FIBA Americas Tournament became Renaldo Balkman show on Friday

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The 2013 FIBA Americas tournament tipped off on Friday in Caracas, Venezuela, with teams from North, South and Central America attempting to move one step closer to playing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. It’s still a bit early to be talking about that since the tournament won’t end until September 11, but Puerto Rico showed Friday why they were earmarked as the favorites heading into the 10-team extravaganza.

Puerto Rico drew Brazil for their first game of the tournament, making it a matchup of the top two teams in the tournament and a likely preview of the eventual championship game. The game lived up to its billing, too, considering the score was 62-61 with 2:28 left in the game before Renaldo Balkman rattled off five straight points to help his country score an eventual 72-65 victory.

Balkman, the Knicks’ first-round pick in 2006, scored 24 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked four shots while playing 37 of the game’s 40 minutes — and he didn’t even choke a teammate in the process. Former Boston University standout John Holland added 15 points and nine rebounds while Minnesota Timberwolves dynamo J.J. Barea struggled to 12 points on 11 shot attempts, committing four turnovers in the process. Other notables on the Puerto Rican squad include Carlos Arroyo (7 points, 2-of-9 shooting), Ricky Sanchez (four points, four rebounds and four fouls) and former USC star — and  current 36-year-old chucker — Larry Ayuso (two points, four fouls, five shots).

The only NBA player on the Brazil roster is Utah Jazz draft pick Raul Neto because Nene, Tiago Splitter, Leandro Barbosa and Anderson Varejao all decided to sit this tournament out. Neto isn’t exactly a focal point of his nation’s roster, either, as he earned a DNP-CD in Friday’s loss. Brazil was led by Marcelo Huertas as the Spanish League point guard scored 16 points and dished out five assists to lead his team in both categories. Guilherme Giovannoni added 11 points and Vitor Benite scored 10 to round out Brazil’s double-digit scorers.

Three other games happened Friday at the FIBA Americas and, for those not following along at home, a quick recap is included below.

Canada 85, Jamaica 64 — Canada has the most current NBA players on its roster and, even though those players don’t include Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins or Kelly Olynyk, our neighbors to the North put together a pretty solid squad.

San Antonio Spurs backup point guard Cory Joseph flirted with a triple-double en route to 17 points, nine assists and eight rebounds, but his scoring total was tied by Baylor Bears sharpshooter Brady Heslip. Cleveland Cavaliers big man Tristan Thompson added 13 points, Orlando Magic forward Andrew Nicholson scored seven and backup Miami Heat center Joel Anthony added six points and three fouls in 14 minutes to round out Canada’s NBA player contributions.

Jamaica has some recognizable names on its roster, but it was Adrian Uter — a burly 6’7 big man that plays professionally in Italy — who led the team in scoring with 16 points to go with eight rebounds. Former New York Knicks center Jerome Jordan added a solid 12 points and eight rebounds while Samardo Samuels was disappointing as he converted on just one of his eight shot attempts for four points in 27 minutes.

Mexico 65, Venezuela 56 — Neither of these two teams are expected to end up qualifying for next year’s FIBA World Cup, but both have rather fun rosters — though a lot of that fun was removed when Venezuela learned it’d be without point guard Greivis Vasquez. The lack of Vasquez, along with rookie Gregory Echinique and Oscar Torres, is likely what led to the host team being upset in their first game of the tournament (that or the fact that Eric Musselman is no longer the head coach due to his demaning schedule as the associate head coach at Arizona State).

Mexico was led by their only NBA player as new Atlanta Hawks big man Gustavo Ayon had a huge game with 22 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks — while curiously only shooting four free-throws compared to 23 shot attempts. Jorge Gutierrez, who spent last year playing in the D-League after a solid career at Cal, added 17 points and former UCLA fan-favorite Lorenzo Mata-Real added three points and four rebounds in ten minutes.

Venezuala thought they got a coup when Donta Smith became a naturalized citizen at the last second, but the former Atlanta Hawks wing scored a disappointing ten points for a squad in desperate need of a scoring punch.

Argentina 95, Paraguay 60 — This iteration of Argentina’s roster doesn’t feature Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni or Carlos Delfino, instead relying on Luis Scola and a whole bunch of guys most American basketball fans haven’t heard of. That roster still had no trouble handling Paraguay, however, as the 35-point difference makes it seem even closer than the game actually appeared. Scola played just ten minutes, scoring nine points and grabbing five rebounds before taking a seat on the bench to rest for the grueling schedule ahead, but six of his teammates scored in double figures.

We’ll bring you all of the updates you can stomach through the remainder of the tournament with daily previews, recaps and anything else exciting happening in Caracas.

“Tired” Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest. Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game, at his own request.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.

LeBron James hits go-ahead shot in All-Star win (video)

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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James‘ team trailed by 13 midway through the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, but he led a competitive comeback.

This shot put his team up 146-145 over Stephen Curry‘s team, and Team LeBron held on for a 148-145 win:

Great penetration by Russell Westbrook, and he and Kyrie Irving moved the ball well. LeBron made it count.