Spain pushes USA, but too much LeBron, CP3, Durant makes USA golden

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Spain had what they needed — spark plug Juan Carlos-Navarro couldn’t miss early and would not let the USA run away with the game. Pau Gasol took it right to the USA’s weakness in the second half and had 15 points in the third quarter to put his team ahead at one point.

But the USA had what they needed. They had 30 points from Kevin Durant who was so hot Spain was forced to go to a box-and-1 defense to shut him down. Chris Paul pressured on defense and controlled the tempo, then made key buckets late. Then LeBron James capped off as great a year as a basketball player could have — NBA MVP, NBA champion, gold medal — with key baskets to help the USA seal the game in the fourth quarter.

It ended 107-100 and the USA didn’t just win the gold medal, they had to earn it.

It was a fun, entertaining game for fans from the start — both teams started out shooting well. For Spain it was former Grizzlies guard Juan Carlos Navarro knocking down threes (12 of first 16 points for Spain). On the other side Kobe Bryant (who finished with 17) and Durant were knocking down buckets. Both teams were working the ball inside-out. Spain played a zone but early the USA drove down the lane and shot over the top of it.

So when Spain started to miss a little the USA went on a 10-2 run and they were up nine quickly. The USA hit 7-of-10 threes in the first quarter and they cannot be beat by anyone when those shots are falling. Kevin Durant finished with a game-high 30 points and 156 for the entire Olympics — the most any single player has scored in an Olympic tournament. Ever. Durant has cemented himself as the best pure scorer on the planet right now.

But when the USA’s threes don’t fall, the USA can be caught. Especially when they don’t defend well. Spain answer on a 14-2 run early in the second quarter and Spain kept it a one-point play at the half because their guards hung with the USA’s guards. Some overzealous officiating helped Spain as well as there were 22 fouls called in the second half, destroying any flow to the game. The USA needs that flow.

In the third, Pau Gasol showed all of us why he is so deadly in the post (Lakers fans should hope Mike Brown was watching and realizes he needs to get Gasol post touches, not have him live at the elbow). Gasol hit a running hook over Tyson Chandler, he spun and dunked around Kevin Love. Gasol had 15 points in the third quarter and finished with 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists.

It was 83-82 USA after three quarters. But Spain rested Pau and the USA went on a 12-4 run to stretch out their lead, a lead they never relinquished.

In part because Chris Paul was probably the best player on the floor in the second half. (Even with all the additions he may well be the best player in Los Angeles next year.) He pressured the Spanish guards up high on defense — Spain hit no threes in the second half after 7 in the first half. CP3 controlled the tempo of the game and late hit a three and had a nifty little drive for a bucket. But he controlled the flow, he was the floor general.

Then when Spain would make a push, LeBron pushed back. He hit a three, he played a two-man handoff game with Durant that led to a dunk (their two man handoff pick-and-roll was the USA’s best play through the Olympics). Durant didn’t have a big fourth quarter but because he had been so key earlier Spain focused their defense on him and that opened things up. Then there were good plays by Kobe and others.

It was too much. Spain played well but their problem was they were not the better, deeper, more talented team. They needed the USA’s help to win and the USA’s best players wouldn’t give it to them. They stepped up.

And so for the 14th time since Olympic basketball started, the USA is golden.

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.