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.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop a triple-double in epic battle with James Harden (VIDEO)

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HOUSTON (AP) Lou Williams scored 31 points off the bench, James Harden finished with 22 points and 12 assists, and the Houston Rockets never trailed while cruising to a 137-125 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.

Russell Westbrook had 39 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists for his second straight triple-double and his 36th this season, but Harden led the Rockets to a 25-point lead through three quarters in the matchup between top MVP candidates.

Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon added 24 points apiece for the Rockets, whose lead was trimmed to eight on a 3-pointer by Westbrook with about 90 seconds left. The Rockets scored four quick points after that to secure the victory.

Harden left late in the game after crashing into the court and appearing to injure his left wrist but said in a TV interview he expected to be OK.

Houston jumped out to a 9-0 lead and was up by at least 20 for most of the game. It was a stark change from the first three games between these teams this season, which were decided by a combined seven points.

Williams made 11 of 15 shots, going 7 of 8 on 3-pointers. He didn’t miss a shot until his layup was blocked by Jerami Grant early in the fourth quarter.

Houston won its fourth straight overall and has won nine of their past 12 games against the Thunder.

The Rockets shot 71 percent in the first half, and Harden made a layup before grabbing a rebound and hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend Houston’s lead to 113-88 entering the fourth quarter.

The Thunder chipped away with a 12-4 run midway through the fourth quarter to get within 126-114 with 4 minutes left. Williams hit a 3-pointer after that to slow down the Thunder the team’s late run.

The Rockets had a 16-point lead in the third quarter before they used a 13-4 run to make it 108-83 with about 90 seconds left in the quarter. Williams had two 3-pointers in that stretch and a highlight came when Houston stripped the ball from Westbrook and Harden dished to Ariza, who finished with another 3. The run wrapped up with an alley-oop dunk from Harden to Clint Capela, but Capela received a technical on the play for hanging on the rim.

Mike D’Antoni received a technical seconds later for arguing that call.

Houston had built a 79-59 lead by halftime thanks in part to nearly perfect 3-point shooting by Trevor Ariza and Williams. Ariza made four of five attempts and had 16 points at the break, and Williams was a perfect 6 for 6 overall, with four 3-pointers to pile up 18 points in the first two quarters.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Victor Oladipo finished with 15 points. … Steven Adams and Alex Abrines scored 11 points apiece.

Rockets: Houston’s 79 points were the most the team has scored in a half this season. … Sunday was the 12th time this season where the Rockets had 100 points before the fourth quarter. … Williams had at least 20 points off the bench for the 29th time this season.

ANDERSON’S HEALTH

Houston’s Ryan Anderson will miss about two weeks after spraining his right ankle on Friday night against the Pelicans. D’Antoni hopes Anderson will recover in time to play the last couple of regular-season games and be at full strength for the start of the playoffs.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Visit Dallas on Monday.

Rockets: Host Golden State on Tuesday.

Watch every one of Jimmy Butler’s career-high 14 assists in win over Bucks (VIDEO)

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler seems to be thriving without backcourt teammate Dwyane Wade. On Sunday in a win against the Milwaukee Bucks, Butler dished out a career-high 14 assists to go along with 20 points, six rebounds, and three steals.

Butler, 27, helped Chicago to a 109-94 win over the Bucks. He looked good doing it, dropping dimes off of both the pick-and-roll and while coming off screens.

The NBA put together a handy little video to be able to check out all of Butler’s assists.

Clippers blow 18-point lead, lose in final 2 seconds on putback to Kings (VIDEO)

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The Los Angeles Clippers had a rough go of things against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday. Up by 18 with more than five minutes to go, LA blew their lead and were left to watch as the Kings sealed the game late.

The final possession for Sacramento came on a missed corner 3-pointer by Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. The Kings got the outlet pass out on the rebound, but Ben McLemore took it to the rack and missed. That’s when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped in, cleaned up the board, and put the game-winning shot home with less than two seconds left.

Los Angeles lost in spectacular fashion, and became the only team this season to lose given their game situation.

Here’s a compilation the NBA put together of Sacramento’s epic comeback:

Meanwhile, Chris Paul called it the worst regular season loss of his career.

The Clippers peaked too soon. Like, the first 20 games of the season too soon.

Russell Westbrook throws incredible halfcourt bounce pass vs. Rockets (VIDEO)

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Russell Westbrook had yet another triple-double on Sunday. The Oklahoma City Thunder star notched 13 assists in the loss to the Houston Rockets, 137-125, and one of them came on a nifty pass to teammate Victor Oladipo.

The play happened with the Thunder on the fastbreak early in the third quarter. Westbrook was moving from left-to-right across the middle of the floor with the ball while Oladipo streaked down the right wing.

With the Rockets defense collapsing, Westbrook reached halfcourt and fired a bounce pass that sliced through the opposition.

Oladipo finished with the clean dunk.

Still not sure it beats this one, but I think we’ll have to compare once the season comes to a close.