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USA sails past New Zealand for easy 98-71 win behind Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried

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Since a lot of big men stayed away from Team USA this summer — Kevin Love, Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge among them — the American squad on paper looked perimeter oriented. It was going to be about the guards in transition and raining threes on opponents.

Through three games at the World Cup, it has been the USA bigs that have stole the show.

Tuesday it was Anthony Davis — 21 points on 13 shots, plus 9 rebounds — and the energy of Kenneth Faried with 15 points and 11 rebounds that anchored an easy Team USA win over New Zealand, 98-71. Team USA shot 51.5 percent for the game to New Zealand’s 40.3 percent in a game that was never in doubt once All Blacks finished their Haka pre-game dance.

The USA is now 3-0 in pool play with a game Wednesday against the Dominican Republic and Thursday against the Ukraine. Both of those also should be comfortable wins for Team USA, which will win the group handily. After that comes the single-elimination knockout stage next week.

On Sunday a veteran Turkey squad laid out a blueprint for how to slow the game down and beat the Americans, but New Zealand just doesn’t have the players to execute that plan. They are without Steven Adams of the Thunder, the one big man who might have been able to match some of the energy and athleticism of Team USA up front. The talent gap was stark in this one and New Zealand could not control the pace (and if you’re going to beat the USA you have to slow the game down).

Faried helps spark that pace for the Americans. Back during training camp Mike Krzyzewski described Faried as an “energy specialist” but one he got thrown into the starting lineup when Durant bolted. Faried has been exactly what the team needed — there are guys on that roster who can coast for stretches (I’m looking at you, James Harden). Faried is the antidote for that — his hustle and effort infects the starting lineup. He brings defense and energy.

That energy had Team USA up early (and by 22 by the half) as they were getting points inside and Stephen Curry was hitting some shots from the outside (he had 12 points on the game, as did fellow “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson). Harden chipped in 13. As teams have to start packing it in on the USA bigs the guards should start to get better looks — if Team USA starts to move the ball better.

Of interest was that Coach K started Derrick Rose over Kyrie Irving for the second half, letting him get some run with the main guys to see how that went. Rose wasn’t terribly impressive, going 1-of-6 shooting for just two points. After the game Krzyzewski said the plan is for Rose to play in both of the next two games.

If you want to pick apart the USA their half court offense is a bit stagnant. They run some high pick-and-roll but basically they have a lot of one-on-one play, something they can get away with against New Zealand but could be an issue if they see Lithuania in the knockout round, and certainly vs. Spain in the gold medal game. On the defensive end of the court the USA tends to look for the aggressive play and lose their guys on back-cuts in system offenses, leading to some easy buckets allowed. Better teams will exploit that.

It’s the kind of thing Krzyzewski needs to show them on film and start to get fixed. It just didn’t matter against New Zealand Tuesday (and will not the next two days of group play, either).

Phil Jackson’s reaction to Kristaps Porzingis getting turned upside down feels about right

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New York Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis is the future of the franchise, so any time he’s upended and nearly lands on his noggin it’s a cause for concern. To say the least.

That’s what happened on Monday night, as Porzingis got turned upside down during a play near the basket during a game against the Detroit Pistons.

Porzingis was OK on the play, and Detroit big man Andre Drummond did his best to help catch him so nothing too scary happened.

Still, Knicks president Phil Jackson had a pretty hilarious reaction to the whole thing. I guess that’s what happens when you watch your basketball life flash before your eyes.

Porzingis was unhurt and played a full 37 minutes. New York beat Detroit, 109-95.

Jimmy Butler won’t pick LeBron over Durant as toughest matchup in NBA, and for good reason

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Chicago Bulls star Jimmy Butler is a smart dude. He’s spent years of offseason work turning himself into a max-level player, and that shows he knows not only how to work but how to attack the game of basketball.

He’s also smart enough to know he shouldn’t go poking the bear when it comes to two future Hall of Fame players in LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

When asked whether the Cleveland Cavaliers star or the Golden State Warriors scorer was the toughest matchup in the NBA, Butler made sure he wasn’t adding any kind of blackboard material to rile up either player.

Via Twitter:

The best way to defend LeBron or Durant: don’t make them angry.

Smart move, Jimmy.

Likely top-10 pick Dennis Smith Jr. of North Carolina State declares for draft

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This had long been expected, but now it is official.

North Carolina State freshman point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has declared for the NBA Draft. He made the announcement on ESPN saying playing in the NBA is his dream, reports the News & Observer.

“It was definitely an obtainable dream for me,” said in an interview on SportsCenter. “I knew I would chase it with all of my might.”

Smith is considered a top-10 pick (DraftExpress.com has him going seventh currently).

Smith had missed his senior year of high school ball with an ACL injury, but was named ACC Freshman of the Year after averaging 18.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. He had two triple-doubles as a freshman. He was also inconsistent. Smith had brilliant games and ones where he looked disinterested.

Smith is unquestionably explosive and athletic, and that makes him a threat both in the open court and getting to the rim off a pick-and-roll. He’s got good handles, he knows how to draw fouls, and you can see his potential to get buckets at the next level. His jump shot needs to be far more consistent to thrive at the next level, however. The questions about Smith are more about his ability to make good decisions and be a floor general. He knows how to survey the floor and create for himself, but can he figure out when to pass to set up teammates? Can he defend consistently? He needs smooth out the rough edges of his game, but the potential to be very good is there.

James Harden says playing in every game should matter in MVP voting

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James Harden has played in every Houston Rocket game this season so far. Russell Westbrook has done the same thing for Oklahoma City.

When voters sit down in a few weeks to choose the league’s Most Valuable Player — in one of the most wide-open races in memory, with Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James making legitimate cases as well — Harden says they should take playing every game into account. It’s the latest part of the rest discussion going on around the league. Here’s what Harden told Calvin Watkins of ESPN.

“Yeah, because you’re not leaving your teammates out there to dry, ” Harden said Tuesday morning, before the Rockets’ game against the Warriors. “For me, I worry about always having my teammates’ back and always being out there….

“I’m going to have [my teammates’] back and they know that they have mine as well,” said Harden, who is second in the league in points and first in assists. “For the coaching staff and the fans, especially here in Houston, the front office, I’m here to play.”

Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard have had rest nights.

This injects Harden into the rest debate, where recently Harden’s teammate Patrick Beverley came out and said players are “disrespecting the game” when they rest. Gregg Popovich sees more nuance in the debate and certainly backs resting players. On the latest PBT Podcast, former Bull B.J. Armstrong told me that they didn’t have rest days back in his day, but players were kept out of games for things they could play through to get right for the playoffs, it was just listed differently. He added that the rest situation might have been different back in the day if the data about the increased chance of player injuries on the second night of a back-to-back (and it goes up from there with four games in five nights) had been available.

In this case, Harden lobbying for his case in the MVP voting. The thing is, his numbers make the case for him: Harden is averaging 29.4 points per game, leading the league with 11.3 assists a night, and he’s creating the most points per game 27.5 (buckets and direct assists. He has taken on the point guard duties in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and has taken on the largest load on offense he has in his career — and he has continued to do it efficiently.

However, one can make a strong statistical case for Westbrook (who carries a larger load for an OKC team that has less talent around its star than Houston), Leonard (best defender of the group), and LeBron (the Cavs recent struggles may doom his chances).

Little details are going to divide this group, and Harden is trying to get his point out there.

That said, the Rockets are almost certainly locked into the three seed in the West, and once it’s clear they are in that slot team management should discuss giving Harden a night off before the playoffs, to let his body rest. Whether he wants to or not.

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