The medal round. This is what we’ve been waiting for. When things get serious. Win and advance, lose and you go home. Three wins and you get a gold. The pressure is on now.
Except, for the USA the first game of the medal round should be their easiest game in a week.
The USA, undefeated winners of Group A, face Australia, the fourth place team in Group B. Let me explain the talent difference between these two sides this way: Not only would none of the Australian players make Team USA, none of them even would have been invited to the USA Select Team of young players who train with Team USA.
Australia is led by Patty Mills, who is tied with Pau Gasol as the leading scorer in the Olympics at 20.6 per game. You know him as former St. Mary’s star who played in China during the lockout then returned to join the Spurs last season. But Mills barely got off the bench in San Antonio when it mattered. And he’s the only name on the Australian team you would know.
But sometimes you can overcome wide talent disparity of the matchups favor you… nope, that’s not happening.
One of the reasons Mills doesn’t get off the bench in the NBA much is he can be pressured into turnovers and bad decisions (and his instinct is to shoot not pass anyway). The USA has taken a “cut the head off the snake” defensive approach to these games — pressure and deny the ball to the opponent’s best player. Take him out of the game.
Mills can expect Chris Paul and Deron Williams to hound him all night long. Then Russell Westbrook will take over the task. And if they get bored Andre Iguodala or Kobe Bryant will jump in. Mills is in for a long night, and that’s not good for his teammates.
On the other end of the court, expect Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony to put up points. Expect LeBron James to be setting guys up. Expect some big dunks. Expect Anthony Davis to be able to enter the game early if he remembers to put on his jersey. Expect the USA to pretty much run away and hide in this one. If they don’t, it’s on them.
Come Friday the USA will have a tougher game, against Brazil or Argentina. This is the last one of the London Olympics where the USA should have an easy time of it. They need to enjoy it — and not pick up any bad habits along the way. Because this is still the medal round.
“They’re trying psychoanalyze me when they don’t know me,” Durant said. “So, it’s like you have more information about the game of basketball than you do me as a person. So, ‘you’re soft,’ ‘cupcake,’ all that stuff comes from trying figure me out as a person, not worrying about my basketball skills. But if you watch me on the basketball court, then you come up with your own observation.”
That on-court observation no longer jibes with the unflattering perception of his mindset.
Durant’s height has long been a fascination. He’s listed at 6-foot-9, but he’s almost certainly taller. Durant once said he’s 7-foot when he talks to women. “He’s 7 feet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says plainly.
Durant just didn’t play like it.
He entered the NBA as a finesse player. He couldn’t bench press 185 pounds a single time his pre-draft combine, and he spent his rookie year in Seattle playing shooting guard – as far from the paint as a player so tall could get.
Never mind that Durant improved greatly with the Thunder as a defender and rebounder, skills that require physicality. And never mind that he was a superstar on the perimeter, giving little reason to alter his style.
When he left Oklahoma City – where he settled in at small forward – for Golden State, Durant’s on- and off-court reputations merged to form a single image. Afraid of contact, afraid of competition.
Durant is making it much harder for his critics to paint him that way. He’s playing more like a traditional big than ever.
His 2.1 blocks per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward since Andrei Kirilenko and Josh Smith more than a decade ago (minimum: two games). His 5.3 post touches per game are the most by a non-center, non-power forward in the NBA.com database (which dates back to 2013-14).
“Getting in the mix with the bigs a little bit, I think that’s one role that I always wanted to play and always appreciated about my teammates in the past – from Kendrick Perkins to Thabo Sefolosha to Draymond to David West to Serge Ibaka,” Durant said. “I appreciated those guys for doing the dirty work and allowing me to be the player that I am on the offensive end.”
The Warriors are spoiled to have Durant assume this responsibility.
Defensively, Durant has become more comfortable defending power forwards and centers. Sometimes, he blocks their shots:
Other times, guarding a big just positions Durant to protect the basket:
“He’s just being active,” Kerr said. “When he’s active on the weak side of the play, he’s a devastating defender.”
Durant still just bottles up an opponent in a traditional wing matchup for him and blocks a jumper. He also blocks shots in transition.
But he leads non-centers, non-power forwards with 4.8 shots defended at the rim per game (minimum: two games). His block numbers aren’t telling a misleading story. Durant is doing work in the paint.
It helps that the league has shifted toward small-ball. When the slender Durant matches up against fours and fives, his opponents aren’t as big as they would have been a few years ago.
The Warriors played Durant at center to great effect in last year’s Finals, and it’d be a shock if they didn’t turn to him there again in high-leverage situations.
Make no mistake, though: Durant remains a generational perimeter player. He’s a dead-eye shooter with tight handles and jaw-dropping fluidity. Whatever time Durant spends moonlighting as an interior player, he can always switch into the style that made him a future Hall of Famer in the first place.
His ability to play both ways just makes him even more dangerous.
Still, Durant has made his name as a small forward. He says he has always played the role coaches gave him, but it’s tough to look past the fears of Kevin Garnett, another skilled tall player who worried when he was younger he’d get pigeonholed inside if he were listed as a 7-footer. As we talked, Durant picked up on my line of questioning and interjected.
“You trying to turn me into a four guy?” Durant said.
“Maybe even a five,” I said.
“Maybe,” Durant. “I don’t know. Maybe. That’s the way the league is going.”
Listen to what LeBron James told Lonzo Ball on court (video)
I don’t see the reaction, because I don’t get involved in it. I don’t do it to get a reaction.
I do it because he’s said over and over since he was growing up and who he modeled his game after. And who was his favorite player? And it was me, and I was humbled by that. So me wishing him a happy birthday was kind of a salute back to him.
I see all the stupid noise that happens, and I can’t buy a place in L.A. I can’t live in L.A. It’s funny noise. But I don’t get involved in it, because when I post things, I don’t look at comments. I’m so far removed of the white noise and the noise doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to me.
Were you mentoring Ball or giving him advice? LeBron:
None of y’all business.
Unfortunately for LeBron, a microphone picked up most of the conversation (hat tip: reddit user IT-3):
LeBron, best I can tell:
Find your zone and just stay f—ing locked in. The media is going to ask you what I told you right now. Tell them nothing. Just be aggressive every single day.
It’s white noise to you. That’s all it is. Alright? Let’s go.
LeBron was never going to say something controversial in front of all those cameras. He knows better, especially after attention drawn by his on-court conversation with Dwyane Wade a few years ago.
Unsurprisingly, LeBron’s words directly to Ball mirror what he told the media after the game. There’s no secret plot here – just someone who has been in the spotlight for years trying to help someone going through it now.
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