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.

Through unpredictable season for Spurs, Popovich remains steady

Getty Images
Leave a comment

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Gregg Popovich is not changing how he coaches, not after 22 seasons leading the Spurs.

The NBA’s most tenured steward is always going to focus on defense. He’s always going to dismiss talk of his brilliance because “it’s just basketball.” And he’s not going to overwork his players even though an unprecedented rash of injuries has the Spurs battling for their playoff lives for the first time in two decades.

“At this point, he’s not changing,” Minnesota coach Tom Thibodeau said. “It’s a formula that has worked quite well. They have great veteran leadership and they pass it along to the young guys. You see the young guys are growing. That’s why they’re so good.”

They’re not as good as they have been, but their impressive success this year is a testament to Popovich.

San Antonio has been without MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games this season and Tony Parker, Rudy Gay and Danny Green have all missed significant time with various injuries. In all, the Spurs have missed 165 games as a team while battling everything from sprained MCLs to fractured wrists.

The injuries haven’t dramatically altered how Popovich manages the 82-game regular season.

“I think Pop did a great job overall, it’s not easy,” Parker said. “It was a tough one for him this year. Since I’ve been here, we have never had that many injuries. So, Pop did the best he could and I think overall he did a good job.”

Aside from All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, no Spurs player is averaging more than 28 minutes per game and veterans Parker and Manu Ginobili are averaging 20 minutes per game. Popovich has also been able to sit Aldridge, Ginobili and Pau Gasol for rest during the season.

Popovich was among the first coaches to sit players for rest rather than injury. He opted to keep Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green at home rather than have them play at Miami on Nov. 30, 2012. The action resulted in a $250,000 fine and sharp rebuke from then NBA Commissioner David Stern. The NBA changed its rules to allow teams to rest its players, but only if they listed in a timely manner who would be resting on their injury reports.

Popovich doesn’t have the firepower to repeat that mass seating now.

“It was hard to rest guys, limit guys’ minutes,” Green said. “We had some guys come back from injuries, that’s when he limited some of the guys’ minutes.”

But Popovich still has made sure players received their needed rest.

The 40-year-old Ginobili has provided the Spurs with a needed lift this month after sitting out eight games to rest. In Wednesday’s victory over Washington, Ginobili outran 31-year-old Ramon Sessions to a loose ball and then dove on it to save the possession.

“It just tells you that nobody has an excuse not to do it,” 37-year-old center Pau Gasol said of Ginobili’s hustle. “A 40-year-old does it, what about a 25 or 30 or 35 or 37 year old?”

Parker has not sat out any games for rest, but he did miss the first 19 games of the season after recovering from left quadriceps tendon surgery. Even before he lost his starting position to Dejounte Murray, Parker has spent a lot of time on the bench. Not that Parker has enjoyed the time off the court.

“For me personally, I’m just trying to get back to 100 percent it was almost too much rest,” Parker said. “I wish I had played more games, but it is what it is. Other guys, I hope they feel fresher. We’re going to need it.”

While Parker may not enjoy the rest, it seems to be paying off.

The Spurs have won five straight after losing eight of 11 games to drop into 10th place in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs. San Antonio was in sixth place, one-half game behind Oklahoma City.

The Spurs recently beat a short-handed Golden State team by 14 points. The Spurs played with energy that they haven’t shown since early in the season when they were third in the West.

That should help then down the stretch, and possibly into the playoffs. Being rested, healthy and playing good defense is a recipe that has yielded five championships in Popovich’s tenure and extended the careers of franchise stalwarts like Tim Duncan, Parker and Ginobili.

“Everybody’s bringing the juice,” Murray said. “We’re playing together on offense. I just feel like there’s more juice on defense. As I always say, defense, we’ve all got to be on the same page and be hungry and greedy on `D.’ We’ve got to keep going, we can’t get comfortable.”


Giannis Antetokounmpo to tell his story on 60 Minutes this week (preview clip)

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up hocking wares — clothes, sunglasses, whatever — on the streets of Athens, Greece. He easily could still be living there, the tallest salesman in a poor part of a country with high unemployment and real challenges.

Instead, he is a multimillionaire living comfortably in the United States, and is one of the 10 best basketball players in the world — and still improving. In a few years we may well be saying he is the best player on the planet.

Antetokounmpo will be telling his story on the legendary television news magazine 60 Minutes this week, and the show released a clip. Check it out.

This is the best missed free throw to game winner you will ever see

Getty Images
1 Comment

We’ve all seen this situation before at every level of basketball: A team down three points gets fouled in the final seconds and has two free throws, so the shooter aims to make the first free throw then miss the second and create a rebound he or a teammate can grab then throw back in to tie the game. It works about as often as an NFL Hail Mary — either the shooter makes the shot anyway or the defense gets the board — but what other choice is there?

Nobody has ever pulled it off as well as Paulinho Boracini of the Brazilian league team Cearense.

Intentional or not (and I lean not), he banked the second free throw off the rim toward the corner, ran it down himself and hit the game-winning three.

Damn. That’s impressive.

(If Boracini and Cearense sound familiar, you win the award for “watching too much Knicks preseason basketball” because they played New York in a 2015 exhibition.)

Giannis Antetokounmpo doubtful with ankle injury for Bulls game

AP Photo/Morry Gash

MILWAUKEE (AP) The Milwaukee Bucks say Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful for Friday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls with a sprained right ankle.

The All-Star forward got hurt in the second quarter of a 127-120 loss on Wednesday to the Los Angeles Clippers when he appeared to trip over teammate Shabazz Muhammad under the Bucks’ basket.

Antetokounmpo is fourth in the league in scoring at 27.3 points a game.