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.

Steve Kerr says he’s not ready to coach in NBA Finals, at least not yet

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Steve Kerr has been a regular presence at Warriors practices, he’s traveled with the team to playoff games, he’s been part of the planning/strategizing sessions for the team — basically, he’s been everywhere but the sidelines.

He’s not ready to return there. Yet.

Interim Warriors’ coach Mike Brown was knocked down by the flu on Monday, so Kerr ran the Warriors practice then spoke to the media, but said he still is battling issues from his back surgery and is not ready yet to return to the sidelines. Via Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area.

The Warriors brought in Mike Brown last summer just for this type of situation — he’s a veteran NBA coach who has led a team to the Finals (the Cavaliers, with LeBron James), and the Warriors thought it possible Kerr could miss time. With Luke Walton in Los Angeles, Golden State wanted a veteran on the bench. Brown is that.

He’s not as creative as Kerr is addressing matchups and challenges, but if Kerr is in the film sessions and practices, then his influence is still there. That may be enough for a more talented and more rested Warriors team (than a year ago) heading into the Finals starting Thursday night.

Stephen A. Smith, who has incorrectly predicted last six NBA Finals, picks Warriors

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ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith has incorrectly predicted the last six NBA Finals – an incredible streak even if he were trying to guess wrong. But at least his picks led to the fun video above.

His prediction this year? Warriors in 7:

Congratulations, Cavaliers!

Warriors, Cavaliers reached NBA Finals with unprecedented combined playoff dominance

AP Photo/Peter J. Carroll
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The Warriors cruised into the NBA Finals in historic fashion, going 12-0 in the first three rounds and outscoring opponents by 16.3 points per game. The Cavaliers (12-1, +13.6) weren’t too far behind.

But, at 24-1, they don’t have the best combined playoff win percentage by NBA Finalists.

In 1957, the Celtics (3-0) and St. Louis Hawks (5-0) were undefeated entering a series Boston won in seven.

The Hawks, Minneapolis Lakers and Fort Wayne Pistons all went 34-48 in the regular season to tie for the Eastern Division crown. St. Louis won a tiebreaker against each team and advanced to the Western Division finals, beating Minneapolis, 3-0.

Meanwhile, the Celtics won the Eastern Division outright and received a bye to the divisions finals. They swept the Syracuse Nationals to reach the NBA Finals.

Obviously, three rounds present a much bigger hill to climb than a single series (even with a couple tiebreaker games). Golden State and Cleveland are unmatched in modern times.

Here’s every NBA Finals sorted by combined playoff record entering Finals:

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Combined point difference per playoff game really shows how much Golden State and Cleveland overwhelmed their conference foes.

The Warriors and Cavs have averaged a +15.0 point difference per game in the playoffs (averaging both teams’ point difference per game equally, so as not to weigh the lesser team more). In the next-best Finals, 1986, neither the Celtics (+12.4) nor Rockets (+8.1) hit that mark alone – let alone averaged.

Here’s every NBA Finals, sorted by the teams’ average point difference per game in previous playoff games:

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Finals Point differences Combined
2017: GSW-CLE GSW (+16.3), CLE (+13.6) +15.0
1986: BOS 4, HOU 2 BOS (+12.4), HOU (+8.1) +10.3
1971: MIL 4, BAL 0 MIL (+15.4), BAL (+4.6) +10.0
1950: MNL 4, SYR 2 MNL (+12.1), SYR (+7.6) +9.9
1974: BOS 4, MIL 3 BOS (+6.2), MIL (+13.6) +9.9
2013: MIA 4, SAS 3 MIA (+9.6), SAS (+10.1) +9.9
2016: CLE 4, GSW 3 CLE (+12.6), GSW (+6.4) +9.5
1957: BOS 4, STL 3 BOS (+12.0), STL (+6.8) +9.4
1985: LAL 4, BOS 2 LAL (+13.6), BOS (+4.8) +9.2
1958: STL 4, BOS 2 STL (+10.8), BOS (+7.0) +8.9
1967: PHI 4, SFW 2 PHI (+11.1), SFW (+6.4) +8.8
1996: CHI 4, SEA 2 CHI (+13.9), SEA (+3.5) +8.7
1991: CHI 4, LAL 1 CHI (+12.5), LAL (+4.9) +8.7
2001: LAL 4, PHI 1 LAL (+15.5), PHI (+1.8) +8.6
1989: DET 4, LAL 0 DET (+8.0), LAL (+8.9) +8.5
2015: GSW 4, CLE 2 GSW (+8.1), CLE (+8.8) +8.4
1954: MNL 4, SYR 3 MNL (+8.8), SYR (+7.8) +8.3
1949: MNL 4, WSC 2 MNL (+9.0), WSC (+7.2) +8.1
1984: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+7.0), LAL (+9.1) +8.1
1948: BLB 4, PHW 2 BLB (+4.5), PHW (+11.0) +7.8
2014: SAS 4, MIA 1 SAS (+8.0), MIA (+7.0) +7.5
1987: LAL 4, BOS 2 LAL (+15.0), BOS (0.0) +7.5
2012: MIA 4, OKC 1 MIA (+7.9), OKC (+6.7) +7.3
1956: PHW 4, FTW 1 PHW (+8.4), FTW (+5.2) +6.8
1992: CHI 4, POR 2 CHI (+5.8), POR (+7.6) +6.7
1953: MNL 4, NYK 1 MNL (+6.4), NYK (+6.8) +6.6
1964: BOS 4, SFW 1 BOS (+8.4), SFW (+4.9) +6.6
1973: NYK 4, LAL 1 NYK (+5.6), LAL (+7.6) +6.6
1998: CHI 4, UTA 2 CHI (+6.7), UTA (+6.4) +6.5
2005: SAS 4, DET 3 SAS (+7.1), DET (+5.8) +6.4
1997: CHI 4, UTA 2 CHI (+7.8), UTA (+5.0) +6.4
2003: SAS 4, NJN 2 SAS (+5.4), NJN (+7.3) +6.3
1969: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+5.4), LAL (+7.3) +6.3
1962: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+5.6), LAL (+7.0) +6.3
1999: SAS 4, NYK 1 SAS (+8.2), NYK (+4.3) +6.3
1982: LAL 4, PHI 2 LAL (+10.8), PHI (+1.7) +6.2
1968: BOS 4, LAL 2 BOS (+3.8), LAL (+8.6) +6.2
1970: NYK 4, LAL 3 NYK (+5.3), LAL (+7.0) +6.1
1955: SYR 4, FTW 3 SYR (+7.3), FTW (+4.8) +6.0
2011: DAL 4, MIA 2 DAL (+7.1), MIA (+4.7) +5.9
1972: LAL 4, NYK 1 LAL (+2.6), NYK (+8.8) +5.7
2009: LAL 4, ORL 1 LAL (+6.6), ORL (+4.8) +5.7
1966: BOS 4, LAL 3 BOS (+7.1), LAL (+4.3) +5.7
1947: PHW 4, CHS 1 PHW (+6.0), CHS (+5.0) +5.5
1951: ROC 4, NYK 3 ROC (+8.9), NYK (+2.0) +5.4
1961: BOS 4, STL 1 BOS (+10.8), STL (0.0) +5.4
2008: BOS 4, LAL 2 BOS (+4.3), LAL (+6.4) +5.4
2006: MIA 4, DAL 2 MIA (+4.8), DAL (+5.9) +5.3
1975: GSW 4, WSB 0 GSW (+5.7), WSB (+4.7) +5.2
1988: LAL 4, DET 3 LAL (+4.6), DET (+5.4) +5.0
1980: LAL 4, PHI 2 LAL (+3.7), PHI (+6.0) +4.9
1993: CHI 4, PHO 2 CHI (+8.5), PHO (+1.1) +4.8
2004: DET 4, LAL 1 DET (+5.7), LAL (+3.8) +4.7
2010: LAL 4, BOS 3 LAL (+4.0), BOS (+5.3) +4.6
1983: PHI 4, LAL 0 PHI (+4.9), LAL (+4.4) +4.6
1963: BOS 4, LAL 2 BOS (+5.6), LAL (+3.0) +4.3
1960: BOS 4, STL 3 BOS (+3.3), STL (+4.7) +4.0
2007: SAS 4, CLE 0 SAS (+3.4), CLE (+4.2) +3.8
1981: BOS 4, HOU 2 BOS (+4.0), HOU (+3.3) +3.7
1977: POR 4, PHI 2 POR (+3.9), PHI (+3.2) +3.6
2000: LAL 4, IND 2 LAL (+3.8), IND (+2.9) +3.4
1990: DET 4, POR 1 DET (+7.7), POR (-1.4) +3.1
1994: HOU 4, NYK 3 HOU (+4.8), NYK (+1.2) +3.0
1978: WSB 4, SEA 3 WSB (+2.4), SEA (+3.5) +2.9
1995: HOU 4, ORL 0 HOU (+1.8), ORL (+3.2) +2.5
2002: LAL 4, NJN 0 LAL (+2.3), NJN (+2.3) +2.3
1965: BOS 4, LAL 1 BOS (+2.9), LAL (+1.7) +2.3
1952: MNL 4, NYK 3 MNL (+3.7), NYK (0.0) +1.8
1959: BOS 4, MNL 0 BOS (+6.3), MNL (-3.0) +1.6
1976: BOS 4, PHO 2 BOS (+2.3), PHO (+0.5) +1.4
1979: SEA 4, WSB 1 SEA (+1.6), WSB (-0.1) +0.8

2017 NBA Draft Prospect Profiles: Is Josh Jackson a better prospect than Lonzo Ball?

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Josh Jackson, at this point, seems to be the consensus best prospect not named Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball.

He’s 6-foot-8. He’s super-athletic. He’s competitive as hell. He’s skilled enough to play the point in a pinch and tough enough that he played the four at Kansas. On paper, he’s Andrew Wiggins physically with all the intangibles that we wish Wiggins had.

Then there’s the other side of it.

Jackson’s jump shot, which went in at a 37.8 percent clip from beyond the arc last season, has enough of a hitch in it that there is legitimate concern about just how good of a shooter he’ll end up being without a complete overhaul of his stroke. There’s also the mental side of the game: Jackson’s an instinctual playmaker that has a bad habit of being a space cadet defensively.

I’m not here to tell you those red flags don’t exist. They do. He has room to grow there.

But I am here to tell you that Josh Jackson is closer to being the best prospect in this draft than the third-best, and by the time I’m done here, you’ll be agreeing with me.

Height: 6’8″
Weight: 207
Wingspan: 6’10”
2016-17 Stats: 16.3 points, 7.4 boards, 3.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks, 37.8% 3PT

STRENGTHS: The reason that Jackson is so coveted as a prospect are the things that he does that you cannot teach.

It starts with his competitiveness. Jackson is a fiery, he’s intense and it manifests itself in the way that he plays, almost to a fault; Jackson picked up four fouls in 11 of 35 games as a freshman and picked up a handful of technical fouls after interactions with officials. There’s also a toughness to him that outweighs his 207 pound frame. He’s not afraid to get into tangles for loose balls, he’s not going to get backed down easily and he’s more than willing to put his body on the line to take a charge. Simply put: I’d rather try to keep the reins on a player that may care just a little too much than have to find a way to fire up an apathetic talent.

Then there are the physical tools. Athletically, he’s a bouncy, quick-twitch player that can move laterally with terrific body control and the ability to changes speeds on the move. He’s quick enough to stay in front of point guards and explosive enough to block shots, catch lobs and throw down tip-dunks, and his 6-foot-8 size allows him to be a versatile, multi-positional defender. I hesitate on saying he has a elite physical tools due to his wingspan and frame, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

Lastly, there are his instincts. He’s a read-and-react player, a guy that can make plays defensively by jumping passing lanes, getting weak-side blocks and taking charges. He has a knack for getting easy buckets cutting to the rim and is aggressive on the glass on both ends of the floor.

Those are things that cannot be taught. You either have it in you or you don’t, and Jackson has it.

He also has some skills. We’ll get into the issues with his jump shot in a minute, but Jackson did make 37.8 percent of his threes as a freshman, including a 25-for-52 stretch to close the season. He utilizes ball-fakes and has a good enough first step to attack close outs, and while he isn’t the best or most creative finisher at the rim, he is capable of using both hands and has shown that he can make a floater.

Josh Jackson (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

What’s more promising, however, is that Jackson has the potential to be a secondary ball-handler and creator. He has above-average vision and is an unselfish player and willing passer, averaging 3.0 assists as a freshman. He can operate in pick-and-rolls and is capable of bringing the ball up against pressure.

He’s still raw offensively — he makes some bad decisions, commits some turnovers — and, at times, looks like he hasn’t been coached all that much defensively, but the skills he does have combined with the things he does that cannot be taught are a fantastic foundation for an NBA organization to work with.

In a sport that is becoming increasingly positionless, Jackson provides starpower potential with versatility on both ends of the floor.

WEAKNESSES: The biggest issue with Jackson as a prospect is his jump shot. Yes, he shot 37.8 percent from beyond the arc, but it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s just the result of Jackson getting hot in a small sample of catch-and-shoot jumpers.

According to Synergy, Jackson shot just 57 percent from the free throw line, 35.9 percent on all jump shots, 32.3 percent on jumpers off the dribble and just 20.8 percent on two-point jumpers. The main concern is that Jackson has a hitch in his release that creates a lot of moving parts in his stroke, resulting in different release points. You can see it in the video below, there is a slingshot action in his release:

The question marks surrounding Jackson’s jumper sink his stock because, despite his height, he doesn’t project as a guy that can play the small-ball four role in the NBA the way that he did at Kansas. Jackson’s 6-foot-10 wingspan is relatively short — for comparison’s sake, Draymond Green has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and Kawhi Leonard has a 7-foot-3 wingspan — and his slender frame makes it hard to project just how much more muscle mass his body can hold.

Put another way, Jackson can guard twos and threes — and potentially ones — at the next level, but he’s not guarding fours. He’s going to be playing a position where he either needs to be an knockdown shooter or capable of creating in isolation in the half court, and Jackson scored just 0.609 points per possession in isolation as a freshman, the 23rd percentile, despite being guarded predominantly by college four-men on a team with three three-point snipers around him.

It begs the question: Is he ever going to be great at anything on the offensive end of the floor?

And that’s before you factor in that he turned 20 years old in February; he’s older than one-and-done freshmen drafted in 2016.

The other issue you’ll hear mentioned with Jackson is that he has bad habits defensively and he gets beaten on the dribble more easily than you would expect from someone with his athleticism. The bad habits — specifically, the tendency to lose focus on who he is guarding — seems to me to be a result of Jackson trying a little too hard to be a playmaker off the ball, and getting beaten off the dribble has a lot to do with his overactive, choppy feet.

Neither are all that concerning to me, particularly when you factor in his intangibles on that end of the floor. Those issues can be coached away, and there’s not better place for that to happen than in the NBA.

NBA COMPARISON: The easy — and lazy — comparison to make is Andrew Wiggins, who is another 6-foot-8, freakishly-athletic small forward to come out of Kansas, and it’s not the worst comparison I’ve ever seen. The two have similar physical tools and question marks about their jump shots. The problem with that comparison, however, is that the things that make Jackson so intriguing are precisely the skills that Wiggins struggles with.

Jackson is a tough, versatile defender and a fiery competitor that is well-rounded offensively: unselfish with promising court vision and a knack for making instinctual, read-and-react plays. His ceiling is as a player that can average more than 20 points, act as a secondary ball-handler and play maker while potentially being a shutdown defender for twos and threes. Andre Igoudala, before he landed with Golden State and turned into a role player in the twilight of his career, had a seven-year stretch where he averaged 12 points, five boards, five assists and 1.5 steals, scoring more than 17 points per game in four of those seasons.

OUTLOOK: The way I see it, Josh Jackson is the the second-best prospect in this draft. I’d draft him over Lonzo Ball, and I think the gap between Markelle Fultz and Josh Jackson is smaller than the gap between Josh Jackson and Ball, who would be third on my draft board.

Jackson has some issues that need fixing — his jump shot, his tendency to be a space cadet defensively — and there are some valid concerns about his age and the fact that his slender frame may not be able to hold all that much more weight, but those issues are coachable. What isn’t coachable, however, is his competitiveness, his intensity, his unselfishness, his instincts and his ability to read the game and be a playmaker, both offensively and defensively.

He’s a gifted athlete that is going to fight — quite possibly in the literal sense — for the team that he’s on. If he puts in the time to develop his jumper, his body and his focus on the defensive side of the ball, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could average 25 points, five boards and five assists as a shutdown wing defender.