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.

Cool Hand Lue: Cavs coach keeps NBA champs cool amid chaos

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Moments after the Eastern Conference championship banner was raised by the Cavaliers for the third straight time and the obligatory postgame interviews ended, Tyronn Lue slipped quietly away.

Cleveland’s coach ducked into the shadows, his preferred location.

“I don’t like the attention,” he said.

But Lue, once a journeyman point guard who steered the Cavs to an NBA championship last season, has grown more accepting of his frontman role. He’ll again be at center stage this week as Cleveland meets Golden State in the third installment of their title trilogy.

If the unassuming, easygoing Lue had his preference, the teams would duke it out for the Larry O’Brien Trophy on a playground court in a stifling hot gymnasium, with only a handful of onlookers present. A student of the game, he’s old school with a fresh perspective.

Of the many juicy subplots between the Cavs and Warriors, one that frequently goes overlooked is Lue, the former assistant who has blossomed in no time into one of the league’s brightest young head coaches and a playoff savant.

He’s 28-6 in two postseasons with Cleveland. His players credit Lue’s soothing, steady influence – on and off the floor – as nearly as vital to their success as a clutch Kyrie Irving 3-pointer.

“It’s just his level of calmness no matter what’s going on,” LeBron James said following practice. “He always talks about, at the end of the day, he’s already won in life, so whatever else happens after this is extra credit. And I feel the same way. That’s why I relate to him so much. Lose here, or you win a game here, it’s like, `All right, cool. I’ve already done so much more than anybody ever gave me credit of doing or thought I can do, so there’s no reason to get too high or too low.’

“So it’s the even-keel mentality about our coach and it definitely helps us as players when we’re going out into a war.”

Lue has been preparing for the biggest battle of his basketball career this week.

From the moment he returned home from Boston following the Cavs’ win in Game 5 of the conference finals, Lue has immersed himself in the Warriors, a virtual All-Star team featuring two league MVPs (Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry), a dead-eye shooter (Klay Thompson) and a triple-threat performer (Draymond Green).

Lue’s defensive strategy to this point in the playoffs has been to neutralize the opponents’ top player. The Cavs were able to do that with Indiana’s Paul George, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, who aggravated a hip injury in Game 2 and missed the remainder of the series. Cleveland blitzed, double-teamed and did all it could take away the other team’s offensive threat.

Lue was asked if it’s more difficult to identify who that is on Golden State.

“Hell yeah,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s tough.”

There are few weaknesses in these Warriors, the first team to head into the final round 12-0 and winning by an average of 16.3 points per game.

“They have so many weapons,” Lue said, “having four All-Stars and now adding KD to the mix who I’ve always loved as a scorer, just how he scores so easy. They have a lot of options. It’s going to be tough, but we have to lock into what we have to do defensively, and sometimes you can play great defense and it doesn’t work. Steph is making tough shots, Klay is making tough shots and KD is making tough shots. But all you can do is play your defense, stick to your principles and just make it as tough as possible.”

The Cavs know Lue won’t panic.

He stayed cool last spring when Cleveland fought back from a 3-1 deficit to win its first title. Lue made subtle tweaks to his rotation, drew up key inbounds plays, then isolated Irving late in Game 7 on Curry. The Cavs All-Star guard made his now famous go-ahead, step-back 3-pointer.

Pressure intensifies in the postseason, when possessions, turnovers and rebounds are magnified.

As the drama builds, Lue stays composed, setting the tone for his players.

“Throughout the postseason there’s so many different emotions,” James said. “Going high, going low. And if you’re a coach able to just stay even-keeled throughout the whole thing, it relaxes the rest of the group.”

Lue is a stickler for detail, and he won’t cut any corners preparing for another dance with the Warriors. He’ll have the Cavs ready, and they can also count on him to keep them relaxed.

“When you’re prepared and you do the best you can do and you put it out there on the floor, you’ve just got to live with the results,” Lue said. “I’m doing my homework, I’m doing every possible thing to put this team in every situation to win. When you’re doing that, things you go over every day, end-of-game plays and things like that, either they work or they don’t.”

 

Byron Scott: Lakers made me feel ‘betrayed, lied to and deceived’

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Byron Scott lost 77% of his games with the Lakers, alienated their young players and failed to deliver on his big talk about defense.

Yet, Scott said he was blindsided when the Lakers fired him last year.

How did he possibly get the idea he’d return for a third season?

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

Scott said he “felt betrayed, lied to and deceived” by former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and former executive Jim Buss. Though he had only two guaranteed years on his four-year contract, Scott contends that Kupchak and Jim Buss previously promised him they would exercise the team option for his third year. Scott also believes the Lakers used him to manage Bryant during his final seasons and farewell tour before making the coach a scapegoat for the franchise’s struggles.

“If I asked him to do certain things, Kobe would do it because of his respect for me,” said Scott, who mentored Bryant during his rookie season in 1996-97. “Basically, you just wanted me there to help you guys get through the next two years, so Kobe doesn’t go crazy on you guys. I would be the one that can handle it. They know me. I’m not going to back down. I’m not going to be intimidated by anybody.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if management said something Scott could have reasonably interpreted as a promise to keep him. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Scott heard what he wanted to hear.

The Jim Buss Lakers didn’t always feature the best lines of communication, and Scott was delusional.

Either way, the Lakers did the right thing in firing Scott. If he were hired to manage Kobe Bryant’s final seasons, Kobe retired. There was no more need for Scott, who neither related well to young players nor implemented a winning scheme – pretty much everything beyond handling Kobe.

The strangest part of Scott’s criticism is how it reflects on Kupchak, who has now been accused of both being too dishonest and too honest.

Tony Parker tells French publication he plans to return in January

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Back on May 5, Tony Parker has surgery to repair a ruptured left quadriceps tendon, an injury some thought could be career ending for the 35-year-old point guard.

He plans to be back and is aiming for January, he told the French publication L’Equipe, as transcribed by EuroHoops.net.

“I will play my best basketball when I return in January”, Parker told L’Equipe….

“The first thing that came in when I got injured, was frustration. I was super good and we had the chance to go until the end and get the title,” Parker said.

“The coach’s plan worked like a clock. I was consistent, playing for twenty to twenty-five minutes per game. My series against Memphis was good and I had a good start in the season,” he added.

Paker’s return in January (if he can meet that timeline) will have him coming off the bench, meaning the Spurs will still need a starting point guard and some depth at the position.

No, that doesn’t mean Chris Paul is coming to San Antonio, that was always a long shot as Adrian Wojnarowski noted. It’s not like the Spurs to kick guys like Parker to the curb (Bill Belichick does not run the franchise) nor do the Spurs gut their roster, and that’s what they’d have to do. Beyond that, Paul is president of the players’ union and one of the things he/the union got in the new CBA was to turn the over-36 rule (which restricted how much LeBron could get on his last deal) to the over-38 rule — meaning the Clippers can give 32-year-old Paul one more five-year max deal. You really think he’s walking away from that?

Hopefully, when Parker returns he can give us all glimpses of his old self.

Steve Kerr says he’s not ready to coach in NBA Finals, at least not yet

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Steve Kerr has been a regular presence at Warriors practices, he’s traveled with the team to playoff games, he’s been part of the planning/strategizing sessions for the team — basically, he’s been everywhere but the sidelines.

He’s not ready to return there. Yet.

Interim Warriors’ coach Mike Brown was knocked down by the flu on Monday, so Kerr ran the Warriors practice then spoke to the media, but said he still is battling issues from his back surgery and is not ready yet to return to the sidelines. Via Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

The Warriors brought in Mike Brown last summer just for this type of situation — he’s a veteran NBA coach who has led a team to the Finals (the Cavaliers, with LeBron James), and the Warriors thought it possible Kerr could miss time. With Luke Walton in Los Angeles, Golden State wanted a veteran on the bench. Brown is that.

He’s not as creative as Kerr is addressing matchups and challenges, but if Kerr is in the film sessions and practices, then his influence is still there. That may be enough for a more talented and more rested Warriors team (than a year ago) heading into the Finals starting Thursday night.