Team USA Showcase

World Cup preview: No Durant, no problem USA still one of two teams with legit shot to win gold

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Think about at the Team USA wins this summer: By 17 points over the world’s 10th ranked team Brazil; by 43 over the Dominican Republic (world No. 26); by 26 over Puerto Rico (world No. 17); then by 30 over the world’s 13th ranked team Slovenia.

So far the Americans have outscored their opponents by 35.4 points per 100 possessions (via John Schuhmann of NBA.com). A ridiculous number.

Team USA has not seriously been challenged — and most of the FIBA World Cup will look very much like that.

So much of the pre-tournament focus has been on who is not there for the Americans. No Kevin Durant. Or Paul George. And all that came after Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, LaMarcus Aldridge and a host of others said no. Those are big time talents.

Doesn’t matter — the USA is so deep with guys who can ball that coach Mike Krzyzewski can still throw out a long, athletic, sharp-shooting team that will play pressure defense, run, be active, and knock down threes and flat-out overwhelm nearly every opponent. Just as they have pretty much everyone since Team USA last lost a game back in 2006.

Team USA is still loaded — Anthony Davis, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, DeMarcus Cousins, Klay Thompson, Kenneth Faried, Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Mason Plumlee and Andre Drummond. No other team in the world can match that depth. Not even close The USA’s starters (Irving, Curry, Harden, Faried, Davis) have been fantastic at both ends of the floor in the tune up games (almost doubling the score on its opponents).

The obvious strength of Team USA is the guard spot — Irving and Curry have scored very efficiently, while Harden is the team’s leading scorer so far. Then off the bench the bring the slashing athleticism of Rose and more sharp shooting with Thompson. As for all that size up front, it lets Coach K almost hockey substitute them every couple of minutes to keep the legs fresh and the energy up for their high-intensity style of play.

That group will overwhelm everyone the USA faces when it starts group play Saturday.

First up is Finland, ranked 39th in the world (a team chosen as a wild card over better, more deserving teams because Finland travel well sand FIBA wanted the cash from ticket sales), followed Sunday by a Turkish team that is well behind the USA and is likely second best in Group C. After that it is New Zealand, a Dominican Republic team that the USA already destroyed, then the Ukraine. None of those teams are a threat to a USA squad that gives even half effort (and they will as they try to find themselves).

After group play teams are seeded for a single elimination tournament and again Team USA gets a soft touch — Groups C and D fill out half the bracket and the best team is Lithuania, ranked fourth in the world and they just lost starting point guard Mantas Kalnietis due to a dislocated shoulder. Lithuania is led by the NBA’s Jonas Valanciunas and Dontas Motiejunas, both of whom are nice bigs but a couple of steps behind the USA’s front line. That’s it. No other real threats. The USA has a fairly easy path to the title game.

There is only one real threat to Team USA — Spain. And those two would not meet until said gold medal game if Spain makes it. Playing at home they probably will, but their side of the bracket will have reigning European champion France (without Tony Parker), Brazil, Argentina and Greece. Spain should advance but they have the harder road.

Spain boasts three quality NBA bigs — Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka — plus a back court of Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez. They have fallen to Team USA the last two Olympic gold medal games but played the USA close (Spain was right in it in 2012 in London until Marc Gasol had to leave with foul trouble). On their home court in front of their home fans foul trouble is not going to be an issue for Spain.

Spain poses a legitimate threat, which is why there are four centers on the NBA roster — to match up better with that size. More than that the USA will count on its athleticism and pressure to force mistakes and to make Spain uncomfortable in their offense. The USA will need Curry, Thompson and everyone else to hit their

But that’s it. The only real threat to the USA should be Spain.

It doesn’t matter who didn’t show up for America, the guys who did can flat-out ball and fit the USA’s aggressive, up-tempo style. The USA is rightfully still a gold medal favorite.

It doesn’t matter who showed up, so long as the guys that did are ready to play.

And Team USA looks ready.

LeBron James first player to reach six straight finals in 50 years

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It speaks to an incredible level of talent — talent that was honed in countless hours in the gym.

It speaks to an amazing durability.

It speaks to leadership.

LeBron James has a long resume of accomplishments — two titles, four MVPs, and he hasn’t missed an All-Star Game or an All-NBA team for a decade — but he reached one of his more impressive milestones in leading the Cavaliers past the Raptors to the NBA Finals on Friday night.

LeBron has reached six straight NBA Finals.

He’s the first player to do so in 50 years.

The last guys to do this were Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Bob Cousy and other members of the 1950s-60s Celtics dynasty. Nobody since has done it — not Magic, Bird, Jordan, Wilt or the rest.

Yes, it helps cement LeBron’s legacy as one of the all-time greats, but more than that it’s something we need to step back and appreciate. These were all LeBron-led teams — he has been the leader on and off the court, setting the tone. That requires incredible talent and skill on the court, plus knowing how to make those guys better not just drag them along on your coat tails. It also takes incredible physical durability. It’s an amazing accomplishment.

“There’s only one LeBron James,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said after his team was eliminated by James and company. “He makes a difference on whatever team he plays on.”

I can feel the typing in the comment section already: “But he’s 2-4 in the Finals, Jordan was 6-0” or “But he’s done it in a weak East” or “He keeps just jumping teams to where he has the most help.” It’s all just sad. Because LeBron James is the first NBA superstar of the social media age he faces a volume of criticism that past stars did not. It’s not that LeBron hasn’t brought some criticism on himself, but there is a need to tear him down that the mythologized Jordan never dealt with. We savored Jordan at the time; LeBron has never gotten that. Jordan took 13 NBA teams to the playoffs, six made the Finals; LeBron has taken 11 and seven are in the Finals. The thing is, it’s difficult to compare across eras in the NBA:

All of this is not to say LeBron’s record is better than Jordan’s, you and your buddies can debate that while sitting on bar stools until last call, but LeBron has been on an epic run through the peak of his career the likes we haven’t seen in a long time. If you’re a fan of the game, you should appreciate that, not try to tear it down (as if Jordan’s legacy somehow needs protecting).

What LeBron has done is a stunning accomplishment. If you’re in the same sentence with the legendary Russell Celtics teams, you’re doing something right.

Warriors/Thunder Game 6: Four things to watch as Oklahoma City tries to close out series

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Stephen Curry #30 and Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors react in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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For the Thunder, it is a chance for validation and an opportunity to get the ring Kevin Durant (and Russell Westbrook, and the rest of them) crave. For the Warriors, it is their biggest test of the last two seasons. Game 6 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City, here are four things to watch.

1) Dion Waiters and Andre Roberson need to play better for the Thunder. After a couple of series where Waiters suddenly has been reborn as a quality NBA player who is the third playmaker the Thunder need, and after Andre Roberson dropped a career playoff high of 17 points the game before, both were MIA in Game 5. Roberson was 2-of-5 shooting and had as many points as fouls (six). Waiters didn’t hit a shot all night. This was tied to the Thunder returning to the bad habits of too much Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant taking on the world and OKC not enough ball movement in the halfcourt. The Scott Brooks Thunder of the past few seasons showed up in Game 5, if the Thunder fall back to those bad habits again, they will lose again.

I expect the Thunder to treat this like their Game 7 and play much better. They will have a real sense of urgency; their defense will again be energized. The question becomes can the Warriors match it?

2) Can Andrew Bogut keep the Thunder from scoring in the paint?
In Game 5, the Thunder were 8-of-18 shooting in the restricted area, and 7-of-19 in the rest of the paint. That’s not going to get it done. A lot of that was the impact Bogut had in the paint — plus he got help, the Warriors switched pick-and-rolls more, they packed the paint more and took away driving lanes. It all worked, in part because Bogut and Draymond Green played with much better energy than in previous games. Steve Kerr said he didn’t play Bogut as many minutes in the first four games due to foul trouble, he has to trust the veteran to play through fouls in this game. The Warriors have simply been better with him on the court this series and they need close to 30 minutes from him this game.

Tied to Bogut’s play…

3) Golden State defense needs to show up on the road. As noted above, the Warriors went back to a more traditional defense in Game 5 — they started guarding Roberson (rather than having a big “guard” and ignore him to protect the paint), they switched, they stayed home in the paint, and they just trusted each other and played their system better. It was a marked improvement. However, they did it at home — now they need to do it on the road, where Green, in particular, has been more prone to mistakes and frustration.

One key here worth emphasizing is the Warriors got back to switching most pick-and-rolls — that’s what they did all season, that’s part of why the “death lineup” is so successful defensively, yet in this series they increasingly went away from it (in part because of how they guarded Roberson). Switching is part of who the Warriors are, and while it will create some mismatches teams don’t want to stray too far from their core identity.

4) Stephen Curry needs to be MVP level Curry. Draymond Green needs to be his All-NBA self.
I’m not saying the same thing about Durant and Westbrook because I have no doubt they will show up with urgency in their games Saturday night. However, Curry and Draymond have been shadows of themselves in the two previous games in Oklahoma City, and if that happens again only one team is flying back to the Bay Area postgame.

Curry finished his drives a little better in Game 5, and at moments he blew by bigs switched onto him off of picks, something we have seen far less of this series than during the season. Green played well defensively in Game 5, he hit the boards hard, but he made some head-scratching offensive decisions. If the Warriors are going to force a Game 7, those two guys have to be elite in this game. The Warriors best players must lead. It’s that simple.

Watch LeBron James drop 33 on Raptors in Game 6 win

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Friday night was a step forward in maturity for the Cleveland Cavaliers — given the chance to close out a conference finals on the road, in a place they had struggled, the team stepped up and did so convincingly.

They did it following the lead of LeBron James, who attack the basket from the start on his way to a team-high 33 points and 11 assists. LeBron set the tone and the rest of the Cavaliers followed.

Above you can see just how LeBron racked up those points. It’s an impressive display.

Report: In surprise to nobody, Bismack Biyombo will decline option, become free agent

TORONTO, ON - MAY 27:  Bismack Biyombo #8 of the Toronto Raptors reacts after being called for a foul against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first quarter in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Air Canada Centre on May 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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This is not only expected, but it’s also the move all of us would make. Unless you hate money.

Raptors big man Bismack Biyombo has a player option on his contract for next year, pick it up and he returns to the Raptors at $2.9 million. Or, he can decline the option and become a free agent, where he may make about $17 million a season. So what do you think he’s doing? From Marc Stein of ESPN:

Certainly, the Raptors can’t retain Biyombo’s services, it’s just going to be expensive to do so.

If $15 million (at least) seems a lot for a player who can only impact the defensive end of the floor because of poor hands and a limited offensive game, you would be correct. Welcome to the crazy cap-spike summer the NBA is about to experience. The market will be flooded with cash (at least 20 teams will be able to afford a max player) and players with a valuable skill hitting that market are going to get PAID. Biyombo can block shots and rebound like a beast, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA era those skills have value. Teams will live with having to play 4-on-5 on offense to have those skills on the roster.

The real question is which teams — the Lakers? — and how much of that cap space are they willing to give up for him? It’s going to be an interesting July.