EuroBasket underway, continent’s Olympic qualifying event

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In less than a year, the Olympic basketball tournament will be taking place on European soil. Even if there are times the rest of Europe doesn’t really want to claim England.

Starting Wednesday, the Olympic qualifying tournament for Europe got underway – also known as EuroBasket, or the European Championships. In that part of the world a title in this is as big or bigger than an Olympic title, but this time around the top two finishers in this event get an automatic berth in the London Olympics. Finishers three through six go to the pre-Olympic qualifying tournament next summer to fight with teams from around the globe for one of the final spots in the games.

EuroBasket is filled with NBA players and some of the best teams in the world. We’re going to be writing quite a bit about this tournament over the next fortnight, so here is a little primer of the teams to watch (for more in depth stuff, check out The Painted Area, and follow them through the tournament).

Spain: They are the clear favorites and they are loaded with NBA talent: Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez. The guys who don’t play in the NBA are experienced stars on Europe’s biggest stages. So they came out in their opener and sleepwalked to an 83-78 win over Poland — lethargic play in the early rounds by Spain is a sign that it’s a big tournament. They can be their own worst enemy. In that game against Poland, Pau Gasol had 29 points on 12 shots, while Rubio posted a line of 0-0-0. For Spain, anything short of a gold and qualifying for the Olympics is a let down.

After that, things are pretty wide open with a number of teams who could get that second Olympics spot.

France: They have NBA players Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum and Ronny Turiaf. They will be one of the best defensive teams in the tournament and if they can score they will be a threat in any game. But look for the offense to be streaky.

Lithuania: They played well at the World Championships last year and they are the host of this event — home teams do very well in international competitions (see Turkey in the World Championship finals last year). The guy to watch here is Toronto’s recent draft pick (No. 5 overall) Jonas Valanciunas, who looked dominant at the FIBA Under-19 World Championships and looked good against Russia in a recent game. The team is loaded with experienced, good European players such as Darius Songaila.

Germany: They have the best front line in this tournament with Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman. Like the Mavericks, they surround a good front line with a lot of shooters. One key to watch is Group B with Germany, Italy, France and Serbia — four good teams but only three advance out of group play to the knockout round. There is no room for error (Italy should lose out, but they will not go quietly).

Serbia: The player you know is Nenad Krstic (formerly with the Thunder), but what they bring is some of the best teamwork in a tournament often known for good teamwork. They have had the same team playing together for three straight summers. That matters.

Turkey: They boast almost as much NBA talent as Spain with Hedo Turkoglu, Omer Asik, Semih Erden, Ersan Ilyasova, and Enes Kanter (not as high a level of talent as Spain, but this is a good lineup). They played very well at home in Istanbul for the World Championships (losing only to the eventual champion USA) but how will they do away from home? This is not considered a mentally strong team, but if they put it together watch out.

You can stream all the EuroBasket action on ESPN3.

Donovan Mitchell tells Thunder fans, Jazz teammates Utah not returning to Oklahoma City this season

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The Jazz blew a 25-point second-half lead in Game 5 last night, extending their series with the Thunder. Up 3-2, the Jazz are still in control. They can close out in Game 6 tomorrow in Utah. Blow that, and they must return to Oklahoma City for Game 7 Sunday.

But Utah rookie Donovan Mitchell is making it abundantly clear he doesn’t plan to do that.

Gabe Ikard of The Franchise 107.7:

Jake Edmonds of KUTV:

A confident proclamation that rallies his team or youthful exuberance run amok?

The narrative will be decided after Game 6. That’s just how this is done.

Report: Grizzlies moving toward keeping J.B. Bickerstaff as coach

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From the moment Robert Pera opted to retain control of the Grizzlies and end a prolonged ownership saga, it seemed interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff would remain Memphis’ coach.

Lo and behold…

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Bickerstaff did a decent job before the Grizzlies started tanking. But that was a small a sample, and his prior work as Rockets interim coach was uninspiring.

To be fair to Bickerstaff, those were both difficult situations. He’s an experienced assistant who might be ready for this challenge.

To be less fair to Bickerstaff, this looks like Memphis taking the cheap route. The Grizzlies didn’t appear to conduct much of a coaching search, if any. Nor has Bickerstaff been mentioned with other openings. It probably won’t cost as much to hire him as it would a more-established option.

Memphis seems to be operating under the belief that a healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol will right the ship next season. And they might. But given the age and injury history of those two, I wouldn’t assume they stay healthy and productive all season. Even if they do, they’d have to carry an underwhelming supporting cast – with limited room for upgrade this summer – in a deep Western Conference.

The Grizzlies want Bickerstaff, who’d be a first-time non-interim head coach, leading that team trying to win now? That doesn’t seem like the right risk-reward balance – at least until considering his salary, and even then.

Rumor: 76ers increasingly confident about signing LeBron James

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LeBron James-76ers rumors have been mainstream for the better part of the year.

And they’re not going anywhere.

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

I now fully understand why whispers about the Philadelphia 76ers and their growing behind-the-scenes confidence that they can woo LeBron to Philly this summer are getting louder.

Why shouldn’t they be increasingly confident? Led by Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the 76ers have already won a playoff series. The Cavaliers are mired in a tight first-round series with the Pacers, and LeBron’s supporting cast has mostly stunk.

This has the makings of LeBron’s previous free agencies – when he left barren Cleveland for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with the Heat in 2010, when he left aging Miami for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love with the Cavaliers in 2014. Whatever motivations and narratives attached to LeBron’s decisions, he has left sinking teams for better-positioned ones.

The 76ers are good enough to fit that. They also have the cap flexibility to acquire him without sacrificing roster strength.

That LeBron has positioned himself as a mentor to Simmons – who shares an agent, Rich Paul, with LeBron – would only make signing with Philadelphia easier. LeBron could sell the narrative of teaching and grooming Simmons. LeBron, who cares about his legacy, must explain why he’s again leaving his hometown team in a way that won’t alienate everyone – not easy considering his homecoming message upon his return. Working first-hand with his protégé would look understandable, maybe even commendable.

All that said, growing confidence could be going from a 1% chance to a 10% chance. That’d be a 10-fold increase while leaving Philadelphia a big underdog.

LeBron’s free agency is still a huge unknown – including, at least in part, to LeBron himself. But I believe he has already started to consider options, even if he hasn’t made up his mind. And when that happens, signs could emerge behind the scenes. Perhaps, the 76ers have a read on those.

Or maybe they’re seeing what we’re all seeing: The 76ers are rising while the Cavs are just trying to keep their heads above water. Which situation would LeBron choose?

Victor Oladipo on his final shot: “It was a goaltend”

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Ultimately, the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report will back up Victor Oladipo — it was a goaltend.

With the score tied 95-95 and just six seconds left in the game Wednesday night, Oladipo attacked LeBron James in isolation, and like so many before him thought he was past LeBron only to have a chase down block from behind end his bid — except video replays shows Oladipo laid the ball off the backboard a fraction of a second before LeBron blocked it. That makes it a goaltend, a defender cannot block a shot that has already touched the backboard. Check out the slow-mo video.

The officials didn’t call it that way on the court, and the play is only eligible for video review if a goaltend is called (to be fair to the officials, that was an incredibly close play that is very difficult to call in real time). From there, LeBron went on to hit the dramatic game-winning three that gave Cleveland the win and a 3-2 series lead.

After the game, Oladipo and his teammates were pissed about the no-call.

“I got a step on him,” Oladipo said via the Associated Press. “I felt like I even got grabbed on the way to the rim, tried to shoot a layup, it hit the backboard, then he blocked it. It was a goaltend. It’s hard to even speak on it. It just sucks, honestly. It really sucks. Even though we fought our way back, we tied the game up, that layup was huge.

“Give him credit where credit is due. The three was big-time. Definitely huge. But who’s to say they even run that play? We don’t know what happens. It’s unfortunate. It really sucks that they missed that.”

LeBron didn’t see it that way.

“Of course I didn’t think it was a goaltend. I try to make plays like that all the time and I mean he made a heck of a move, got me leaning right and he went left and I just tried to use my recovery speed and get back up there and make a play on the ball. And I was able to make a play.”

We’ll see what the Last Two Minute Report says, but to my eyes that was a goaltend, it clearly comes off the backboard.

That call is also not why Indiana lost. If Pacers’ fans want to place blame, Oladipo going 2-of-15 on the night was a bigger issue. Or Darren Collison having an off night and going 1-of-5 from the floor. Or maybe it’s just the fact that LeBron James is the best player in the game and can drop 44 on the Pacers — including the three that may well have made the goaltend moot anyway — and Indiana can’t stop it. One call late does not by itself decide a 48-minute game.

But it was a goaltend.