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.

DeMar DeRozan scores 36, Raptors top Magic 131-112 for 6th in row

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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan scored 36 points and Cory Joseph had 15 points and 13 assists as the Toronto Raptors defeated the Orlando Magic 131-112 on Monday night for their sixth straight victory.

DeRozan, selected the Eastern Conference player of the week earlier in the day, set the pace early by scoring 18 in the first quarter. Joseph added six rebounds and Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and nine rebounds for the Raptors (45-29).

Elfrid Payton had 22 points and nine assists for Orlando (27-47). Evan Fournier added 20 points, and Nikola Vucevic had 12 points and 15 assists.

It was the first game between the teams since the Raptors traded Terrence Ross to the Magic for Serge Ibaka in February. Ross finished with 17 points and two rebounds, while Ibaka had 16 points and seven rebounds.

The Raptors took a 99-89 lead into the fourth quarter.

DeRozan’s basket gave Toronto a 19-point lead with 8:15 to go in the third. But the Magic, winners of seven games this season after falling behind by double digits, fought back.

Bismack Biyombo made a pair of free throws to cut Toronto’s lead to five with 12 seconds left in the period.

But after DeRozan hit a jumper to widen the lead to seven, Delon Wright stole the inbounds pass and hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Toronto its double-digit lead back going into the fourth.

Payton paced the Magic surge, hitting all four field goals he attempted in the quarter. He led all scorers with 10 points in the period, as Orlando outscored Toronto 32-26.

After four ties and seven lead changes in the game’s first 15 minutes, the Raptors took charge over the final nine minutes of the second quarter to take a 73-57 lead into halftime.

The Raptors hit all four 3s they attempted in the quarter, three by Norman Powell, who led all scorers with 11 points in the period.

Eight different Toronto players scored in the quarter as the Raptors outscored the Magic 33-17 over that nine-minute stretch and led by as many as 18 points.

The Magic cooled off from a torrid shooting pace in the first quarter to a still-respectable 48 percent in the second. Fournier led the way with nine points in the period.

Toronto led 35-34 after a first quarter that featured terrific shooting by both teams.

The Magic led by seven points early as Ross hit four of his first five shots and Aaron Gordon poured in 10 points. Orlando shot 13 for 29 (62 percent) from the field in the period.

DeRozan was 7 for 10 from the field in the opening quarter and hit his only 3-point attempt.

Toronto shot 15 for 24 (63 percent) as each starter had at least one field goal in the first period.

TIP-INS

Magic: Ross received a standing ovation after a tribute commemorating his 4 1/2 seasons in Toronto was played on the scoreboard during the first timeout. . Orlando has hit a 3 in 812 consecutive games, the fifth-longest active streak in the NBA. . The Magic had a 66-58 edge on points in the paint.

Raptors: DeRozan’s conference player of the week award was his fourth of the season. He averaged a league-best 33.3 points in three games last week. . Valanciunas pulled down the 3,000th rebound of his career in the second quarter, second to Chris Bosh (4,776) on Toronto’s all-time list. . The 73 points were the most the Raptors have scored in the first half this season.

 

Kawhi Leonard scores 25 as Spurs dismantle ailing Cavaliers, 103-74

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Kawhi Leonard scored 25 points and the San Antonio Spurs dismantled the ailing Cleveland Cavaliers 103-74 on Monday night in a showdown that turned into a major letdown for the defending NBA champions.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol added 14 points apiece for the Spurs, who won their fifth straight.

Cleveland (47-26) dropped its second in a row, set a season low for points and fell a half-game behind Boston (48-26) for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Cavaliers star LeBron James was injured late in the third quarter after taking an elbow to the base of his neck. He remained on the bench for a while receiving medical attention, then headed toward the locker room and didn’t return to the game.

His status was not immediately known.

Cleveland has been out of sync recently, losing three of five, and those struggles only got worse against San Antonio. The Spurs led by as many as 33 points to the delight of the sold-out crowd.

San Antonio (57-16) is two games behind Golden State (59-14) for the league’s best record entering a home showdown with the Warriors on Wednesday.

Cleveland opted to play its stars rather than sit them for rest, but the trio of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sat out the fourth quarter of its second rout in the past two weeks.

James exited with 25 seconds remaining in the third after taking an elbow to his neck from David Lee on a rebound. James continually rubbed the area before collapsing after he crossed midcourt and remained on the floor for about a minute before walking unassisted to the bench. He left for the locker room early in the fourth quarter during a timeout.

James finished with 17 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in 29 minutes.

The Spurs held the Cavaliers scoreless for three minutes after San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was issued a technical foul during a timeout with 6:38 remaining in the first half.

Leonard hit a right-handed runner as the second quarter closed to give the Spurs a 64-40 lead.

TIP-INS

Cavaliers: Cleveland completed its schedule against the West, finishing 16-14. In addition to losing to the Spurs by 29 points, the Cavaliers lost by 35 to Golden State and 30 to the Los Angeles Clippers. . Cleveland F Kyle Korver missed his third straight game with a sore left foot, and the team plans to sit him for several games to see if rest and treatment helps. Korver will sit out Thursday in Chicago and Friday at home against Philadelphia before being re-evaluated, a team spokesman said. The shooting specialist missed seven games earlier this month with an inflamed tendon in his foot. . G Iman Shumpert missed his second consecutive game with a sore right knee. . James needs 24 points to pass Shaquille O’Neal for seventh overall in career scoring. O’Neal has 28,596 career points. . The Cavaliers averaged 116.3 points in their previous four games.

Spurs: San Antonio is holding its opponents to an average of less than 100 points for the 22nd straight season. . Danny Green tied his season high with four blocked shots. . Leonard has scored in double figures in 100 straight games.

 

Russell Westbrook dominates final minutes, hits game winner for Thunder (VIDEO)

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This game looked over. The Dallas Mavericks were up 13 with 3:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to take the loss.

Then Russell Westbrook happened.

He scored 12 points in a 14-0 Thunder run to close out the game, then capped it off hitting the game winner for the Thunder (video above). For the game-winner, the Thunder almost went 1-4 flat and just let Westbrook work in isolation on his defender, a smart play when you have a guy this talented.

It was the kind of game that the Westbrook for MVP crowd will point to — he had 37 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists, and he absolutely dominated the final minutes of the game (he shot 5-of-9 down the stretch).

This was Westbrook’s 37th triple-double of the season, and the Thunder are 30-7 when he does reaches that mark. Westbrook takes heat in some quarters for “empty stats” or trying to pad his numbers, but the fact is the Thunder are 11-24 when he doesn’t put up the huge numbers and carry the offense. If you’re going to define “MVP” by value to his team, it’s hard not to choose Westbrook this season, this team is toast without him.

Paul Millsap out at least three more games with knee issue, Hawks 0-8 without him

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The Atlanta Hawks have come apart at the worst time. They have lost seven in a row and have fallen from comfortably in the playoffs to tied for the 5-6-7 seed in the East, just 2.5 games out of falling out of the playoffs altogether.

It has all happened with Paul Millsap out, and that is going to continue for about a week more the team announced Monday.

Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap has been diagnosed with left knee synovitis and has undergone a non-surgical procedure at Emory (Orthopaedics & Spine Center in Atlanta). He will be listed as out for the next three games and his status will be updated as appropriate.

Synovitis is when the synovial membrane — which encases joints and helps lubricate them with synovial fluid — becomes inflamed. It’s usually a sign of another issue causing the inflammation.

The Hawks problem is they are 0-8 this season when Millsap is out.

It still feels unlikely Atlanta will fall all the way out of the playoffs (they have a slightly easier schedule than everyone they’re competing against for the slot), but they are more likely than Indiana or Milwaukee to slip. Also, the odds of them finishing with the seven or eight seed seem high, and that likely means a quick one-and-done visit to the postseason.

After that would come some real questions in Atlanta about how much they want to pay Millsap to keep him as a free agent (it’s going to have to be near max money and for five years, or he will look hard at his other options).