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US men’s basketball enters a new world – without its stars

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The jerseys say USA, though that’s about all that will be recognizable.

When the U.S. men’s basketball team returns to action later this month, fans might be left wondering, “the red, white and who?”

The Americans are cautiously entering a whole new basketball world, one in which not only are the best U.S. players not available, but neither are any in the NBA. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and the stars might show up in a few years for the Basketball World Cup and Olympics, but only if a group of minor leaguers can get them there.

It’s all part of FIBA’s new qualifying format and the road starts at the AmeriCup 2017. It’s a tournament the Americans don’t need to win – and aren’t sure they can – but one they have to play to make themselves eligible for the events that will matter.

“It’s going to be really interesting,” USA Basketball men’s national team director Sean Ford said. “We don’t know. We’re flying blind a little bit.”

Even the Americans’ best-known commodity is a bit of an unknown now.

Jeff Van Gundy coached in the NBA Finals and is analyst for them every year on ABC, but he’s leading the U.S. team as an international basketball rookie. He is busy brushing up on the nuances of a game that can be played and officiated completely differently than in the U.S.

He begins Thursday in Houston for training camp, where he will seek the 12 players who will travel to Uruguay and possibly Argentina for the AmeriCup and the potentially better-prepared opponents who wait.

“What we have to do is match and exceed their passion, how hard we play, how together we are as a group,” Van Gundy said, “because when the U.S. has not succeeded in international competitions, it’s because there wasn’t as much maybe sacrifice as you need, or maybe you were deficient in one skill that was important.”

It’s the Americans’ first appearance in the former FIBA Americas tournament since 2007. Their starting lineup in that romp to gold – James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Jason Kidd and Dwight Howard – was one of the strongest the U.S. has ever assembled.

The 17 players in camp with Van Gundy include Kendall Marshall, Reggie Williams, Darius Morris and Marshall Plumlee, players good enough to play in the NBA but not stick.

The Americans haven’t needed to play in their zone championship since because they’ve won every Olympic and world title, exempting them from qualifying. But FIBA has revamped its qualification system to look more like soccer’s, where national teams will play home-and-away games against teams in their pool.

But some of the windows are during the NBA season – the opening games are scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend – and players under NBA contract won’t be permitted to play. So the Americans plan to primarily use players from the NBA G League, with perhaps some who have been playing overseas.

“Look, no one’s going to feel sorry for us. But we know that this is different and we’re going to have to figure out how to be successful in a different model,” Ford said. “There’s always unknowns, but there’s probably more unknowns because No. 1, we don’t know how good we need to be. We don’t know how good we can be.”

Ford considers the prospective players a notch below the NBA, calling them “survivors, grinders, competitors.” That’s far from the level that suited up for Mike Krzyzewski for a decade or would play for Gregg Popovich in 2019 and 2020, but Van Gundy is eager to work with them in his first coaching assignment – not counting his daughter’s youth league – since he was fired by the Rockets in 2007.

“There’s very few LeBron James of the world – obviously one – or great players who have it easy. These guys’ careers have not been easy and so I really admire their persistence, their grit and their determination,” Van Gundy said. “To get to work with them and coach them, that was part of the pull for me.”

With limited time and options, the Americans know the AmeriCup could be a challenge. Ford said they hope to reach the semifinals in Argentina and see what happens from there.

They will need to start winning come November, when they open their first-round pool that includes Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba.

The U.S. has to finish in the top three there, playing their other windows of games in February and June-July, to advance to another pool that will include three teams among Argentina, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay, from Sept. 2018 to Feb. 2019.

Another top-three finish then would clinch their spot in China in 2019.

They will have a deeper field of candidates later who will be in shape from playing with their G League teams. But, they also could lose a player they like if he plays well enough for them in August to get a contract in the NBA or overseas.

There are many uncertainties, though Ford said there is one constant.

“From a USA Basketball standpoint,” he said, “if we’re going to put a team together, we’re going to try to put the best team together that we can and go out and try to win.”

Stephen Curry loses bet to JaVale McGee, must wear fanny pack to three games

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Outside of a couple of college campuses and a handful of people in Las Vegas sports books, not a lot of people were paying attention to the Davidson vs. Nevada college basketball game Tuesday night.

Also, the Warriors’ locker room cared — Davidson alum Stephen Curry and Nevada alum JaVale McGee had a bet.

Nevada stayed undefeated with a comfortable 81-68 win.

So the fashion conscious Curry is going to have wear a fanny pack as he arrives — and his rival is always met with cameras — for three Warriors games this season. Well played JaVale, well played.

Curry, I think there are designer fanny packs…

FLORENCE, ITALY – MAY 29: A model walks the runway at the Gucci Cruise 2018 show at Palazzo Pitti on May 29, 2017 in Florence, Italy. (Photo by Pietro D’Aprano/Getty Images)

 

J.R. Smith on Celtics start: “We don’t start paying attention until after All-Star break”

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I’m not sure any LeBron James team can fly under the radar, but the Cavaliers have relatively quietly won five in a row. Most importantly, in those five games, Cleveland’s defense is 8.6 points per 100 possessions better than their season average (and eighth in the league in that stretch). The Cavaliers may be finding their groove.

Not that anyone is noticing because Boston has rattled off 16 wins in a row to have the best record in the NBA.

Hey, J.R. Smith, are the Cavaliers paying attention to Boston’s hot start? (Via Bleacher Report.)

“Nah,” JR Smith told B/R when asked if they’re paying attention to the league-leading Celtics. “It’s too early. Too early. We don’t start paying attention until after All-Star break when you see teams spacing out (in the standings). You start getting your best shot after the All-Star break.”

Cleveland, even after the win streak, is 5.5 games back of the Celtics. While it’s too early to say anything with certainty, much like last season it seems probable that Boston will be the No. 1 seed and the Cavaliers will need to go on the road to secure another trip to the Finals. Which is just fine with the Cavs if they can be healthy and rested when the postseason rolls around.

Healthy means getting LeBron a little more rest at some point — he leads the NBA in minutes played at 37.9 per game, and he’s in his 15th season. He’s played more regular season games than Michael Jordan. At some point, the Cavaliers need to get him some rest.

But LeBron said postgame he’s not playing the hard minutes, yet.

“Are all 40-minute (games) created equal?” James repeated.

Dwyane Wade elaborated: “If you play 40 minutes and you’re banging around, or you play 40 minutes, an easy up-and-down? You still play 40 but it’s different.”

James: “Forty minutes in a playoff game and 40 in a regular-season game is totally different. For me and him, we don’t just sit on the perimeter. We’re slashing.”

Bucks’ Mirza Teletovic out 4 weeks; Henson to miss Suns game

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Injuries are thinning the Milwaukee Bucks’ frontcourt as they begin a Western Conference road trip.

The team says forward Mirza Teletovic is expected to miss four weeks following arthroscopic surgery on Tuesday to repair cartilage in his left knee. He has missed the last six games.

The 6-foot-9 Teletovic is a key player off the bench for Milwaukee. He is averaging 7.1 points in 10 games this season, shooting 46 percent from 3-point range.

The Bucks also say starting center John Henson will miss Wednesday night’s game in Phoenix after what they call a “successful eye procedure.”

Henson is expected to rejoin the Bucks before Saturday’s game at Utah. He is averaging 6.7 points and 6.6 rebounds.

Guard Matthew Dellavedova also remains out with left knee tendinitis.

Three Things to Know: If playoffs started today Lakers would be the eight seed

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) After beating Bulls, if playoffs started today Lakers would be the eight seed. The Lakers have been better than advertised this young season… but a playoff team?

Yes. If the playoffs started today, the Lakers would be the eighth seed.

While everyone seems to focus on Lonzo Ball’s lack of a jumper (he was 3-of-13 Tuesday, 2-of-8 from three), the Lakers have produced the fourth-best defense in the NBA, allowing just 100.3 points per 100 possessions. It’s a shocking improvement from the team with the worst defense in the NBA last season, they are allowing 10.3 points fewer per 100 possessions than a season ago. Los Angeles runs out a long, athletic lineup with a well-positioned backstop big in Brook Lopez in the paint. Maybe fourth in the NBA is not sustainable (teams are shooting just 31.9 percent from three against L.A., and that’s not so much defense as luck), but the Lakers are improved defensively.

That defense keeps the Lakers in games, then thanks to flurries from an inconsistent offense the Lakers 8-10 to start the season after knocking off the Chicago Bulls 103-94. Chicago led by 19 in the second and early third, but the Lakers rallied behind Julius Randle and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

The Western Conference that was expected to be so deep going into the season is watching good teams stumble (Oklahoma City) and other teams struggle with injuries (Memphis, Utah, L.A. Clippers). It has opened the door for now, and the Lakers have stepped in. Or, at least not fallen out.

I still don’t expect the Lakers in the postseason when we get to April, and their young core is still a work in progress, but this start is a big boost to the confidence of the team. It’s a step in the direction they want to go.

2) Denver loses Paul Millsap for three months due to wrist surgery. Last season, Denver had one of the worst defenses in the NBA. This season they are middle of the pack — a substantial improvement. Paul Millsap is a big part of that, the Nuggets have been 4.5 points per 100 possessions better when Millsap has been on the court this season.

Which is why it’s going to hurt so much that he is out to have wrist surgery, he is out three months or so (think return after the All-Star Game).

Millsap inked a team-friendly three-year, $90 million contract with Denver over the summer (the third season is not guaranteed). He is averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, numbers are down a little from previous years (as were his shots as he adjusted), but things have looked up lately. Millsap seemed to be finding a groove during the recent streak when Denver won 4-of-5. He and the Nuggets were figuring out how to play together. Now that is on hold, and Denver goes from a team that looked like a playoff lock in the West to one to watch. Injuries are shaping the West playoff race right now in a massive way.

3) Worst. Free throw. Ever. This was on Shaqtin’ last week, but it is too good not to post, in case you haven’t seen it.

"This is the worst free throw of all-time!" 😂 Shaq goes overseas for Week 5's #Shaqtin winner 🏆

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