Preview USA vs. Lithuanians: Now we see how far the youngsters have come

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Thumbnail image for andre_iguodala_team_usa.pngBack in August, the USA got together to take on Lithuania in a “friendly” — and the young Americans got punched in the mouth for a half. Don’t believe me, this is what Coach K told John Schuhmann of

“They were playing the international game and we were still playing a U.S. game that night,” USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said Friday. “And they knocked us back. We did enough to win the exhibition, but we’re going to have to play a lot better than that to win on Saturday.”

They have to because Lithuania is playing better, more confident than they did in that meeting. That and this the World Championship semi-finals, one-and-done. Lithuania is 7-0 so far and have knocked off Argentina and Spain in this tournament. Lithuania is capable of shooting lights out for long stretches (59 percent in the first half against Argentina when they took the game by the throat early).

This is a measuring stick game for the USA — they are better, more talented than Lithuania, but if the Americans have not progressed as a team since the last meeting it will not matter.

Here’s what you really need to know about Lithuania — they will fight. Not in the Greece/Serbia sense, in the way every coach in every sport in every country wants their team to fight and scrap. They are the definition of gutty and physical. They were down double digits to Spain, France, China and Canada and came back to win every game. The USA cannot take their foot off the gas in this one.

Lithuania spreads the floor on offense and will run a lot of pick-and-rolls, a classic European offense in that there always movement off the ball, plenty of cutting to the basket. Pretty much everyone on the Lithuanian roster will drive the lane, save Simas Jasaitis who just stands out there and knocks down threes. They like to run, although how much they push the pace against a more athletic USA team remains to be seen.

We already told you all about Linas Kleiza, who is leading the team in scoring at 19 a game. He brings a more complete and more confident game to this game than NBA fans will remember from his days in Denver. The USA will likely counter him with Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, but Kleiza’s physicality will be a challenge for either of them.

The USA is the better team, the deeper team. But Lithuania is playing about as well as it can right now, and it will fight for this one. They know that in a best of seven they are toast, but one game… anything can happen. Unless the USA comes in focused and on its game, then this is decided.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
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Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.

Celtics draft pick Marcus Thornton gets beer dumped on head during Australian game (video)

Marcus Thornton, Will Cherry

The Celtics drafted Marcus Thornton with No. 45 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. That essentially entitled him to the required tender – a one-year contract offer, surely unguaranteed at the minimum.

Thornton rejected that, which is almost always a mistake.

Rejecting the tender is a favor to the drafting team, which gets to keep the player’s exclusive rights for a year. If Thornton tries to join the NBA now, he’s stuck negotiating with only the Celtics.

By accepting the tender, the player typically gets one of two outcomes. He either plays on that contract and draws an NBA salary or he gets waived. But even getting waived is better than rejecting the tender, because at least the player becomes a free agent and can negotiate with any team.

Players who reject the tender go to another league and play for less money. In Thornton’s case, that mean Australia.

How’s that going?

(Almost) never reject the required tender as a second-round pick.