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

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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.

Stephen Curry tries to pass off backboard to himself (VIDEO)

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NEW ORLEANS — LeBron James can do it.

Stephen Curry? Not so much.

The Golden State Warriors PG tried to pull the Trady McGrady in Sunday’s All-Star Game but found himself coming up just a little short.

Before trade, DeMarcus Cousins’ agent said client unlikely to re-sign with new team

Western Conference forward DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings (15) plays during the first half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. The New Orleans Pelicans agreed to acquire Cousins from the Kings on Sunday, the same night the center was playing in the All-Star Game in their arena. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
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DeMarcus Cousins signing a five-year, $209 million contract extension?

That’s out the window with his trade from the Kings to the Pelicans rendering him ineligible to become a designated veteran player.

Which could explain why Cousins’ agent, Jarrinn Akana, was making noise about not re-signing with another team. Dissuading potential suitors and staying in Sacramento was Cousins’ only path to the biggest payday.

Here’s Akana, before the trade was set, via Marc Stein of ESPN:

A straight contract extension next summer makes no sense. The most that could pay Cousins is $92,559,167 over four years ($23,139,792 annually).

If he simply lets his contract expire and re-signs in 2018, a new deal projects to be worth about $179 million (about $36 million annually).

The Pelicans can try for a renegotiation-and-extension, but they would need cap room to raise his 2017-18 salary from $18,063,850 toward his projected max of about $31 million. With significant money due to Anthony Davis, Solomon Hill, Omer AsikE'Twaun Moore, Alexis Ajinca, Quincy PondexterDante CunninghamTim FrazierCheick Diallo and, they hope, a re-signed Jrue Holiday, it’s unlikely the Pelicans clear enough room to renegotiate Cousins’ deal.

Cousins is probably headed toward unrestricted free agency in 2018. Then, New Orleans projects to be able to offer about $179 million (about $36 million annually) to another team’s projected max of about $133 million (about $33 million annually).

It’s an advantage, but not a bulletproof one. I think Cousins will be more amenable to re-signing than his agent indicated now that a trade is actually happening, but he could still walk.

This is the risk the Pelicans took.

 

 

Why did Kings get so little for Cousins? Lakers not willing to part with Ingram sign of soft market

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21:  Vlade Divac of Serbia watches during the Men's Gold medal game on Day 16 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Carioca Arena 1 on August 21, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Back in 2015 there was already a push from people inside the Sacramento Kings organization to move on from the DeMarcus Cousins era. There were groundwork talks with a number of teams, but a lot of rumors circulated around the Lakers, where Jim Buss was trying to land a star for his franchise that would lead to a quick turnaround. While the deal was never finalized, reports had the Lakers offering both their first round picks that year, which became D'Angelo Russell (No. 2) and Larry Nance Jr. (27th), plus a few other pieces.

Kings owner Vivek Ranadive shot the deal down then — as he did with every deal until Sunday night.

By the tine Ranadive came around to the idea of trading Cousins, the market had changed. And dried up. All the Kings landed was last draft’s No. 6 pick Buddy Hield (who Vlade Divac has been higher on than most), the Pelicans pick this draft in the mid-teens, a high second round pick, and some pieces such as Tyreke Evans that are not part of the Kings’ future.

The deal has been widely panned for the Kings, but what they got may well have been the best offer available right now. A lot of teams have concerns about Cousins’ impact on their locker rooms — teams that liked their rosters didn’t want to add drama. Plenty of teams would not talk trade. Also, there is a glut of bigs on the market right now. If teams wanted to give up multiple first-round picks for a center, they could have already because Nets have Brook Lopez on the block — not as talented, but also not a challenge in the locker room. Jahlil Okafor, Tyson Chandler and other centers also are available.

The Kings went back to the Lakers, but when they asked for the young guy the Lakers are highest on, Brandon Ingram, it fell apart, according to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report added this interesting tidbit about the Kings and Lakers talks in recent days.

Then Buss, in particular, was sorely tempted to shift course yet again Sunday, break from those plans and trade whatever youth it took in the hopes of landing DeMarcus Cousins, according to a team source.

It wasn’t just the Lakers who would not go in big on Cousins.

Calls to Boston found even worse offers, with Danny Ainge worried about Cousins’ impact in the locker room and if they could/would want to retain him. The Booklyn picks were never close to on the table.

Philly is no longer really interested thanks to Joel Embiid (even with the health concerns there).

There were talks with the Suns, but Sacramento didn’t like Brandon Knight as the best player they would get back.

And so it goes down the list, teams were hesitant to give up much and the Kings were left to take the best of bad options. Part of the reason for the Cousins market being dry is that since he is traded, Cousins is no longer eligible for the “designated player” supermax deal, and the difference between what the team that has his Bird rights in 2018 can offer and what other teams can offer is not that great. Which is to say, a lot of teams think they can take a swing at Cousins as a free agent in two summers if they really want him, and they don’t have to give up assets to get him.

The Pelicans were never going to get a seat at the table in those free agent conversations, so trading for him makes a lot of sense for New Orleans.

But for most teams, they were willing to pass. Which left the Kings without good options for a deadline trade.

Of course, what a more stable organization might have done is decide the offers were terrible and hold off on a trade until around the draft or into summer free agency. The deals are not going to get worse, and they might well get a little better. But for whatever reason — concern that Ranadive would change his mind, again? — the Kings moved now.

And that leaves them in a tough spot.

 

Report: Kings expected to waive Matt Barnes to facilitate DeMarcus Cousins trade

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 28:  Matt Barnes #22 of the Sacramento Kings looks on against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on November 28, 2016 in Washington, DC. 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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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The Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins to change their culture.

So, Sacramento is also unsurprisingly dumping the player who allegedly partnered with Cousins nightclub fight: Matt Barnes.

 

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Beyond fitting the Kings’ new vision, the move is necessary, because they have a full roster and are acquiring more players (Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans and Langston Galloway) than they’re sending out (Cousins and Omri Casspi) in the Pelicans trade.

Barnes, who turns 37 in a couple weeks, is slipping. But he could still add experienced depth to a contender as a 3-and-D wing. (Hello, Cavaliers?)

A hard-nosed player, he’s a great teammate in many ways. And the veterans who comprise contenders would be less likely to be influenced by the ways he’s not — which wasn’t the case in Sacramento.