Outside shots, tempo, Chandler key for Team USA in London

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Sunday it gets real.

For the past three weeks Team USA has been training and scrimmaging and playing some exhibition games, getting ready. But Sunday they tip off the Olympics against France and if they can go 8-0 they will have another gold medal. (They could lose one of the first five group-play games and still go 3-0 in the best-of-eight elimination rounds, but it makes the path harder.)

The USA went 5-0 in exhibition games, but those games showed us the road to gold will not be easy. It will take a USA team playing its best (except against Tunisia). There were bright spots in the tune-up games — the last three quarters against Spain — and some not so impressive moments (allowing Argentina to come back, for one).

Here is what we learned.

• The USA needs Tyson Chandler out of foul trouble and on the floor. We knew going into this Olympics — with Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge all out — that size was going to be an issue. Mike Krzyzewski did the right thing and countered by going small (LeBron James and even Carmelo Anthony at the five at times) and just trying to be so quick and so athletic that nobody can match up. It has worked fairly well.

But check out this stat from John Schuhmann of NBA.com: When Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love or Anthony Davis are on the court the USA outscored its opponents by a ridiculous pace of 43.1 points per 100 possessions, when none of them played it was just 14.1 points per 100. The USA is 12 points per 100 possessions better when one of them is on the floor defending the paint. Chandler was far and away the most effective of the big men (although Love played better against Spain).

The USA is better with one real big on the floor.

That could be especially true in a rematch against Spain. After a first quarter where Spain led, their coach rarely used Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka at the same time again. And Marc Gasol didn’t even play. Spain has a better game in them and while the USA’s small lineup overwhelmed them in the exhibition (thank you ‘Melo and your hot shooting 27 points) I’d be careful saying the rematch will be a repeat.

• It’s about knocking down outside shots. No other team on the planet has near the athletes the United States puts out. In waves. In 2008 Dwyane Wade was the freak athlete off the bench who destroyed teams, he’s injured so enter Russell Westbrook in that role. Other teams cannot match up.

So they zone up a lot. And even with that the USA’s pick-and-roll and good ball movement is netting them great outside looks. When they fall, the USA can’t be beat. Against Spain the USA had 23 unguarded threes and made 15 of them (‘Melo was 4-of-4, all in transition), according to ESPN Stats and Data. That was the ballgame. In previous games it was Kevin Durant as the outside marksman, but the impact was the same.

• Bust the zone. Because nobody can match the American athletes, other teams are going to go zone. A lot. The USA struggled against the Spanish zone according to ESPN — in 15 offensive plays against the zone the USA was 3-of-12 shooting, with three turnovers. If you think Spain didn’t notice that and only ran zone 15 out of 78 trips down the court you kid yourself. The USA is going to have to do better in its zone offense, especially against the elite teams that will try to grind the game down that way.

This ties back to the point above — knock down the outside shot.

• Team USA must defend, then get out and run. Do you really need stats for this one? When the tempo is up and the USA’s pressure defense is getting turnovers or forcing misses so the USA can get into offensive plays before the defense sets, it’s all over. They are a force. And they are fun to watch.

It’s this simple — their athleticism and defense let them dictate the terms of the game. When they get away from that, when the other team can grind the pace down like Argentina did, the USA can be beat.

Which means when they get a lead and take their foot off the gas, as they did against Argentina, they can be caught. Especially when the outside shots are not falling. The USA just needs to run teams into the ground.

• The USA’s best lineups. According to Schuhmann’s stats at NBA.com, it is Tyson Chandler, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and either Chris Paul or Deron Williams at the point (the top two five-man units were the same with the interchanged point guards). That is the lineup you close with.

But hopefully it will not come to that because they are running and knocking down outside shots.

James Harden on recruiting Chris Paul from LA: “He didn’t seem happy”

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One of the most interesting storylines of the first month of this upcoming NBA season will be the Houston Rockets.

The team has paired MVP candidate James Harden with one of the greatest point guards of all time in Chris Paul, but it remains to be seen whether the two will be able to work together with the kind of efficiency that Mike D’Antoni’s team had in 2016-17.

Harden has been the subject of some chatter already this offseason after a photo of him surfaced on Instagram. In it, Harden looked to have added a significant portion of muscle this summer, which may help him as he moves back to a more off-ball style of play with Paul in the fold.

Harden was also the subject of significant scrutiny at the end of last season, where he failed in the playoffs in spectacular fashion against the San Antonio Spurs.

In a recent interview with Sam Amick of USA Today, Harden said his newfound weight gain has been part of his plan to combat late-season fatigue. Harden has also introduced yoga and pilates into his workout routine.

Perhaps more interesting information from Harden’s interview with Amick revealed just how much impact he had recruiting Chris Paul in the trade from Los Angeles Clippers, and Paul’s attitude at the end of the season toward his former team.

Via USA Today:

Harden, who signed a four-year extension this summer and will earn a combined $228 million by the end of the 2022-23 season, had everything to do with the move.

“I just knew that in the summertime obviously (Paul) was a free agent, and I wanted to see where his head was,” Harden said of Paul, who will now be a free agent next summer. “He didn’t seem happy, so after that we just took it from there.

“Obviously Golden State has been in the Finals and won two out of three, so that’s what everybody is trying to build up against. But we’re right there. We’re right there. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, but it definitely puts us in a better chance.”

It certainly makes sense that after years of perpetual playoff failure by the Clippers that Paul would want to move on. Harden and CP3 seem to enjoy each other at the moment, and a pairing does seem to make sense on paper. We will see how that plays out over the course of next season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo announces he will not play for Greece in Eurobasket

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Giannis Antetokounmpo said had big plans to play for the Greek national team this summer, taking his country back to the top of the European ladder at EuroBasket (they had won the tournament a dozen years ago).

Instead, a sore knee will keep the Greek Freak out of EuroBasket. He made the announcement on his Facebook page.

Antetokounmpo had missed all but one of Greece’s early EuroBasket tune-ups due to a sore knee. That, understandably, concerned the Bucks, especially with his four-year, $100 million contract extension about to kick in next season.

Antetokounmpo is in China promoting shoes, but said he on Facebook he took a physical while there and was not able to complete the exercises due to pain.

“It is by far the biggest disappointment in my career. I must deal with the problem,” Antetokounmpo said in the Facebook post (written in Greek).

Within hours of the post going up, the Greek basketball federation released a statement slamming the Bucks and Antetokounmpo, saying they had done an MRI of his knee and found no damage.

“The simultaneous report by the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo himself, by phone and social media from faraway China, and not by the appropriate official manner, of his inability to join the national men’s team saddens us … but is not surprising… A series of indications … had convinced us of the existence of an organized and well-staged plan by (the Bucks), with the full knowledge if not encouragement of the NBA that put the athlete on the spot and forced him to announce today that he is no longer part of the men’s national team.”

Great, just what the world needs, another conspiracy theory.

While NBA teams generally are not huge fans of their stars playing in national team tournaments (due to the injury risk), teams cannot stop a healthy player from playing. Antetokounmpo said this was his decision because he is in pain and has to think about the upcoming NBA season.

Whatever the Greek Federation believes internally, slamming the player and his team publicly like this is one good way to make sure he will not want to play for them in the future. He’s got knee pain, they are saying “you’re fine, walk it off, ” and that must have Antetokounmpo and the people around him wondering if the Greek Federation has his best interests — or theirs — at heart.

Akron store already selling “Stay Home 23” shirts, hats as LeBron decision looms

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We’ve seen this movie before.

There is all sorts of buzz around the league that LeBron James has one foot out the door in Cleveland. While people around LeBron denied he the rumor he is “100 percent” leaving, good luck finding any league source who thinks he is staying put next summer. Nothing is set in stone, his options — including staying — remain open, but we’ve all been down this road before.

The hometown fans are going to do their part to urge LeBron to stay.

Fan sentiment has some pull with LeBron (he came back to win the city a title). However, what matters more is a sense of a plan to keep the Cavaliers as title contenders for the coming years — and that is more than just Dan Gilbert paying the tax. The Cavs did nothing this summer that got them closer to beating Golden State, and while they swung for the fences with Paul George, what they really needed was wing defenders and athletes, and they didn’t get those either. Luc Mbah a Moute signed a one-year deal for the minimum somewhere else. Instead, Cleveland overpaid Kyle Korver.

Despite all that, the Cavs remain the team to beat in the East. If Cleveland gets to the Finals — LeBron’s eighth in a row — and they win or make it close, he may see staying as his best option. A season can be a lifetime in the NBA in terms of shifting attitudes. Still, I wouldn’t bet the rent on it.

Marshall Plumlee gets camp invite, partially guaranteed contract from Clippers

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The Los Angeles Clippers have 14 fully guaranteed contracts on their roster, plus a partial guarantee for DeAndre Liggins (who likely is on the roster opening day). They also are pretty much set at center with DeAndre Jordan and Willie Reed (plus when they go small they can play Blake Griffin there, something I wish they’d do a little more).

That said, Doc Rivers — just a coach now — needs bodies for camp, so in comes former Duke star and Knick Marshall Plumlee, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Plumlee played in 21 games for the Knicks last season, logging a total of 190 minutes. He bounced between New York and the D-League Westchester Knicks, when down he averaged 12.3 points and 9.8 rebounds a game.

He’s not making the Clippers’ squad (barring injury), but he could show well and get noticed by other teams. Over the course of a season, there will be a need for bigs as guys go down injured, Plumlee is getting a chance to show how his game has developed. And he makes some money in the process.