USA’s path to gold could feature rematch from 1972. Or 2008.

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We have reached the medal round and if you look at the way the USA played the last two quarters against Argentina — pressure defense where they did not gamble, then LeBron James and Kevin Durant scoring — nobody can stop them. We’re just going to pretend the first two quarters didn’t happen.

So what does the USA’s path to a gold medal look like? It starts out smooth but can get bumpy. Probably not bumpy enough to stop them, but bumpy.

First: Australia. If the USA we saw in the second half against Argentina shows up with its smothering defense, this will be a rout. Australia is led by Patty Mills, the feisty former St. Mary’s point guard who played in China during the lockout then hooked up with the Spurs after that and he played very well for them (PER of 21.5). He’s averaging 20.2 points per game these Olympics. It’s a good story. But if you think the Spurs second string point guard is going to lead a team that beats this Team USA you probably thought “In Time” was a good movie.

Second Round: Brazil or Argentina. The USA has already beaten the Argentines twice — by 6 in a tune-up game and then by 29 on Monday when their overwhelmed Argentina in the second half. When Argentina is able to grind the game down they are a threat to the USA, and Manu Ginobili may be the best single player so far in these Olympics, but there is no reason to doubt that the runs that the USA made in both meetings so far would not happen again. The USA playing its best is just too much.

The USA also easily dispatched Brazil in an Olympic tune-up, but on paper they look like a team that could give the USA trouble. First, they have size up front with Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao — the USA would struggle to match that. Especially since Tyson Chandler is a foul sponge for the USA, just soaking them up then having to sit. Brazil also has a savvy veteran point guard in Marcelinho Huertas and Leandro Barbosa’s three-point explosion lifted them over Spain. But again this is a team that could not keep up with the runs Team USA makes and doesn’t have the firepower to come back after the inevitable spurts by the Americans. If the USA lost to Brazil it would be because of how they came out, now how Brazil played.

Gold Medal Game: Russia or Spain. First off, I applogize to France and Lithuania but they are not making it this far. France maybe could swing a bronze.

The 2008 silver medalists Spain could, they put themselves on this half of the bracket by losing to Brazil on Monday. We’ve covered Spain before because they should be the second best team in London — they have Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol up front, they have good point guards in Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro, they have shooters like Rudy Fernandez. They should be a team that could push the USA. But they haven’t played like it at all. They were 3-2 in group play (although both losses were close) and the USA handled them easily in a tune-up in Barcelona. Spain can be a side that should be able to threaten Team USA in a one-game playoff, but they need to play a little better at both ends to really do that.

Russia would be an interesting matchup, a rematch of the controversial 1972 Olympics finals on the 40th anniversary of that game. First, the Russians are getting great play from two future Timberwolves: Andrei Kirilenko has averaged 18.2 points per game and played fantastic pressure defense on opposing bigs; Alexey Shved has averaged 12 points and 5.4 assists per game while really controlling the tempo and flow. Two other interesting notes from the ESPN Stats Department — Russia is holding opposing teams to 27 percent shooting from three and has been the best transition defense team in the games. Those are the two areas Team USA uses to get easy buckets.

Russia may be the Americans new biggest threat — defend the three, take away easy transition buckets, have Kirilenko control the paint and Shved controlling the tempo. Like Spain, if this were a seven game series there would be no doubt the USA would win. But it’s not. It’s the NCAA tournament — one and done. Lose and go home. And for one day Russia could put it all together and threaten the USA.

At least until LeBron James and Kevin Durant took over.

Steve Kerr “disappointed” in alma mater Arizona; wants to see NCAA follow new model

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Before he was the coach of the Golden State Warriors, before he was a five-time NBA Champion playing next to Michael Jordan and Tim Duncan, Steve Kerr was one of the great players the University of Arizona ever produced. The crowd would echo the announcer after ever made three — “Steeeve Keerrr” — where he was an All-American and helped lead a team (with future NBA players Sean Elliott and Tom Tolbert) to the Final Four.

There is a crisis around Arizona basketball right now. Coach Sean Miller was caught on a federal wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for star recruit Deandre Ayton (expected to be a high lottery pick in June, possibly the No. 1 pick). Miller did not coach Saturday and changes are coming to Arizona.

Kerr was asked about it before the Warriors took on the Thunder Saturday.

Kerr said he was “disappointed” in his alma mater over the incident. Which is understandable.

Not to completely excuse it, but what Miller got caught doing is commonplace — money is funneled to families or the players of top recruits on a regular basis. What is more troubling (in my mind) is the money paid under the table to AAU coaches, family members, and others close to elite recruits to funnel them to a specific “financial planner” or agent, or a specific university. People in positions of trust with the player are bought and paid for.

Kerr put out one solution that would certainly be a big step forward: follow the Olympics model and let elite players get sponsorships that don’t end their college eligibility.

This system has its flaws as well, but it gets some of the dirty money out in the open. It would be better than the hypocritical facade of amateurism the NCAA has hit behind for years.

Joel Embiid has 28 points, 14 rebounds leads Sixers to Seventh straight win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid had 28 points and 14 rebounds, and the Philadelphia 76ers extended their season-high win streak to seven with a 116-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

Six 76ers scored in double figures. Ben Simmons had 17 points and seven assists, and 3-point specialist J.J. Redick added 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting – and just one 3-pointer. Marco Belinelli had 15 points, Robert Covington had 12 and Dario Saric scored 11.

Aaron Gordon led Orlando with 20 points, including four 3s, to go with seven rebounds and seven assists. Evan Fournier scored 16 points, and former Sixer Nik Vucevic had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Magic, who have lost five straight.

Philadelphia led 58-40 at halftime and 71-49 in the third when Orlando used an 11-2 burst, capped by Aaron Gordon’s 3-pointer, to close within 13.

But the Sixers put on a show to finish the quarter.

Embiid overpowered a few Magic defenders for a slam, and then gestured to the crowd after being fouled while soaring to the hoop on a dunk attempt. After Embiid and Trevor Booker swatted consecutive shots in the final seconds, T.J. McConnell used a crossover move to finish a drive at the buzzer and give the Sixers an 87-71 lead entering the fourth.

Orlando used a late 15-2 run to get within nine and nearly cut it to six with 1:21 left, but a 3-point attempt by Mario Hezonja spilled out.

Midway through the first quarter, Philadelphia had more turnovers (three) than field goals (two) and trailed 15-6. The Sixers then erupted for a 21-3 run and ended the quarter up 27-18.

E-A-G-L-E-S

Orlando head coach Frank Vogel wore an Eagles Super Bowl champions T-shirt during his pregame media availability. A native of Wildwood, New Jersey, Vogel makes sure to get a taste of home when he returns to the Philadelphia area.

“Cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, Yuengling beer if we beat the Sixers,” Vogel said. “Wawa coffee, but I get Wawa in Orlando now. I did get a cheesesteak today.”

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz rang the ceremonial Liberty Bell before the game.

“I think it’s awesome,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He can come over and ring as many bells as he chooses.”

 

Report: Jimmy Butler telling people he will be back for playoffs

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We don’t know a lot about Jimmy Butler‘s meniscus injury (other than that it’s not an ACL injury as feared). Because of that, it’s impossible to put a timeline on his return. We don’t know what kind of surgery he likely needs — a traditional meniscus partial removal takes six weeks or so to get a player back on the court (but is harder on the knee long-term as cushioning in it is removed, Dwyane Wade had this), but a repair could take three months or more before he is back on the court. Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said this pregame Saturday:

However, Butler himself is telling people he will be back for the playoffs.

Is that the optimism of a fierce competitor? Players are often the worst judge of their ability to return from injury.

Or, does he know that a meniscus repair is out of the question with his injury, that a partial removal is the only option (as is true in some cases)? That has a speedier return that could have him back for the playoffs.

In the short-term, Minnesota is going to need a lot more out of Andrew Wiggins, and they need to play a lot better team defense, to hold on to a playoff slot in the West. The Timberwolves have been -8.3 per 100 possessions without Butler this season, but went 2-2 in the four games he missed. Minnesota is currently the four seed in the West at 36-26, but just three games from falling out of the postseason in a crowded conference.

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reported it is a tear.

If surgery is needed and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. Officially, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not.

If it is a tear, as expected, that means surgery. Most of the time a surgical meniscus repair will keep a player out at least three months, which would end Butler’s season (a meniscus removal heals faster, but is rarely done anymore because long-term it is harder for the knee and the player, think of Dwyane Wade as an example).

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.