USA, Kevin Durant wear down Russians, win 89-79. Bring on the semifinals.


Thumbnail image for durant_team_usa.jpgIt’s still the one thing the USA can do in basketball that the rest of the world can’t match.

The USA rolls with a dozen top-flight players — Danny Granger leads the Indiana Pacers in scoring, is an All-Star and gets DNPs on this team. He’d star on any other team in the World Championships.

That kind of depth wears teams down, and that’s just what happened with the USA beating Russia 89-79 to advance to the semi-finals Saturday (against Argentina or Lithuania).

Early on the Russians did a good job of making the USA pay for defensive pressure and gambles. Russia is not a great shooting team but they couldn’t seem to miss their threes early on. They also crashed the glass hard at both ends, creating second chance opportunities for themselves (six offensive rebounds in the quarter), limiting the USA’s second chances. At the end of the first quarter it was 25-25.

Through it all USA did a great job of sticking with its game plan. First, get out and run — the USA picked up several baskets on run-outs after Russian makes.

The other was to attack the zone off the dribble and get inside, and nobody was doing that like Kevin Durant. Because there is no player in this tournament like Durant. He finished with 33 points for the game and was 8 of 11 on two pointers and got to the line nine times. He was in attack mode and carried the USA for stretches.

Russia’s effort was there, but they could not keep up with the waves of players the USA kept sending at them. Russell Westbrook came off the bench and his speed and pressure defense was too much for the Russians to handle, and he finished with a dozen points. Chauncey Billups had 15 points and was 4 of 8 from three.

Near the end of the second quarter, the USA went on a 12-0 run that gave them a seven-point lead and they never looked back. In the third the USA stretched the lead out by being efficient — the USA had no third quarter turnovers. Russia missed J.R. Holden, their star point guard, as they started to melt under the USA pressure in the second half. Mentally, the Russians could not stand up to the relentless American attack.

The one Russian most being watched in America was Knicks signee Timofey Mozgov — and he looked talented but raw. He had 9 points in the first quarter and showed that he is very good at setting picks and rolling to the basket. He outplayed Lamar Odom at times. Mozgov was also a foul sponge, picking up four pretty quickly, which limited his minutes and how aggressive he could be on the floor.

Mozgov is not going to come in and dominate at the NBA level, but he does some things well and he moves well. You can see him developing into something nice. Which is about what we all expected.

This was not a dominant USA performance, it gave you some glimpses of what the USA can expect in the next two rounds. Russia for long stretches went away from its Princeton-inspired offense and went pick-and-roll, and that gave the USA some trouble (especially with Mozgov as the roll man). But the USA seemed to improve at defending the play as things went along.

But it was still a quality win against a good opponent. A good showing for the USA. They may have to play better in future rounds, but this was a win to be proud of.

Kobe Bryant: “Do I want to play again or don’t I… the reality is no, I don’t.”

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant has known the answer for a while, he just wasn’t ready to admit it to himself. Let alone the world.

He wanted to try to wring one more season of good basketball out of his 37-year-old body. He wanted to try to talk himself out what his body was telling him. If he put in the work like he always had — if he lifted weights and stretched and took ice baths and watched film obsessively — he could still have a dramatic, positive impact on an NBA court.

A month into the season, Kobe admitted to himself he couldn’t will himself to do it anymore.

“Ultimately it’s a decision I had to make in life: Do I want to play again or don’t I?” Kobe asked. “It’s a very simple question, but it’s hard question to really answer. And the reality is no, I don’t. So why belabor it?”

Kobe announced that he will retire from the NBA at the end of this season.

Speaking to the media at Staples Center after another Lakers’ loss Sunday, what was clear was Kobe was comfortable with his decision. As Byron Scott had said before, Kobe was at peace with it.

“I’ve known for a while,” Bryant said. “I’ve always said if anything changes, I’ll change my mind. The problem for me, you can’t make a decision like this based on outside circumstances. It has to be an internal decision. Finally I just had to accept it, I don’t want to go through this anymore. And I’m okay with that.”

For two decades of his NBA career — in reality, much longer than that — basketball had been Kobe’s obsession. It drove his every decision, his every action. But even that had begun to change. He regularly meditates (thanks, Phil Jackson) and it was there he started to realize what was happening.

“Sitting in meditation for me, my mind starts drifting, and it always drifted to basketball. Always. And it doesn’t do that anymore,” Kobe said. “It does that sometimes, it doesn’t do that all the time. That was the first indicator that this game was not something I can obsess over much longer.”

Not that Kobe was going to give up the game without a fight. Kobe is not going to just roll over. However, after 20 seasons, 55,000 NBA minutes, a torn Achilles and major knee injury, hard work was not enough. Obsession was no longer enough. His body was quitting on him.

He’s accepted and come to peace with that.

“I honestly feel really good about it. I really do. I’m at peace with it…” Bryant said. “I’ve worked so hard and I continue to work really hard even though I played like shit, I’ve worked really, really hard not to play like crap and I do everything I possibly can. And I feel good about that.”

Make no mistake he is playing like crap. He’s a shell of his old self on defense. After a 4-of-20 shooting performance against the Pacers Sunday night, Kobe is shooting 30.5 percent on the season. He was 2-of-15 to start the game.

But a flash of vintage Kobe is what everyone will remember from Sunday’s game — they will talk about his two late fourth quarter three pointers, one a ridiculous leaner, that helped a Lakers’ comeback and brought the team within two points of the Pacers late in the fourth. After a Paul George free throw (George had 35 on the night), Kobe got a chance for a three to tie the game. He sprinted up off a down screen, caught the ball and moved along the top of the arc, getting enough space to get off a quick shot. And he airballed it. Which speaks to where his legs are now.

Kobe still loves putting in the work, which is one reason he’s not walking away mid-season (that $25 million contract may be a factor as well). He said “there is so much beauty in the pain of this league.” He still loves the effort of trying to get better every day.

He’s just not seeing results anymore. If he were playing better, if the young Lakers like D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle were coming along more quickly, if this Lakers’ team was more respectable, then his decision might be different. But none of those things are happening.

That doesn’t mean anyone gets to talk smack to Kobe.

“We were playing Portland and some kid from the bench said something to me, said ‘we’re going to beat you tonight.’ I looked at him and said ‘I’ve got one rule: If you weren’t born when I started playing you can’t talk trash. It’s a simple rule’ And he looked and said, ‘Yes sir.’”

Coach Byron Scott and GM Mitch Kupchak have not talked about how Kobe will be used going forward after this decision, although don’t expect much of a change. This is the Kobe Bryant farewell tour now, and at home and on the road he will have adulation rained on him by the fans. They want to see Kobe be Kobe, and it’s not like he’s suddenly going to change playing styles.

Kobe appreciates and said he loves the fans, but it’s what he hears from other players — guys who have gone to him for advice such as Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, James Harden — that matters most to Bryant.

“The coolest thing is the messages I receive from the players,” he said. “They say thank you for the inspiration, thank you for the lessons, for the mentality. Those things honestly mean the most from me, that respect from the peers, there’s nothing in the world that beats that.”

It’s hard to walk away from that. To willingly step back from the only life you’ve known for two decades. Even if it’s been obvious for a little while it was time.

Bryant had to admit to himself it was time. Now he has, hopefully he can savor every moment of this season and leave it on his own terms.


76ers tie NBA worst with 0-18 start after loss to Grizzlies

Matt Barnes, Nik Stauskas, Jerami Grant
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Zach Randolph had 17 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Memphis Grizzlies to a 92-84 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday, sending the 76ers to their record-tying 18th straight loss to start the season.

The Sixers have lost an NBA-record 28 consecutive games dating to last season and at 0-18 matched the New Jersey Nets’ start in 2009-10.

Mike Conley led the Grizzlies with 20 points, while Matt Barnes and Jeff Green finished with 13 apiece as Memphis won for the seventh time in the last nine.

Isaiah Canaan led the Sixers with 16 points, while Robert Covington and Hollis Thompson scored 12 points apiece. Jerami Grant finished with 11 points.

The Sixers led 76-71 with 7:38 remaining and Memphis fans were booing their team. But the Grizzlies went on a 15-1 run to retake control of the game, with Randolph scoring eight points in the rally.

Byron Scott: Kobe Bryant “at peace” with decision to retire after season

Kobe Bryant

LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant was never going to go quietly into that good night. He would rage, rage against the dying of the light — and torn Achilles, knee ligaments, shoulders, and everything else holding him back.

But now, the end is near, and Kobe will face the final curtain at the end of this season. And he is at peace with it, if you ask his coach.

“It was so matter of fact, and he was so at peace with (the decision),” Lakers’ coach Byron Scott said of when Kobe told him this season would be it. “After I thought about it, I felt better about that. It wasn’t like he was agonizing over it or anything, it was like ‘I’m announcing I’m retiring’ and just kind of went on from there.”

Bryant told Scott before anyone else in the Lakers’ organization, and told him sometime Saturday (when the Lakers played and lost in Portland).

“I said, ‘what?’ He just told me at a very awkward time; we started laughing about it,” Scott said. “He said ‘you looked like you were saying ‘what they hell are you talking about’ but it just caught me off guard.”

It’s been an ugly season for Kobe, his body can no longer do what he expects of it — he can’t get the separation, the lift needed for his shoots. He was shooting 31.1 percent on the season going into Sunday’s game against Indiana, and he started 1-of-11 from the floor Sunday night. Yet he kept gunning.

“I gave up hoping he would change his approach 15, 18 years ago,” Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said. “He is what he is. And I’m thankful for it.”

Kupchak added hoped this decision would ease the pressure on Bryant.

“I would hope that he has more fun, and appears less frustrated, and also gets more appreciation,” Kupchak said. “He’ll get it at home, but on the road too, because people will have to recognize this is his last year and they are watching one of the all-time greats.”

Kobe got plenty of appreciation from Lakers’ fans on Sunday night with a massive ovation when he was introduced. Kobe had wanted to avoid a Derek Jeter style farewell tour, but with that announcement and the Lakers playing 13-of-17 on the road in December you can bet there will be some of that.

“One of the best ever to play the game,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said pregame. “I don’t know if there’s any one moment, just throughout the course of his career you didn’t want him to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, period. Because you knew he was going to beat you.”

No doubt Kobe goes down as one of the game’s all-time greats — five-time NBA champion, MVP, two Finals MVP’s, 17 All-Star Games, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — but what Scott ultimately wants is Bryant to leave the game on his terms.

“What I want from Kobe is basically his last game to be able to walk off the court, wave to the fans, and be able to go into the locker room standing up,” Scott said.


Here is Kobe Bryant’s letter given to every fan at Lakers’ game Sunday

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers

LOS ANGELES — In a classy move — and one done in a very Kobe Bryant tone — every fan coming into Staples Center Sunday night to see the Lakers take on the Pacers received a letter from No. 24.

Inside a sealed black envelope, on quality, embossed paper, was this letter from Bryant (photo below):

When we first met I was just a kid.

Some of you took me in. Some of you didn’t.

But all of you helped e become the player and man in front of you today.

You gave me confidence to put my anger to good use.

Your doubt gave me determination to prove you wrong.

You witnessed my fears morph into strength.

Your rejection taught me courage.

Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, please know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire self into being a Laker.

What you’ve done for me is far greater than anything I’ve done for you.

I knew that each minute of each game I wore purple and gold.

I honor it as I play today and for the rest of this season.

My love for this city, this team and for each of you will never fade.

Thank you for this incredible journey.

It speaks to Kobe’s mindset over the years that he talked about the fuel from the rejection of Lakers’ fans motivating him. As a Los Angeles native (and former Laker blogger), let me tell you there was precious little rejection of Kobe from this fan base. There were questions and doubters early on, but even when Shaquille O’Neal was seen as the driving force of the team Kobe was beloved in Los Angeles. Something that continued through his trial in Colorado — Lakers fans have almost always had his back.

But Kobe finds fuel everywhere. Which is why he is a future Hall of Famer.