USA starts pretty blah, Kobe and LeBron help them run away from Aussies late

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There are certain boxers and MMA fighters that nobody looks fighting good against. Even the fighters with all the style get sucked into an ugly grappling contest, nobody looks pretty in the ring/octagon against these guys.

That is Australian basketball.

For three quarters against Team USA the Aussies were physical, they mucked up the game, they made sure it wasn’t pretty and they hit a few threes. Australia played well and exactly how they wanted. They kept it close. But behind a triple-double from LeBron James (11 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists) and some hot shooting from Kobe Bryant, the Americans pulled away in the fourth quarter to win 119-86.

Next up is a third game in three weeks against a good Argentina side. The Olympic semifinal is at 4 p.m. Eastern Friday. Win that and the Americans will play for the gold on Sunday.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves because Argentina likes to grind out the game like Australia, the South Americans just do it better and have more skill.

And the Aussies gave the USA some trouble. Just like they did four years ago in the Beijing Olympics — Australia plays physical and can be tough to play against. There was not a great flow to the game but the USA was up 28-21 after one and you kept waiting for the big run in the second. But it never came, it was more ugly, more grinding. The USA still kept playing a little better and was up 14 at the break.

Then Australia opened second half on an 11-0 run, bringing it down to 56-53 lead for the USA. The USA needed a spark.

They got a one from the guy getting shredded on twitter. Kobe Bryant was 0-5 shooting with three turnovers by a few minutes into the third quarter, and after guarding Aussie star Patty Mills in the first half he was switched off him (Chris Paul took over). He was having a bad half. Anyone who has seen Kobe struggle over the years knows what is next — he is going to shoot his way out of it.

He did. And it worked. Kobe hit back-to-back threes in the third — one catch-and-shoot, then made a steal and knocked down a transition three — and that sparked a little run by the USA that got it back up to 14. In the fourth Kobe couldn’t miss from three as he racked up 20 second half points.

In the fourth, the USA picked up their defensive pressure and Australia just did not have the depth of talent to hang with it. The USA was back to putting on a show with Kobe threes (six total in the second half), LeBron passes and even an impressive James Harden dunk. They ran away and hid.

Deron Williams had 18 and Carmelo Anthony 17 for the United States. Mills (the former St. Mary star who played for the Blazers and Spurs) led the Aussies with 26.

It was a win and in the end that’s all that matters for the USA. But now they will have to beat a good Argentinian team who has played them very well for five of the eight quarters when the two teams have met in recent weeks. They have Manu Ginobili playing very well and good guys around him like Carlos Delfino and Luis Scola. The USA will have to play better.

In the two meetings thus far Argentina has not been able to keep up with the runs of the USA and that has been the difference. But for the USA to do it a third time they will need a better game, a more consistent defensive effort than we saw against Australia.

Bill Laimbeer on LeBron vs. Jordan comparisons: “I’ll take LeBron James, absolutely”

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LeBron James is headed to his seventh straight NBA Finals. He just passed Michael Jordan to take over the top spot on the NBA’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fourteen years into his NBA career, he has put together a resume that few in the game’s history can match — and he’s not done.

You don’t have to think that LeBron James is better than Michael Jordan, however, if you don’t think it’s a valid discussion, you’re blinded by bias.

Former NBA All-Star, champion, and WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer of the “bad boy” Detroit Pistons was asked about the LeBron/Jordan comparison on “The Rematch” podcast, and he said we’ve never seen anyone like LeBron (hat tip the USA Today).

“I’ll take Lebron James, absolutely,” Laimbeer said to host Etan Thomas… “He’s 6-8, 285 (James is listed at 250 pounds). Runs like the wind, jumps out of the gym. Phenomenal leader since he’s been 12 years old. Understood when he came into the league how to involve his teammates from the start. And you can’t guard him. You can’t double-team, he’s too big, he powers through everything. Michael was a guard. Yeah, he was 6-6, but he wasn’t a real thick and strong guard. It took him a lot of years to learn how to involve his teammates in order to win championships. Don’t fault him for that, it’s a learning experience. But we’ve never seen anybody like LeBron James physically. He just bullies you.

It was Laimbeer and the Pistons who taught Jordan to win — they beat the Bulls year after year in the playoffs, until Jordan broadened his game (and got better teammates) and the Pistons started to fade. People point to MJ’s unblemished Finals record, but he was seen for years as a guy who couldn’t get a team to the Finals because of those Pistons (LeBron learned his lessons on a different stage, taking some early Cavs teams that had no business in the Finals to that stage anyway, only to get crushed).

LeBron has a more versatile game than Jordan, which better suits this era: When Jordan was a force in the ’80s and ’90s there was no zone defense, which led to a lot of clear-out sets where eight guys watched a one-on-one battle from the other side of the key, and if the double-team came it was obvious from where. Jordan’s skill as a guy who could get his shot, kill it from the midrange or get to the rim, his ability to physically play through contact, and the legendary killer instinct made him great. But he was aided by timing — the booming popularity of the sport in the 1990s, the rise of Nike as a marketing giant, and the fact he didn’t have a true rival, a Bird to his Magic, that could best him.

LeBron has reached the point in his career that the legacy talk and where he ranks all-time is the only real discussion left — and Jordan sits as the bar to clear. Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Bill Russell, and a few others should be on that tier as well, part of the discussion, but the point is LeBron has moved on to that level of discussion. He’s earned it. The fact some people on Twitter/sports talk radio feel the need to rip him for everything doesn’t change that — if Jordan played the social media era he would have heard the same things from the same people.

Report: Celtics focused on adding All-Star-caliber frontcourt player

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Isaiah Thomas said he he’d happily forgo a renegotiation-and-extension if the Celtics use their cap space to upgrade their roster.

Where are they looking?

A. Sherrod Blakey of CSN New England:

Multiple league sources have told CSNNE.com in recent weeks that the Celtics are focused on landing an All-Star caliber talent in the frontcourt.

In the last three years, 22 frontcourt players have been All-Stars. Boston already has one: Al Horford. Could the Celtics land any of the other 22?

Almost certainly unavailable

Free agency

Trade

Free agency or trade

  • Pau Gasol (Though Gasol said he’d opt in, San Antonio might try pushing him out to pursue Paul. If Gasol opts in, the Spurs could also trade him to clear space for Paul.)
  • Dirk Nowitzki (The Mavericks have a $25 million team option on Nowitzki for next season. Nowitzki going to Boston, via trade or free agency, would probably require a mutual agreement between Dallas and him that pursuing a title elsewhere is the right way for him to end his career.)

Report: Spurs exploring Chris Paul pursuit

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The Clippers are taking the Chris Paul-to-Spurs rumors seriously.

And apparently so are the Spurs.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

The San Antonio Spurs are exploring the feasibility of making a free-agent run at All-Star point guard Chris Paul, league sources told ESPN.

San Antonio must complete three difficult objectives to land Paul:

  • Clear cap space. Even if they trim their roster to Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Danny Green and Tony Parker, the Spurs would still have to dump two of them to clear max room. Can they convince Gasol to reverse course and opt out, maybe re-signing at a major discount? Would they trade Parker, who has meant so much to the franchise? Would they deal Aldridge or Green, players who would make major contributions to a Leonard/Paul-led team?
  • Convince Paul to accept a projected max of $152 million over four years rather than the projected $205 million he could get over five years from the Clippers. Although the annual difference is just $3 million and Paul could sign another deal in four years, it’s unlikely he recoups that at age 36.
  • Convince Paul to leave big-market L.A. for small-market San Antonio. Remember, Paul forced his way from small-market New Orleans then ascended into one of the NBA’s biggest endorsement stars.

The Spurs boast a fantastic basketball culture, and Leonard and Popovich make great partners in a championship chase. There are reasons San Antonio is gaining traction with Paul.

But there’s still a lot for the Spurs to overcome. Will they? At least they’re trying rather than just dismissing the plot as unfeasible.

Cleveland GM David Griffin: “I hope everybody says we have no chance”

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The Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA title. According to bovda.lv, bet $100 on the Warriors to win the title and you get $41.7 dollars. Bet $100 on the Cavaliers and you get $200. And that number is likely to get worse for Warriors fans.

The Cavaliers are okay with that. They like being the underdogs. Look at what GM David Griffin said in a televised interview after they eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, via Cleveland.com.

“I hope everybody says we have no chance,” General Manager David Griffin said during a TV interview following the Cavaliers’ 135-102 win Thursday night against the Boston Celtics, clinching a third straight NBA Finals appearance.

“Obviously the team we’re playing is as good as you can possibly put together, it’s going to be an unbelievable battle for us, but I think [the Cavs] love battling together. The greater the odds, the better we seem to play together. We really do rally around each other in that sense.”

There is some truth to that.

There’s also a difference between that truth and slowing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. How the Cavaliers are going to do that will be the interesting part of these playoffs.