat) outscore opponents by 11.3 per 100 this season — that’s third best in the NBA among five-man lineups that have played at least 200 minutes together. The only lineups that have been better are the Warriors’ starters and the healthy Clippers’ starters — not the Spurs’ starters (+10), not the Cavaliers’ starters (+9.3), not anyone. Brooks has kept the defensive game plans consistent while diversifying the offensive sets — it’s not just Wall pick-and-rolls anymore, there are flex sets and Wall works off the ball at times. The bench that struggled early has rebounded, led by the defensive energy (and some scoring) from Kelly Oubre, Jr.

The Wizards are the current four seed in the East, just two games back of two-seed Boston. All season long we have said that Toronto was the second best team in the East, and that maybe Boston could threaten them for that title. We need to start mentioning the Wizards in that group. They are that good. And they are legit.

2) Kyle Lowry‘s game winner for Raptors was shot of the night. Kyle Lowry had not been clutch this season, going into Tuesday night’s game against the Pelicans he was 1-of-21 on go-ahead shot attempts in final 10 seconds of regulation or overtime (stat via ESPN). Then he did this.

You can’t blame Solomon Hill here — he switched onto Lowry and defended that as well as one could. But good offense beats good defense. Lowry had 33 on the night, and the stumbling Raptors got a win they needed.

3) Kawhi Leonard had a very good night, and the Spurs win. Russell Westbrook has never had a triple-double against the Spurs, not once in 46 games (via ESPN). Over time that is certainly about the system, as are most things in San Antonio, but on Tuesday night it was also about Kawhi Leonard. Westbrook still had 27 points on 17 shots on the night, but was 0-of-4 in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, Leonard had 12 points in 4:15 once he checked in for the fourth and he put the game away (the Spurs won 108-94). Leonard also did this:

Leonard had 36 points on the night, to go with his always stellar defense.

The MVP race remains Westbrook vs. James Harden, but that next tier has to include Leonard. He has been brilliant this season.