Anthony Davis steps into spotlight, is Team USA’s lynchpin

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LAS VEGAS — Monday was the first day of scrimmages for Team USA in its preparation for the World Cup and Anthony Davis was in the heart of the action for the white team. He got the ball on a cut to the rim but missed a contested shot in the paint. The other blue team got the ball and as Team USA wants to do was off to the races with an outlet pass and an attempt to score in transition before the defense sets. Davis sprinted back on defense, eating up ground with his long strides, and as a guard rose up for what he thought was an open midrange jumper five seconds into the clock Davis came flying through and swatted it out of bounds with authority. It was the kind of block maybe only a couple players in the world could have made.

It was exactly what Team USA is counting on Davis to do. Every game.

The USA is going small in its run for World Cup gold, playing a lot of Kevin Durant as the four, and that puts Davis in the spotlight — he is the big man who must protect the rim on defense, he must own the glass, and also get points in the paint on offense.

Davis is the lynchpin for Team USA’s plan and for casual fans could be the breakout star of the World Cup.

“We think he’s one of the top players in the league and we need for him to be that five that nobody has,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said praising Davis. “Everyone talks about things we don’t have, well they don’t have him.”

“Kevin’s at the four, so of course we have four guys now who can play on the perimeter, so we need somebody in the paint,” Davis said of his role. “So I’m just trying to make sure I run to the front of the rim, set screens and do everything a five would do for the team. I’m not trying to get outside my lane here, just trying and do what Coach K asks.”

Look for Davis to end up on a lot of highlight reels — the floor is spaced with shooters and slashers such as Durant, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall among others and when they get in the paint the big watching Davis is going to have to slide over and block that drive. When he does Davis is going to roll to the rim.

“With the shooters the lob to him has got to be used,” Krzyzewski said.

Wednesday Davis got a couple of those alley-oops in a late scrimmage courtesy Wall and you could see how this could be all over SportsCenter when the real games start.

“It’s good to see the ball go up in the air,” Davis said with a smile.

His biggest impact, however, is going to be at the other end of the floor — he has to own the paint. Davis said he has bulked up, adding 15-20 pounds of muscle, and is ready for the more physical brand of basketball played internationally.

“There’s nothing really different except the physicality,” Davis said of playing international ball compared to the NBA (where he primarily is a power forward). “There’s no defensive three seconds which really helps be because I like to block shots.”

Davis’ shot blocking, versatility and athleticism allows Krzyzewski play the aggressive, trapping style he wants on the defensive side of the ball. Team USA has better athletes than any team in the world and the system of pressure and fast breaks is set up to take advantage of it. Davis lets that happen, blocking shots on one end and rim running on the other. Davis has a midrange jumper and the ability to put the ball on the floor that lets him work as a pick-and-pop big or rolling to the rim.

In fact, Krzyzewski wondered aloud how the USA’s offense would change when Davis had to go to the bench and his backup — likely DeMarcus Cousins or Andre Drummond — came on the court. Do they have to tweak what they do because there isn’t another Davis?

Davis was a raw late addition to Team USA for the London Olympics two years ago, where LeBron James and Kobe Bryant took Davis under their wings and tried to teach the rookie to be about the work and mentality needed to be a superstar in the NBA. Davis heard them — Wednesday after practice, when most guys at Team USA camp were icing their knees or taking part in half court shooting contests, Davis and USA assistant coach Monty Williams were working on post positioning and movements in the offense for Davis. There has been a lot of post-game work by Davis.

Davis hasn’t been seen much by casual hoops fans these past couple seasons, playing in the small market of New Orleans for a Pelicans team that didn’t make the playoffs and doesn’t get a lot of national television games. But Davis is poised to break out, with Durant saying he thinks Davis is a future MVP.

That breakout could happen in Spain, on the World Cup stage.

If Team USA is going to defend its gold medal this summer, it will happen because Davis was a big man no other team in the world could match.

That he really was the five nobody else had.

Frustrated Gregg Popovich calls all three referees “f****** blind”

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The Spurs completed an amazing comeback win against the Thunder Friday night, coming from 23 down to knock off the Thunder when Carmelo Anthony‘s game-tying three was just a two because his toe was on the line.

Gregg Popovich was into this one.

So much so that when he didn’t like an out-of-bounds call he made sure all three officials knew exactly how blind he thought they were.

The best part of this is Popovich covering his eyes, just to really emphasize his point.

We’re really going to miss Pop when he steps away to live at a winery full time.

Lakers/Suns have minor skirmish, Lonzo Ball just walks away

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If you’re on the court when your team gets in an NBA “fight” — what the rest of us would call a shoving match where nobody really wants to throw a punch — should you run into the fray and help your teammates?

Friday night, with just more than three minutes to go in Phoenix’s eventual win, the Suns called a timeout, and Tyler Ulis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope got in one of those silly shoving matches. Players from both teams raced into the fray to protect their teammate/break it up.

The Suns’ rookie Josh Jackson picked up a technical for his role racing in and escalating the matter.

Watch the video again, and you’ll see Lakers’ rookie Lonzo Ball just walk away from it all and head to the bench.

That has led to criticism of the rookie from some Lakers’ fans, who see a guy who didn’t rush in to protect his teammates — that’s seen as part of the sports locker room culture. A “band of brothers” or “us against the world” mentality. Ball, frankly, gave a more mature answer than that.

Ball is right, nothing was going to come of this. It was meaningless posturing. Walking away was the mature move.

However, the question is how is this perceived in the Lakers’ locker room? Do the players care that Ball shrugged and walked away? Do they think he needed to race in and try to look tough like everyone else? That can impact his standing on the team — as a guy Magic Johnson brought in to be a leader — more than anything.

Also, with all his shooting woes, is this the first sign of some Lakers fans starting to turn on Lonzo? It’s a little early for that.

Harrison Barnes offers advice for Dennis Smith Jr., Julius Randle

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For a guy in just his sixth NBA season, Harrison Barnes has seen a lot.

He has seen the mountaintop, having won a ring as a role player for the Golden State Warriors. He’s also has felt the devastation of being on a team that historically blew a 3-1 NBA Finals lead. He’s been a high school phenom — unfairly compared to Kobe Bryant — and a high draft pick (No. 7), he understands the pressures that come with all that. He’s played (and plays) with superstar future Hall of Famers. And he’s been the guy pushed aside by a team, despite playing well, to make room for one of those superstar players — the harsh business reality of the NBA.

Barnes is learning something new this season in Dallas — how to deal with losing. He never dealt with it before — not high school, AAU, college at North Carolina — but the Dallas Mavericks are 2-14, and while they struggled last year it was nothing like this.

“It’s been difficult,” Barnes told NBC Sports about the start of the season, “but I’ve definitely seen a lot of highs, seen a lot of lows, I’m just trying to get better and lead my team to some wins.”

With all that experience, Barnes was brought in to be a leader in Dallas, and he’s worked to do that on and off the court. Off the court, he has met with local high school players and donated gear he wears — Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves — to those programs. 

On the court this year, he’s tried to blend his game with rookie Dennis Smith Jr., who the Mavs see as the future at the point guard spot.

“Playing with Dennis has been great,” Barnes said. “He’s got a lot of tools that will help him be a great guy in the league for a long time. So the transition, in terms of playing together and developing chemistry, hasn’t been hard at all. I think he’s very mature beyond his years, and that makes it easy.”

As a leader, his advice to Smith Jr. has just been to not hold back, trust his instincts.

“My advice is to always be aggressive in your decision making,” Barnes said. “Whether it’s ‘should I pass?’ or ‘should I shoot?’ should I do this or should I do that, whatever it is, be aggressive. Because right now as a team, we’re in a little bit of a rut, we just need energy. Whatever it may be, even if you’re making the wrong play or the wrong decision, do it with conviction so there’s some inertia and the rest of us can feed off it.”

With the young high school players around Dallas his advice is similar — go for what you want on and off the court, give it your all — but he adds with them they need to protect their bodies in an increasingly physical game.

“Today I was able to go to Lincoln High School, meet with the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams, and I was able to donate some Shock Doctor basketball mouthguards and McDavid HEX protective arm and leg sleeves to the young kid, and talk to them about protecting your body when you’re out there,” Barnes said. “The game is becoming more physical and more competitive at a younger age, and the best ability is availability.”

If there’s one guy in the NBA who can relate to Barnes’ path, it might be the Lakers’ Julius Randle.

The fourth-year big has been up and down but has gotten better every season and shown promise with the Lakers, putting up 11.4 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting this season (both career highs, although his jumper still needs work), plus grabbing 6.7 rebounds, but mostly he brings energy and physical, strong defense  in just 20 minutes a game off the bench. He has transformed his body, gotten leaner but stronger, and has done a good job filling a role for Los Angeles as a physical, defensive player in a league going small and getting skinnier

Randle is coming up on the end of his rookie contract next summer and is due a payday, he thought he was part of the franchise’s future, yet he is likely the odd man out in Los Angeles as the Lakers chase big name free agents. Randle’s name is a staple of trade talks (about moving Luol Deng and his contract).

Harrison Barnes can relate. He was swept out of Golden State to make room for that team’s successful run at Kevin Durant.

What would Barnes tell Randle?

“My advice is to focus on what is going to be the best for you,” Barnes said. “Focus on where you can grow as a player, get better, where you would thrive in. Whether or not he ends up in the same place or a different place, just make sure you’re in a situation where you can grow. That’s the most important thing because a lot of things are going to be out of his control, who decides to go where and that type of stuff, but as long as he focuses on getting better with his craft that’s the one thing he can control.”

That’s what Barnes did a couple seasons ago, and he ended up in Dallas with a big contract, a big opportunity, and a chance to be a leader. He’s trying to do that on a team transitioning out of the Dirk Nowitzki era, but it hasn’t been easy.

And it’s come with some harsh new lessons. Like dealing with losing. One Barnes and the Mavericks want to move past as quickly as they can.

Watch LeBron James score 39 to lead comeback win over Clippers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James knows about the narrative bouncing around the NBA that Cleveland can be dethroned in the East.

He’s ignoring it, and slowly changing it.

“You know I could care less what people say,” James said. “I’m so far beyond that. I don’t care what people say.”

Just to make sure everyone understood him, James asked his two sons waiting for him in Cleveland’s locker room to chime in on whether he was concerned about outside voices.

The boys had dad’s back.

James had another of those games that he only seems capable of, scoring 39 points with 14 rebounds in 46 minutes as the Cavaliers continued to improve from a shaky start with their fourth straight win, 118-113 in overtime on Friday night over the skidding Los Angeles Clippers, who dropped their seventh in a row.

Kevin Love scored 25 and drained a pair of 3-pointers in OT, when the Cavs, who didn’t take the lead until the first minute of the extra session, outscored the Clippers 13-8.

Dwyane Wade gave Cleveland a huge spark, scoring 23 points with 11 rebounds in 37 minutes. The Cavs’ win wasn’t eye-pleasing, but it was another step in the right direction for the three-time defending conference champions, who went 3-1 on a just-completed road trip.

On Thursday night, James said he watched Boston beat Golden State to improve to 14-2, a stunning start that has prompted discussion about Cleveland’s vulnerability.

James dismissed any concern about the Celtics’ early burst.

“I’ve got too much to worry about around here right now trying to get our ship going in the right direction,” he said.

The Clippers’ ship is taking on water fast. Los Angeles has lost nine of 10 since a 4-0 start.

Blake Griffin scored 23 and DeAndre Jordan had 20 points and 22 rebounds for Los Angeles, which didn’t give up the lead until the first minute of overtime. The Clippers had chances to put the Cavs away in regulation, but they didn’t execute down the stretch and then had defensive breakdowns in overtime.

“They made some big 3s,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “You have to give them credit. That’s why they’ve been in a lot of Finals.”

The Cavs spent all night chasing the Clippers and caught them at 105-all when Love grabbed an offensive rebound and fed James, who dropped an uncontested 3-pointer with 47 seconds left.

Griffin missed tough shots on consecutive possessions, giving Cleveland one last chance in regulation but James missed an off-balance left-hander just before the horn.

James made a free throw to open OT – he went 1 of 5 at the line – and give Cleveland its first lead. Then, after Love made his two 3s, James sealed the Cavs’ fifth win in six games with a jumper.

“Well defended,” Rivers said. “It’s LeBron James.”