The USA is in the "group of death" at Worlds, but that applies to everyone else

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fiba-turkey.gifIn the World Cup, the toughest group of four drawn gets the moniker “Group of Death” because some quality team is not going to be advancing to the final 16.

If there were a Group of Death for the FIBA World Championships, it would be Group B. The USA’s group. Except that it really doesn’t apply to the USA. Plus, in a six-team group four teams advance to the knockout stage. So you still have to blow it pretty bad not to advance. Bottom line, death takes a holiday.

Still, let’s take a look at the group and who the USA will face this next week. (If you want more detail, check out the best international hoops writing on the web at The Painted Area.)

The USA is the class of the group. They should not drop a game, and should win each by double digits. Yes they are young and untested. Yes there were some ugly, sloppy moments in the warm-up games. Yes this is the USA’s B team. None of that will matter in the first rounds. The sheer athleticism of this Kevin Durant-led teams will overwhelm everyone.

What matters for this squad is that they grow during the five-games-in-six-days they are about to face. Particularly on defense. Because those perceived weaknesses could bite them in the single-elimination tournament to follow. But not here.

Brazil will advance and will be the toughest test for the USA in the group stage. They feature the speedy Leandro Barbosa at the point, with Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao in the paint. Splitter has fantastic fundamentals and will test the USA’s post defense. Barbosa is the one guy not likely to be bothered much by the USA’s pressure defense, he’ll just blow past it. Marcelo Machado will bomb some threes. They lack some depth — particularly after losing Nene — but they will certainly advance and could sneak into medal contention.

Croatia, the first game for the USA (Saturday at 9 am) is a team that lives and dies on the perimeter. Marko Tomas has some skills, but this is a team deep with guys who can handle the ball. Which makes this an interesting test for the USA and it’s pressure defense — if Croatia can withstand it and not turn the ball over a lot, they can keep this closer than you’d expect. The team has no NBA players (a few guys with NBA rights held) but they have some quality players. Their biggest game is against Slovenia in this round, but they can’t lose to Iran or Tunisia or they risk not getting out of the group stage.

Slovenia has the Suns Steve Nash heir apparent Goran Dragic as well as Primoz Brezec and Bostjan Nachbar. Who they don’t have could have made them very dangerous — Beno Udrih, Rasho Nesterovic and Sasha Vujacic (there is some real bitterness with Vujacic, remember how he went at Dragic last season). Another team loaded with good perimeter players who can shoot the rock — they are capable of some big upsets because of that, they live and die by the three. They should advance, but teams that live by the three rarely advance that far in tournaments because there will be an off day.

Iran is better than you think. Not great, but not bad. They have Hamed Hamadi, backup center of the Memphis Grizzlies plus some other good players from leagues in Europe and Asia. This squad won FIBA Asia last year beating China. This is a team that on a good day could upset Slovenia or Croatia if either team overlooks them, which could get them into the knockout stage. May not be likely, but Iran will not be a pushover for those teams.

Tunisia is the team with the longest shot of moving on. They medaled in AfroBasket but the guys at The Painted Area live and breathe international ball and they have barely seen this team. That should tell you something. Even the group of death needs a patsy.

Cavaliers beat Raptors, become first team in 27 years to surrender 79 first-half points and win

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The Cavaliers haven’t been good enough throughout the season, especially defensively. The Raptors have – offensively, defensively, starters, bench. Hope has grown in Toronto of winning the Eastern Conference after getting eliminated by Cleveland the last two years.

But LeBron James and Cavs showed why it’s hard to pick any other team – even the first-place Raptors – to win the East in a 132-129 win over Toronto tonight.

Cleveland allowed 79 first-half points and fell behind by 15. But a LeBron-led offense was just too potent. This was the first time since 1990 (Nuggets over Spurs after trailing 90-83) a team surrendered so many first-half points then still won.

LeBron finished with 35 points, 17 assists and no turnovers. No forward has ever dished so many assists without a turnover in Basketball-Reference’s database, which dates back to 1963-64.

And LeBron led the Cavaliers to this win despite Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Korver and Cedi Osman being out.

It’s only one game, and it was in Cleveland. But even with home-court advantage in a potential playoff series, the Raptors must grapple with even more lingering doubt now about their ability to beat the Cavs.

Report: Becky Hammon staying with Spurs, not coaching Colorado State men’s team

AP Photo/Darren Abate
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Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon was a candidate to coach the men’s team at Colorado State, her alma mater. That would have made her the first woman to coach a Division I men’s team.

Alas, it won’t happen.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports:

It’s unclear whether Hammon was ever actually offered the job.

She’s still on the right track for a head-coaching job somewhere. Most importantly, by all accounts, she’s doing good work in San Antonio. There’s also more attention on her career because of her pioneering status, and that will appeal to some teams.

This dalliance with Colorado State raises her profile even further and shows just how close she is.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: James Harden ‘best offensive player I’ve ever seen’

AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

James Harden torched a solid Trail Blazers defense for 42 points on 13-of-25 shooting, including 5-of-7 on 3-pointers, and seven assists.

That prompted his coach to heap praise on the runaway MVP.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said of Harden. “They’re running guys to him and he just steps a little further back and makes a 3. The way he can pass and see the floor, get layups, floaters, maybe a lob, maybe out to the corner — he has so many weapons, and now he’s shooting those step-back 3s.

“It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

At first, that sounds like hyperbole from a biased source. But Harden might actually the best offensive player ever. (D’Antoni has been around for all the major contenders.)

Michael Jordan gets overlooked because he was also excellent defensively. Ditto LeBron James to a lesser extent. Another contender: Stephen Curry, whose Warriors might file away D’Antoni’s assessment for if they meet Houston in the playoffs. (The Rockets provide plenty of motivational fodder.)

The list of contenders definitely skews toward the present. Players have gotten progressively more skilled, especially the generation that grew up with the 3-point arc and didn’t suddenly have to adjust to it.

And Harden might be the cream of the crop. He’s an incredible shooter with very deep range off the dribble or spotting up, and he can drive with the best of them. Yes, foul-drawing is a skill. Harden’s combination of scoring volume and efficiency is unprecedented. He’s also an impressive passer, a skill fully unleashed by D’Antoni making Harden a point guard.

I think I’d lean toward Curry, who’s an even better shooter and screener. But it’s very close, and Harden keeps raising his level. Curry probably peaked two years ago (though he obviously remains elite). I definitely wouldn’t dismiss anyone who picks Harden as biased or misguided.

Cavaliers star LeBron James: Raptors ‘in a better place than we are right now’

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

It’s not enough to say the Raptors have the Eastern Conference’s best record.

The Celtics had the East’s best record last year, and most people thought the Cavaliers were better. Cleveland had a better point difference and more star power – LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love – than Boston. The Cavs confirmed that notion by cruising past the Celtics in a five-game conference finals.

The Raptors have been the Eastern Conference’s best team this season.

They rank fourth in the NBA in offensive and defensive rating, the only team top five in both categories. Led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, their starting lineup has embraced a more dynamic offense with more 3-point shooting and passing. Toronto’s bench is the best in the league.

LeBron, whose Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight, via Joe Vardon of

“They’re in a better place than we are right now because they’ve had more consistency and they’ve had their guys in the lineup for the majority of the year,” James said after the Cavs’ morning workout. “So, they know what they want to accomplish. They know who they are at this point in the season. Obviously, you guys know about us, we’re still trying to figure that out.”

This is so obviously correct. It’s just surprising to see LeBron put it so directly, though it’s unsurprising he’s hanging on the Cavs’ instability to date.

Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas were injured for long stretches, and Thomas and several others were traded. Coach Tyronn Lue is on a leave of absence.

But the Cavaliers made those major trades because they were struggling, and this new group won’t necessarily simply figure things out with time. Defensive problems persist. Lue’s health is unclear.

LeBron understandably remains confident in himself, even as the Cavs enter the postseason as a middling seed. He’s also setting up a narrative of Cleveland coming from behind if it advances to the NBA Finals. We’ll see whether it happens.

Tonight likely won’t be a referendum, though. Tristan Thompson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver and Larry Nance Jr. are out for the Cavaliers. That roster instability still exists.

If LeBron dials up playoff intensity tonight, that could send a warning to Toronto, though I’m not sure it’s necessary. As far ahead as the Raptors are right now, after Cleveland soundly eliminated them the last two years, I think everyone knows it’s a couple months too early to properly assess these teams’ relative places.