Team USA edges Spain by a single point, but claims their most significant victory yet

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usa_durant_rose_iguodala.jpgBoth Team USA and the Spanish national team were reluctant to reveal
their full arsenals, but today’s friendly between the two FIBA
powerhouses was easily the Americans’ most entertaining exhibition yet.
Neither squad was flawless in their execution, but Team USA’s quality
performance against their top opponent in the World Championships (even
if Spain wasn’t giving it a proper go) leaves a far sweeter aftertaste
than yesterday’s bitter win over Lithuania.

Spain isn’t going to shoot 22.7% from three-point range very often.
They’re also not going to fumble so many passes out of bounds. Yet Team
USA’s defensive success overall was no fluke, as the Americans’ length and
athleticism caused all kind of problems for Spain both inside and out.

Marc Gasol, as expected, got his. He finished with 17 points for the day. But Gasol only shot 41.6% from the field. His turnaround jumper
will be there against Lamar Odom and Gasol can really work the high
post against Tyson Chandler. Still, Team USA can live with that. As
long as Gasol’s production remains reasonable, he doesn’t offer an
unmatchable advantage. The Americans can utilize their size on the
wings and their quickness in the backcourt just as Spain can utilize
Gasol, and the give and take of those positional match-ups is just part
of what makes a USA-Spain collision course so intriguing.

The
slim point differential (Team USA won by a single point, 86-85) shouldn’t be too concerning. Spain is just that
talented of a team, and they’re understandably both the Americans’ most
feared and most respected opponent. It showed. Team USA looked truly
prepared to play against Spain. Not against an international opponent
using FIBA rules, but against Spain. They played the screen-and-roll game well, knew where to cut off passing lanes, took
away a pet play or two, and showed the impact or proper preparation.

I’m honestly not sure what the game plan was against Lithuania, but the
Americans took a double-digit lead against what could be the top team
in the tournament, all while letting Rajon Rondo and Danny Granger
cheer from the bench.

Rondo is clearly a central part of Team
USA’s plans at this point. That leads me to believe that Mike
Krzyzewski was holding him back rather than “benching” him, and the
same could possibly be true of Granger. While Spain’s coaching staff
chose to play the entire game man-to-man rather than turning to their
vaunted zone defense, Coach K opted to sit one of his top perimeter
defenders and playmakers in Rondo, and a skilled shooter in Granger.
Having both of those guys available for full-time duty changes the
overall feel of the team (which I imagine is why Krzyzewski chose to
sit them against an opponent he’s sure to see again later), even if allocating some of Rudy Gay’s minutes to Granger doesn’t seem like a tectonic
shift.

For the first time in Team USA’s pre-tournament exhibitions, Kevin
Durant looked like the star that he is. KD has had a rough stretch,
shooting-wise, against China, France, and Lithuania, but he dropped 25
points on 56.3% shooting from the field this afternoon. Like it or not,
this is about how dominant Durant will need to be for Team USA to put
away their more competitive opponents.

Not that he didn’t have help. The burden of being his team’s primary
scorer was lifted from Durant’s shoulders, as Derrick Rose took over on a
pair of high pick-and-roll sets. Rose’s speed was lethal off the
screen, and he was able to drop a bucket and draw a foul to score just
enough for a USA victory.

The Americans’ clutch play on the other end, however, came down to two of
their leaders: Kevin Durant and Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K called for a
zone look — the only zone Team USA played in the entire game — on
Spain’s final offensive possession out of a timeout, which completely
shook Spain’s prescribed set. Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez were left to take heavily contested jumpers off of failed penetration, the second of which Durant swatted
out of bounds as time expired. Leaning too heavily on the zone would
undoubtedly come back to bite Team USA, but credit Krzyzewski with
knowing exactly when to unveil it in this game.

The exhibition W may
technically mean nothing, but Coach K has shown he’s willing to shake up
defensive coverage to get the jump on other teams, and that’s valuable.

Closing thoughts:

  • Traveling violations continue to be a thorn in Team USA’s side. Some of
    those travels are legitimate (Durant seems to have a problem with
    taking a step before dribbling off the pump fake/hestitation), and
    others just a typical byproduct of FIBA officiating. The refs are bad. Really bad.
  • Ricky Rubio is 19 years old, and he’s fantastic. You take the bad with
    the good when it comes to Rubio; was it necessary to make a no-look
    pass on Spain’s final possession? Hardly. Did he really need to attempt
    the around-the-back-pass-turned-turnover that led to a key Team USA
    layup? Definitely not. Yet for each of those moves he had a beautiful
    find or a terrific on-ball steal, and then some. He’s so talented
    already, and we can only hope he makes his NBA debut sooner rather than
    later.
  • Lamar Odom got the start at center over Tyson Chandler, and played
    rather well. Odom was probably the Americans’ top screener, and Team
    USA’s squadron of point guards did a great job of finding Odom around
    the rim. He finished with 12 points and nine rebounds in 29 minutes. 
  • Juan. Carlos. Navarro. He should still be in the NBA, but the
    basketball gods so rudely stole him away from us to hide him overseas,
    his floaters and jumpers never to be seen again by most NBA fans.
    Navarro was Spain’s top scorer with 20, and it’s clear that when these
    two teams meet again in the elimination rounds, Navarro will be a point
    of emphasis for Team USA’s defense. Iguodala did a good job of
    defending him, but I’d love to see Rajon Rondo have a crack at him as well.

Kobe Bryant basks in All-Star spotlight one final time

Kobe Bryant All-Star
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TORONTO — Kobe Bryant is the center of attention one last time.

To get to his final All-Star Game in his final season in the NBA, Kobe received more fan votes than Stephen Curry or LeBron James or any other player. Now that he’s at the 2016 All-Star Game, more people want a piece of his time. More media were crowded around him on Friday than any other player at the NBA’s equivalent of media day. Even the other All-Stars could count on getting peppered with Kobe questions (to their annoyance at times).

Kobe is at peace with his decision to walk away from the game. This weekend he wants to savor being in the All-Star spotlight one final time.

“I’m happy,” Kobe said. “This is pretty cool. I’m looking around the room and seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game. It’s true. I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all. I mean, I’m really happy and honored to be here and see this.”

Does that mean Kobe has plans to chase the All-Star MVP one last time?

“Zero…” Kobe said. “But, no, I’m really just enjoying this whole thing, being around these players and talking to them one more time, going out and practicing and enjoying that moment in the game and enjoying that moment. So competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something or prove something, that’s gone.”

What is Kobe’s best All-Star memory?

“My first one in Cleveland was pretty special because you had all the top 50 players,” Bryant said. “I think in ’98 (it was), it was pretty special too, being in my first All-Star Game and being in the locker room with greats, like [John] Stockton and [Clyde] Drexler and all those guys, that was pretty cool too.”

Kobe has a hectic schedule for his final weekend, but much as he has since he announced his retirement he is trying to soak in and fully enjoy this last go around in the NBA. He understands that the life he has known for two decades is about to change. He hasn’t given much thought to his first day of retirement.

“I’ll probably wake up and have some coffee and go back to sleep,” Bryant said.

I don’t think he understands why you drink coffee, but he’s got all of his retirement to figure that out. For now, he just wants to bask in the spotlight one last time.

Zach LaVine wins MVP, Kristaps Porzingis puts on show in Rising Stars Challenge

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TORONTO — Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins was the rock star of the night. “An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few dunks) leading a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

“An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few huge dunks), sparking a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

His Minnesota teammate Karl-Anthony Towns was going to have none of that.

“I gotta see Andrew Wiggins for a long time and I want to rub this in,” Towns said.

He got his wish, the USA beat the World Team 157-154.

It was a glorified pickup game for three quarters, and the level of defensive intensity will make Sunday’s All-Star game look like Tom Thibodeau teams are playing. That led to a lot of high scorers.

Zach LaVine — the other teammate of Wiggins and Towns — led the USA with 30 points and was named the game’s MVP, and said he wanted to steal Wiggins’ thunder at home.

“That’s what I was going for,” LaVine said.

Also from the USA, Jordan Clarkson (Lakers) had 25, Devon Booker (Suns) had 23 and was 5-of-8 from three, D'Angelo Russell (Lakers) had 22, and Towns chipped in 18 points and 7 boards.

Knicks sensation Kristaps Porzingis was the second most popular player in the building, and he had 30 for the World team.

“Not great defense, but it’s about having fun, I guess,” Porzingis said. “And I think we had fun out there. In the second half we got more competitive, as both teams wanted to get the win, and we fell a little short.”

Also for the World Emmanuel Mudiay (Nuggets) had 30 points, Wiggins had 29, and Mario Hezonja (Magic) had 19.

The intensity and defense did pick up in the end, although one wouldn’t call it a thing of beauty. What matters is the crowd in the Air Canada Centre enjoyed it, even if their team didn’t win. It’s an exhibition, and they got a show.

Report: Celtics, Cavaliers talking Kevin Love trade; could include Knicks, ‘Melo

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love holds the ball away from Boston Celtics' Amir Johnson during the second quarter of a NBA basketball game in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Associated Press
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The Celtics are looking for an elite player to improve their deep cast of role players. The Cavaliers are looking for depth. And Carmelo Anthony may just be looking to win.

All of that has talks between the Cavaliers and Celtics on a potential Love deal progressing, with the possibility of the Knicks as a third team also in the mix, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

The Daily News has learned that the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have discussed a blockbuster trade centered around Kevin Love. There were very preliminary discussions about expanding the deal to include the Knicks and Anthony, who would have to waive his no-trade clause in order to facilitate a deal to the Cavs.

The Knicks would receive draft picks and players in return. One of those players is believed to be Timofey Mozgov, who five years ago was traded by the Knicks to Denver in the Anthony deal.

This is a longshot, but the report has some legs.

It’s not clear how far along these talks are. The trade deadline is Feb. 18 (next Thursday) and conversations tend to move past the theoretical/value judging phase and get real come All-Star Weekend, when many GMs and decision makers are in one place (and nobody can go outside because it is too cold in Toronto). This trade works for the Cavaliers if they get a quality stretch four in return — Kelly Olynyk? — plus some depth and a quality pick. The question for the Cavs is simply how much can they get back — this is a win-now team and Love helps that, so how does a trade make them better?

Would Danny Ainge move the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick to get Love? Jae Crowder? How much would Boston surrender to get an elite star, especially one under a reasonable, long contract?

Carmelo Anthony wants a ring, if he could end up playing with LeBron and be much closer to it than he is now, he would waive his no-trade clause.

That said, this trade sounds like a longshot. At least at the deadline. Next Summer… who knows?

Watch Kevin Hart be Kevin Hart at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

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Kevin Hart has a movie to promote decided to come out of retirement to play in the NBA All-Star Friday Night Celebrity Game.

And, he did what Kevin Hart does.

Well, except win MVP of the game, that went to Win Butler (the Canadian lead singer of Arcade Fire). Butler led Canada to a 74-63 win over Hart and the USA.