Forget starting, Kevin Love and Eric Gordon need to be finishing for Team USA

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Love_USA.jpgPlaytime is over boys and girls — things are now serious for Team USA. Well, maybe not against Angola but after that. Lose one and you’re done. Sixteen teams in a knockout tournament for the World Championship.

There can be no more bad games, it’s time to put your best players out there for the most minutes.

Which begs the question, shouldn’t Kevin Love and Eric Gordon be getting those minutes? Should they be starting?

Personally, I wouldn’t start them because starting isn’t where it’s at — finishing is. Love and Gordon have earned the minutes because they have played well off the bench while the guys in front of them — starters Lamar Odom at center and Chauncey Billups in the backcourt — have struggled.

Odom has had some classic “disappearing act” games that Lakers fans know all to well, and it shows up in the stats. In nearly 20 minutes a game he is averaging 4.2 points on 47.6 percent shooting and 5.6 rebounds. Love is getting about half the minutes of Odom and is averaging 7.6 points on 59.3 percent shooting, and grabbing 6.6 boards. Love’s rebounding has been nothing short of spectacular to watch in this tournament.

Love is not a great defender, and by that I mean not really even good or average either. But Odom has been no better. The one guy expected to be the defensive and rebounding specialist — Tyson Chandler — has been a foul magnet. Love has been the USA’s best big.

Start Odom, because you need to see early on if this is one of his magical nights or his off nights. If it is the former, ride the wave. But if not, we’d love some extra Love. He has earned it.

The challenge with Billups is his three ball — he is shooting 21.1 percent in this tournament. Gordon is shooting 45.8 percent. From here on out, the USA is going to see a lot of zone. They’ve seen a lot, but they will see more and better varieties of it. The USA needs to do a better job with penetration and flash-cuts inside to the middle of the zone to get into its underbelly. But they also need to be able to shoot over the top of it. Kevin Durant has done that well (he does everything well on offense) but Gordon is the USA’s best spot-up guy.

Again, start Billups, but if it is a zone game get Gordon in fast and play him a lot. Put him next to Derrick Rose, let Rose have the ball and drive the lane and Gordon will be floating around for the kick-out-and-three in a way Billups cannot.

The USA needs to go with the hot hands, the guys making plays right now. That is Love and Gordon. Play them because the guys playing the best deserve the run. Especially now when it counts.

Three questions to answer: Cavaliers vs. Warriors rematch (plus notes on other MLK Day games)

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It’s the best rivalry going in the NBA — the game that matters most to both teams. Even if they try to deny it. This is a rematch of the last two NBA Finals and a likely preview of the next one, and this January game is a measuring stick. Here are three things to watch for, and after that notes on the other nationally televised games on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

1) Can the Warriors break the Cavaliers’ mental advantage in this series? The Warriors will say the Cavaliers are not in their heads, because that’s not just what competitors say, it’s what they have to believe. However, The Cavaliers have won four straight games against the Warriors dating back to last year’s Finals — Cleveland came from 3-1 down on basketball’s biggest stage to take the title, then came from 14 down to beat the Warriors on Christmas Day. In those games, LeBron James has been nothing short of brilliant and Kyrie Irving has been a late-game killer.

January games don’t decide June series, but the Warriors certainly could use the confidence boost against the Cavs. David West was honest about that speaking to CSNBayArea.com.

“This is a very important game for us,” West said Sunday, “because this is the last time we’re going to be able to measure ourselves against these guys. The only other time we’d get to face them would be in The Finals.”

Two straight Finals meetings means these teams know each other and their sets very well. There are no secrets. That’s an advantage for Cleveland: Golden State runs a lot of deception, fake screens, relatively meaningless actions designed to distract from what they really want to do. But by now the Cavs have seen it all. They aren’t fooled. The Warriors need to beat the Cavs one-on-one occasionally. That is what’s at the core of the Cavaliers game plan — we’re going to force Stephen Curry onto LeBron James or Kyrie Irving (via a switch on a pick), then isolate and bet he can’t stop them. It’s simple but it works, and the Warriors have not had an answer.

Being at home should help the Warriors. The bottom line is they can say the Cavaliers are not in their heads all they want, the Warriors could use a confidence-boosting win to convince themselves of that.

2) Kevin Durant was the best player on the court on Christmas, can Stephen Curry be? There is another way to phrase that question (which ties into the first one): Are the Cavaliers in Curry’s head? He had a rough Finals at points. Curry was a relatively passive 4-of-11 for 15 points on Christmas Day, and immediately after said he needed to be more aggressive.

In the Cavaliers’ four straight wins over the Warriors, Curry has shot  37 percent overall (36 percent from three) and has 15 turnovers to 10 assists. Cavaliers use physical defenders and are aggressive against Curry, they try to trap him and bait him into the flashy, playground-style passes that ignite the Warriors — except the Cavaliers have the defenders to turn those passes into steals and transition buckets. It’s the reason Durant was the best player on the Warriors on Christmas Day (36 points on 26 shots) — the Cavaliers are a very good help/schematic defensive team, but they have guys who can be beaten in isolation. Durant thrives in isolation.

Curry needs not to be baited into bad passes, be aggressive looking for his shot but pick his spots, get to the line a little more, and just knock down some shots.

3) How do the Warriors handle Kyle Korver? This is the one change after the Christmas day matchup. After they finally got a practice under their belts to figure things out, Tyron Lue slid Korver into the “LeBron and the bench” lineup —LeBron James, Iman Shumpert, Richard Jefferson, Korver, and Channing Frye. It worked well, as you might expect LeBron surrounded by shooters would work, and Kover had 18 against the Kings. How well this works against the Warriors though could be different — it’s not easy for the Cavs to keep Frye on the court against the Warriors matchups.

That said, the fact defenders can’t leave Korver to help is a boost to the Cavs when they start to run picks to get Curry switched onto Irving or LeBron. Either Korver is going to get some “butt-naked looks” (Tyronn Lue’s words) or he’s going to open it up for teammates. Either way, it will be interesting to see if the Warriors go with Shaun Livingston or someone else off the bench to counter Korver Sunday.

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There are other interesting games on Martin Luther King day, here’s a few things to watch (all times Eastern):

Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks, (1 p.m. NBA TV). The Hawks have won 8-of-9 and are defending incredibly well. The Knicks have won 2-of-12 and have defended very poorly — and that has led to all kinds of speculation and rumors around the team. Another loss would just stoke that fire.

Orlando Magic at Denver Nuggets (5 p.m. NBA TV). The teams have struggled but there are two players worth watching here. Denver’s Nikola Jokic is one of the best sophomores in the league, averaging 13.3 points a game on 58 percent shooting, plus he is a gifted passer. Orlando’s Aaron Gordon is struggling in his adjustment to playing the three, but he’s a good perimeter defender and the games he is aggressive on offense good things happen.

Oklahoma City Thunder at LA Clippers (10:30 p.m. TNT). The Clippers have won six in a row, and Chris Paul has been phenomenal since his return. Russell Westbrook has been phenomenal all season, 18 triple-doubles in 40 games, but the Thunder are on the second night of a back-to-back.

James Harden’s 12th triple-double helps Rockets end 2-game skid

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NEW YORK (AP) James Harden had 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in his 12th triple-double of the season and the Houston Rockets easily ended their first losing streak of the season by beating the Brooklyn Nets 137-112 on Sunday night.

Held to 105 points in losses to Minnesota and Memphis, the Rockets bounced back with 104 after three quarters and handed the Nets their 10th straight loss.

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points and Trevor Ariza added 23. Houston made 21 3-pointers and had five players with at least 16 points.

Houston shot just 40.8 percent during its two losses, well below its 46.8 season average, while being held nearly 10 points below its season scoring average. But the Rockets had no trouble bouncing back against the Nets, who allow an NBA-worst 114.3 per game.

Joel Embiid helps bring hundreds of fans to D.C. with ‘Bus the Process’

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Joel Embiid has fans all around the NBA. Some even came out to see him during the Philadelphia 76ers game against the Washington Wizards on Saturday despite the Cameroonian big man sitting out due to restrictions on playing in back-to-back games.

#BusTheProcess was the hashtag used to get 350 Sixers fans to the game in D.C. thanks to Embiid, coach Brett Brown, and the podcast The Rights to Ricky Sanchez.

Via Twitter and ESPN:

Fun stuff for some dedicated fans, even if they didn’t get to see Embiid play.

Unfortunately for the #BusTheProcess folks, the 76ers wound up losing to the Wizards, 109-93.

Ball ricochets off Robin Lopez’s face, Bulls score anyway (VIDEO)

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 31:  Robin Lopez #8 of the Chicago Bulls look on against the Brooklyn Nets during the first half at Barclays Center on October 31, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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Michael Carter-Williams is still shaking the dust off after being inserted into the starting lineup, I guess. At least, that’s about what you can say when you pass the ball off your starting center’s face.

But there’s good news! The Chicago Bulls scored on this play.

Let’s take a look at the whole thing, shall we?

I think the more important question is whether Carter-Williams received a secondary or primary assists on the NBA.com tracking site.