Team USA, player-by-player and role-by-role (Part Two)

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durant_team_usa.jpgNow that Team USA’s roster is finalized, it’s time to break down
exactly what each of Team USA’s 12 players will be asked to do. Some
members of Team USA are simply acting as an extension of their NBA
selves, but others have seen their responsibilities shift due to the
team’s needs, the overall makeup of the roster, and the nature of FIBA
basketball. In this second installment, we’ll look at the starting candidates for Team USA.

Derrick Rose – Rose started in Rondo’s stead during Sunday’s friendly against Spain, and figures to be Team USA’s starting point guard (at least, as much as this team really has one specific point guard) for most of the World Championships. Rose’s primary value is his scoring; though he can make plays off the dribble, it’s the threat of the drive and the mid-range jumper that could open things up for Team USA.

Rose isn’t a skilled three-point shooter, and that hurts him. When opposing defenses zone up or pack the paint, he’ll likely struggle to create shots for both himself and his teammates. Still, he’s smart enough to make the right plays and pick his spots, and he will. Rose is a weapon. He’s valuable and effective, even if he lacks Rondo’s abilities as a natural playmaker.
 
Chauncey Billups – Billups is both a veteran and scorer for Team USA, which badly needs his precision from the perimeter as well as his leadership. While the roster is certainly guard-heavy, most of those guards are resolved to win the day in a straight-line footrace. Billups is a bit more deliberate in his approach. A bit more methodical. He may ultimately succumb to the same vices (Chauncey is no stranger to the heat check), but the contrast between Billups and the other guards on the roster benefits Team USA all the same.

The Americans’ turnovers have been absolutely brutal thus far, but Billups — a slip-up against Lithuania aside — provides a calming influence on Team USA’s offense. He’s a prolific threat from deep (7-of-13 in the last three exhibition games, good for 53.8%), a strong defender, and unlikely to commit those facepalm-inducing turnovers that have become a Rose/Westbrook staple.

Andre Iguodala – Andre Iguodala will not be scoring much. He’s averaged just 3.7 points per game over USA’s last three exhibitions. No one should expect that to improve significantly.

However, Iguodala does have utility that goes beyond his defense. Iggy is easily Team USA’s top perimeter defender, but offensively, he moves the ball, is a decent spot-up option (just don’t ask him to shoot off the dribble…yeesh), and is a good positional rebounder. Iguodala’s just a dabbler. A little ball-handling, a little slashing, a lot of fast breaking, and a ton of fantastic defense.

Kevin Durant – Kevin Durant owns this team. He’s not renting it out while LeBron goes on vacation. He’s taken it and made it his own, for better or worse. Though Durant didn’t hand-pick his Team USA contemporaries, the roster was constructed with the hope that it would resemble KD. His versatility. His athleticism. His character. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski clearly hoped that Durant’s nature would act as a thematic element for Team USA, and to an extent it has.

The only trouble is that no one on this year’s team has the talent to actually keep up with Durant, even if their commitment and intangibles follow through on the motif.

Durant hasn’t been the most consistent in his pre-Championship exhibitions, but he was in full effect against Spain, the United States’ most formidable foe. KD finished with 25 and 10 in that contest on 56.3% shooting, dropped a couple of threes, and picked up the game-saving block for good measure.

Durant is the only Team USA player that’s elite by NBA standards, and on this team his brilliance is crucial as both a driving force (KD will need to be fantastic against USA’s top opponents) and a beacon to his teammates. 
 
Tyson Chandler – Chandler is the only true center on the roster, which should be good enough to score him some regular playing time. However, as Krzyzewski proved in fiddling with Sunday’s starting lineup, Chandler’s positional standing in no way guarantees him a starting job. Coach K benched Rajon Rondo in favor of Derrick Rose, which was clearly a significant roster move. In the same game, he also brought Tyson Chandler off the bench to start Lamar Odom, who could very well tip-off at center for Team USA from this point on.

Regardless, Chandler will fulfill the same basic duties for the national team regardless of his starting status. He’s a quality rim protector, even if he doesn’t pick up a ton of blocks. His length and athleticism make him a quality all-around defender, even if he’s had some lapses in the exhibition games thus far. Overall, he’s the Americans best on-ball post defender, a good option to defend pick-and-roll bigs, and a solid defensive anchor, even if he’s something of an offensive liability.

Lamar Odom – The impact of Odom being a perimeter-oriented big is a bit overstated. Odom has never been anything more than a decent shooter from outside (he’s gone 0-fer in his first four attempts from deep for Team USA), and he really isn’t floating too much on the outside at present. And though Odom may initiate the offense frequently for the Lakers, that’s not his role on this team. Not with so many dynamic guards on the roster.

Instead, Odom is…oddly conventional in his capacity with Team USA. He screens-and-rolls, he plays nice help-side defense, and he rebounds well. It may not be the most creative way to utilize Odom’s unique skill set, but so far he’s been quite effective while masquerading as a traditional big. 

Raptors troll Bucks after closing in Game 6 with RapsIn6.com website (VIDEO)

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Despite a disastrous fourth quarter performance, the Toronto Raptors closed the series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night. The Raptors came away from Game 6 with a 92-89 victory and a chance to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between the Raptors and the Bucks appears to be alive and well, as the Raptors pushed a video on social media after the game ended that was pointed toward the Bucks.

In it, the Raptors mascot registers a domain name for the team at RapsIn6.com, then proceeds to sip tea in the style of the famous Kermit meme.

In case you are out of the loop, this is a reference to Brandon Jennings saying Milwaukee would beat the Miami Heat in six games back in 2013.

Meanwhile, game ops at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee played the theme song from the children’s TV show “Barney” during Raptors player introductions.

Nothing really happens if you go to RapsIn6.com. There’s nothing on the website save for the video the Raptors posted to social media, which you can watch above.

Toronto has their core together and presumably will for a little while. The Bucks are a growing young team. I’m cool with them duking it out in the postseason for years to come.

Bucks storm back at home, Raptors hang on for 92-89 win, advance to second round

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Nothing can be easy for the Raptors.

They were cruising, up 25 in the third quarter, whipping the ball around on offense, hitting threes, making sharp rotations on defense, and generally overwhelming a Bucks team that did not look ready for the moment.

Then everything changed. The Raptors offense went ice cold, and the ball movement stopped, and the Bucks were getting big plays from Giannis Antetokounmpo and — out of nowhere — Jason Terry. Across the third-and-fourth quarters the Bucks went on a 34-7 run, hitting 5-of-7 from three, one of those a Terry three to put the Bucks up 80-78.

The Raptors then responded like a veteran team, going on a 9-0 run led by DeMar DeRozan, who was the best Toronto player in the series. The Bucks had their chances, but shot 6-of-14 on free throws in the fourth, and Milwaukee started to look tired like the comeback had taken too much out of them. They made the mental mistakes of a young team learning hard lessons.

Toronto hung on for a 92-89 win, and they take the series 4-2.

The Raptors will open their conference semifinal series against the Cavaliers on Monday night in Cleveland.

The star of the night for Toronto was clearly DeRozan, who finished with 32 points on 12-of-24 shooting. Beyond that, he was quick with the recognition of double-teams and was moving the ball, plus had a key defensive play late. However, his biggest moment was this dunk.

The Bucks came out with some desperation early. Antetokounmpo had 14 in the first quarter and got his team off to a good start, but the Raptors settled down, got the ball inside, kicked out for threes, and led by 28-24 at the half.

Milwaukee fell into playing a lot of isolation basketball, while the Raptors were moving the ball and finding the mismatches. The result was a 13-point second quarter from the Bucks (who shot just 3-of-17 from outside the paint in the first half and 1-of-9 from three), and a 51-38 Raptors lead at the half. DeRozan had 16 at the break.

The second half saw the Raptors seem to pull away, going up 25 at one point and being in total control.

Then the Bucks made it interesting. It started with a 15-3 run at the end of the third, which carried over to the fourth quarter and soon the lead was in single digits. The key was some ball movement for the Bucks, some made threes, great play from Antetokounmpo.

However, the larger issue was the Raptors just came apart on offense. From the 6 minute mark of the third quarter through the middle of the fourth, the Raptors were 4-of-16 shooting total, 2-of-8 from three, and that was led by DeRozan suddenly going 1-of-6. The Raptors let them back in the game.

What veteran teams know how to do — and what the Bucks are still learning — is how to bounce back from those stretches. Kyle Lowry made some solid plays, DeRozan dunked, the Raptors got some stops, and they found a way to hang on for the win.

DeRozan and Lowry — 13 points — were the only Raptors to finish in double figures.

Antetokounmpo had 34 for the Bucks and carried his team for long stretches. Khris Middleton added 19, and Matthew Dellavedova had a dozen off the bench.

 

Serge Ibaka, Giannis Antetokounmpo trade massive blocks during Raptors-Bucks (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a long dude. So is Toronto Raptors big man Serge Ibaka. The two faced off in Game 6 at the Bradley Center on Thursday night, so it makes sense the two wound up using one of their most impressive physical assets against each other.

Let the battle of length begin!

Via Twitter:

That’s Ibaka blocking the Milwaukee Bucks star on an attempt at the rim, on a dunk no less. That was impressive, no doubt, but just a minute later, it was Antetokounpmo coming through with a big time block on DeMar DeRozan:

But DeRozan got his revenge later in the fourth quarter, throwing down a dunk over the Bucks defense that was perhaps the finger in the wall needed to stop the leak that was Toronto’s disastrous final period.

DeRozan and the Raptors got the last laugh, winning the closeout game on the road, 92-89. Toronto will go on to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semi finals.

Should the Trail Blazers go after Pacers star Paul George? CJ McCollum says yes

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The Portland Trail Blazers need to do something drastic this offseason. Fans in Oregon should be expecting something big with a roster of players prime for the trade market and three first round picks in GM Neil Olshey’s pocket for the 2017 NBA Draft.

Who should Portland go after? That is a tough question to answer.

The Blazers are not exactly a huge free agent destination, although the city is changing its reputation toward NBA players in recent years with the help of star players Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who have fully embraced Oregon’s largest city.

McCollum, in fact, has his own opinion on who the Blazers should go after this summer: Indiana Pacers star Paul George.

Via Twitter:

George, who is under contract for 2017-18 but has a player option for 2018-19, has been rumored to desire playing in Los Angeles. In any case, fans around the league are looking at George as a potential trade candidate.

He would certainly do well on the Blazers, who had a disappointing 41-41 season in 2016-17. After a surprising effort last year, the Trail Blazers were slotted to expand upon their finish in 2016. But a sluggish start from Damian Lillard mixed with one of the worst defensive rosters in the NBA found them battling for the No. 8 seed come the end of the season. Even still, a miraculous stretch of good play after the All-Star Game was what it took for the Blazers to beat out the likes of Denver, Dallas, and Sacramento for the final playoff spot.

We know now that the Blazers were swept by the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, and up here in the Northwest it only solidified the fact Portland needs to get better on the wing.

Last season, Al-Farouq Aminu showed he could shoot a league average percentage from 3-point range, which helped relieve some pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. But Aminu regressed to shooting 33 percent from deep in 2017, and although Maurice Harkless did an excellent job as a young starter he’s not yet the kind of dynamic offensive player the Blazers need to be a Top 4 team in the West.

Aminu projects for Portland better as a 4, and with Jusuf Nurkic now anchoring the center position, the goal for Portland will be to strengthen the wing and flesh out the bench.

George would be an excellent get, but the Blazers would need to have the salaries match in any trade with Indiana. Allen Crabbe seems the most likely option, given his RFA match for Portland was a clear move to retain an asset. Evan Turner occupied a lot of guard minutes for Portland, and it seems the Blazers aim to keep him.

Meanwhile, you have other players like Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis who still have some value and could help Portland’s cap situation or work as part of a trade with Indiana.

Having watched Portland closely the past six seasons or so, and seeing how parts of this roster has developed, it would make the most sense to add a third star to this team. Turner hamstrings the bench unit with his gargantuan $17 million salary next season, so building out the bench unit under him still won’t put the Blazers in a position to compete with the top teams in the West without another star.

I think the clearest way to capitalize on the prime part of the careers for Lillard and McCollum is to grab another star right now. George might be out of reach — and he reportedly wants to play in LA anyway — but I think the Blazers should think big this offseason. Whether that means trading for George or doing something else bold remains to be seen.