James of the U.S. goes in for a lay-up past Lithuania's Kleiza during their men's preliminary round Group A basketball match at the Basketball Arena during the London 2012 Olympic Games

Lithuania gives USA a real test, but LeBron passes it in 99-94 win

48 Comments

There is a script for beating the USA, we talked about it before the Olympics: Pack the paint on defense and hope they miss threes, play good transition defense, don’t turn the ball over, and have a hot shooting night yourself.

Lithuania did almost all of that, playing their best game of the Olympics by far.

But there is no script for stopping LeBron James.

With the USA down USA 84-82 in the fourth, LeBron scored 9 of the USA’s final 17 points to lead the USA to a hard-fought 99-94 win. A win that keeps them undefeated (4-0) in Group A play and headed to the medal round.

For three and a half games LeBron had been a facilitator, a guy doing all the little things for Team USA. But when it was on the line for real LeBron reminded everyone he was the best player on the face of the earth. In the final minutes he hit a key three, threw down a dunk in transition, backed his man down in the paint and put up a pretty spin move — seven key, fast points that changed the tide of the game. He was clutch. He was everything his detractors said he wasn’t a year ago.

The USA coaching staff and players will spin this game as “it was good for us to be tested in group play, it helps us going forward.” I’m not totally on board with that. It might remind them they need to be focused every game, but Lithuania (and every team the USA plays from here on out) is good and if you let them get a foot in the door they will make it a game. A real game. The playground of the Nigeria game is long gone.

It was close because Lithuania played smart, played to the script and flat out executed against the USA better than they have all tournament.

On defense they switched every pick then the big man would slide back a step and dare the USA ball handler to shoot the three. The USA took the bait, especially in the first half, turning that big-on-small into isolation basketball and then settling for jumpers. In the first half the USA was 6-of-19 from three (31.7 percent) and shot 47.6 percent overall.

For the game, the USA was 10-of-33 from three (30.3 percent) and for the game shot 44.3 percent.

When the shots weren’t falling they adjusted in the second half and worked hard, making the extra pass and attacking the paint. It worked, the Americans drew fouls, but the USA was just 19-of-31 from the free throw line (61.3 percent). Kevin Love could not find his stroke, he was 3-of-8 from the stripe.

The USA is supposed to cover its off offensive nights with good defense, but they didn’t for much of this contest.

The USA did a terrible job on transition defense, allowing a slower Lithuanian team to get good looks pushing the ball. The USA also did a poor job switching — or whatever it was they were trying to do — on the pick and roll, allowing former NBA point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius to carve them up. Linas Kleiza had 25 points and outplayed the USA in the paint for much of the game.

And it was a game. Lithuania’s Achilles heel turned out to be turnovers — they had 23 of them. They struggled to enter the ball into the post late in the game, they made some unwise passes that led to USA fast breaks. It was a key difference.

LeBron James had 20 points for Team USA, along with Carmelo Anthony who also had 20. Kevin Durant had 16.

So the USA will spin this as “a wake up call” or some such thing, but in a short Olympic tournament (8 games at most) you shouldn’t need one.

What this shows is that when the outside shots are not falling, and when their pressure defense takes a night off or doesn’t work on experienced guards, the USA is vulnerable.

But despite all that the Americans may still win, because at the end of the day they still have the best player in the world on their team. And probably the next five or six on that list as well.

Reports: Kings still to talk to Nate McMillan, Mark Jackson, more in wide-open coaching search

Mark Jackson
Leave a comment

Essentially, the Sacramento Kings coaching search is the polar opposite of the New York Knicks coaching search. Which frustrates Carmelo Anthony, but that’s another story.

The Kings have spoken to four potential coaches but plan to talk to a number more, including former Golden State coach Mark Jackson and current Pacers assistant Nate McMillan. Here is now Jason Jones of the Sacramento Bee put it.

The Kings have received permission to interview assistant coaches Elston Turner of Memphis and Nate McMillan of Indiana for their head-coaching position, according to league sources….

Former Warriors coach Mark Jackson also will interview for the job. He was not retained two years ago, despite leading Golden State to a 51-31 record…. Sacramento also is interested in Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton but has not received permission to interview him, and it’s uncertain if the Kings will meet with him.

The question is does Walton have any interest in the job at all. The consensus around the league is he does not (he is expected to take a long look at the Lakers’ opening).

Sam Amick of the USA Today reported the same names, here is who he said has already discussed the job with Kings decision maker Vlade Divac.

The Kings, who fired George Karl on April 14 after they finished 33-49 and missed the playoffs for the 10th consecutive time, are known to have interviewed Vinny Del Negro (former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers coach), Mike Woodson (former Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks coach; now an assistant with the Clippers), Sam Mitchell (former Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves coach) and Kevin McHale (former Timberwolves and Houston Rockets coach).

Much like Walton, there also are questions about the level of McHale’s interest in the job (the Rockets are going to pay him for a couple more seasons, so he is in no rush).

The Kings are not making a rushed decision, which is a good thing by Divac — he needs to get this hire right.

Watch some of Hawks 12 blocked shots in close-out Game 6 vs. Celtics

Leave a comment

Atlanta got to the playoffs on the strength of their defense.

That also won the Hawks their first-round series against the Celtics — Boston struggled to get score consistently against Atlanta. On Thursday night that included 12 blocked shots as the Hawks took away the paint and the Celtics could not make them play.

Well done by the Hawks but that defense is about to be put to the test in the next round — the Cleveland Cavaliers have much more dangerous weapons.

No longer rebuilding, Pistons hope to improve in offseason

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 20: Tobias Harris #34 Andre Drummond #0 and Marcus Morris #13 of the Detroit Pistons celebrates during the first half of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on April 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP) The Detroit Pistons have finally moved beyond the rebuilding stage.

After their first playoff appearance since 2009, Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons can look ahead to the offseason knowing that if they simply keep their current starting lineup intact, the future could be fairly bright. That’s not to say that Detroit will stand pat, but the team’s key players are young enough that the Pistons can envision more success if this group stays together.

“We’re now not at the time of wholesale change anymore. We went through that,” said Van Gundy, who just wrapped up his second season as Detroit’s coach and team president. “We’re not making deals just to make deals. We like the guys we have, but we’ve got to add to it, and if there’s ever a chance to make a significant upgrade – yeah.”

The Pistons went 44-38, their best record since 2008, before being swept in the first round of the playoffs by top-seeded Cleveland. When Van Gundy met with reporters Thursday, he talked about a lot of potential improvements that can come from within – such as Andre Drummond‘s free throw shooting, Stanley Johnson‘s skill set and the team’s overall defensive approach.

The 22-year-old Drummond remains the Pistons’ biggest star. As he enters restricted free agency, the team has not expressed any reservations about trying to sign him long term – despite his sub-40 percent free throw shooting, an issue which occasionally relegated him to the bench during crunch time.

“He’s a 22-year-old All-Star center. There aren’t very many guys in the league who have the abilities that he has,” Van Gundy said. “We’ll move forward and obviously do everything we possibly can to try to get him re-signed.”

Detroit’s starting lineup of Drummond, Reggie Jackson (26 years old), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (23), Tobias Harris (23) and Marcus Morris (26) was good enough to lift the Pistons into the postseason, and the team also has the 19-year-old Johnson, a lottery pick last year. Van Gundy says he wants Johnson to work on developing his individual skills in the offseason, which isn’t always easy for players in the years before they reach the NBA.

“They don’t really get, or haven’t had summers where they could take an extended period of time and really focus on skill development,” Van Gundy said. “They’re always playing AAU, then with Stanley, USA Basketball, then they have a summer where they’re going to draft workout after draft workout after draft workout, and then right after that, they’re just going into summer league.”

As for Drummond’s woeful foul shooting, Van Gundy says it’s wrong to view it purely as a mechanics problem. Drummond shot 35.5 percent this season from the line and was 11 of 34 in the playoffs.

Van Gundy was asked if having Drummond try to shoot underhanded could be an option.

“I think right now everything’s on the table,” Van Gundy said. “We all know it’s an important thing, Andre more than any of us. I think he’s pretty open to anything, but there’s a lot of ways to attack this problem, and we’ll all have a hand in it.”

Although the Pistons don’t have to worry much about losing Drummond before next season, Anthony Tolliver and Steve Blake are both unrestricted free agents. They combined for only 69 minutes in the playoff series, and Van Gundy was somewhat noncommittal about their future.

“In just a very general sense, I like the idea of having both of them back,” he said. “But – and I was honest with them – there’s priorities ahead of re-signing them.”

Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

Hawks close out Celtics, advance to face Cavaliers

<> during the first quarter of Game Six of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden on April 28, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
Leave a comment

The first Eastern Conference semifinals matchup is set: the Atlanta Hawks closed out the Boston Celtics 104-92 on the road to win their first-round series in six games and advance to the second round, where they will face the Cleveland Cavaliers beginning on Monday.

The Hawks controlled the game from start to finish, neutralizing Boston’s offense and attacking Isaiah Thomas on the other end. Thomas finished with 25 points, leading all scorers, but shot just 9-for-24 from the field.

In the second half, Atlanta’s lead stretched as far as 28 points, before a Marcus Smart-led comeback in the fourth quarter cut it to 12 and Atlanta was able to put the game away.

From a talent standpoint, this series was always going to be skewed away from the Celtics, especially after Avery Bradley‘s hamstring injury in the first round of the playoffs. And Atlanta’s superior talent won out in Game 6, with every Hawks starter reaching double figures.

From here, Atlanta will face Cleveland in a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, this time with everybody fully healthy for both teams. Boston is set up for an interesting offseason, with a high lottery pick coming from Brooklyn, a ton of cap space and dark-horse status in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes.