Team USA vs. Lithuania: 5 Things to Watch

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Team USA continues its exhibition schedule against international competition in advance of the FIBA World Championship today with a game against Lithuania. It’s an opportunity for USA to test their progress against a better team than the China squad they faced last weekend. Lithuania’s team may be made up primarily of second-tier players (like Team USA, oddly enough), but Linas Kleiza has the Lithuanians in a position to make a run. It’s a good matchup, with most of their strength on the wing and not down low. Here are five things to watch for in today’s exhibition.

1. So About Those Guards: Well, we know the remaining won’t be coming from the bigs, but USA’s got a glut of guards. Eric Gordon’s likely on the bubble, but he’s at least a pure shooter versus the obscene number of point guards being carried on the roster currently. Russell Westbrook is the other candidate, but more important than the final cut, honestly, is how the guards work together. Determining who’s best for managing the offense and who should work off-ball is a trick Coach K has to figure out. It’s just not as simple as “toss ’em out there and let ’em play.”

2. Tread Lightly, Tyson: No one really wants to criticize Coach K’s decisions, because, well, it’s Coach K. Beyond his endless accomplishments, he also won the Gold two years ago. But I mean, Tyson Chandler? That’s your center? That’s the hill you want to die on? The guy that’s missed 68 games the past two seasons and has a bum foot? Chandler is the only true center on the team, and while Kevin Love will surely help out with the rebounding, Coach K has been experimenting with things like Kevin Durant at center. Which is cute, and nice, but also a really bad idea in actual basketball terms. Chandler simultaneously has to be out there for the team to maintain rebounding advantage and not wear down the other players playing bigger than their size, and has to be careful because he absolutely cannot get hurt.

3. What’s Good, Iggy?: Andre Iguodala has impressed the coaches and fans alike with his play, being the versatile guy he is on the Sixers. He’s in his comfort zone on this squad, and has taken on a leadership role on the court. The coaches will be looking for more of that from Iguodala. The coaches clearly want to see more aggressiveness from the players, and Iguodala has been the model of that. It’ll be interesting to see if he continues that theme against a better team defensively in Lithuania, especially since he may be guarding star Linas Kleiza for some time.

4. Go Get It Durant: If Iguodala has been the model of assertiveness, Durant has been the opposite. It hasn’t been concerning, because he’s mostly been helping get teammates involved and has still been the primary scorer. But the feeling has been that Kevin Durant has held something back during the exhibitions and practice so far and is still trying to get his feet under him. The coaches have stressed the need for him to feel comfortable scoring and being who he is, the best player on the team. Today offers him a prime chance to take over and do what he does best. Get buckets.

5. Downtown Work: The key to this FIBA run will be three-point shooting, the experts have agreed. While NBA fans wonder how in heaven’s name this team will consistently rebound, the experts have been focused on the team nailing, and defending, three-point shots. There are some ace defenders on the perimeter for Team USA, but the pull-up and spit-shot threes of FIBA are a different level and approach from what they’re used to in the NBA. Likewise, this is not known as a crack three-point shooting team. The best shooters may be at the wing spots, and Rondo and Derrick Rose are simply not terrific perimeter scorers, though Rose has clearly worked on his shot. Eric Gordon could cement himself on the team after a strong week of practice with a strong shooting performance from downtown today.

Charles Barkley: Klay Thompson is a better player than Kevin Durant

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You know the NBA season is back when Charles Barkley is just talking out his… er, saying ridiculous things.

On Inside the NBA before the tip off of San Antonio thrashing Golden State, Barkley said then tried to defend the idea that Klay Thompson is a better all-around player than Kevin Durant. It was vintage Barkley — and it’s what makes the barbershop feel of Inside the NBA must-watch television every week.

The flaw in Barkley’s argument is that he tries to use the “two-way player” argument to try and balance out Durant’s and Thompson’s offensive contributions. Is Thompson a better defender than Durant? Yes. Even though people underestimate Durant’s defense a little, I will stipulate Thompson is a better defender. But does that defense make up for how much more offensive versatility and shot creation Durant brings to the table compared to Thompson? No. Again, Thompson is an excellent offensive player and probably the second best shooter in the game, but he does not create shots or force a defense to adjust the way Durant does. KD’s amazing offense tips the scales more than Thompson’s defense. KD is the better overall player.

And The Jet is way too quick to dismiss Kawhi Leonard as maybe the second best player in the league. But Leonard made his case just after these comments.

Watch Jonathan Simmons posterize JaVale McGee

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This was the exclamation point on the Spurs thrashing of the Warriors on opening night.

Jonathan Simmons — who was a beast in the first half and finished the night with 20 points off the bench — was pounding the ball out top, then as the clock wound down blew by rookie Patrick McCaw, got into the lane looking for the two-handed slam. When JaVale McGee slid over to contest Simmons switched to the one-hander and finished over the big man.

That’s the way to start an NBA season.

Three things we learned Tuesday: Kawhi’s Spurs are not to be trifled with

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 25:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs dribbles the ball up court against the Golden State Warriors during the third quarter in an NBA basketball game at ORACLE Arena on October 25, 2016 Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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The NBA season has returned, and we are back with our morning recap of what you need to know from the night before around the NBA — three things we learned. So if you were busy watching the Cubs bats go cold, here is what you missed.

1) The Spurs are Kawhi Leonard’s team — and they are magnificent. Every year we give lip service to the “don’t sleep on the Spurs” idea, and then we get wrapped up talking about some other bright, shiny new object. Like say a move from Oklahoma City to the Bay Area. We do exactly what we said we weren’t going to do.

Then San Antonio reminds us they are fierce competitors and contenders. Tuesday night the Spurs went into Oracle Arena and slapped Kevin Durant and the Warriors around. This was an old-school beatdown. In a game where the Warriors had the winners of the last three MVP awards, Kawhi Leonard was the best player on the court — a career-high 35 points on 21 shots, he got to the line 15 times, and he had five steals. Tim Duncan is gone and this is now Leonard’s team, without question. He was simply unfair, just torturing the Warriors on both ends and leading a physical Spurs team that dominated the glass — the Spurs had 24 second chance points to the Warriors 4.

Leonard didn’t do it alone, LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points and 14 boards, Jonathan Simmons came off the bench for 20 and had a highlight chasedown block on Stephen Curry. But make no mistake, this was Leonard’s team and night.

Games in October are incredibly poor predictors of the outcome of a May playoff series. Both of these teams will evolve over the course of the season, and the Warriors will get things figured out. But we learned on opening night there is no doubt the Spurs are Kawhi’s team — and they are not to be trifled with.

2) Golden State’s defense needs some work. It was easy to see the rough spots in the Warriors offense the team still needs to be smoothed out — the passes to teammates who had already vacated the spot, the threes not being in rhythm (7-of-33 from deep, a number of those looks uncontested), and all those stars playing next to each other rather than with each other. It was to be expected.

However, offense wasn’t the Warriors’ big problem — their defense was atrocious. The Spurs scored at a ridiculous 125.9 points per 100 possessions pace, because literally half of their shot attempts were uncontested (according to the player tracking stats). San Antonio had an eFG% of 54.1, and the Spurs grabbed the offensive rebound on 41.2 percent of their shots when they did miss. Leonard had a career-high 35 points, Aldridge 26, and the Spurs time after time got the shot they wanted — and they had 24 fast break points, the Warriors did not get back in transition defense. The Warriors missed Andrew Bogut inside, both as a rim protector and on the glass (this was not Zaza Pachulia’s best night).

The past two years, the Warriors had a top five NBA defense, and that as much as their vaunted shooting was the reason they went to back-to-back Finals. No doubt they made the right move adding Durant to the roster — they are going to figure this all out. This was the first game of 82, and we knew there would be some bumps at the start. But more than the offense, Steve Kerr and his staff need to get the Warriors back to being a defensive force.

3) Damian Lillard’s brilliant offense overcame his defense. Again. Damian Lillard came into this season saying he wanted to be MVP, and on opening night he put up those kinds of numbers — 39 points, nine rebounds, six assists, and he led his team to an opening night win against Utah. Portland did a great job of setting their high picks especially high, then letting Lillard go downhill fast off them right at Rudy Gobert — and Lillard finished around and over the big man all night.

Portland had an eight-point lead at the half and led by double digits for chunks of the second quarter, but in the third Utah took the lead because they exposed Lillard on the other end. Utah started running a George Hill/Joe Johnson pick-and-roll (1/3 action) and when Lillard switched it they got the ball to Johnson and he just overpowered Lillard on his way to 29 points. Johnson shot 6-of-7 in the paint and scored at will all night.

Lillard came back and had 16 of his points in the fourth quarter to help Portland get the win, he was nothing short of brilliant on offense. The Blazers got enough stops to rack up the victory at home. But their small backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum is going to be a defensive challenge all season long.

Opening night bonus note: LeBron James was having fun at the expense of the Knicks’ defense. The Cavaliers cruised to a win over New York, and LeBron James had a triple-double and did whatever he wished. And what he wished was to dunk. A lot.

Watch Jonathan Simmons’ chasedown block on Stephen Curry


Jonathan Simmons did his best LeBron James impression on opening night.

While the Spurs were running the Warriors out of Oracle Arena — a 129-100 Spurs win — Simmons had a fantastic chasedown block on Stephen Curry. It was one of the plays of the game (most of the rest came from Kawhi Leonard).

Simmons had 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting off the bench for the Spurs in the win, which included a poster dunk on JaVale McGee late. Just to put some icing on the win.