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.

Michael Beasley: “I’m literally just Carmelo on the left side of the floor”

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Michael Beasley recently signed a one-year contract with the New York Knicks for the veteran minimum. Hopefully, this is just the start of an interesting year with the Knicks. I think you know what I mean.

Speaking to reporters this week, Beasley had lots to say about his potential new role with New York, his interplay with Carmelo Anthony, and his new weight loss.

Specifically, Beasley spoke of how long he had known Anthony and how much he had mimicked his game off of the star on the left side of the floor, saying, “If you watch my game, really watch my game, my jab series, all that, I’m literally just Carmelo on the left side of the floor.”

Since Kevin Durant has apparently set the offseason tone for athletes being frank with reporters, Beasley did say that he was not as great on help side defense as he could’ve been in recent years. However, he said that he wasn’t as bad as people made about to be, and it appears he is going to try to make that something to focus on this season.

Beasley has also lost about 20 pounds — it appears he has cut out sugar and red meats — but the most interesting thing he said to ESPN’s Ian Begley was about his offensive production.

Via ESPN:

“I’ve came in and out of this league. Every year my per-36 [minute average] has been top of the league. And still everybody looks at me as a bust. I just want an opportunity to play more than 15 minutes. And you know if I play more than 15 minutes I’m going to score more than 15 points. And if I can do that for 82 games, that’s an All-Star level. I don’t know. I’m just talking. I just want an opportunity to play basketball. I just want the respect I deserve. Not for what I can do in the future but what I’ve done in the past. And I just want a fair opportunity, a fair chance, a fair shot to play basketball.”

It’s not immediately clear what kind of fair shake Beasley wants here. True, he played less than 30 games in two of his last three seasons in the NBA. However, that was preceded by six seasons of at least 47 games a year. We do know who he is at this point in time, and there is a large swath of game tape and statistics that can be analyzed to prove it.

It is also interesting that Beasley brought up his per-36 numbers. It’s true that Beasley has been an okay scorer when looking at those numbers out of context. But per-36 numbers are not a direct correlary to how effective a player is on the floor. Indeed, even when he was playing starter-level minutes, Beasley’s best numerical seasons are spread all over the place when you take a look at his per-36 production.

Meanwhile, Beasley has had only one season out of nine where he had a positive value over a replacement player. That was his sophmore season with the Miami Heat at 0.2. Five of those seasons he’s taken a larger percentage of his shots from 16 feet to just inside the 3-point line than he has from 0-3 feet. He’s a career 39% shooter on those long jumpers, and 63.5% from that close-in range.

Would it be great if Michael Beasley somehow turned into a strong driving, hard rebounding, diving and passing pick and roll man? Yes. That is exactly what this Knicks team — and any team, frankly — could use.

For now, it appears it’s more likely we end up with the Beasley who says he is a carbon copy of Carmelo — long 2s and all.

Goran Dragic holds back tears after Drazen Petrovic’s mother gives Slovenian star his jersey

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It’s been a big week for Slovenian star Goran Dragic.

First, he led the Slovenian national team to the 2017 Eurobasket championship over Serbia, winning the gold medal.

Then, the Miami Heat point guard announced that he would be retiring from the Slovenian national team. Shortly thereafter, we learned that something special had taken place between Dragic and the mother of former NBA player Drazen Petrović.

Specifically, Biserka Petrović sent over her son’s New Jersey Nets kit as a gift for Dragic.

Via Sportando and SiolNET:

“It is one of the most beautiful gifts I’ve ever received in my life” Dragic told Siol. “He was my idol. We all know what he did for Yugoslavia and the basketball world. It was a great honor for me to wear the jersey no.3” Dragic added.

Petrović, who played for the Nets and the Portland Trail Blazers in the NBA, died in a car accident in Germany in June of 1993. He is considered a sports hero in the successor states that make up the former Yugoslavia, including Slovenia.

You can watch Dragic receiving the jersey and his reaction in the video above. The video does not have English subtitles, but you can clearly see the emotion in his eyes and it’s pretty powerful.

Kevin Durant admits after decision to leave OKC he felt “f—— up”

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Anyone who has made a major, life-changing decision has been there — you make the call, take the steps, commit yourself to the new plan, and then start to wonder “what did I just do?”

Hopefully, usually, the decision works out. It did for Kevin Durant when he chose to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State. However, not only did he have the normal doubts the rest of us had, he had a nation on basketball Twitter ridiculously slamming him for “taking the easy way” to a title.

Durant talked about it in a feature in San Francisco Magazine, along with his agent Rich Kleiman (a story mostly dedicated to KD’s tech investments, which in and of itself is interesting).

(Durant) and Kleiman were in China for a weeklong tour of the country sponsored by Nike Basketball, and the flak he was taking from people in Oklahoma City who had once professed deep affection for him was overwhelming. “To have so many people just say, ‘F— you,’ that really does it to you,” Durant tells me, still clearly anguished. “Because I truly had invested everything I had into the people I played for…. And for those people that I know and love and trust to turn their back on me after I was fully invested in them, it was just…more than I could take. I was upset….

“That was before I met anybody from the Warriors and dove into the culture. I was basically on my own,” Durant says. “It was like you were in between two teams.”….

“We were all messed up on jet lag,” Kleiman says, turning to me, “and I was up at 6 a.m. and he calls me and says, ‘Yo, are you up?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, what’s up?’ And he’s like [yelling], ‘Why the f— did you let me do this to my life?’ And I’m like, ‘Ohh s—, I’m coming over to your room.’”

“That hotel was rock bottom,” says Durant.

Durant’s haters will read into this whatever they want, and the world should look at them and shrug (unfortunately, Durant does not).

I’m impressed that he opened up about this. To me, this makes him more human and relatable because we’ve all had doubts after making a life-changing decision. You know LeBron James has, but he’s not going to let that show. Durant allowed himself to be vulnerable, to show this was not an easy decision for him. It was emotional.

Granted, it’s easier to do that when in a few weeks Durant will put on a championship ring. His decision worked out. Still, good on him for talking about it.

Tyronn Lue says Cavs will stick with LeBron, Love, Tristan Thompson as starters

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With the acquisition of Jae Crowder, a theory started to pop up among Cavaliers observers: Could they go small?

The idea is to start Kevin Love at center, LeBron James at the four, and Crowder at the three — that’s a mobile front line with a couple good defenders and the ability to switch a lot. It provides more options on offense and spaces the floor. Then the Cavs could bring Tristan Thompson off the bench.

That’s not going to happen, at least to start the season, according to Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue, speaking to Joe Varden of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“Right now we’re just trying to get all of our pieces together and right now Tristan’s our starter,” Lue told cleveland.com. “I’m just thinking we’re going to run a lot more stuff through Kevin, more at the elbows, like we’ve done the last year and a half. Just trying to figure out with our new pieces and our new players and just see what works best for us.”

Thompson brings value and defense to the starting lineup, Cleveland needs that.

I could see a lineup of Isaiah Thomas (once healthy), J.R. Smith or Kyle Korver at the two, Crowder, LeBron, and Love working in sort of the way Steve Kerr uses his “death lineup” — just put it on the court for 10-15 minutes a night as a change of pace teams can’t adapt to. Use it in key moments to pull away, and in crunch time as needed. Golden State starts Zaza Pachulia, and Thompson is certainly the better of those bigs.

Lue has a lot of rotation decisions to make this season, both before Thomas gets back on the court and after. How to work the trio of Jeff Green, Crowder, and Kover off the bench is just one of them. With Irving gone a lot of options become available, and that should mean a lot of experimentation the first part of the season. Lue is and should be willing to sacrifice some wins now to see what works down the line, because for the Cavaliers the season doesn’t really start until mid-April.