The other top contenders at the World Championships

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Thumbnail image for fiba-turkey.gifYou’re ready. You’ve read up on Team USA and its group. You’ve watched the warm-up games. Even your Facebook profile picture is a USA jersey.

You are set to watch Team USA destroy the world as is its manifest destiny….

Except they could lose.

It is possible — and not a slim possibility, but a real one — that the USA will come home with a bronze medal. Or worse. We haven’t won the World Championships in more than a decade and remember four years ago Greece embarrassed us.

Who could embarrass us now? Let’s take a look. (Again thanks to the Painted Area for the scouting reports that we count on, and you should too.)

Spain. Even the most casual of sports fans know Pau Gasol is the guy Kobe needed for more rings, and that he’s from Spain and likes tapas. (Well, we all like tapas.) We know Spain pushed the USA’s biggest stars hard in the Beijing Olympics.

But when Gasol said he wasn’t playing, a lot of Americans thought Spain’s chances took the summer off, too. Wrong. Very wrong. Most international basketball writers think Spain still beats the USA (which would be a semi-final game, if both teams sweep through group play as expected, so one team here may get the bronze).

They roll out a lineup of proven stars — Ricky Rubio, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, Marc Gasol and others. Like the USA they know they have more talent than just about anyone so they play pressure defense and want to run. They have guards who can handle the USA’s pressure — Rubio made a great drive and kick that got Fernandez a look at a game winner in these teams game last week (but Fernandez hesitated a little on the shot and Durant recovered and got a hand on it).

That other Gasol gives Spain a better inside player than the USA has. They have players that better fit and are more used to the International game. They will face the USA in the semi-finals on Sept. 11 in what will be the real gold medal game.

Argentina. Sort of like Spain, plenty of fans heard Manu Ginobili was not playing and figured that Argentina was no longer a threat. But they still have a roster with Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino and Fabricio Oberto along with a bevy of guys who are good international players.

The Argentinean offense looks a lot more like an NBA offense with a ton of pick-and-rolls that the USA would be forced to defend — and Scola is good at it because he can roll or pop. He’ll be running the P&R with Pablo Prigioni, and if you’re a fan of the game you’ll enjoy watching those two together. Mike Krzyzewski will enjoy it less.

The loss of Andres Nocioni will hurt this team, but they are still a team with a fluid offense that could really test the USA’s defense, and in a one-and-out tournament they need just one shot.

Greece. Remember it was Greece that beat the USA in the World Championships four years ago and started the current push by USA Basketball. And don’t read anything at all into the USA easily handling Greece in a warm-up this week — the Greeks sat their two best inside players and ran vanilla sets. Their offense had looked great up until the USA game. They sandbagged. It will not be so easy next time.

They lost two players to suspensions for the fight with Serbia — Antonis Fotsis and “Big Sofo” Schortsiantis — and that could cost them against a pretty good Puerto Rican team. They get back for the big game against Turkey.

They have a good group of shooters and will go pick-and-roll (something that worked against the USA in the prep game) but also used a lot of off-the-ball movement. Two things that would test the USA defense. They have experienced international players who may not give up the ball. This is as good a team as beat the USA four years ago; the USA will need to be better to win.

Turkey. Think they got in only as the host? Wrong. They have a lineup that includes Hedo Turkoglu and Ersan Ilyasova, plus a number of seasoned international players. Being the home team helps — there will be raucous crowds, just watch that pool play game against Greece — but they would be a threat on any court.

They have one of the best front lines in the championships — Omer Asik (signed by the Bulls) is a quality center surrounded by the versatile forwards in Turkoglu and Ilyasova. They also have Semih Erden, who just inked with the Celtics, up front. (If Mehmet Okur was healthy they would be a huge threat.)

Being good inside does not win in international ball like it does the USA, but it can and does win. Turkey, if playing well, could win Group C and be on the path to the finals against the USA or Spain.

My prediction: the USA will beat Spain and Argentina will beat Greece in the semifinals, with the USA walking away winners. But if any of those four teams win it would not be a shock.

Carmelo Anthony’s foot on line on game-tying shot, Spurs comeback to beat Thunder

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — LaMarcus Aldridge had 26 points and the San Antonio Spurs overcame a 23-point deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-101 on Friday night.

An Aldridge putback of Danny Green‘s missed 3-pointer gave the Spurs a 102-99 lead with 24.2 seconds remaining.

The Thunder missed two 3-pointers on the ensuing possession, but Carmelo Anthony tracked down a second offensive rebound and made a 25-footer with his foot on the 3-point line to cut the lead to 102-101.

Gasol made two free throws, and Russell Westbrook stumbled to the court and threw up an airball on a 3-point attempt.

Danny Green added 17 points, and Pau Gasol had 14 points to help San Antonio end Oklahoma City’s three-game winning streak.

Anthony had 20 points to lead the Thunder. Westbrook was held to 15 points after scoring 10 in the opening period. He was 5 for 22 from the field.

The Spurs rallied behind their usual formula of hounding defense and 3-point shooting.

Davis Bertans hit three consecutive 3-pointers in the third quarter, tying it at 78 with 38 seconds remaining with his final 3 of the run. The 3-pointer also closed a 58-35 run after the Spurs trailed 43-20.

The Thunder closed the first quarter on an 18-2 run. The Spurs had a season-low 15 points in the opening period.

 

Thompson’s playmaking a steadying force for defending champs

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Klay Thompson danced unabashedly in China after winning another NBA championship, and it got shared all over social media. He smoked a stogie on the rooftop, letting loose to reveal another side of himself.

“I didn’t plan for that video to go viral,” Thompson said matter-of-factly. “I was just having fun. I’ve always been myself and having fun while doing it and learning to enjoy every day, because it goes by so fast.”

Coming to that mindset, however, has been a process for the seventh-year Golden State guard, who acknowledges for so long he put extreme pressure on himself to be the best.

The quiet, more under-the-radar Warriors All-Star of the bunch, Thompson has provided a steadying hand early on for the reigning NBA champions who are favored to capture a third title in four years.

“I used to stress a lot more at the beginning of my career about my performance,” Thompson recalled. “Now, it’s not like I don’t stress, but I play more carefree and I’m more able, if I play as hard as I can I’m satisfied with the results. … I used to compare myself with all players and want to be the best so badly, but now it’s all about winning and having fun and realizing basketball is more of a team sport than anything.”

After a recent practice, Thompson dazzled right alongside a couple of visiting Harlem Globetrotters, spinning the ball on his finger, rolling it up and down his arms, off his knee and then a foot soccer-style before swishing a short jumper.

“I should’ve been a Globetrotter!” he yelled.

It’s a new look for this hang-loose, beach-loving Splash Brother.

The approach is working for the Warriors.

“He still carries the threat. You have to honor him,” Orlando coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s great at making the right play. Their whole team is. I think he’s trying to fit in with their whole buy-in that ball movement and passing is greater than any one man carrying the bulk of it.”

Still, his numbers are stellar. Thompson has had a fast start this season, which previously hasn’t been the case.

Thompson credits the familiarity with teammates and a comfort in coach Steve Kerr’s offense.

“He’s taken another step in his game. Just the experience that he’s had in his career, every year he’s gotten better and I think this year he’s shown how at the end of the season he carried it over to the beginning of this year,” backcourt mate Stephen Curry said. “Historically he hadn’t started seasons well but this year he’s locked in. He’s obviously shooting the ball well and playing great defense, but I think the biggest thing is his playmaking in situations where he’s drawing a crowd. He’s making great decisions setting guys up and just playing under control for the most part this entire season.”

Life off the court is great for Thompson, too, and that helps him be stress-free on it.

Look closely, and it’s easy to see he has come out of his shell.

On a day off last week, he golfed a popular public course close to Oracle Arena. Thompson signed someone’s toaster last spring, and it became a superstition.

In July, he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at an Oakland Athletics game, then drove an IndyCar in September while serving as Grand Marshal of a series stop in Sonoma.

Thompson shares his training tricks on social media and posts photos with his bulldog, Rocco.

He recently donated $75,000 to relief efforts in the aftermath of the devastating Northern California wildfires, committing $1,000 per point for a three-game stretch during which he scored 69 points – but added to that total.

He is a spokesman for chocolate milk and an obscure – in the U.S. anyway – Chinese shoe company. He signed an $80 million, 10-year extension to wear the sneakers.

“Life’s good,” Thompson said. “I never thought I’d get paid millions of dollars to wear shoes and apparel. I’m very proud to be a part of Anta. … It’s so cool that I’m big in China. I never thought I’d be on billboards and posters in China.”

Thompson has found a balance during the offseason to stay sharp, mixing up his workouts with outdoor activities he enjoys.

“It took years for me to figure out how to prepare the best I can for the season. I finally learned in my sixth year,” he said. “You’ve got to stay in shape almost year-round because as you get older it’s harder to get back into shape. It’s easier to get out of shape than it is to get back into shape. I do other things besides basketball to stay in shape in the offseason. I think that just keeps my mind fresh.”

He hopes to do a formal swim from Alcatraz, or even a triathlon. He swims in the ocean – “my favorite place in the world” – whenever he can. Freestyle is his strength, butterfly not so much. He plays hours of beach volleyball or just throws the football around and runs routes through the sand.

At work, he has been a model of consistency. Thompson is determined to be a better passer, creating for teammates whenever possible. He also usually guards the opponent’s top perimeter scorer.

Thompson is off to his best shooting season ever, with career highs of 49.4 percent shooting from the field and 45.6 percent on 3-pointers.

“I think his playmaking has been the best it’s been in his career,” Kerr said. “He’s really doing a good job of putting the ball on the floor and moving it on, drive and kick game, finding the centers in the pocket for little floaters. … It’s been his best passing season so far.”

Thompson used to get teased for his lack of assists, and it remains a running joke.

“I got thick skin,” Thompson quipped, “honestly I don’t really care.”

That carefree approach has taken time, and the Warriors are better for it.

 

Report: Mark Cuban in process to buy Mavericks’ G-League team

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There will come a day, in the not too distant future, when every NBA team will have an owned and affiliated G-League team. It will be a place for them to develop young players — guys they drafted but need more run than they’d get in the NBA, guys on two-way contracts, and just players they like and want to give a chance. The NBA is more and more becoming a development league — and if the one-and-done rule is replaced with something akin to the baseball rule for players going to college, having a strong G-League team will matter even more.

Which is why the news that Mark Cuban is about to buy the G-League team already affiliated with the Mavericks makes sense. Marc Stein of The New York Times broke the news.

While the name of the guys signing the checks will change with the Texas Legends, little else will.

It’s just another sign of the future in the NBA.

Isaiah Thomas is up for a Cavaliers vs. Celtics playoff clash

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Isaiah Thomas says he has moved on from the trade this summer that caught him off guard, shipping him from Boston — where he was a fan favorite — to Cleveland.

Sort of. Like a lot of sudden relationship ends, Thomas says he’s moved on, but it doesn’t sound like he totally has yet. Look at what he told Sam Amick of the USA Today in an interesting Q&A.

“I’ve put it behind me, and I’ve continued to try to do that… But other than that, every day that I’m in the gym or that I’m on the court or in the weight room or doing whatever I have to do to get back to who I was, and get back to being 100 percent healthy, yes I do use it as motivation.”

Thomas has yet to set foot on the court as a Cavalier, spending the start of the season rehabbing a hip injury. He’s expected back next month.

It’s very early in the NBA season, we’re not at 20 games or even Thanksgiving yet, but it has become evident that the Cavaliers have some legitimate defensive concerns, and that the Boston Celtics are a legitimate threat to them.

That would set up a series between Thomas’ old team that he’s still a little angry at, and his new team in Cleveland. And Thomas is good with that.

“Oh, that would be lovely. That would be the story that God made, and it probably will work that way. It always does. It always works – I’m not going to say in my favor, but it seems to always work out no matter what the circumstance is. That would be a special moment. If they make it there, and we make it there, and then we clash, and then you never know what’s going to happen. But I’ll be ready for whatever happens.”

Not enough NBA players use the word “lovely” anymore.

But I’m with Thomas, I want to see that series, too.