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.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.

 

 

Twins Marcus, Markieff Morris each fined by league for separate instances

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Twins Marcus and Markieff Morris have a special bond, one that includes doing so much together on the basketball court — playing at the same high school, the same AAU team, then going to college together at Kansas, and even playing together in the NBA for a while together with the Suns (they are now on separate teams).

That includes them both getting fined Saturday by the NBA for recent actions during the playoffs.

Washington’s Markieff Morris picked up a $25,000 fine for “attempting to escalate an altercation and pushing a game official,” the league announced. Here is the play in question, just minutes into Game 3.

Toronto’s OG Anunoby draws a foul knocking Morris to the ground, but Morris starts the incident with an elbow to Anunoby’s back, and he does push referee Kenny Mauer. Considering all that, a $25,000 fine is not that severe.

His twin Marcus Morris picked up a $15,000 for “public criticism of the officiating,” which he certainly did following the Celtics’ Game 3 loss to the Bucks. Here are his comments, and they are NSFW.

That $15,000 fine is pretty much the going rate for ripping the referees after the game.

Markieff outdid his brother on this one… if you consider getting the larger fine the “win.”

As expected, likely top-three pick Luka Doncic files to enter NBA draft

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Luka Doncic — the 6’8″ point forward who is putting up impressive numbers against men at the highest levels of European basketball — is bringing is game to the NBA. As expected.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports said the expected is now official.

Doncic, 19, submitted draft paperwork this week to formally enter his name, league sources said. Doncic is arguably the most decorated European player to make a jump to the NBA, a wunderkind who’s been playing in the EuroLeague since 2015. He is currently leading Real Madrid in the EuroLeague playoffs, averaging 14.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists this season.

The 6-foot-7 Doncic has the ability to play multiple positions, from being a primary ball-handler to shooting and playmaking off the ball. His season in Europe could continue into late May or June. NBA executives have long been intrigued by Doncic’s potential stardom, and several are continuing to make scouting trips for him.

Doncic is expected to go in the top three (likely the top two) come this June’s draft.

If you’re about to bring up Darko Milicic or some other European bust, just stop. This Slovenian has proven he can play — in 54 games this season between Liga ACB (Spain’s league, second best in the NBA) and the Euroleague, Doncic is averaging 14.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists a game. He has shown a gift for passing that should blossom in the more open play of the NBA, plus he just knows how to run a team and make plays. He can score when called upon and has three-point range, can shoot off the bounce, and if you switch a smaller guy onto him, Doncic can just post him up.

He’s not going to be a bust.

However, what his ceiling is remains the debate. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards who has struggled at points for Real Madrid when guarded by borderline-NBA level Americans in Europe. Can he defend at the NBA level? Can he be consistent with his jumper? He may be elite, but it’s no given.

He’s going to be good, and his floor is higher than a lot of the other top prospects in this draft class. However, if a GM thinks that Marvin Bagley III or Mohamed Bamba both have a higher ceiling and can reach it, they may go with the Americans. Doncic is going to put some GMs in an interesting position.