USA plays one good half, that’s enough to beat Argentina handily

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If the USA can play the next four games like they played the second half against Argentina, they will cruise to a gold medal.

Let’s just forget about the six quarters before that, shall we?

After a sloppy first half of the defensive end and a lot of three point shots, Team USA got it together on both ends in the third quarter to win it 42-17 and cruised from there to a 126-97 win over Argentina. The USA is 5-0 and finishes in first place in Group A.

Their reward is they start the sudden-death medal round against an Australian side they should be able to overwhelm, with the game Wednesday at 5:15 ET (on the NBC Sports Network). Argentina (3-2) finishes third in Group A and will face South American rival Brazil in the first game of the medal round.

The first half just had to be frustrating for Team USA. Because it was for their fans — it did not look like they learned the lessons of the close game against Lithuania two days before.

Team USA hit 7 threes in first quarter, including a Kevin Durant shot at the buzzer, but led only 34-32 because their defense was flat-footed again. All the issues players said they recognized and rectified from the Lithuania game resurfaced — Argentina shot 65 percent in the first quarter, led by Manu Ginobili with 9 (and he was just getting started).

At the half it was 60-59 USA and Ginobili had 16 for Argentina (he would not score in the second half). Just as disturbing for the Americans was Argentina was without Knicks point guard Pablo Prigioni (kidney stones) and Luis Scola had not set foot on the court in the second quarter. The USA was barely beating and Argentina team playing with one hand tied behind their back.

USA shot 9-of-22 from three in the first half — that is not a bad percentage (40.9%) but it shows they could not or would not take the ball inside. The looks from three were often good, very open ones. But still, 22 in a half.

The USA team that came out in the second half looked like the USA side that rolled through its first three games, the one USA fans expect to see. A team that imposed its will (particularly on defense and at the rim) with its superior athleticism.

It started because LeBron James had 9 early third quarter points (on his way to finishing with 18. He set a tone, hitting a three and making a play in the post.

Then the Kevin Durant show started. He had 17 points in the third quarter — as many as the entire Argentinian team in that stretch. He was 8-of-10 from three for the game and finished with 28.

More important, the USA’s hounding defense was back — they weren’t gambling they were harassing. Pressuring. Andre Iguodala was making his presence felt, the USA was controlling the paint and glass.

Pretty soon the USA’s lead was blowing up and Argentina started to take it foot off the gas pedal — they have an older team and were locked into the third seed. They decided to rest not challenge the USA late.

It’s a good bit of momentum, something they can take into the medal round against Australia. That is another team they can overwhelm and build up confidence against. It’s another game they should win handily.

Hopefully that doesn’t lead to bad habits establishing themselves again. Because now things get serious. Now it is lose and go home, and more quarters like the six before the final two against Argentina could spell trouble for the USA.

Irving’s 47 lead Celtics past Mavericks to maintain streak

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DALLAS (AP) — Kyrie Irving scored 10 of his season-high 47 points in overtime as the Boston Celtics rallied once again from a double-digit deficit to beat the Dallas Mavericks 110-102 on Monday night and extend their winning streak to 16 games.

The Mavericks led by as many as 13 points in the fourth quarter, but as they have several times during their winning streak, the Celtics stormed back.

The winning streak ties the fourth-longest in Celtics history.

Boston tied the game at 96 when Irving stole the ball from Dirk Nowitzki and fed Jayson Tatum for an alley-oop lay-up that hung on the rim for a full second before dropping through.

Irving scored his team’s first six points of overtime. Then after Jaylen Brown gave Boston a 104-102 lead with a jumper with 1:39 to play, Irving went to work on Yogi Ferrell, backing him down and drawing contact on a lay-up with 48.5 seconds to play. Though Irving missed the free throw to keep the score 106-102, Dallas never got closer.

Harrison Barnes scored 31 points and Wesley Matthews had 18 for Dallas, which came back from an early double-digit deficit as the Celtics went cold for much of the second and third quarters.

Irving and Barnes had chances in the final 30 seconds but both missed shots that would have given their teams the lead.

The Mavericks fell behind by as many as 15 points in the first half, outscoring the Celtics 55-35 over the second and third quarters.

Dallas took its biggest lead of the game when Yogi Ferrell fed a cutting Dwight Powell for a lay-up to make it 87-74 with 7:47 to play before the Celtics rallied.

Boston shot just 10-for-34 over the two middle quarters after building the early lead.

 

DeMarcus Cousins ejected after elbowing Russell Westbrook in head

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DeMarcus Cousins‘ history of flagrant fouls certainly didn’t help him here, but if anyone elbows a guy in the head, he’s going to get tossed.

And that’s what Cousins did here.

Midway through the third quarter in New Orleans, Cousins blocked a putback attempt by Russell Westbrook, then grabbed the rebound. Westbrook tried to reach in across Cousins’ body for the steal, and Cousins cleared out space with his elbow — right to Westbrook’s head. Cousins walked around saying “no, no, no” afterward, and he likely thinks the officials had it out for him here because he was just getting a guy off him, but we go back to the original point — elbow a guy in the head, get tossed. The league is cracking down on blows above the neck. Westbrook did not leave the game.

The Pelicans went on to come from 19 down to win the game 114-107, behind 36 points and 15 boards from Anthony Davis.

Damn, Paul George with the in-game bounce pass alley-oop to Jerami Grant

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The game has been close (as of midway through the third quarter), but that didn’t stop Oklahoma City from putting on a show in New Orleans.

Paul George had the ball on a 2-on-0 fast break and decided to throw the playground bounce-pass alley-oop, which Jerami Grant got up and finished with authority. This could be one of the dunks of the year.

We’re going to see that highlight for a while.

Jusuf Nurkic’s agent says big man wants to stay in Portland this summer

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Last season, after his trade from frustrated backup big in Denver to new starter in Portland, there was a honeymoon — the Blazers went 14-6, their defense was better, and Nurkic was a big man setting big picks for quick guards in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

This season the honeymoon is over, things have been up and down, but far from time to say the marriage should end, as he is a free agent next summer. Nurkic is the only real starting center on the roster (even if coach Terry Stotts left him on the bench in the fourth quarter in favor of Ed Davis a few games back). Nurkic is averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and the Blazers’ defense is 1.5 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court. However, his effort level has been up and down, and his shot is off, with a true shooting percentage of just 49.4, and he is shooting just 56.6 percent in the restricted area.

Nurkic wants to stay in Portland, his agent told Ben Golliver in a story at Sports Illustrated (that story is worth the read for the Nurkic origin story, which is amazing).

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

The two sides talked extension before the season, but Portland understandably wanted to make sure there was more to this relationship than just a honeymoon. It gave Nurkic a chance to drive up his asking price.

Portland and Nurkic likely will find a long-term deal next summer because it just makes sense for both sides. There are not a lot of teams with max free agent money next summer (4-6, I was told by an insider), or a lot of money to spend in general, and both DeAndre Jordan and DeMarcus would be centers on the market who rank ahead of Nurkic. Portland will offer more than other free agent destinations, if not as much as Nurkic dreamed of, and they will find common ground.

But there is a lot of season to play out before then. The Blazers feel like a team that should be better than its record so far, and Nurkic is part of that untapped potential. If things change, that’s good for Nurkic — and the Blazers.