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.

After Thunder win, Russell Westbrook trolls Joel Embiid, waves goodbye, tells him to “go home”

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Joel Embiid was making friends all over the court on Friday night.

First, he got into a jawing match with Carmelo Anthony. Also during the first overtime, Embiid blocked Russell Westbrook‘s driving attempt at a game winner.

After the Thunder, Westbrook trolled Embiid by waving goodbye to the Sixers’ center, who was yelling back at him.

When asked about it, Westbrook said Embiid was talking a lot so he told the Sixers center to go home.

That can have some serious connotations — Embiid was born in Cameroon. Westbrook may have meant “go to the locker room” or “go to where you live,” but considering Embiid is an immigrant it comes off very poorly for Westbrook.

Embiid threw a little fire back at Westbrook.

The league office is going to be looking into this one.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience. After the game he said this.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.

Rudy Gobert leaves game vs. Celtics with likely knee sprain. Again.

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Rudy Gobert missed 11 games this season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While the Jazz defense suffered as should have been expected with their anchor gone, their offense found a groove without him — and with more Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors — resulting in Utah going 7-4 with their star center out.

Now the Jazz will be without him again for a while — he seems to have sprained his left knee just minutes into Friday night’s game against the Celtics when Favors fell back into him. That is the same knee he injured before. Gobert was forced to leave and will not return to the game.

If that diagnosis holds, it will be weeks again the Jazz will be without Gobert.

The Jazz know how to play without Gobert. Favors moves to center and while he’s not near the same defender his offensive skills got them buckets and opened up the floor. The rookie Mitchell, as well as Ricky Rubio at points, took advantage of it to give the Jazz a top-10 offense with Gobert out. They need to find that groove again.

Still, Utah needs Gobert back and himself to really reach the heights they are capable of.