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Team USA starts real tests with Argentina on Sunday

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Every NFL fan knows you can’t predict what the New Orleans Saints season will be like based on their Aug. 5 Hall of Fame game performance (vs. the Cardinals). Along the same line, it’s hard to infer what will happen when the games matter by watching Team USA’s pre-Olympics tune-ups.

We’re left making projections based more on style points than competitive games. What we’ve learned for sure is Team USA can destroy weaker sides like the Dominican Republic. And we learned that when the Americans miss a lot of shots against at team with size someone like Brazil can hang around for a while.

None of which tells us much. The reality is there are only a few teams with real medal chances in London besides the United States and in the next few days they will play two of them.

These are the games that will give us a better idea of what is to come.

Sunday (3:30 ET on NBA TV) it is Argentina — a team that boasts Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, Carlos Delfino and a core from that country’s “golden age” of basketball that know how to play the international game. This is a group that has fared well in international competitions for years and is a tough out. (Tuesday Team USA will face off against the second best team in the tournament, Spain.)

This game will be cloaked Dream Team talk — it is being played in Barcelona, where the ’92 team won its gold. It is the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team team and there was some controversy when Kobe Bryant said this Team USA could beat that side and Michael Jordan laughed at it. Sunday Team USA will be wearing Dream Team throwback uniforms.

But the USA doesn’t have to play the Dream Team, that’s a legacy debate, a barstool discussion. One you can’t even really have properly before the Olympics.

Argentina is real and pretty good. They can defend and score. The USA is better (Team USA is a 28 point favorite). But can the USA use its pressure defense to get easy buckets in transition against a more experienced team? Can the USA execute in the half court? How will their defense fare against a side that does execute and moves very well off the ball (plus can shoot)? Can LeBron James play the four against Scola? Is Kevin Durant going to keep lighting it up? Is Deron Williams going to keep up his amazing level of play against stiffer competition?

The USA and Argentina will play in London, they are in the same first-round group. This is just a warm-up. But both sides will be trying to send a message.

And we’ll be left trying to make inferences from the style points.

Isaiah Thomas on pace to break modern-era fourth-quarter scoring record

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With seven and a half minutes left, Isaiah Thomas drained a 3-pointer, held up his left wrist and stared at it.

It was time.

His time.

Thomas scored 17 fourth-quarter points in the Celtics’ win over the Hornets yesterday.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” Thomas said. “It just surprises everybody else.”

It shouldn’t any longer.

Boston has won seven of eight, and in that span, Thomas has scored most of the Celtics’ fourth-quarter points. He has pushed his fourth-quarter scoring average to 10.1 for the season – putting him on track to break the modern-era record.

Kobe Bryant scored 9.5 fourth-quarter points per game in 2006, the most in the previous 20 years (as far back as NBA.com has data). The leaderboard:

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Russell Westbrook is also on track to surpass Kobe and join this rarified air. LeBron James, Tracy McGrady, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade are the only other players to average even eight fourth-quarter points per game in a season over the previous 20 years. Not even Michael Jordan (7.1 in 1997, 7.3 in 1998) did it.

Boston’s offense has blasted into the stratosphere with Thomas on the court in the fourth quarter, scoring 122.1 points per 100 possessions. However, the Celtics allow even more with him on the floor in the final period (122.8 points per 100 possessions). The 5-foot-9 point guard has limits.

But where those limits exist when it comes to his clutch scoring – we haven’t found them yet.

Charley Rosen: I’m not Phil Jackson’s mouthpiece

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Writer Charley Rosen describes himself as a “long-time friend and confidant” of Knicks president Phil Jackson. They coached and roomed together in the Continental Basketball Association decades ago. Since, they’ve collaborated on books and articles.

So, when Rosen wrote, “The only sure thing is that Carmelo Anthony has outlived his usefulness in New York,” Anthony took it as a shot from Jackson.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

Rosen insists that unfair to him and Jackson.

Rosen at FanRag:

So, although I have often been called Phil’s mouthpiece by fans and some in the media, I have never consulted him about the content or general themes of any of the thousands of columns I’ve written for various sports web sites.

NEVER!

The only obvious exceptions being the interviews I conducted with him.

Although some of my opinions may be congruent with Phil’s, they are strictly my own. For better or for worse.

So, then, my views on Carmelo Anthony, for example, come from carefully watching and analyzing his play throughout his career.

I’m not in the business of parroting a party line, or of stroking players with whom I’ve had friendly contact.

As part of his Anthony critique, Rosen wrote, “It’s understood that he’d only accept being dealt to the Cavaliers or the Clippers.” Where did Rosen get that if not Jackson? Rosen invites questions by making statements like that without attribution.

Rosen’s history with Jackson also attracts scrutiny. So much of Rosen’s writing career has leaned on Jackson for exclusive access. He can’t have both that and the benefit of the doubt about his separation from Jackson. Even if Rosen wants to be objective, we all have biases. Rosen seems far too close to Jackson to evaluate him – and, by extension, the Knicks – properly. After all, when evaluating the team beyond Anthony, Rosen wrote:

PHIL JACKSON has pushed the right buttons

PBT Midseason Awards: James Harden or Russell Westbrook for MVP?

Houston Rockets' James Harden (13) hugs his former teammate, Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook after an NBA basketball game in Houston, Thursday Jan. 5, 2017. The Rockets defeated the Thunder 118-116. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
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We are at the NBA season’s midpoint, which means we finally have seen enough games and compiled enough stats to start a conversation about the NBA end-of-season awards. Nothing is close to locked in yet, this is more like a horse race that is just coming out of the backstretch and starting the sweeping turn towards the finish line — a lot of things can change, and there will be players making late runs at some of these awards.

That’s not going to stop us from making picks for all the major categories — plus the best album of 2016. Because we can. Below are the picks for Kurt Helin, Dan Feldman, and Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Kurt Helin: Russell Westbrook
This is a coin flip between Westbrook and James Harden, with half a season to decide who gets the hardware. Right now I’d have a very slight lean to Westbrook, who is not just averaging a triple-double but has the Thunder in the playoffs on a 48-win pace — when he sits the Thunder are 17.5 points per 100 possessions worse (yes, that stat has noise and speaks to team depth, but point is without him this team is screwed).

Dan Feldman: James Harden
Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double — and Harden is still having a(n every so slightly) better season, which is just incredible. Unless Westbrook taps into his higher defensive potential more regularly, Harden’s efficiency gives him the edge.

Dane Carbaugh: James Harden
There’s obviously a strong case for Russell Westbrook here, but the thing that brings me back to James Harden is this: he’s increased his assists per-100 possessions this season despite his usage only going up by 1.5%. That’s ridiculous, and a prime example of the many ways Harden has been extra efficient this season.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Joel Embiid
Before the season I didn’t think he could win it because he was going to be on a minutes restriction, plus there would be pushback to having a third-year player win the award, but this race isn’t even close. Embed still got a lot of work to do defensively, but he’s far ahead of Malcolm Brogdon/Jamal Murray/Buddy Hield/Domantas Sabonis and the rest. Plus, Embiid is just fun to watch. And the league could use more fun.

Dan Feldman: Joel Embiid
It appeared Embiid would run away with this award, but Malcolm Brogdon has made it competitive. Still, Embiid’s talent, even if less refined, has made a bigger impact so far. He’s a force defensively, and his offense is diverse, albeit sloppy.

Dane Harbaugh: Joel Embiid
Not voting for Embiid here is voting against fun. It’s voting against hope. It’s voting against aesthetics. It’s voting against the culture. There’s real evidence Embiid is going to be a force in the league barring health for years to come, and to see it on display this year in unpolished form has been everything we wanted from The Process.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert
He is the anchor of the best defense in the NBA this season, and he’s not a slow-footed big who you can destroy when he gets dragged into pick-and-rolls (he can hold his own). There are others such as Kawhi Leonard still in this race.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert
The Jazz center erases the paint and is more than adequate when pulled outside. Teams haven’t found a way to run him off the court, the first test for any rim protector in this era. That allows Gobert’s interior skills to shine. Draymond Green is within striking distance, but this is Gobert’s award to lose.

Dane Carbaugh: Rudy Gobert
It’s hard to argue that Rudy Gobert is not the DPOY. He’s the anchor for the NBA’s most efficient defensive unit and he’s not only a paint clogger but a shot blocker that doesn’t give up rebounding chances as he chases swats. Utah is extremely fun to watch on defense — gasp! — and Gobert is a big reason why.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Eric Gordon
This is the most open race on the board, but right now what Gordon brings Houston has him in front. This is the Gordon the Pelicans thought they were paying for (injuries undid him there), averaging 17.9 points per game and shooting 41.1 percent from three. Lou Williams had the lead for me but has slipped of late (as have the Lakers).

Dan Feldman: Enes Kanter
I did little more than pick a name here. This race is WIDE open with serious consideration also going to Greg Monroe, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Patty Mills, Jon Leuer, Marreese Speights, Tyler Johnson, Dwight Powell, Wilson Chandler and…

Dane Carbaugh: Eric Gordon
It’s sort of unfair that the Houston Rockets get to bring Eric Gordon off the bench, and I bet most NBA opponents would agree. Gordon is not only having a great comeback season as a scorer — averaging better than 17 points per-game — but he’s doing it efficiently as well. Daryl Morey hit a home run with Gordon and Ryan Anderson this season.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Mike D’Antoni
Note to Lakers/Knicks management (and fans): Yes you can win with Mike D’Antoni’s system and him as coach, but you have to give him players that fit his system. He’s not bending. But when you give him his players — James Harden at the point, healthy seasons from Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon — he’s going to win a lot of games. And the man is a groundbreaking coach.

Dan Feldman: Mike D’Antoni
D’Antoni’s touch has brought out the best in the Rockets’ offense, starting with the subtle tweak of making James Harden the point guard. Houston’s defense has even neared league average, a credit to how D’Antoni organized his staff. His coaching prowess is limited to players who fit his style, but the Rockets do, and D’Antoni is doing a very nice job with them.

Dane Carbaugh: Mike D’Antoni
Let’s put Houston’s rise to the upper tier of the Western Conference on hold for a second. Is there anyone who was more unfairly written off than Mike D’Antoni? His SSoL Suns were the prerunner to today’s modern NBA offenses, but because of some awkward years in New York and LA with some mismatched rosters, everyone wrote him off. Apparently he’s been in the lab, with a pen and a pad, trying to get the Rockets off the ground. It’s worked by turning Harden into a point guard and surrounding him with shooters who get rid of the ball like it’s made of molten rock. I, for one, am here for SSoL II: Electric Boogaloo.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF YEAR

Kurt Helin: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Entering his fourth season, his improvements have been as big as his strides. Jason Kidd made the brilliant move (in the second half of last season) to move him to a point-forward position and put the ball in his hands, and he is driving and dishing with the best of them. He leads the NBA in points in the paint per game at 13.4 — more than DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Davis and the rest of them.

Dan Feldman: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo is the runaway winner here. He has improved so much, so quickly, he’s probably due for regression to the mean. But he still has plenty of leeway to come down to earth and still cruise to this award.

Dane Carbaugh: Giannis Antetokounmpo
I think many of us were expecting Andrew Wiggins to grab this spot, but if it weren’t for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rise the Timberwolves guard might come in second to his own teammate in Zach LaVine. Meanwhile, the Greek Freak has garnered the second most All-Star forward votes in the East, (only to LeBron James has more). If you aren’t watching Bucks games, you’re missing out.

BONUS: BEST ALBUM OF 2016

Kurt Helin: A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead)
Dan Feldman: Lemonade (Beyoncé)
Dane Carbaugh: Still Brazy (YG)

Draymond Green tells Kyrie Irving: ‘I know your moves’ (video)

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Only Draymond Green can endearingly brag about his defensive intelligence while admitting getting fooled on a play.

In the Warriors’ blowout win over the Cavaliers last night, Green guarded Kyrie Irving and anticipated the Cleveland guard would go one way. After Irving went the other way to score, the two shared a moment during a stoppage.

“I know your  moves,” Green said.

“I know,” replied Irving, whose vast offensive repertoire allowed him to find an unexpected counter.