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.

Report: Clippers owner Ballmer will spend “whatever it takes” to keep Blake Griffin, Chris Paul

Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin, center, responds to reporters while Chris Paul, left, and DeAndre Jordan laugh during the team's NBA basketball media day, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Playa Vista, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)
Associated Press
Leave a comment

Is this the season the Clippers break through? They have been one of the eight best teams — usually one of the top five — for several years now, but that has not been enough to get them past the second round of the playoffs. A combination of injuries and running into superior teams has gotten in their way.

This season they will start as the fourth-best team in the league according to most NBA power rankings (including ProBasketballTalk’s), but they will still be third best in the West. If things play out according to that script, it would mean another second-round exit.

The difference is next summer Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can be — and almost certainly will be — free agents (both have early termination options). If there is another second-round flame-out, can the Clippers keep them?

Owner Steve Ballmer is committed to spend whatever it takes to keep them in Clipper red, white, and blue, reports Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Most importantly, according to Clippers insiders, is his commitment to keeping both Griffin and Paul long term no matter what it costs.

Do both want to stay? That’s impossible to predict nine months out. But it’s hard to imagine either finding as good of a set up as they have in Los Angeles. Both have firmly planted roots in L.A., with deep ties to the business and entertainment worlds.

Take a moment to step back and realize just how much Ballmer has changed the Clippers’ culture in three years from what Donald Sterling would have done. If Sterling still owned the team we’d be asking if he would open his pocketbook to spend to keep his two big stars in the same summer, and even if he was would that be enough or would both players be looking just to get away.

Now it’s harder to make a case that either wants out — and that includes the idea that Griffin will bolt to go home to Oklahoma City and play for the Thunder next to Russell Westbrook. Few players have taken advantage of the Los Angeles lifestyle and opportunities as Griffin, who is an executive producer of one television show making a pilot and has worked on a career as a comic.

As for the inevitable Griffin/CP3 trade rumors, take them with a whole box of kosher salt.

As for the idea that they’d make a blockbuster trade, consider this: The only way the Clippers get a decent return is if Paul and/or Griffin agreed to waive their player option for next season, or guaranteed they’d re-sign long term in the city they were traded. There’s no compelling reason for either of them to do that after the infusion of television rights’ money spikes the salary cap up more than $100 million next summer.

Griffin and Paul will be free agents next summer. Whether they stay in Los Angeles or leave will depend in part on how this season goes and the prospects for them and the Clippers after this season. It’s possible they leave.

But with Ballmer willing to open up his bloated checkbook, it’s much easier to make the case they both stay put.

Matt Barnes says he’s been warned for chewing gum, using bathroom during national anthem

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - MARCH 19:  NBA players Matt Barnes and J.J. Redick attend the David Yurman in-store shopping event to celebrate the launch of Men's Faceted Metal Collection at David Yurman Boutique on March 19, 2015 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images for David Yurman)
Angela Weiss/Getty Images for David Yurman
Leave a comment

The NBA has long taken a hard stance on the national anthem.

Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was infamously suspended for sitting during the national anthem 1996. The league has a specific rule  – which it doesn’t plan to change – that states, “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”

That makes it more difficult for the NBA and union to compromise on national-anthem protests – especially because precedent has set a strict tone on the rule.

Kings forward Matt Barnes on The Vertical Podcast with JJ Redick:

They don’t want you chewing gum. They told me, take the gum out of your mouth.

I was using the bathroom. They said you can’t miss the anthem. I’m like, “Man, I had to pee.” “Next time you’ll be fined.” I said, “Ohh, OK.”

I doubt NBA commissioner Adam Silver wants to punish players for demonstrating on behalf of important social issues. But he’s also behold to the team owners and corporate sponsors, and he must enforce the league’s rules.

It’s a fine line, one that the NBA’s prior warnings on national-anthem conduction make even more difficult for Silver to walk.

Maybe the solution is raised fists? Kneeling, like Colin Kaepernick, would seem to violate the “stand” requirement. But if players are on their feet and in place, would the league really deem a raised fist an undignified posture?

Joel Embiid to start in Sixers first preseason game

1 Comment

Here’s a little bit of good news for beleaguered Sixers fans:

Joel Embiid will start the Sixers first preseason game next Tuesday. Embiid was the No. 3 pick and a very highly rated prospect coming out of Kansas, but foot injuries sidelined him the entirety of his first two seasons. Now he’s healthy and going to get a start next Tuesday, according to coach Brett Brown.

This will be a process. It will be two steps up and one step back all season for Embiid, but at least he’s healthy enough to take those steps now.

Now the focus shifts to when Ben Simmons will be able to take his first steps.

Another report Donatas Motiejunas, Rockets nowhere near deal as deadline approaches

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 17:  Donatas Motiejunas #20 of the Houston Rockets is fouled as he shoots by Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on December 17, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Leave a comment

Donatas Motiejunas and his agent had given the Rockets a Saturday deadline to make a contract extension offer they liked.

But the sides aren’t even talking in a serious way.

That was reported early on Friday, and now comes another report — this was from Calvin Watkins of ESPN — that the two sides are nowhere close to a deal.

With the deadline to sign a qualifying offer approaching, restricted free-agent power forward Donatas Motiejunas and the Houston Rockets have exchanged contract proposals but remain far apart on an agreement, multiple sources told ESPN.

Motiejunas is seeking a larger financial deal from the Rockets, but the two sides haven’t had serious contract discussions in a month, the sources said.

Motiejuas, a restricted free agent, has a $4.4 million qualifying offer on the table that expires Sunday. He likely will sign it — if so he will have the ability to veto trades during the season then would be a free agent next summer.  Motiejuas could let the deal expire then sign a new one-year deal with the Rockets, but he would make less money.

Last season the Rockets agreed to trade Motiejunas to the Pistons. However, Pistons voided the deal after he failed his physical. Motiejunas hammered Detroit for how it went down. That left Motiejunas a restricted free agent this summer, but he didn’t land any offers from other squads (many thought the Rockets would just match).

That gets us to where we are today, where Motiejunas appears headed to signing the qualifying offer, then testing the market next summer as an unrestricted free agent.