Kurt Helin

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Report: Raptors in near deal to extend general manager Masai Ujiri

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Masai Ujiri has overseen the building of the best teams in Toronto Raptors history — last season they won a franchise record 56 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time. Also, the core of that team is locked up for years to come. All that in the season the organization hosted its first ever All-Star Game. Things have never been better for the Raptors.

So extending the GM that put it all together makes sense, something that may happen soon according to Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.

Sources said the Raptors and Ujiri are nearing agreement on a lucrative new deal that will keep the 46-year-old in Canada for the foreseeable future, even though he still has nearly two years left on the original five-year, $15 million pact he signed with Toronto in May 2013.

There had been rumors that the Knicks and other teams may try to poach Ujiri, this extension makes that far less likely.

Smart move by Toronto. Remeber Ujiri came to the Raptors and turned them around, amazingly getting something more than a rack of shootaround basketballs back for Andrea Bargnani (thanks for the first round pick, Knicks), plus engineering the Rudy Gay trade. Ujiri deserves a lot of credit for where he’s gotten the Raptors (although how they might grow to challenge Cleveland is hard to see) and he deserves the new contract.

Tweet, tweet: US hoop team hearing whistles in Rio Games

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — When the U.S. Olympic team’s charter bus pulled up outside Flamengo Club before practice, police officers closed off the street and one of the motorcycle escorts jumped off his bike and immediately started blowing his whistle.

That’s been a familiar noise to the Americans in Rio.

Unbeaten but no longer unchallenged following a very physical, 98-88 win over Australia, the two-time defending gold medalists are still adjusting to FIBA’s rules and officials, who call a different game than the one U.S. players have grown accustomed to at home and in the NBA.

“It’s weird, actually,” U.S. forward Kevin Durant said when asked to describe the differences. “I can’t even explain it.”

With 10 first-time Olympians, America’s star-studded squad, 3-0 heading into Friday’s matchup against Serbia, is learning on the fly what’s a foul, what’s not, what they can get away with and what they can’t.

Right now, starting center DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t have a clue.

The Sacramento star might as well have bought a ticket and sat in the stands at Carioca Arena 1 for the past two games. Cousins played only eight minutes before fouling out of a 44-point win over Venezuela and he was limited to just 10 minutes against the Aussies after picking up three quick fouls in the first half and No. 4 in the third quarter.

The 6-foot-10 Cousins managed to score 6 points and grabbed eight rebounds during his brief outing against the Aussies, who didn’t back down against the world’s top-ranked team and may have bent the rules as far as possible with their aggressiveness. Cousins didn’t hide his displeasure about a couple calls that went against him, and angrily stormed to the bench where some of his teammates tried to calm him down and encourage him.

It’s nothing new to U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has seen Olympic rookies struggle to adjust to the nuances of international basketball. Every player has to deal with it, but sometimes big men are an easy target.

“First of all, you get frustrated,” Krzyzewski said. “You can’t get into a rhythm of playing. A couple of the times, they’re not fouls. They’re just not fouls. But early on in the game, people like to set a tone in how the game is administered. So sometimes, they set it in the post. And so something is called a little bit closer than it would be five minutes later. And I just told him, `You’re a human being. You should be frustrated. Let’s just move on to the next thing and see if we can handle that going forward, because we need you.’

“In the amount of minutes he’s been in there, he’s performed very well. We need him to play more.”

The Americans will need him against the Serbs, one of the tournament’s most physically imposing teams.

Despite the loss, Australia, which has never won an Olympic medal but has its sights on one in Brazil, showed it might be effective to push the Americans. The U.S. team was slow to push back and didn’t seal one of its closest wins in recent Olympics until the fourth quarter, when Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving carried the Americans in the final minutes.

It wasn’t as much a wake-up call to the U.S. players as a reminder that everyone in the field is aiming at them.

“It was a good test for us, we definitely needed that,” Durant said. “They challenged us. I know we were expected to win the game and expected to be perfect. But every time I have played for Team USA we’ve had those types of games. We went into overtime in Turkey against Brazil in 2010 and then were tied up with Lithuania with a minute to go in 2012. So you go through those games no matter what. We got the biggest spotlight and the biggest bulls-eye on our back.

“Everybody wants to beat us so there are going to be games like that.”

U.S. forward Paul George said he and his teammates may have gotten a little lax after blowouts over China and Venezuela. As he said after the Australia game, “It got real.”

“I think the biggest lesson was not being content with where we’re at,” he said. “We’ve been so great defensively and put up such huge margins of victory that the second they raised the level we kind of relaxed. We just got to stay consistent throughout the tournament.”

Krzyzewski is teaching his internationally inexperienced team – only Anthony and Durant are returnees from the London team – to watch their behavior when calls aren’t going their way. He has implored his players to show restraint so as not to make things worse.

“They’re not cheating us is what I tell the guys,” he said. “Don’t ever get into that. They’re not cheating us. We just have to react to it differently. Over 10 years ago, we all were saying, `We’re getting cheated.’ We’ve not bought into that for a decade and we’re not going to do it now.”

Pau Gasol, Spain hold off Nigeria 96-87 in men’s basketball

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Pau Gasol scored 24 points, Ricky Rubio added 15 and Spain rallied for a crucial 96-87 win over Nigeria 96-87 on Thursday night in men’s basketball.

The teams began the game in a nearly empty arena as security officials prevented fans from entering while police exploded a suspicious backpack left near a public restroom. The explosion reverberated inside and out Carioca Arena. Fans were allowed in later in the first quarter.

Rudy Fernandez added 13 points for Spain, which began the tournament with losses to Croatia and Brazil. Another loss would have put the defending silver medalists in danger of not advancing past pool play.

Spain trailed by one point entering the fourth, when they turned to Olympic veterans Gasol, Rubio and Fernandez.

Chamberlain Oguchi scored 24 and Josh Akognon 12 for Nigeria, which was within 83-82 but couldn’t come up with big plays down the stretch.

Set the DVR: 10 must-watch games this NBA season

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The NBA schedule is out — all 1,230 games this season are locked in place.

There’s a lot to like in the schedule. For example, no team has more than one four games-in-five-nights stretch, something the league has worked hard to cut down on (teams struggle in that final game). The league also continued its decrease of back-to-backs, with the league average now 16.3 such games per team (it was 17.8 last season and 19.3 the season before that). Spreading out the games leads to a better product.

With so many games to watch, we thought we’d highlight 10 where you should either carve out the evening to watch, or at least set the DVR and avoid your phone so you can watch and savor them. Here are the 10 must watch games of the season.

Opening night, Oct. 25:  New York at Cleveland. Carmelo AnthonyDerrick Rose, Joakim Noah and crew get to watch LeBron James hoist the first championship banner to go up in Cleveland in 52 years. This also could turn out to be an entertaining game — it’s too early in the season for the Knicks’ players bodies to have broken down, and teams often stink up the joint on the night of the banner/ring ceremony. Maybe the Knicks can pull the opening night upset.

Nov. 4: New York at Chicago. This is more than just the two rosters best built to win the 2011 NBA title, this is the return of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to Chicago. They should get a warm reception (especially the beloved Noah). The interesting question: Which one of these teams is better this season? 

Nov. 10: Chicago at Miami. Dwayne Wade returns to South Beach wearing a Bulls uniform. Expect Heat fans to boo him, after they show up in the second quarter. This is another early season matchup of teams with relatively lofty playoff expectations that they may struggle to live up to, but wins like this help.

Dec. 9: Toronto at Boston. These two look like the second and third best teams in the East (although Indiana might have something to say about that) and this is the first meeting of the season. When they get together, the games should tell us a lot. Hopefully.

Dec. 13: Minnesota at Chicago. Tom Thibodeau returns to Chicago, coaching a younger, more athletic team — the kind of team Bulls fans (and about 25 other franchise fan bases around the league) wish they had to cheer for. Everyone is expecting a leap out of the Timberwolves this season.

Dec. 25: Christmas Day: Golden State at Cleveland. Do we need to explain this one? Don’t eat so much Christmas ham that you fall asleep during the fourth quarter. 

Dec. 25: Christmas Day:  Minnesota at Oklahoma City. While the Finals rematch noted above is the marquee matchup with all the big stars on Christmas Day, this may be the most interesting game. With Karl-Anthony Towns as their star, the Timberwolves are a team on the rise, but how big a leap are they going to make under Thibodeau? Conversely, how big a step back are the Thunder going to take without Kevin Durant? By Christmas we may have an answer to those questions, but this is a fascinating matchup. 

Jan. 13: Boston at Atlanta. It’s almost halfway through the season before Al Horford makes his return to Atlanta wearing Celtics’ green. Will Hawks fans boo him? And is Paul Millsap going to go off for a monster night to remind Horford of what he left?

Jan. 16: Cleveland at Golden State. Will the visitor’s locker room still smell like champagne? This is the Cavaliers’ one trip to Oracle Arena this season, and both times these teams meet we should watch the Finals rematch and likely preview.

Feb 11: Golden State at Oklahoma City. Thunder fans are going to be there to boo Kevin Durant early and often. He’s the villain now, and not just in OKC. Durant is going to find that’s a mental adjustment, just like LeBron did in Miami. Expect Westbrook to score at least 50 in this game.

March 11: Golden State at San Antonio. Even with all the changes — no Tim Duncan, instead Pau Gasol; and Durant forming a Bay Area superteam — these still are likely the two top teams in the West and they face off relatively late in the season. If any team is going to threaten Golden State in the West, the Gasol/LaMarcus Aldridge/Kawhi Leonard Spurs are the best bet.

 

 

Pelicans to bring Robert Sacre, Chris Copeland into training camp

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The New Orleans Pelicans already have 15 guaranteed contracts on the books for next season, the max number they can carry into the season.

They also have depth questions along the front line. Anthony Davis is still a flat-out stud — everyone seemed to think he had a down season last go around, he averaged 24.3 points and 10.3 rebounds a game with a PER of 25 (ninth best in the NBA). So yes, he sucked (read that again, but do it sarcastically, as intended). After that things thin out. They have players such as Omer Asik, Cheick Diallo, Alexis Ajinca, and Kendrick Perkins. I hope to see some Davis at center Solomon Hill as a small ball four lineups, but that will be an experiment too. It’s fair to question the quality of their depth up front.

Which is why the Pelicans are going to make training camp interesting.

Robert Sacre or Chris Copeland would need to play surprisingly well for the Pelicans to eat the contract of Terrence Jones or Alonzo Gee and put them on the roster. The two new additions are auditioning for other jobs more than necessarily landing one in New Orleans.

But the Pelicans are looking for guys that fit along their front line, this is a team that wants to get back on the trajectory we thought we saw a couple of seasons ago.