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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kevin Durant Dominates as Team USA Routs Serbia 96-66 in Gold Medal Game

Serbia kept the game competitive for a little over 10 minutes but Team USA mounted a huge second quarter run en route to a 96-66 victory to win Olympic gold for the third straight time. Team USA slipped by Serbia 94-91 in Group A play and it seemed reasonable to expect a close game again but this time Team USA reached a level that Serbia could not come close to matching, outscoring Serbia 60-28 in the second and third quarters; during those 20 minutes, Team USA played tenacious defense and featured the ball/player movement that had been largely absent earlier in the tournament. Was Team USA on cruise control for the first seven games or did Team USA build on each game to peak at just the right moment? We may never know for sure but all that matters is that Team USA came through when it mattered most and delivered the kind of emphatic victory that Team USA fans have been wanting and expecting since the Olympics began.

Kevin Durant was magnificent, scoring a game-high 30 points on 10-19 field goal shooting in a game-high 30 minutes and posting a +38 plus/minus number. Durant also scored 30 points in Team USA's 107-100 win over Spain in the gold medal game at the 2012 Olympics. DeMarcus Cousins came off the bench to produce 13 points and 15 rebounds in just 17 minutes. Klay Thompson was the only other Team USA player to reach double figures, scoring 12 points while also playing solid defense. Paul George's stat line is forgettable (9 points on 2-9 field goal shooting, two rebounds, two assists, three steals) but his gaudy +37 plus/minus number hints at his hidden impact; his suffocating defense played a major role in Team USA's huge second quarter run that determined the outcome of the game. Carmelo Anthony struggled in the gold medal game, which has been the case throughout his Olympic career; he finished with seven points on 3-7 field goal shooting, plus seven rebounds (one of which he grabbed late in the game after being reinserted so that he could set the USA record for career Olympic rebounds). Anthony scored eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting in the 2012 Olympics gold medal game and after performing poorly early in the contest he was on the bench for the final 8:13 of Team USA's 118-107 win in the 2008 gold medal game versus Spain .

Nikola Jokic was the best player on the court during the aforementioned Group A matchup between Team USA and Serbia, pouring in a game-high 25 points on 11-15 field goal shooting, but Team USA made a concerted effort to shut him down this time: he finished with just six points on 3-5 field goal shooting. No Serbian player stood out today; Nemanja Nedovic scored a game-high 14 points, most of which he accumulated in garbage time.

After experimenting with his starting lineup early in the Olympics, Coach Mike Krzyzewski settled on this group: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Doug Collins noted that Jordan compensates for Irving's defensive shortcomings (particularly in screen/roll actions) for the first unit, while Kyle Lowry's ball pressure compensates for DeMarcus Cousins' defensive shortcomings (particularly in screen/roll actions) for the second unit. Serbia started Milan Macvan, Nikola Kalinic, Miroslav Raduljica, Stefan Markovic and Milos Teodesic, a quintet that routed Australia in the previous game, denying Australia a chance to win a medal. Serbia has a tough and well-disciplined team but they just had no answers for Team USA's depth and athleticism once Team USA decided to lock in defensively while playing unselfishly on offense. As Collins put it, a team as talented as Team USA is should never take "degree of difficulty shots" but rather should move the ball and move players until a high percentage shot is created. In the gold medal game, Team USA largely eschewed one on one play and instead probed Serbia's defense with precision passing or timely drives until Serbia just could not withstand the onslaught.

However, it was far from apparent in the early going that this would be a rout--or even that Team USA was assured a victory. Team USA turned the ball over on its first two possessions as Serbia took a 7-4 lead. Serbia was still up 14-12 at the 1:40 mark before George sank a pair of free throws. Cousins then converted a layup to make the score 16-14 in favor of Team USA. He missed the ensuing free throw for the three point play opportunity but Team USA never trailed again. Durant's three pointer with :29 remaining in the opening stanza extended the Team USA lead to 19-15, which was the score entering the second quarter.

Serbia had kept the pace slow and the score low, holding Team USA to 7-20 field goal shooting (.350) and six turnovers in the first quarter. It looked like Team USA would have to grind this one out but instead Team USA ratcheted up the defensive pressure and Serbia succumbed, perhaps satisfied to receive the silver medal. George opened the quarter with a steal and a fastbreak dunk. Cousins sank four straight free throws. Durant dropped in a pair of three pointers and then matched George with a steal/coast to coast dunk. Suddenly, Team USA was up 33-20 and smelling blood in the water. Collins noted that Coach Krzyzewski wants to force the opposition to "make plays instead of running plays." By taking Serbia out of their sets, Team USA created turnovers and bad shots that fueled their transition game. Collins also mentioned that another Coach Kryzezewski goal is for his teams to make more free throws than the opposition attempts. In this game, Team USA shot 18-23 from the free throw line while Serbia shot 10-14.

Durant scored 18 of Team USA's 33 second quarter points as Team USA took a 52-29 halftime lead and he had 24 first half points on 9-13 field goal shooting. Cousins added 11 points and 12 rebounds in the first half as Team USA's inside-outside 1-2 punch stretched Serbia's defense to the breaking point.

Team USA did not let up at all in the third quarter, outscoring Serbia 27-14 to extend the margin to 79-43. The only questions in the fourth quarter were if Team USA would break the record for point differential in an Olympic gold medal game (44) and whether every Team USA player would score at least one point. Team USA led 88-47 midway through the quarter before calling off the dogs somewhat, enabling Serbia to outscore Team USA 23-17 in the final stanza to cut the margin to an even 30 points. Harrison Barnes, who did not even see action in four of Team USA's games, received nearly six minutes of fourth quarter playing time and became the final Team USA player to score when he converted a driving layup in the last minute of play.

Team USA was rightly criticized for some shaky performances during the Olympics but at the end of the day they won every game that they played and they performed their best when the games mattered most, holding each of their final three opponents to 78 points or less and field goal percentages below .400. I am not a huge fan of Anthony's game and I am not surprised that he again came up small in the biggest games but I must say that I was moved by how overcome with emotion he was in the moments right after the game. It is obvious that representing his country is very important to Anthony and I commend him for that, particularly since so many players over the years have turned down that opportunity; Anthony has answered that call four times and the flaws in his game do not diminish the dedication that he has demonstrated in support of America and of USA Basketball. Each player on the team committed himself to sacrifice for the greater good; this may not have been a Dream Team but it was an American team that represented America well and it was a pleasure to watch them play the right way in the gold medal game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:23 PM

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Team USA Outlasts Spain to Advance to the Gold Medal Game Versus Serbia

Team USA defeated Spain 82-76 to advance to the gold medal game on Sunday versus Serbia, who routed Australia 87-61 in the other semifinal matchup. Team USA never trailed and led by as many as 15 points but Spain stayed in contact throughout the game and had a chance to cut the lead to six with :44 remaining in the fourth quarter when Nikola Mirotic missed a layup after rebounding his own missed free throw. It is not surprising that Spain made this game competitive, because Spain proved to be a challenging foe for Team USA in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medal games even when Team USA featured LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski stuck with the starting lineup that helped lead Team USA to a 105-78 quaterfinal victory over Argentina: DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Thompson has not shot well during this tournament but he scored a team-high 22 points on 8-16 field goal shooting, including 4-8 from three point range. Durant scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds but he performed erratically and Team USA was outscored by two points during his nearly 31 minutes of action. In contrast, Jordan led Team USA with a +11 plus/minus number. He scored nine points, tied the Team USA Olympic single game record with 16 rebounds and he blocked four shots. Irving's statistics do not jump off of the page (13 points, five rebounds, two assists) but he had Team USA's second best plus/minus number (+7). Anthony struggled mightily (seven points on 2-11 field goal shooting) but because he shared a lot of minutes with Thompson and Jordan he had a plus/minus number of +6.

Pau Gasol overcame a calf injury to lead Spain in scoring (23 points) and rebounds (eight). Sergio Rodriguez (11 points, team-high five assists) was Spain's only other double figure scorer as Team USA held Spain to 28-72 (.389) field goal shooting.

Durant started the game with a careless pass that led to a turnover and that play foreshadowed how the entire contest went for Team USA's leading scorer in the Rio Olympics; Durant made several questionable plays, he never found a great shooting rhythm and he also battled foul trouble. Team USA scored their first points on a Jordan putback and then Gasol countered with a putback as Spain tied the score for the first and last time. Gasol almost singlehandedly kept the game close in the first quarter, scoring nine of Spain's first 13 points and finishing the quarter with 12 points on 4-6 field goal shooting. Kyle Lowry hit a three pointer with five seconds left to push Team USA's lead to 26-17. Team USA shot 11-21 (.524) from the field and grabbed six offensive rebounds in the first quarter.

With Anthony struggling--one of his shots hit the side of the backboard--Coach Krzyzewski tapped him to shoot two technical free throws at the 9:10 mark of the second quarter but the attempt to boost Anthony's confidence backfired when Anthony missed both shots. The officiating was odd--not biased for one team, but just odd: five technical fouls were called in the first half, three on Spain and two on Team USA but the action was not chippy and the complaining that led to technical fouls did not seem excessive (at least based on the camera angles for the TV viewers). Durant received one of the technical fouls at the 3:40 mark right after he shot an airball. In FIBA play a technical foul also counts as a personal foul and five personal fouls lead to disqualification, so Durant sat out the rest of the half as he had accumulated three personal fouls. Juan Carlos Navarro made the ensuing free throw to cut Team USA's advantage to 33-30. Nikola Mirotic received a technical foul--his fourth foul of the first half--with 3:02 remaining and that was a major blow to Spain as he is a key member of their squad.

Team USA's offense was stuck in mud or quicksand during most of the second quarter. With more than eight minutes elapsed, Team USA had scored just 10 points--eight of them by Thompson. Team USA closed the quarter with nine points in the final 1:52 to hold on to a 45-39 lead. Team USA's biggest first half run was 5-0. As Doug Collins put it, the first half was disjointed" for both teams. Spain did an excellent job of slowing the game down and minimizing Team USA's transition opportunities (Team USA scored just three points off of turnovers in the first half).

Play continued to be choppy and sloppy in the third quarter. Anthony's three point play at the 6:20 mark put Team USA up 53-43 but Spain countered with a Gasol tip in and a Sergio Llull three pointer to cut the margin to five points. Jordan dunked an alley oop pass from Thompson just before the buzzer to extend Team USA's advantage to 66-57 but with 10 minutes to go it was still anyone's game.

Two layups by Kyle Lowry sandwiched around a George layup put Team USA up 72-57 with 7:28 to go but Navarro and Mirotic each hit a three pointer in an 8-3 run as Spain refused to go quietly. The score remained 75-65 for over a minute until Irving connected on a three pointer from the right wing to create some separation. A Rodriguez three pointer followed by a Mirotic dunk cut the difference to single digits again but neither team scored for over a minute and a half until Durant's layup put Team USA up 80-69 with 1:43 to go. That shot, followed by a George dunk, should have clinched the game but Victor Claver made a three pointer and then George fouled Mirotic on a three point shot. Mirotic made the first two free throws to trim the deficit to 82-74 with :44 remaining and then Mirotic snared the rebound after he missed the third free throw. Mirotic missed a point blank shot to make it a two possession game. Team USA had control at that point and a meaningless Rodriguez layup at the buzzer closed out the scoring.

Spain outscored Team USA 19-16 in the fourth quarter and Team USA's halfcourt execution throughout the game was painful to watch at times. Team USA would come out of a timeout and you could not tell what--if any--play had been called on the sideline. Spain deserves credit for being an excellent, well-coached defensive team but Team USA also bailed Spain out with careless passes, too much one on one play and some questionable shot selection. After the hot shooting first quarter, Team USA cooled off to finish 33-79 (.418) from the field, including 22-58 (.379) in the final 30 minutes. If Team USA had not chased down 21 offensive rebounds then Spain could very well have won.

Ugly wins count just as much as beautiful ones, so Team USA got the job done and is one victory away from capturing the third straight Olympic gold medal of the Jerry Colangelo-Mike Krzyzewski era. Those two men were charged with the responsibility of resurrecting the wayward Team USA program in the wake of embarrassing performances in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and 2004 Olympics and they have more than accomplished that task, a fact which should not be ignored even as we basketball purists wish that this version of Team USA would hold itself to a higher standard than just doing enough to get by.

On paper, Spain was the biggest threat to Team USA in the Olympics. Spain is second in the world (behind only Team USA) in the FIBA rankings and prior to the semifinal game Spain led the Olympics in points allowed (70 ppg) and defensive field goal percentage (40%) while ranking second in rebounding (39.2 rpg). However, Serbia only lost to Team USA by three points in Group A play and Serbia outscored Team USA 91-85 in the final 37 minutes of that contest. One would hope that the first game against Serbia served as a wakeup call for Team USA, because Serbia demonstrated that they are absolutely capable of competing with and possibly beating Team USA. I expect another close game and I have a hunch that Irving will hit the shot that clinches the gold medal for Team USA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:35 AM

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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Team USA Overcomes Typical Sluggish Start to Defeat Argentina, 105-78

Argentina jumped out to a 19-9 first quarter lead over Team USA and it looked like the 2004 Olympics all over again, but Team USA rallied and won going away, 105-78, to advance to a semifinal matchup against Spain on Friday. Team USA cut Argentina's lead to 25-21 by the end of the first quarter and then employed suffocating defense to build a 25 point second quarter lead before Argentina cut the margin to 56-40 at halftime. Team USA's lead hovered around 20 points for most of the third quarter before they made a late push to go up 87-61 heading into the final 10 minutes. Argentina did not get closer than 23 points in the fourth quarter.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski tweaked his starting lineup again, inserting DeAndre Jordan at center in place of DeMarcus Cousins. The other four starters were Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Doug Collins noted that part of the reasoning behind the change at center is that neither Cousins nor Irving defend the screen/roll very well, so having them on the court together "brings out the worst in both players." Collins also said that in order to win Team USA's top two priorities against Argentina would be to control the boards and to defend the three point line. Despite the shaky start, Team USA finished well in both departments, winning the rebound battle 54-43 and holding Argentina to 8-32 (.250) three point shooting.

Durant scored a game-high 27 points on 9-13 field goal shooting and he also had seven rebounds and six assists. George added 17 points on 8-14 field goal shooting plus a team-high eight rebounds. George easily had the best plus/minus number (28, seven better than Durant). Cousins scored 15 points in less than 14 minutes. Irving added 11 points. Anthony, who has been touted by some as supposedly the greatest U.S. Olympic basketball player, scored seven points on just 3-10 field goal shooting. Yes, Anthony has played on two gold medal-winning teams but in Team USA's 118-107 win in the 2008 gold medal game versus Spain Team USA was outscored 49-38 when Anthony was on the court, which explains why Coach Krzyzewski benched him for the final 8:13 with the outcome up for grabs. In Team USA's 107-100 victory in the 2012 gold medal game versus Spain, Anthony scored eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting in 21 minutes and he was again on the bench down the stretch while Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant made the key plays. If Team USA secures two more victories and Anthony wins his third gold medal he likely will once again be on the bench during crunch time of those contests while Durant, George, Irving or someone else does the heavy lifting.

Luis Scola led Argentina with 15 points and a game-high 10 rebounds. Manu Ginobili (14 points, seven assists), Facundo Campazzo (13 points, game-high nine assists) and Andres Nocioni (12 points, five rebounds) also scored in double figures. Argentina started three players with NBA experience (Scola, Ginobili and Nocioni) alongside point guard Campazzo and forward Patricio Garino. However, Ginobili is 39 years old while Scola and Nocioni are each 36 years old. Carlos Delfino, who once was a key cog in Argentina's attack, is still on the squad but at 33 years of age and dogged by injuries he is no longer the player he used to be.

Durant got Team USA off to a good start by drawing a foul and making two free throws but Campazzo abused Team USA's defense with three nifty drives to help Argentina go up 10-5. Argentina shot 7-9 from the field to start the game, while Team USA opened 3-13 before making four straight shots. Durant single-handedly kept Team USA in the game, scoring 13 first quarter points as Team USA slowly woke up defensively, enabling Team USA to turn a 19-9 deficit into a 25-21 advantage by the end of the quarter.

In the second quarter, Coach Krzyzewski deployed a more defensive-minded squad, inserting Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry into the lineup alongside Cousins and Durant. Cousins dominated the smaller Argentina team in the paint, while George and Butler wreaked havoc on the perimeter and Team USA extended the lead to 36-21. The score was 36-24 when Anthony returned to action. With George smothering Campazzo, Team USA was up 47-27 at the 4:10 mark when Anthony went back to the bench after committing his third foul. Anthony had scored two points on 1-5 field goal shooting.

Team USA took a 56-31 lead when Durant punctuated a beautiful crossover move with a jumper but while Team USA's bench players danced and the players on the court celebrated, Argentina hustled down court and Ginobili passed to Campazzo for a layup. Argentina closed the half on a 9-0 run in the last 1:52. Careless Team USA plays like that did not change the outcome of this game mainly because Argentina is an older team that lacks the necessary size and depth to compete with Team USA for a full 40 minutes but Eddie Johnson recently said something great on NBA Radio: "If you mess with the game, the game will mess with you." Team USA does not have the proper respect for the game and for the opposition. They might get away with it and win this tournament anyway but if they fall behind by 10 to Spain it will not be quite so easy to come back--and if they give up nine points to Spain in less than two minutes they will be flirting with disaster. Durant scored 18 points on 6-9 field goal shooting in the first half and Team USA's bench outscored Argentina's bench 28-7.

Team USA led 76-55 when Anthony sat out for good at the 4:21 mark of the third quarter after collecting his fourth person foul. Coach Krzyzewski went with the defensive-minded lineup that blew the game open in the second quarter and Team USA closed out the quarter with a mini 11-6 run to extend the margin to 87-61.

It was apparent by this point that Argentina had given all that they had to give--they are an older, undersized team that lacks depth and it just was not conceivable that they could outscore Team USA by 26 points in 10 minutes. Just looking at the final score, Team USA's victory seems impressive but Argentina's ability to effortlessly build a 10 point first quarter lead against Team USA's starters is a warning sign that Team USA should not ignore; if Argentina had the depth and youth of a decade ago they could have pushed Team USA throughout this contest and very possibly pulled off the upset.

Considering the strength of the opposition, this was Team USA's best overall performance so far in the Rio Olympics but we still saw too much sloppiness, particularly from the starting lineup in the early going. Spain has better size and depth than Argentina. If Team USA starts sluggishly versus Spain in Friday's semifinal game, it will not be so simple to wear Spain down. Team USA's starters must play better defense and Team USA's offense should not be so dependent on Durant alone, because if Team USA utilized the ball and player movement that other teams showcase against them then Team USA could get scoring contributions from a variety of players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:55 PM

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Team USA Edges France 100-97 to Finish 5-0 in Group A Play

Team USA improved to 5-0 and clinched first place in Group A with a 100-97 win over France but legitimate questions still remain about whether Team USA will win the gold medal. France outscored Team USA 51-45 in the second half despite being without the services of their floor leader, six-time All-Star/2007 NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker (who sat out to rest for the quarterfinal round). France shredded Team USA's defense, shooting 41-73 (.562) from the field. France also outrebounded Team USA 35-29. Each team committed 13 turnovers but that is a victory for France because a major part of Team USA's strategy is to win the turnover battle and convert those extra possessions into transition points.

In the wake of Team USA's lackluster 94-91 win over Serbia, Coach Mike Krzyzewski reinserted Klay Thompson in the starting lineup and returned Paul George to the bench. The other four starters remained the same: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving. Thompson emerged from his shooting slump to score a game-high 30 points on 9-16 field goal shooting, including 7-13 from three point range. Durant scored 17 points on 6-6 field goal shooting and he grabbed a team-high six rebounds. Irving (10 points, plus a U.S. Olympic record-tying 12 assists) and Anthony (10 points on 4-11 field goal shooting) were Team USA's other double figure scorers. Guards Thomas Heurtel (18 points, game-high eight rebounds, game-high nine assists) and Nando De Colo (18 points, five assists) led the way for France.

Plus/minus can be a noisy statistic, particularly in small sample sizes, but it is interesting that four Team USA players had negative plus/minus numbers in this game and three of them were starters: Cousins (-5), Anthony (-3) and Irving (-3); the other "negative" player was Draymond Green, who was -1 in just six minutes of playing time. It is probably not coincidental that the three "negative" starters are also the three starters who are the worst defensively, while Durant (who also has had his share of defensive lapses in the Olympics) was +2 and Thompson was +1.

Team USA got off to another slow start--a recurring theme during the Olympics--and trailed 9-5 after De Colo hit a jumper off of nice ball reversal and Heurtel scored a runner in the lane. De Colo and Heurtel got to wherever they wanted to go on the court for most of the game, either beating Team USA's guards off of the dribble or confusing Team USA's defense in screen/roll actions. Team USA's defense during the Olympics has been pathetic and seems to be getting worse instead of improving. Team USA is vastly more talented than any other team in this event, yet they are getting beaten defensively one on one (both in the post and on the perimeter), they are getting back doored for layups and they are defending screen/roll actions as if they have never seen them before in their lives.

I am rooting for Team USA but I cannot say that I am enjoying watching them play; they are careless, which is indicative of indifference, arrogance or some combination of both. Each Team USA player is a star on his own team, yet the players have reduced minutes and roles so there is no excuse for not playing hard at both ends of the court. Kevin Durant has repeatedly let players back door him for layups while he is blankly staring off into space. Maybe he should have signed with Houston instead of Golden State; his defense during the Olympics would mesh perfectly with James Harden's "Shaqtin' a Fool" caliber defense.

Durant looked engaged--at least offensively--for a brief spurt during the first quarter when he made a three pointer, a layup and a fast break layup to put Team USA up 12-9. He opened the game by scoring nine points on 4-4 field goal shooting after shooting 2-4 from the field in the entire game versus Serbia. Apparently satisfied that he had fulfilled his duties for the night, Durant scored just eight points over the next three quarters--not nearly enough to compensate for his lackluster defense. Durant is unquestionably the best player on this team. He is a dominant scorer and an above average defensive player when he is so inclined. If he is content to let others do the scoring on this team, that is fine, but then he should assert himself as a defensive stopper the way that Kobe Bryant did during the 2008 Olympics. Durant has the mobility and length to guard all five positions in FIBA play.

Team USA's offense is hardly a thing of beauty but even after the slow start they poured in 30 first quarter points, so tweaking the offense should not be Coach Krzyzewski's first priority. France scored 24 points in the first quarter, putting them on pace for 96 points--and they maintained that pace the rest of the way. France should not score more than 70-75 points against Team USA, particularly with Parker sitting out.

Team USA's second unit looked sharper than the starters and they extended the lead to 36-26 before the starters began returning to action. A De Colo three pointer cut the margin to 44-40 with 3:30 remaining but France bailed Team USA out to some extent by twice fouling three point shooters: Durant and Thompson combined to make six straight free throws, helping Team USA push the lead to 55-46 at halftime. Durant and Thompson each scored 13 first half points; Thompson had scored just 11 points combined in the first four games.

Thompson put on a shooting exhibition in the third quarter, draining five three pointers and helping Team USA build a 78-62 lead with 2:23 remaining but France kept their composure and closed the quarter on a 7-3 mini run to keep the contest within reach.

Every time the camera panned to Coach Krzyzewski during the fourth quarter I thought that his head was going to explode; his face seemed to be getting redder and redder and his lips became more and more tightly pursed. Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau also looked less than pleased. After DeMar DeRozan handed free possessions to France with a careless inbounds pass followed by another turnover for traveling, Coach Krzyzewski was literally stomping mad.

As Team USA repeatedly crumbles in the fourth quarter, it is interesting to see who wants the ball. Irving definitely wants the ball but the problem is that once he gets it passing is absolutely, positively the last resort. It's not like he lacks passing skills; he is an excellent passer. Irving lacks the desire to pass the ball. The cliche saying is "He does not trust his teammates" but I think that the reality is he just has a whole lot of confidence in himself. Anthony also wants the ball but he too is very disinclined to pass it, so we are "treated" to his full repertoire of Knick moves: the endless jab steps, the pointless dribbling to nowhere and the low percentage shots with one or more defenders draped all over him. Irving and Anthony can make tough shots--but the question is why anyone on Team USA would ever take a tough shot when there are four other players on the court who are open for easier shots if one player has been surrounded defensively. Durant only wants the ball if it is delivered to him when and where he wants it. Doug Collins made a great observation about a late game Team USA offensive possession: Thompson cut through the lane and motioned to Durant to cut as well but Durant just stood in one spot as if he had been planted there like a tree. Thompson then cut back through the lane. That could be an interesting dynamic for the Golden State Warriors next season.

Speaking of the Warriors, it is worth noting that all three of Team USA's players from the 73-9 Warriors are having difficulties: Thompson had been in and out of the starting lineup before his breakout game against France, Green has not been great during his limited minutes and Harrison Barnes did not even play in three of the five games.

If Team USA is not careful, one of the upcoming games is going to end in defeat with an Irving runner or Anthony jumper bouncing off of the rim as time expires. Anthony's skill set should be well-suited to FIBA play but I have never been as convinced of his greatness as a FIBA player the way that many commentators are. He was part of the disastrous 2004 Olympic team and he was nowhere close to being the most important player for the 2008 and 2012 gold medalists, who featured the leadership/defensive intensity of Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd (2008 only) plus the all-around play of LeBron James. Anthony scored a lot of points mainly because the opponents could not load up on him. This year, Anthony is the team's second leading scorer (15.2 ppg) but he has also jacked up far more shots than anyone else despite having the lowest field goal percentage among Team USA's top six scorers. Not including the two walkover games against vastly inferior competition (Venezuela and China), Anthony is shooting 18-40 (.450) from the field, including 3-8 versus Serbia and 4-11 versus France. If only Nigeria were on the remaining schedule then we could see Anthony pad his stats (as he did in the 2012 Olympics) but I question how productive--and, more importantly, how efficient--Anthony will be if Team USA needs critical baskets down the stretch of the kind that Bryant produced in the 2008 gold medal game versus Spain when no one else wanted the ball.

The fourth quarter versus France was a mess for Team USA. A Joffrey Lauvergne dunk cut Team USA's lead to 85-81 at the 5:27 mark. A Mickael Gelabale jumper kept France within five points (88-83) with just 4:03 to go. Team USA led 100-90 with 1:25 left and then seemingly decided to not try for the last 85 seconds as France scored the final seven points. It is true that France scored a three pointer came at the buzzer, so this was not a one possession game in the sense that the Serbia game was (with a three pointer to tie in the air a couple seconds before regulation time ended), but it is also true that France inexplicably elected not to foul down the stretch to extend the game.

Team USA players seem to have a blase attitude of "We did not play our best and we still won" but an alternative perspective is that France was not even trying to win this game (Parker rested, France did not intentionally foul with the game still in reach) but almost won anyway. Team USA should have pressured De Colo and Heurtel all over the court--particularly with Parker out of action and France's depth thus compromised--and won this game by 25 points to send a message to the rest of the field about how committed Team USA is to tough defense and to winning the gold medal.

Team USA's first game in the quarterfinals on Wednesday will be against the fourth place finisher in Group B, which will be determined by the results of Monday's final Group B games. If Team USA loses on Wednesday, they will be eliminated from medal contention. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:24 AM

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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Team USA Takes Big Lead, Then Survives Furious Comeback to Edge Serbia, 94-91

Team USA held on for dear life to emerge with a 94-91 victory over Serbia, who dropped to 1-3 in Group A play. Team USA improved to 4-0 in Group A with one game left to play and clinched a spot in the quarterfinal round but the gold medal that was once considered a foregone conclusion now looks anything but certain. Team USA was expected to dominate one of the weaker fields in recent Olympic history but this Team USA squad looks less like a Dream Team than like the nightmare group that stumbled to a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is being forced to shorten his rotation and experiment with different lineups; Harrison Barnes did not play at all versus Serbia, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan played just 10 minutes each and former starter Klay Thompson's minutes were slashed to just nine as he continues to struggle with his shot (1-6 field goal shooting versus Serbia).

Kyrie Irving led Team USA in scoring (15 points) and assists (five, tied with DeMarcus Cousins). DeAndre Jordan added 13 points in 13 minutes on 4-4 field goal shooting. Carmelo Anthony, who scored 31 points and shot 9-15 from three point range in Team USA's 98-88 win over Australia, scored just 12 points on 3-8 field goal shooting (including 1-5 on three pointers). Paul George added 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds. Kevin Durant had a quiet 12 points in a game-high tying 30 minutes. DeRozan made the most of his limited playing time with 11 points in 10 minutes.

The best player on the court was Serbia's Nikola Jokic, who scored a game-high 25 points on 11-15 field goal shooting while also grabbing a team-high six rebounds and dishing for three assists. Jokic made the NBA All-Rookie First Team last season as a member of the Denver Nuggets. Serbia outscored Team USA by two points during his 30 minutes of action. Milos Teodosic scored 18 points and had a game-high six assists. Starting center Miroslav Raduljica scored 18 points in 14 minutes before fouling out.

Team USA's half court offense is stagnant at times--as described below--and that is justifiably a source of concern but offense is not the main problem for Team USA: 94 points on 27-55 (.491) field goal shooting should be good enough to win by a comfortable margin. The biggest issue is that Team USA's so-called "pitbull" defensive unit looked like a bunch of poodles for much of the contest. Serbia shot 31-60 (.517) from the field, including 10-25 (.400) from three point range. Serbia ran their offense patiently and precisely, shredding Team USA's defense. Paul George was disappointed in his team's performance but impressed by Serbia's effort: "Once again, we relied on natural talent. This is why these guys are special in our league. These international guys really know how to move and really know how to cut. It's more about how they're running their offense. It's wearing us down. It's like they don't get tired."
 
Serbia outscored Team USA 76-67 over the final three quarters of the game. In fact, after Team USA opened the game with a 9-0 run in the first three minutes, Serbia outscored Team USA 91-85 in the next 37 minutes. If Team USA is not worried, they should be. This Serbia team is not an elite FIBA squad. They do not have great talent and they are not as physically imposing as a team like Australia--but Serbia is smart, poised and well-coached. Watching this game reminded me of the Pete Carril motto "The smart take from the strong."

I am not trying to bury the lede or create hype out of nothing. I understand that Team USA won the game and that there are no style points awarded for beautiful wins or taken away for ugly ones--but if Team USA keeps playing this way there is a very real chance that they will lose a game and fail to capture the gold medal.

This game featured a reversal of Team USA's previous pattern of slow starts punctuated by good second half play; the starting lineup of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and Kyrie Irving took a 23-5 first quarter lead and it looked like the rout was on but Serbia did not become discouraged or intimidated and they started chipping away.

Team USA's mindset is not right; there are too many technical fouls, too much negative body language and too much complaining. There is a reason that old school players scoff at the idea that today's best NBA players and teams are better than the best players and teams from previous eras. Today's stars are used to be being protected by NBA rules that favor the offense; if DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green think that Australia and Serbia play too rough, how would they have reacted to the Bad Boys or the 1990s Knicks? There is nobody in this tournament who can guard DeMarcus Cousins, yet he repeatedly commits silly fouls or turnovers because he keeps forcing the action instead of patiently using his skill set to good effect. Team USA committed two technical fouls and an unsportsmanlike foul in the first half. Those are mental mistakes indicative of a lack of focus and a lack of emotional control.

Early in the second quarter, before Serbia made their comeback, Doug Collins said, "Serbia is a well coached team. When you watch their offense, it's well spaced. They've got good principles. Guys set good screens and they roll. They really pass the ball well. The United States' pressure is just taking them out of what they want to do. Everything is contested and there is no rhythm to their game right now." Unfortunately for Team USA, Serbia continued to run their offense with precision while Team USA's pressure became less effective. Right after Collins' comment, Serbia made a couple crisp passes culminating in a layup by Nikola Kalinic to cut the margin to 31-20. Teodosic then hit a three to pull Serbia within eight points, 31-23.

Serbia made Team USA look like the Washington Generals on one particular second quarter possession as all five players touched the ball in quick succession before Jokic made a short runner. "That was ball movement at its finest there," Collins noted with respect. Team USA defenders were out of position, making poor gambles and lunging for fakes instead of playing sound, fundamental basketball. Team USA's next possession consisted of one pass and a contested three point attempt by Anthony that bounced off the front of the rim. Jokic then beat everyone down the court for a fast break dunk that cut Team USA's lead to 40-31. Team USA suddenly looked like the New York Knicks.

Serbia outscored Team USA 26-23 in the second quarter to trail 50-41 at halftime.

In the opening moments of the third quarter, Collins succinctly summarized Team USA's offense: "A lot of standing around." In contrast, Serbia executed smoothly and a nice screen/roll action culminated in a Jokic dunk to cut Team USA's lead to 58-53 nearly midway through the third quarter.

It is becoming apparent that any team that avoids committing open court turnovers and forces Team USA to execute in the half court has a good chance to at least keep the score close. Team USA relies on pressure defense to lead to create easy scoring opportunities and does not have a discernible, consistent plan in the half court other than isolating one player and hoping that he can create something.

Team USA narrowly outscored Serbia 22-21 in the third quarter and led 72-62 heading into the final stanza. One would expect Team USA's depth and athleticism to have greater impact as the game goes on but the opposite was the case, at least against Serbia. Serbia opened the fourth quarter with good inside-outside ball movement culminating in a Jokic three pointer. After Jordan split a pair of free throws, Jokic then cut to the basket for a layup and Team USA only led 73-67 with 9:03 remaining. Marko Simonovic cut on the baseline for a layup at the 8:06 mark to make the score 75-70 as Durant did his best James Harden "Where did he go?" impersonation on defense.

Teodosic's off the dribble three pointer over Jimmy Butler at the 7:28 mark lifted Serbia to within four, 77-73. Instead of facing pleasant decisions such as making sure everyone on the roster gets in the game and scores a point, Coach Krzyzewski had to give serious consideration to which five players he trusted to close out a game with the outcome in doubt.

After the foul-plagued Raduljica checked back in, he hit Cousins with a series of post moves and fakes that looked like Kevin McHale circa 1987 before making a layup to keep Serbia within two possessions, 81-75--but Raduljica collected a loose ball foul on Team USA's next possession and fouled out.

Jokic's three pointer with 3:13 left made the score 90-85 Team USA. At that point, Team USA had Irving, George, Durant, Anthony and Cousins on the court. Coach Krzyzewski replaced Cousins with Draymond Green, electing to go small in order to better match up defensively with Serbia's screen/roll game. Jokic scored on an offensive rebound, punishing Team USA's relative lack of size. Anthony bailed out a bad Team USA offensive possession by hitting a long two point jumper with one second left on the shot clock. He was fouled on the play but he missed the free throw, so Team USA led 94-87 with 2:11 to go.

Jokic cut for a layup and drew a foul on Durant--who was again during a Harden impersonation on defense--but Jokic missed the free throw. After no ball movement, Anthony missed a turnaround jumper on the right baseline. Serbia's passing and cutting created an open three pointer for Bogdan Bogdanovic but he missed the shot that could have made it a one possession game with 1:21 left. Irving fouled Teodosic in the ensuing loose ball scramble and Teodosic calmly nailed two free throws. Team USA led 94-91.

With the game on the line, Team USA's next possession consisted of Irving dribbling and dribbling before missing a floater. Team USA did not run a play, did not pass the ball and did not get the ball into the hands of Durant or Anthony, the presumptive closers (Irving is a good closer, too, but instead of just dribbling for 20 seconds or so he would have been better served to pass and cut). Surprisingly, Serbia also went to isolation ball on their next possession, as Jokic went one on one against Green in the post and missed a bank shot. Team USA's next possession was equally stagnant and culminated in a George airball followed by a desperation Durant heave with the shot clock winding down.

Jokic controlled the defensive rebound with :11 remaining and Serbia called a timeout with five seconds to go to set up a potentially tying three point shot. Durant defended the inbounds pass well but after a scramble Bogdanovic ended up with wide open left wing three pointer. Bogdanovic missed and Team USA escaped with a win despite being outplayed for most of the game. Bogdanovic is Serbia's best three point shooter. "They (Team USA) really got lucky on that play," Collins said. "They lost their defensive discipline...If they are going to win the gold, their offense is going to have to be more disciplined. They are going to have to get back to moving the basketball. Right now they are falling back into iso-ball and they made a ton of defensive errors tonight that could have cost them."

Earlier in the telecast, Collins suggested some reasons for Team USA's lack of sharpness, including (1) the team has not held many practices (in part because there is a desire to avoid potential injuries so that NBA owners will not be hesitant for their players to participate in the future) and (2) this squad has 10 first-time Olympians, so the roster continuity that was fostered since Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball does not exist this time around. Marv Albert noted that those reasons, valid as they may be, will not resonate with the general public if Team USA falters: "These are the top players in the world," he observed and even with the notable absences of players such as LeBron James and Stephen Curry, Team USA is still easily the most talented squad in the field.

Team USA may yet win the gold medal but this team very much resembles the squads that came up short in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA World Championship. A loss to France in the fifth and final game of Group A play would be embarrassing but not fatal--but after that Team USA needs three wins in a row to capture the gold medal. A rematch with Australia looms large as a possible obstacle but at this point Team USA cannot afford to take any of the qualifying teams lightly.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:27 PM

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Team USA Rallies From Halftime Deficit to Beat Australia, 98-88

Australia led Team USA for most of the first half and enjoyed a 54-49 halftime advantage before Team USA rallied in the second half to prevail, 98-88. Carmelo Anthony will be featured in most of the headlines thanks to his game-high 31 points but Team USA needed a dominant defensive effort in the concluding 20 minutes to escape with a win that was closer than the final margin might suggest. Anthony shot 11-21 from the field (including 9-15 from three point range) and he tied DeMarcus Cousins with a game-high eight rebounds. Kyrie Irving turned in another strong performance with 19 points and a team-high five assists. Anthony and Irving combined to score Team USA's first 26 points in a very competitive fourth quarter with the game on the line. Kevin Durant was Team USA's only other double figure scorer (14 points) but he shot just 4-16 from the field and did not leave his imprint on the game.

Australia's roster includes four players who have won an NBA championship and it was evident from the start that this team was not the slightest bit intimidated or awed by Team USA. Patty Mills led Australia with 30 points on 11-22 field goal shooting but he had plenty of help from three other players with NBA experience: Andrew Bogut contributed 15 points on 7-9 field goal shooting, David Andersen chipped in 13 points and Matthew Dellavedova got under the skin of multiple Team USA players while scoring 11 points and dishing a game-high 11 assists. The scrappy Dellavedova also led Australia with six rebounds, quite a feat for a small guard playing for a team that starts two quality big men.

Doug Collins aptly noted that Australia is a team that has good talent but is also better than the sum of its parts, while Team USA fielded the 12 best individual players. Team USA would not trade any of its players straight up for one of the Australians, yet Australia kept the game close by playing tough and playing with a cohesion that is wonderful to watch.

Anthony's offensive skill set is well suited to FIBA play, particularly when he plays power forward; most big FIBA forwards are too slow to check him and most smaller FIBA forwards are not strong enough to guard him in the post. Anthony is also at his best when he can just catch and shoot in one on one matchups, as opposed to having to create his own shot when the defense is tilted toward him; that is when Anthony becomes a "ball-stopper" but on Team USA he is surrounded by great talent and he has the luxury of playing one on one in favorable matchups. Anthony also loves the shorter FIBA three point line.

Anthony's 31 points are tied for the second-most by a U.S. Olympian (Anthony holds the record with 37 points in just 14 minutes versus Nigeria in the 2012 Olympics). He also surpassed LeBron James to become the leading scorer in Team USA Olympic history (293 points); that statistic is a little deceptive because Anthony has now played in four Olympics while most Team USA basketball players over the years only played in one Olympics.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski tweaked the Team USA starting lineup by inserting Paul George for Klay Thompson but the move did nothing to reverse the slow starts that have plagued Team USA. George finished with 5 points on 2-6 field goal shooting in 17 minutes, while Thompson had six points on 2-9 field goal shooting in 23 minutes. Oddly, Thompson had Team USA's best plus/minus score (14), followed by Irving (12) and Anthony (10).

Anthony opened the game with two quick three pointers to put Team USA up 6-0 but Australia took a 10-9 lead after Mills hit a three pointer. George was then whistled for a technical foul after pushing Dellavedova and Dellavedova's free throw extended the margin to 11-9. Australia was up 25-17 when  Coach Krzyzewski went to his "pitbull lineup" (as Collins calls Team USA's defensive-minded second unit); by the end of the quarter, the score was tied 29-29. Anthony poured in 14 first quarter points, shooting 5-7 from the field overall and 4-5 from three point range.

A Durant three pointer gave Team USA a 32-29 lead early in the second quarter but Team USA quickly found out that Australia is not Venezuela; instead of wilting in the second quarter like Venezuela did versus Team USA, Australia forged ahead thanks to good second unit play to complement the outstanding efforts of the starters. A Mills three pointer pushed the Australian lead to 41-36. It is important to note that by this point Team USA had shot an outstanding 8-17 (.471) from three point range; contrary to popular belief, it is neither essential for Team USA to shoot well from beyond the arc in order to win in FIBA play nor is good three point shooting a guarantee for victory if Team USA is deficient defensively. Just as fast as Anthony rained in three pointers, Team USA gave up layups and open jumpers at the other end of the court.

After Australia went up 46-39, Collins said that Australia's "screening and back-cutting" looked like a clinic. Australia led 54-49 at halftime. This was the first time that Team USA trailed at halftime during Olympic play since the infamous 89-81 loss to Argentina in the 2004 Olympics. Anthony scored 17 first half points but Mills dropped 15 for Australia while Bogut chipped in 13 points. Team USA shot 10-21 from three point range but allowed Australia to shoot a blistering 19-28 (.679) from the field overall.

During the halftime show, Fran Fraschilla stated several times that Team USA needed to make some adjustments but Dan Patrick never asked the obvious question: What adjustments should Team USA make? I would say that the biggest adjustments had to do more with concentration and effort than any specific strategy tweaks; Australia feasted on easy baskets in the first half because Team USA allowed too many cuts and did not work hard enough to contest Australia's shots.

Team USA's energy level went up a notch at the start of the third quarter, leading to a 9-0 run. Australia made just one of their first seven field goal attempts as Team USA paid better attention to detail on defense. Australia proved to be tough-minded, though, and they were not rattled by Team USA's attack. When Cousins went to the bench with his fourth foul at the 5:09 mark the score was tied 60-60. Draymond Green concluded the stanza with a fadeaway jumper plus the foul and his free throw gave Team USA a tenuous 70-67 lead.

Australia opened the fourth quarter with an Andersen three pointer and a Joe Ingles fast break layup to take a 72-70 lead. The tide turned when Team USA combined tough defense with some fine shotmaking by Anthony. Anthony tied the game at 72 with a strong drive, though he missed a free throw that could have made it a three point play. Anthony then drilled four three pointers to put Team USA on top 88-80. Australia kept battling, though, and after Irving missed a layup a long pass to Mills resulted in a fast break layup that trimmed the margin to 90-86. Irving answered with a huge three pointer from almost exactly the spot on the court where he buried the Golden State Warriors late in game seven of the 2016 NBA Finals. Australia forced a Team USA shot clock violation while down 93-88 with 36.3 seconds left but could not hit a timely shot to make it a one possession game.

Hopefully, this game will put a stop to the nonsensical talk about how boring it is to watch Team USA cruise to the gold medal or how Team USA should only use college players in the future; a Team USA squad consisting entirely of college players would have lost to Australia by at least 10 points. Australia is a wily and physical team with veteran pros who would figure out how to frustrate young college kids. There is no reason or justification for Team USA to impose artificial handicaps on itself and the game of basketball benefits as a whole when the world's best try to measure themselves against Team USA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:09 AM

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Monday, August 08, 2016

Team USA Blows Out Venezuela After First Quarter Wake-up Call

Venezuela led Team USA 16-15 late in the first quarter of game two of Group A play but Carmelo Anthony scored 10 straight second quarter points as Team USA blew the game open to take a 48-26 halftime lead en route to a 113-69 victory. Paul George led a balanced Team USA attack with a game-high 20 points on 6-7 field goal shooting. Jimmy Butler (17 points), Kevin Durant (16 points on 5-5 field goal shooting), Carmelo Anthony (14 points) and DeAndre Jordan (14 points plus a game-high nine rebounds) were Team USA's other double figure scorers. Kyle Lowry led Team USA with nine assists. John Cox, Kobe Bryant's cousin, paced Venezuela with 19 points but he shot just 6-20 from the field. Starting center Gregory Echenique was Venezuela's best all-around player, tallying 18 points and a team-high seven rebounds.

Team USA used the same starting lineup that they used against China--Durant, Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving--and got off to very sluggish start. Doug Collins noted that Team USA assistant coach Jim Boeheim believes that the starting unit relies very heavily on three point shooting and that when they are missing their outside shots this can lead to slow starts. Whatever the reason, Durant was the only starter who performed well early in the game. He made his first three shots, while the rest of the team started out 1-6 from the field. After an Echenique putback, Venezuela led 11-10.

Venezuela had an excellent game plan: slow the game down, be smart with the ball and be physical. As Marv Albert put it, Venezuela wanted to "muck the game up." During the telecast, we saw highlights of Team USA's 156-73 win over Nigeria in the 2012 Olympics; Nigeria's willingness to run with Team USA was perhaps brave but certainly foolish. Venezuela had the right approach but simply lacks the depth to execute this game plan for 40 minutes against Team USA. During the first quarter, Collins said that the way Venezuela played Team USA is "the blueprint. They are not talented enough to beat the U.S. but other teams will be watching this."

The first quarter of this game reminded me very much of Team USA's 101-95 loss to Greece in the 2006 FIBA World Championship, with Echenique reprising the role of Sofoklis Schortsanitis. Cousins picked up two fouls in the first two minutes of the game, he was mumbling to himself on the way to the bench and he was a non-factor in the rest of the contest, finishing with six points and fouling out after playing only nine minutes. Thompson also got two quick fouls and he finished with 0 points in 15 minutes. At the end of the first quarter the score was tied 18-18. Team USA shot 7-15 from the field and committed six turnovers. Collins said that to beat Team USA you need good guards (to avoid turnovers and control tempo) and toughness.

The momentum shifted dramatically in the second quarter, as Team USA struck with a fresh wave of players and Venezuela could not keep pace. Collins pointed out that the second quarter has been problematic for Venezuela in general. It was a nightmare versus Team USA, as Team USA outscored Venezuela 30-8 to take a 48-26 halftime lead. Durant (11 points) and Anthony (10 points) led the way in the first half. Anthony made a key play early in the quarter, stripping Echenique in the post, getting the steal and then burying a three pointer on the ensuing possession to put Team USA up 31-22.

It is a treat to listen to Collins' color commentary and Marv Albert's play by play. Collins is well versed not only about Team USA but also about every other team in the field and the FIBA game in general (for those too young to remember, Collins starred for Team USA in the 1972 Olympics before becoming the number one overall pick in the NBA draft). Collins called George a "security blanket" for Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski because George can do a variety of things coming off of the bench. George has bounced back nicely from the severe leg injury that he suffered in 2014 while trying out for Team USA.

Team USA will face Australia on Wednesday. Australia is always a physical, tough and well-disciplined team and it will be interesting to see how Team USA responds to that challenge. Collins observed that Team USA can become stagnant offensively when forced to play in the half court. Team USA thrives on open court turnovers that can be converted into transition points. If Australia refrains from turning the ball over and runs half court offense with precision the way that Venezuela did for about 10 minutes, then Wednesday's game could be more competitive than it might look on paper. No team in this tournament could beat Team USA in a seven game series but in the medal round the Olympics is like the NCAA Tournament and one loss in a 40 minute game will cost you the gold medal. Team USA should heed the lessons learned during the first quarter against Venezuela and not just rest on their laurels based on the final margin of victory.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:12 PM

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Implications of the NBA's Summer of Discontent

This has been a very interesting NBA offseason in terms of moves made, moves not made and the ongoing results of moves made in recent years.

It would have been a lot of fun to watch Golden State battle Oklahoma City at least one more time in the Western Conference Finals. Instead, Kevin Durant--whose Thunder had the Warriors on the ropes but failed three times to deliver the knockout blow--joined forces with the players who had just dashed his championship hopes. Kevin Durant has every right to leave Oklahoma City but that does not mean that he was right to do so or that it is wrong to articulate thoughtful disagreement with his choice (a level of discourse that does not include calling his move "wack" or burning his jersey). Durant's departure is the equivalent of Julius Erving joining the Boston Celtics in 1981-82 after his Philadelphia 76ers squandered a 3-1 lead versus Boston in the 1981 Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, Erving led the 76ers back to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1982 and the 76ers decisively won game seven in Boston after allowing the Celtics to win two straight games to tie the series.

Durant's conduct prior to joining the Warriors is disingenuous. Supposedly he had no plans to leave Oklahoma City but just wanted to see what options existed. I don't buy that story. You don't go to the Hamptons to be wined and dined by suitors unless you have a wandering eye. Paul Newman once said that he saw no reason to go out for hamburger when he had steak at home. The whole Hamptons business is even more pathetic when you consider that the Thunder owner and other team personnel crowded into a low budget hotel because all of the other hotels in the region were booked. After spending nearly a decade with the Thunder, Durant could not find room for his colleagues at his sprawling place? Or he could not tell them, "Guys, go back home. I've made my decision"?

Durant has said before that the grass is not always greener on the other side. He was critical of LeBron James' move from Cleveland to Miami, sending out this tweet after the "Decision": "Now everybody wanna play for the Heat and the Lakers? Let's go back to being competitive and going at these people."

It will be interesting to see how this turns out. The odds are that the Warriors will win at least one championship with this newly assembled super team: they are absolutely stacked with talent, they are well coached and they replaced arguably the weakest link in the starting lineup that won the 2015 championship with a four-time scoring champion/one-time former MVP. However, injuries, chemistry issues or some other unforeseen circumstances could intervene. The Chamberlain-West-Baylor trio never won a title. Philadelphia's "Wonder Five" blew a 2-0 lead in the 1977 NBA Finals and the 76ers had almost completely overhauled their roster by the time they made it back to the Finals in 1980. Shaq-Kobe-Malone-Payton led the Lakers to the 2004 Finals but lost to a younger and more cohesive Detroit team. Each of those super teams had flaws that are clearly evident in retrospect, even if the flaws may have been less obvious in the moment, while the Warriors are young, unselfish and have no obvious flaws other than a lack of size/rim protection--but nothing is promised or guaranteed regarding an 82 game marathon followed by the grueling race to 16 postseason wins.

Whether or not Durant wins a championship in Golden State, the disappointing thing about this is that the budding Warriors-Thunder rivalry could have been one for the ages if they faced each other in the playoffs at least one or two more times. The Thunder with Durant had a better chance of beating the Warriors than any other Western Conference team. It is wrong to suggest that Durant had to leave because the Thunder did not have enough talent to win a title. Oklahoma City has the second best regular season record in the NBA since 2012 (i.e., after the supposedly disastrous James Harden trade). The Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals four times in the past six years. They beat the 67-15 San Antonio Spurs in the 2016 playoffs and after that they had the defending champion Golden State Warriors on the brink of elimination. The Thunder's failure to beat the Warriors stems, in no small part, from Durant's woeful play in clutch moments of that series, including 1-7 field goal shooting in the fourth quarter of game six at home.

So this is not about the Thunder front office failing to surround Durant with enough talent.

It would have been nice to see Durant respond to the loss in the 2016 Western Conference Finals by working on his game and his mindset during the summer so that he could start the 2016-17 season with a new sense of purpose. That is what Larry Bird did after his Celtics missed the Finals in 1982 and 1983. He emerged as a three-time MVP and he added two more championships to his 1981 title. That is what Magic Johnson did after his gaffes in the 1984 Finals led some to call him "Tragic" Johnson. Johnson won championships in 1985 and 1987-88, along with three regular season MVPs (1987, 1989-90). That is what Isiah Thomas did after the Pistons came up short versus the Celtics and then the Lakers in 1987 and 1988. Thomas led the Pistons to back to back championships in 1989-90, winning the Finals MVP in 1990.

Durant has the right to leave. He did not handle the situation optimally but he also did not turn it into a farce and a circus like the one LeBron James created six years ago. As a fan of the sport and of competition in general, I just wish that Durant had tried at least one more time to beat the Warriors.

While the headline story is Durant's departure, the biggest subplot is how this will affect the arc of Russell Westbrook's career. One might have thought that Durant's departure guaranteed that Westbrook would either be traded or else leave Oklahoma City of his own volition but instead Westbrook signed a two year contract extension with the Thunder. Westbrook displayed a very Kobe-esque way of thinking: I am not going to run from this challenge but I am going to go into battle with my teammates and do my best.

Westbrook could put up some historic statistics this season: 30 ppg, 10 apg, 8 rpg is not out of the question. The Thunder are no longer championship contenders but with Westbrook putting up Oscar Robertson numbers they should be a solid playoff team.

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Whatever criticisms can be made of Durant's decision, his primary motivation does appear to be winning. In his opinion, going to Golden State is his best opportunity to win a championship and he does not care what ex-players, media members or fans think about his choice.

In contrast, at every turning point of his career, Carmelo Anthony has chosen money over winning.

While Kobe Bryant has been criticized for the big contracts he received at the end of his career, those deals were lifetime achievement awards from a franchise that can afford such beneficence in no small part because Bryant played a leading role on five championship teams. The Lakers had enough money left over to acquire a big-time free agent even after paying Bryant but no big-time free agents want to play for the Lakers--and since that remains true after Bryant's retirement, we can shut down the idea that Bryant's presence/shot selection scared off stars in their prime who feared that their numbers would dip while playing alongside Bryant and we can lay the blame where it belongs, namely with Jim Buss, who has mismanaged the franchise since his father's death.

In contrast, Anthony's huge New York contract is not a reward for winning and it is an impediment toward acquiring the help that he needs to win--and make no mistake that Anthony would need a lot more help to win a championship than Bryant did or LeBron James does.

Anthony engineered his departure from Denver in such a fashion that the Knicks had to gut their roster to acquire Anthony; as a result, two years after Anthony left Denver the Nuggets posted their best regular season record since the NBA-ABA merger. Meanwhile, the Knicks have been going nowhere fast for years but Anthony's primary concern is staying in the media capital of the world, where he can maximize his earnings on and off of the court. Like Durant, Anthony has the right to make that choice but after Anthony's career ends with no championships he will not be deserving of any sympathy in that regard.

Speaking of Anthony's Knicks, "stat gurus" (and many others) lambasted Isiah Thomas' front office work with the Knicks but the real problem is James Dolan. Thomas was a solid personnel evaluator in Toronto and a solid coach with the Pacers. Larry Brown is a Hall of Fame coach, as is Phil Jackson. Thomas, Brown and Jackson each failed to get the Knicks anywhere close to championship contention. No one has been able to turn the Knicks around under Dolan's ownership and that trend will likely continue.

Phil Jackson's attempt this summer to build Chicago East in New York with the acquisitions of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah inspired Rose to make a delusional comment about the Knicks being a "super team" like Golden State. The Knicks are probably not even a top four team in the East. Noah seems to be done physically, Rose is a solid player but does not seem likely to regain MVP status and Anthony is not the right guy to lead a championship quest.

Jackson's tenure in New York thus far has been long on Charlie Rosen ghost written aphorisms and short on actual results but the Zen Master is laughing all the way to the bank; neither the Bulls nor the Lakers gave him the Kobe Bryant-lifetime achievement award contract but Dolan has done so. Jackson's ability as a coach to take a group of men and mold them into champions is undeniable but Jackson's ability to construct a championship roster from the ground up is unproven.

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Charles Oakley once said of the post-Jackson/Jordan/Pippen Bulls, "They had a dynasty, now they have a coffee shop."

The Dallas Mavericks never had a dynasty, nor are they a "coffee shop" now but Mark Cuban's decision to break up the 2011 championship team did not turn out very well. Cuban is widely praised as an innovative owner. While he has clearly received a significant financial return on his investment in the Dallas Mavericks, under his direction the team has made some odd personnel decisions. In the wake of Dallas' lone championship, Cuban broke up the team's nucleus and the franchise has never been the same. A lot has been said about the supposed value of breaking up a team one year too early as opposed to one year too late but the great danger in messing with championship chemistry is that you might never find the right ingredients at the right time again.

Would the Mavericks have definitely repeated as champions if he had kept the roster intact? That is the wrong question. The right question is, "Did the Mavericks have a better chance to win a championship by sticking with proven winners or by trying to get younger with an eye toward landing a big-name free agent?" Free agents are not flocking to Dallas. Cuban would have been better served standing pat to make a run at the 2012 title. If the Mavericks fell short, then if Cuban so desired he could have broken up the team after the 2012 season and the Mavericks would not be any worse off than they are now--but at least they would have taken their best shot at capturing a second title.

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The Mavericks have faced the San Antonio Spurs six times in the playoffs, with the Spurs winning four of those series. On two occasions, the Spurs went on to take the NBA championship after eliminating the Mavericks. Tim Duncan played a key role in that rivalry and his retirement merits its own special article.

Many teams fall apart after their superstar retires (or even slightly before he retires, if the superstar has declined significantly and/or is plagued by injuries). The Spurs will no doubt miss Duncan--particularly as a leader and as a defensive anchor in the paint--but they are well positioned to continue to be a championship contender with Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and free agent acquisition Pau Gasol leading the way while veterans Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili fill lesser but still important roles. The Spurs went 67-15 last season. Gasol is a better offensive player than Duncan was at this stage of Duncan's career but Gasol is not as good defensively; assuming good health and expected performances from the rest of the players in the team's rotation, the Spurs should still be a 60 win team this season. Gasol is at his best when there is not pressure on him to be the number one option; he thrived with the Lakers as a second option behind Kobe Bryant and he is perfectly suited--in both skill set and temperament--to fit in with San Antonio's philosophy of sharing the ball and not relying on any one player to carry the load.

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It has become rare for a superstar to spend his entire career with one franchise the way that Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant did. Although there were some rocky moments in Dwyane Wade's relationship with the Miami Heat, it seemed likely that Wade would be a one-franchise superstar. Instead, Wade's ego clashed with Pat Riley's ego and Wade will now finish his career in his hometown of Chicago. Such late career transitions do not automatically end badly but they rarely end spectacularly well, either.

Wade and Heat President Pat Riley have butted heads for years, though in the past they always mended fences (at least publicly). When Wade refused to sign an extension with the Heat several years ago but asked Riley to add some talent to the roster, Riley very publicly told Wade to either re-sign with the team or keep his mouth shut about how Riley ran the operation. The Cleveland Cavaliers let LeBron James run the ship and that approach has led to one championship (albeit after James learned under Riley for four years in Miami) but Riley has won seven championships as a coach/executive by doing things his way.

Wade took less money to enable the Heat to sign LeBron James and Chris Bosh but it is not like the Heat put a gun to Wade's head; Wade knew that the only way he was going to win another championship was to bring in at least one more superstar, so he made the necessary choice to facilitate that process. The end result was that Wade added four Finals appearances and two championships to his resume, which not only raises his status in basketball history but also increases his marketability (hence enabling him to recoup at least some of the salary that he voluntarily gave up).

Wade is still a very good player. He was arguably Miami's best player during the 2015-16 regular season, though the "stat gurus" may disagree with that contention. Wade performed even better during the playoffs, leading the Heat in scoring and assists while ranking third in rebounding. However, Miami was not quite a championship contender even with Wade playing as well as he can reasonably be expected to play at this stage of his career. Therefore, Riley was correct to prioritize the re-signing of Hassan Whiteside (the young big man who could become the franchise's cornerstone player if he continues to develop his game and his maturity) and the pursuit of a free agent star to help Wade carry the load. After signing Whiteside and failing to attract Durant or any other star, Riley turned his focus to Wade. The Heat's final offer to Wade was perfectly reasonable considering Wade's age and performance level but by that point in the process Wade's pride prevented him from returning to Miami. He felt disrespected and shunned, even though Riley was actually doing the best job he could to put the pieces in place for Wade to win a fourth championship. Wade is not going to win a title as a fading star in Chicago. What is the Bulls' track record of building championship teams since the departure of Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen? Refer to the Charles Oakley quote above.

These situations are not easy to handle for either side. After the 76ers seriously considered trading Julius Erving to the Clippers near the end of Erving's career, Erving almost signed with the Utah Jazz as a free agent; Erving's pride was stung--just like Wade's is now--but Erving wisely took the longer view of things and he enjoyed a farewell tour as a 76er that became the model for all such farewell tours to come. Erving played for two franchises during the wild and woolly ABA days but he spent his entire 11 year NBA career with one team. Whether or not Wade ever admits it, when his Chicago days are done he will look back and wish that he had stayed with the Heat.

Maybe Riley could have or should have handled the public process more smoothly. Maybe Wade should have a more realistic understanding of how the business of basketball works. I have thought about this situation a lot and I have concluded that both sides had legitimate arguments in their favor; Riley is not a bad guy here, nor is Wade. That said, the best solution would have been to put the egos aside and enable Wade to stay with the Heat for life. Wade's last years in Chicago will probably not evoke the dreary ends of the careers of Johnny Unitas or Willie Mays but they also will not likely add much to his legacy.

The final outcome is not optimal for either party: the Heat are now in danger of missing the playoffs completely without Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson (not to mention the uncertain health status of Chris Bosh), while the Bulls will be lucky to make it past the first round. Instead of Wade taking a victory lap in Miami, he will end his career as no better than the second option on a new team that will not win a championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:16 PM

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Sunday, August 07, 2016

Tim Duncan's Legacy is Defined by Consistency, Durability and Grace Under Pressure

Tim Duncan entered the NBA with as little fanfare as is possible for a number one overall draft pick and after a brilliant 19 year NBA career he has departed the NBA with even less fanfare. There will be no farewell tour--just a press release and Duncan will ride off into the sunset.

A few phrases jump to mind when trying to summarize what makes Duncan so special.

Quiet dominance. Even-keeled personality. Grace under pressure. Durability. Unselfishness.

Duncan rarely posted gaudy statistics and he did not set many records but his resume is nonetheless quite full: five NBA championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2014), two regular season MVPs (2002, 2003), three Finals MVPs (1999, 2003, 2005), 1998 Rookie of the Year, 2000 All-Star Game MVP, 10 All-NBA First Team selections, eight All-Defensive First Team selections. He ranked in the top eight in regular season MVP voting in each of his first 11 seasons, including five times when he finished in the top three. Duncan only averaged more than 25 ppg once but he ranks 14th on the NBA's career scoring list (and 17th on the ABA-NBA list) with 26,496 points. Duncan's 15,091 career rebounds rank sixth in NBA history and seventh on the ABA-NBA leaderboard and his 3020 blocked shots rank fifth on the NBA list (and sixth when ABA numbers are included; blocked shots became an official statistic in 1972-73 in the ABA and in 1973-74 in the NBA). Duncan averaged at least 20 ppg and at least 10 rpg in each of his first eight seasons and he averaged a double double in each of his first 13 seasons.

As Hubie Brown would say, the numbers are there but then you also have to look at the impact. Duncan's arrival in San Antonio heralded the elevation of the Spurs to championship contender status and they remained championship contenders throughout his career. His minutes were limited in recent seasons, which led to a corresponding decline in his other statistics, but Duncan always had a major effect on the game both as the anchor of the defense and as a key offensive player who could do all of the fundamental things well: shoot, pass, handle the ball and--perhaps most underrated--set good, solid screens to free up his teammates.

As a San Antonio assistant coach, Hank Egan saw Tim Duncan's development first hand. An exchange during my first interview with Coach Egan illuminates many of the subtleties of Duncan's game that a casual fan might ignore. While Duncan rightly earned the nickname "Big Fundamental" from Shaquille O'Neal, Egan recalls that even a player as sound as Duncan still had to make some adjustments after entering the NBA:

Egan: "He had a couple years of a learning curve and then, bam. He's a great player. I think that he is the best player in the NBA right now and he has been for several years. He had the luxury while he was breaking in of having David Robinson right there, cleaning up a lot."

Friedman: "The personality that Robinson has, to accept the transition (to a lesser role)."

Egan: "Grace."

Friedman: "It's hard to think of another player of his status who could do something like that. I think a little bit of Julius Erving with Moses Malone coming in and them winning a championship together with Julius stepping back somewhat. But David Robinson did it year after year."

Egan: "After Tim's first year, someone asked him if it bothered him that we were going more to Tim on offense and he said, 'Tim is better offensively than I am.' That's exactly what he said. He didn't say that he was getting older or anything like that. He just said that Tim was better."

Friedman: "They had different offensive games. Robinson's game, particularly after some of the injuries, was a face-up game."

Egan: "Yeah. He was always better faced up because he was a narrow-based player. He was straight up and down. He couldn't go to the post where other players would hunker down and use their width. So he played straight up and down."

Friedman: "Duncan has a different kind of body to get in the post."

Egan: "Absolutely. Absolutely."

Friedman: "That's another thing that I guess is a natural gift in a sense. Robinson is certainly strong and muscular in his arms but he has that tiny waist."

Egan: "Tiny waist, a little knock kneed. Tim Duncan is built like Olajuwon."

Friedman: "Yeah. Your game gets constructed around your body type in a certain sense."

Egan: "Absolutely. Yeah. People would say, 'You have to get this guy to play down low.' He can't play low; he's a straight up and down guy. You have to figure out how to use what God gave him."

Friedman: "That's a big part of coaching, right? You have to see what you are working with. You can't just say, 'My system is best and in my system the 5 does this.' If you have a 5 who can't do that, then you have to find other ways to use his skills."

Egan: "Absolutely. Absolutely."

Friedman: "Robinson was amazing, particularly before he got hurt—his quickness, the way he could run the floor and steal the ball from guards. He was a very unusual player with what he could do."

Egan: "Yes."

The "grace" that Egan correctly attributes to Robinson has been displayed by Duncan as well during the latter portion of Duncan's career. Very few elite players have so seamlessly adjusted to each phase of their careers; Duncan blended well with elder statesman Robinson, Duncan dominated during his prime years (winning back to back regular season MVPs while leading the Spurs to four titles in nine years), Duncan ceded shot attempts and limelight to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as those players emerged and then Duncan made room for Kawhi Leonard's ascension as well. Last season, Duncan played the reduced elder statesman David Robinson role as LaMarcus Aldridge became the team's primary low post offensive weapon.

The only plausible reason for not labeling Duncan the greatest power forward of all-time is that it could be argued that he was a de facto center during a significant portion of his career. Was Duncan the greatest player of his era? There are only a few legitimate candidates for that title: Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal was the most physically dominant of that quartet but his inattention to conditioning affected his durability and left him trailing both Bryant and Duncan in terms of championships. James would be the choice of the "stat gurus" because he fills up every category in the box score. Bryant was the one man wrecking crew, the scoring machine/defensive fiend who could carry a team with Smush and Kwame to the playoffs and who was an integral part of two back to back championship dynasties nearly a decade apart (something that none of the other three players accomplished).

There is no definitive right or wrong answer. My personal feeling is I would be reluctant to take O'Neal unless I have a Phil Jackson or Pat Riley to keep him motivated. James is a wunderkind but I will always be baffled by his disappearing act in several key playoff series, most notably the 2011 NBA Finals and the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals; I don't trust him the way that I trust Bryant and Duncan. The problem with comparing Bryant and Duncan is that they need two completely different kinds of supporting casts around them to win, because one is a perimeter player and the other is a post player. The general rule in basketball is that size matters, which would favor Duncan. Bryant asserted his dominance in a more obvious fashion, by scoring 40 or 50 points in a game or by averaging 30 ppg in a series; Duncan's dominance was more understated--sliding over to deter an opponent from driving, setting a screen that freed up someone else to score. Picking one will inevitably be viewed as disrespecting the other, so in the year that both Bryant and Duncan retired from the NBA let's just say that Bryant was the best perimeter player of the post-Jordan era and Duncan was the best big man of the post-Jordan era.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:08 PM

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Saturday, August 06, 2016

Team USA Routs China 119-62 in Olympics Opener

China took a 2-0 lead versus Team USA in the first game of Group A play but that was China's highlight moment before Team USA rolled to a 119-62 victory. Kevin Durant scored a game-high 25 points on 10-14 field goal shooting and he also had a game-high six assists. Yi Jianlian led China with 25 points but he shot just 8-19 from the field.

Team USA started Durant, Klay Thompson, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving. Doug Collins deemed this Team USA's "best offensive lineup," while he described the second unit featuring Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, DeMar DeRozan and DeAndre Jordan as the "pitbull unit" that is very defensive-minded.

Team USA's first unit looked just a little sluggish during the first few possessions but they soon held a 17-6 lead after Durant opened the game with six points on 3-3 field goal shooting. Team USA never looked back after that, pushing the margin to 30-10 by the end of the first quarter and 59-30 at halftime. Durant scored 17 points in the first half on 7-9 field goal shooting, including 3-4 from three point range. Team USA forced 15 turnovers in the first half as China struggled to run any kind of halfcourt offense.

China matched Team USA basket for basket early in the third quarter but then Team USA went on another huge run to extend the lead to 91-47 by the end of the quarter.

This game is not much of a measuring stick for Team USA but it is a good sign that Team USA is committed to strong defense and unselfish offensive play. It is sometimes suggested that Team USA needs to have good three point shooters in order to win in FIBA play but the reality is that there are four keys for Team USA that Doug Collins mentioned during the 2012 Olympics and that I had previously noted in my analysis of Team USA's losses in FIBA play between 2002 and 2006:

1) Pressure defense converted into points off of turnovers
2) Defend the three point line
3) Defensive rebounding
4) Depth

Team USA excelled in all four areas versus China, forcing 24 turnovers, holding China to 5-17 three point shooting, grabbing 33 defensive rebounds while allowing only seven offensive rebounds and using their depth to wear China down, resulting in big runs that blew the game open. Team USA's depth, athleticism and versatility are overwhelming.

Durant was the best player on the court but a good case could be made that the second best player was DeMarcus Cousins, who finished with 17 points on 6-8 field goal shooting plus five rebounds in just 15 minutes. No one in this tournament can guard Cousins in the post and that consistent inside scoring threat could be important if Team USA faces a squad that does not turn the ball over and that defends well on the perimeter.

The Chinese team was overmatched but their one bright spot was Yi Jianlian, a former NBA player who Collins repeatedly stated still belongs in the NBA based on his talent. Collins noted that the only reason Jianlian is not in the NBA is that Jianlian lacks sufficient work ethic and drive to succeed at that level. Collins contrasted Jianlian's attitude with the superb work ethic displayed by Yao Ming. Jianlian justified Collins' assessment of his raw talent by displaying some nice offensive moves and he also tied for team-high honors with six rebounds.

Team USA will next face Venezuela on Monday night.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:36 PM

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Friday, August 05, 2016

NBA Players Association Increases Benefits for Retired Players, NBA Signs Contract Extension With NBRPA

Basketball's rich history should be acknowledged and appreciated not only by affording official recognition to ABA statistics but also by providing financial benefits and proper health care to the retired players who deserve and need such support. I was honored to tell the story of Bill Tosheff and the tireless efforts he made on behalf of the "pre-1965ers." It has been a long battle for retired players to receive assistance from the NBA and from the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) but recently there has been an important step in the right direction: the NBPA has agreed to spend between $12-$15 million per year to provide increased health care coverage for more than 1500 retired players. The previous health care plan only covered players who had retired after the 2000-01 season.

Also, the NBA and the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) recently signed a five year contract extension. The pact is now nearly 50% larger than before, as reported by Rebecca Theim. Theim's article, which focuses on the larger issue of players struggling to adjust to life after basketball, includes a link to my my discussion of Spencer Haywood's Supreme Court case in Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond. Haywood's triumphant legal battle paved the way for the process now known as "early entry" and is a major reason that today's players receive mega-million dollar contracts. Haywood experienced some setbacks during and after his pro basketball career but he is doing well now: he was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last year and his life story is told in a documentary titled Full Court.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:10 PM

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Monday, June 20, 2016

LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers Make History by Overcoming a 3-1 Deficit to Win Game Seven on the Road

In one night, LeBron James ensured his place alongside Jim Brown in the Cleveland sports pantheon and he elevated his already lofty position within pro basketball's pantheon. James followed up twin 41 point performances in games five and six of the NBA Finals with a rare game seven triple double as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors 93-89 to complete an unprecedented rally from a 3-1 deficit.

That was an epic performance by a player who added immensely to his already impressive legacy that included two championships, two Finals MVPs and four regular season MVPs. Lebron James was not perfect but he came up LARGE when his team needed it most. His numbers were big (27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocked shots, two steals) but that is beside the point because James' numbers are almost always big. What matters is James' impact when game seven and the series were on the line: in the fourth quarter, James scored 11 points, grabbed three rebounds and dished for one assist as he personally accounted for 13 of the Cavaliers' 18 points in the final stanza. James did not shoot well from the field (9-24) but that is to be expected in a tightly contested game seven--and I stated as much in my previous article when I asserted that what will matter is not James' "efficiency" but rather his aggressiveness. James did not settle for jumpers when he had the chance to attack and that is the major reason that the Cavaliers won. James unanimously won Finals MVP honors after averaging 29.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 8.9 apg in the series. James joined Julius Erving (1976 ABA Finals) as the only players in pro basketball history to lead both teams in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocked shots in one playoff series--but, again, this is less about numbers and more about impact, because the deciding factor in this series is that James changed his mindset and approach after Cleveland fell into the 3-1 hole.

James was clearly the best player in this series--and is the best player on the planet--by a landslide but it should be noted that Kyrie Irving played at an MVP level in the Finals. Irving averaged 27.1 ppg versus Golden State and his 26 points in game seven included the three point shot that gave Cleveland the lead for good with :52 remaining in the fourth quarter. Irving completely outplayed the reigning two-time regular season MVP Stephen Curry. 

Kevin Love has consistently been the scapegoat for the Cavaliers whenever anything went wrong but he
had a positive impact throughout the series and particularly in game seven as a rebounder with a team-high 14 boards.

Draymond Green stepped up big time for Golden State (32 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists) in game seven but his foolish actions throughout the playoffs that culminated in being suspended for game five of the NBA Finals are his fault alone. That said, Golden State had game seven at home, Green played very well and the Cavaliers still won, so it is ridiculous to say that the suspension swung the series. The Cavaliers proved that once James played with the requisite aggressiveness the Warriors had no answers individually or collectively.

Curry played well in the Finals by most players' standards, posting a 22.6 ppg average, but he did not place his stamp on this series by performing at an MVP level. The Warriors won the first two games easily without needing much from Curry, so Curry's numbers are somewhat skewed, but again this is less about numbers (as hard as that is for some people to understand in this so-called era of "analytics") and more about impact. Curry was a non-factor at home in game seven with the championship on the line (17 points on 6-19 field goal shooting looks better on paper than Curry actually played) and that is part of his resume now the same way that James' earlier Finals failures are on his resume; James has three great Finals performances to his credit and perhaps Curry will accomplish that as well but right now Curry does not "feel" like a two-time MVP in a world where Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant won just one MVP each.

Curry's backcourt running mate Klay Thompson was solid (19.6 ppg) but not exceptional throughout the series and he also was well nigh invisible in game seven (14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting). Thompson is an outstanding two-way player whose worth cannot be measured just by looking at his offensive numbers but he did not have the impact at either end of the court in this series that Golden State needed from him in order to repeat as NBA champions.

Switching from the key individual players to the team versus team perspective, perhaps the most remarkable team statistic from this series is that the Cavaliers held the Warriors' historically great offense to 11 points in the first quarter of game six to deliver a knockout blow in the first 12 minutes and then limited the Warriors to 13 points in the fourth quarter of game seven to capture the only close contest of the series. James' fingerprints were literally all over that defensive dominance (in terms of some spectacular blocked shots and timely steals) but Coach Tyronn Lue also deserves credit for a great defensive game plan and the entire team deserves credit for executing that game plan.

It is also worth noting that the Cavaliers outrebounded Golden State 48-39 in game seven. Coach Lue resisted the temptation to go small when the Warriors went small during this series and as a result the Cavaliers pounded the Warriors in the paint at both ends of the court, which more than nullified Golden State's record-setting three point assault. The "stat gurus" blithely insist that "3 is more than 2," ignoring the reality that a team that can pound the paint can (1) generate extra possessions with great rebounding, (2) wear down the legs of three point shooters by making them work on defense and (3) erode the confidence of jump shooters by placing them under physical and mental pressure that they are not used to facing. Curry and Thompson are considered by many to be the greatest shooting backcourt in history but they combined to shoot 6-24 from three point range in what may turn out to be the biggest game of their careers. The Warriors succeeded last year where previous jump shooting teams failed because they complemented their offensive fireworks with defensive dominance and because the teams they faced lacked either the mindset or the personnel to effectively utilize size against the Warriors in the paint; this year, the Oklahoma City Thunder used size/paint dominance to push the Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals and then the Cavaliers used size/paint dominance to wear down the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

From a historical standpoint, this series will likely be remembered first for how it redefined James' legacy, second for how it removed the Warriors from the greatest team of all-time conversation and third for how it affected the perception of Stephen Curry's two MVP awards. James is now 3-4 in the NBA Finals and could very possibly end his career at 4-4, but a loss to Golden State would have dropped him to 2-5 and all but ensured a sub-.500 career record on the sport's biggest stage. The Warriors proved to not be the best team of 2016 and, at least by my reckoning, can no longer be seriously considered in the greatest team of all-time conversation. Curry has already won a championship and he is a better defender than Steve Nash ever was so Curry's MVPs are not as suspect as Nash's but--as mentioned above--it just feels wrong that Curry owns as many MVPs as O'Neal and Bryant combined.

Much will be made of the Cavaliers ending Cleveland's 52 year drought for professional sports championships but the Cavaliers franchise is not even 52 years old and the majority of that drought had nothing to do with James. It is significant that James returned to Cleveland after the "Decision" p.r. disaster and fulfilled his promise to win a championship with the Cavaliers and it is even more significant that James did so by attacking the hoop aggressively in the climactic portion of the series; James' ability to change the passive mindset that haunted him in several of his previous Finals' appearances is the biggest single news story about this championship.

On a personal note, the first time that the Cavaliers made it to the NBA Finals I covered games three and four in person with a credential from NBCSports.com. Those were the first Finals games I attended in person and I thought that they would always be the most special Finals games of my life for that reason--but I watched this game seven at home on Father's Day as my soon to be 22-month old daughter Rachel fell asleep on my lap. This Father's Day Weekend was all about Rachel for me, pushing Bar Exam prep, the NBA Finals and everything else to the side. My life has changed a lot in the past two-plus years and I don't know what the future holds, so if this game seven recap in some way does not fully match up with the moment or with my previous recaps I am sorry about that but I don't regret it, because the alternative would have been to send the message to Rachel that this game matters more to me than she does--and that is not the case. She will not remember this day or this weekend but when she is older she will know and feel that I always put her first and that I have restructured my entire life to put her first--and she will know that my favorite NBA Finals memory will always be not the first Finals that I attended in person but rather the first NBA Finals that I shared with her.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:59 AM

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