After lackluster start, Team USA rallies to blow out Dominican Republic, secure group top spot

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Team USA has won the FIBA World Cup Group C.

Which is about as big a surprise as your mother forwarding an email with a cute cat video in it — we all knew that was coming. We’re all still waiting for something more interesting.

The USA grabbed the top spot with a 106-71 thrashing of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, improving to 4-0 in the World Cup. Team USA was not energetic and focused to start the game — they led just 25-22 after one quarter — but went on a 22-0 run late in the third into the fourth, turning a comfortable win into a laugher.

The USA has one group game left, Thursday against the Ukraine (ESPN 2 at 11:30 ET), then they start the knockout round Saturday in Barcelona against an opponent yet to be determined. That’s when things start to get interesting, although it may well be a couple games after that before the USA gets its first real test.

Once again Wednesday it was the energy of Kenneth Faried that led the way for Team USA, he had 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus pulled down six rebounds. He’s the big story right now — and to do it heading into a contract year is a good time to break out. DeMarcus Cousins had 13 points and six steals and brought some passion to the court, Anthony Davis finished with 10 points and five blocks as again it was the inside play of the Americans that anchored them and got them the win.

The Dominican Republic was without Houston Rockets swingman Francisco Garcia — he’s averaged 21 points a game and played 31 minutes a game so far this World Cup — who sat out with a sprained ankle. He tweaked it at the end of Tuesday’s game against Finland and with Thursday’s Dominican Republic game against Turkey determining whether or not they advance to the knockout stage (win and they move on, lose and it could get dicey), the Dominican Republic coaches wisely gave Garcia a game off. A game they weren’t going to win anyway.

Credit the Dominican roster, filled with guys who played college ball in the USA, for playing well early on. They slowed the game down at points, got back on defense in transition, ran a solid zone defense, made smart fouls and drove the lane. The problem was they struggled with the length of Team USA when they tried to finish those drives (DR shot just 39.6 percent on two pointers). The USA had five first quarter blocks and altered many more shots — the USA bigs were cleaning up a lot of messes.

It also was close early because the USA just missed stuff they normally make. Davis missed a couple dunks, Curry clanked a wide open three, and the USA started 2-of-7 from the free throw line. Just not in a rhythm, not playing with energy. USA struggled again against the zone.

The USA got a spark off the bench, particularly some chemistry between Cousins and Derrick Rose. It wasn’t a great statistical game for Rose — six points on five shots, three assist in 13 minutes — but his defense was better than the guys on the floor, he made some smart passes, and bottom line he was out there when the complexion of the game started to change. By the half the USA was up 15, 56-41, and had yet to go on a real run.

In the second half the USA played improved defense (the Dominican Republic scored just 30 points after the half) and with that started to really pull away and make this a rout.

Thursday’s game against Mike Fratello’s Ukranian team likely ends in pretty similar fashion.

Again for the USA there are legit areas of concern. There are the slow starts, we can pick apart the half court defensive decisions at times, not to mention the ball movement vs. too much isolation basketball ratio, but the USA seemed a little better about those things today (well, not the slow starts). It’s not easy to judge until they face a team they can’t just overwhelm, but that likely does not happen until the quarter or semi-finals next week.

Against Spain (or maybe Slovenia or Lithuania) these kinds of sloppy starts and defensive miscues could be real trouble. But the USA knew how this game would end and it’s human nature not to be as focused in those cases.

Thursday likely sees more of the same.

If Jeff Hornacek doesn’t work out with Knicks, is David Blatt next in line?

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It’s not fair to judge Jeff Hornacek of his first season as coach of the New York Knicks. Phil Jackson made some poor roster decisions — don’t hire a coach that likes to play fast then go sign Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah — and then there was the on again, off again, on again triangle offense looming over everything.

This season Hornacek will sink or swim on his own terms, and his ability to develop Kristaps Porzingis into a true franchise cornerstone and put Tim Hardaway Jr. and other young players in good positions around them.

If not, is former Cavaliers coach David Blatt lurking? Frank Isola of the New York Daily News says it’s something to watch.

Blatt, who has enjoyed tremendous success abroad, owns an impressive resume. No question about it. But you know the old saying, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And Blatt has connections with people in high places inside the Knicks front office, namely team president Steve Mills and newly hired front office executive Craig Robinson…

Mills is going to give Hornacek every opportunity to succeed in New York but Mills, who is said to have strong opinions about how the team should be coached, also wants to see results. That begins with Hornacek repairing his relationship with Kristaps Porzingis, who did not connect with the head coach last season and ultimately skipped his exit meeting with Jackson, Hornacek and Mills in April.

Repairing that relationship with Porzingis is crucial. We’ll see if Hornacek can do that and get this team moving in the right direction.

Blatt wants to return to the NBA, but his he the guy to connect with Porzingis? Blatt’s problems in Cleveland had far less to do with Xs and Os than it did relationships with players — Blatt was saying he wanted to team to play faster long before Tyronn Lue said that when he took over, but Lue could get players to buy in and listen. Blatt couldn’t. Blatt came in expecting to be handed respect, touting his European resume (that NBA players shrugged at), and demanding deference rather than building partnerships with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Blatt came off as needing to be the smartest guy in the room, always. Basically, Blatt could not handle the player/power dynamic in the NBA (coming out of Europe, where coaches have absolute power, like an American college coach). Has he learned how to deal with it?

Before we get to that question, Hornaced gets his shot. The real test for the Knicks comes after Christmas, when they spend most of a couple of weeks on the road (due to the Grammys coming to Madison Square Garden), it’s a tough couple of weeks, and the team could struggle in that stretch and not recover. Hornacek has to have the team playing well enough, and buying in enough by then, to survive that trip. Do that and he will stick around. If not, the sharks are circling.

Hawks commit more earnestly to rebuild, but enough?

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hawks were pretty good without a clear path forward.

Now, they’re pretty bad without a clear path forward.

Luckily for them – and despite their best efforts – they might be bad enough.

Atlanta continued its descent from its 60-win peak two years ago by losing its two best players. The Hawks let Paul Millsap leave for the Nuggets and traded Dwight Howard to the Hornets in what could be described as a salary rearrangement more than a salary dump.

After multiple half-measures toward rebuilding – refusing to offer Al Horford the max, trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver for first-round picks – Atlanta finally committed.

Kind of.

The Hawks hedged against full-on tanking by signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova. Those two big men – Dedmon in his prime, Ilyasova close enough to it – supply enough hustle and basketball intelligence to sabotage a proper tank. Coach Mike Budenholzer, whose teams tend to exceed the sum of their parts, won’t help Atlanta bottom out.

I can see breaking up a team with a playoff chance to torpedo high into the lottery. The Hawks aren’t doing that – not purposefully, at least. It appears they’re trying to remain credibly competitive, which could only undermine their rebuild.

Atlanta is rebuilding around Dennis Schroder, John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. The Hawks also have all their own first-rounders plus protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves, and Cavaliers. But the Houston pick is the only one of those extras that can ever land in the top 10, and that’s just top-three protected this season, a season in which the Rockets project to pick in the low 20s.

Simply, this is not an encouraging asset pool to begin a rebuild with. Atlanta would benefit greatly from a high 2018 pick.

The Hawks just don’t seem interested enough in securing one.

They also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha in free agency. Like the 32-year-old Millsap, the 33-year-old Sefolosha had no place on a team mostly rebuilding. The 25-year-old Hardaway could have fit into the next era or even as a trade chip, but not on the four-year, $71 million offer sheet the Knicks signed him to. Though Atlanta wisely passed on matching, it’s a shame to lose an asset for nothing.

That’s really the story of the Hawks’ descent. Millsap, Horford, Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll all walked in free agency. Atlanta was always reluctant to trade those players for value while it could.

I’m trying to grade only this offseason, not prior decisions. General manager Travis Schlenk took over this offseason, and he has the runway for a patient rebuild.

The Hawks wisely got a first-rounder for taking and buying out Jamal Crawford. Could they have found similar deals rather than signing Dedmon and Ilyasova? Could they have signed younger players instead?

The Hawks might hope they can trade Dedmon (two years, $12.3 million) and Ilyasova (one-year, $6 million) for even greater value, but that comes with complications. Dedmon has a $6.3 million player option for next season, so if his deal goes south, Atlanta is on the hook for another year. (If it goes well, Dedmon will become an unrestricted free agent and – fitting the theme – could just leave.) As a returning player on a one-year contract, Ilyasova can veto any trade.

If the Hawks had re-signed Millsap (and maybe Sefolosha, too), they could have made a decent case to return to the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Atlanta has the NBA’s second-longest active playoff streak, 10 seasons. That isn’t nothing, and continuing it would have been fine.

If the Hawks tried to return to the playoffs and failed, they would have ended up in a similar position to where they are now – somewhere in the lottery, but not necessarily high in it. They could have even traded Millsap – whose Denver deal guarantees him just $61 million over two years – for value.

If the future is murky either way, I’d rather be better in the interim.

Perhaps, Atlanta just tired of losing in the first or second round (though ownership and management has recently changed). That would have been the team’s likely ceiling if it re-signed Millsap.

But I just don’t see winning about 30 games as more pleasurable than reaching the playoffs, even with an early-round exit. A 30-win season doesn’t bring enough value in the draft to offset the difference.

Here’s the good news: The Hawks’ hedging probably didn’t go far enough. They might be downright terrible, anyway – positioning them to draft the elite young talent they badly need to galvanize their rebuild.

This was a D+ effort that stumbled into a slightly more favorable position – i.e., a team that struggles more than it expects.

Offseason grade: C-

Dunker Max Pearce throws down another impressive one (VIDEO)

Via _maxw3ll_ on Instagram
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These are the kinds of dunks that make me ask, should the NBA allow pro dunkers in the All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest. Some years you get the great Zach LaVine shows, but other years it’s down. NBA players need to focus on their game, not highlight dunks.

Guys like Max Pearce on the other hand…

Here is his latest.

But head to his Instagram page and you get to see a lot of dunks like this.

Stay creative 👍🏽 #Flynance 🏆

A post shared by Max Pearce (@_maxw3ll_) on

Warriors sign power forward Georges Niang to training camp contract

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The Golden State roster is locked in with 15 guaranteed contracts set for next season. We know what their opening day roster is going to look like (and it looks like a champion).

But the Warriors need extra bodies for training camp, so enter Georges Niang, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Niang was drafted in the second round, 50th overall, out of Iowa State in 2016, by Indiana. He played just 93 minutes total with the Pacers last season, he didn’t get much of a chance to impress in Summer League, and they moved on waiving him in July. Niang put up numbers in college, but there were questions about if he was athletic enough for the next level.

Staying in the G-League (formerly D-League) keeps him close to his NBA dream. If it doesn’t work out, in future years he can make a good paycheck overseas, but for now he chases the dream.