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.

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.


Jahlil Okafor tweets apology for recent off-court behavior

Jahlil Okafor

The off-court incidents have been piling up for Jahlil Okafor over the past month: first, an incident captured on video that showed Okafor getting into a fight with a heckler early Thanksgiving morning; then, a report that Okafor had a gun pulled on him in a previous incident; and finally, this morning’s report that the Sixers’ No. 3 overall pick in this June’s draft had been pulled over in recent weeks for driving 108 miles per hour in Philadelphia. Together, they aren’t a good look for the rookie.

On Sunday afternoon, Okafor apologized for his recent behavior in a series of tweets:

The recent incidents involving Okafor are surprising—going into the draft, he never had any red flags for maturity or off-the-court issues. He’s certainly saying the right things after the fact, and he’s only 19, so hopefully this is nothing more than a small rough patch where he’s made some bad decisions, and not an indicator of things to come.

Kobe Bryant announces this is his final season


LOS ANGELES — It has seemed like this was it for a while. Kobe Bryant has been frustrated; he hasn’t been able to produce like he expects — his play has been hard to watch — and the Lakers are a train wreck.

Kobe made it official Sunday via the Players’ Tribune — this is his final season. He did it via a letter called “Dear Basketball.”

You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.

And that’s OK.
I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.

It’s not coincidental this was announced a couple days before the Lakers travel to Kobe’s hometown of Philadelphia to face the Sixers. Also remember Kobe is an investor in The Players’ Tribune.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver quickly released this statement:

“With 17 NBA All-Star selections, an NBA MVP, five NBA championships with the Lakers, two Olympic gold medals and a relentless work ethic, Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players in the history of our game.  Whether competing in the Finals or hoisting jump shots after midnight in an empty gym, Kobe has an unconditional love for the game.

“I join Kobe’s millions of fans around the world in congratulating him on an outstanding NBA career and thank him for so many thrilling memories.”

Kobe will go down as one of the game’s all-time greats. Few can come close to his resume: Five NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVPs, 15 time All-NBA teams, one MVP, 17 times an All-Star (and the All-Star Game MVP four times). And we could go on and on.

Good on Kobe for doing this now. After 55,000 NBA minutes his body has quit on him, and where his mind is still willing the flesh is clearly weak right now. He has not been able to adapt his game to the changing realities of what he can do.

Kobe has said he doesn’t want a “Derek Jeter Farewell Tour” but that will be the feel from here on out. Expect some special recognition at the All-Star Game in Toronto.

Bulls’ Dunleavy to see specialist after suffering setback with back injury

Mike Dunleavy, Joakim Noah
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CHICAGO—Over the past few weeks, Bulls forward Mike Dunleavy has seemed to be making progress in his back rehab. Dunleavy underwent back surgery shortly before the start of training camp and was initially given a timeline of 8-10 weeks. Recently, he’s been increasing his workload, and he traveled with the team on their recent west coast road trip.

However, his recovery may have hit a snag.

“Mike is going to see a doctor again tomorrow and then we should have a better update after that,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after practice on Sunday. “He had a little bit of soreness. But we’ll have more on that tomorrow.”

An update to Dunleavy’s status is coming, but given Dunleavy’s age (35) and the frequency of back injuries to reoccur, this news certainly isn’t encouraging. Between Tony Snell and Doug McDermott, the Bulls have struggled at both ends of the floor on the wing. Getting Dunleavy back, whenever that happens, will be a huge help. But nobody knows when that will be.