Kurt Helin

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Serbia, Croatia earn Olympic basketball berths; Canada, France to play for final spot

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Serbia and Croatia are Brazil bound.

France or Canada will get the only Olympic basketball spot left.

Serbia emphatically claimed its first Olympic appearance as an independent country Saturday, crushing Puerto Rico 108-77 in the championship game of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament it hosted in Belgrade. Bogdan Bogdanovic had 26 points and eight assists, while tournament MVP Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets added 23 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

Part of an international basketball power in the former Yugoslavia, Serbia made the Olympics for the first time since it became an independent nation in 2006. It appeared two years earlier as Serbia and Montenegro.

Serbia beat Puerto Rico by just six points earlier this week in group play but left no doubt this one wouldn’t be close. The Serbians raced to a 24-3 lead and were ahead 37-11 after one quarter, extended it to 60-27 at halftime, and shot 58.7 percent for the game.

Croatia had a much tougher time, outlasting Italy 84-78 in overtime in Turin, Italy. Bojan Bogdanovic of the Brooklyn Nets scored 26 points, former Philadelphia 76ers lottery pick Dario Saric added 18 points and 13 rebounds, and the Croatians qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 2008.

The other final is Sunday in Manila, Philippines, where Canada gets a second shot to claim the Olympic berth that slipped away last year when it blew a late lead and was stunned by Venezuela in the semifinals of the FIBA Americas tournament.

Cory Joseph of the Toronto Raptors scored 23 points and Tristan Thompson of the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers added 13 points and 10 rebounds Saturday in a 78-72 victory over New Zealand.

France beat Turkey 75-63 in the other semifinal, getting 17 points from Thomas Heurtel.

After Sunday’s final, there will be a draw to place the three champions in the Rio field. Two of them will end up in the same group as the two-time defending champion U.S.

Along with the Americans, the other teams who have already qualified for the 12-team field are Spain, Lithuania, Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, China, Australia and Nigeria.

Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

Celtics owner on Celtics’ roster: “our work is not yet done”

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Boston is one of the winners of summer free agency, along with Golden State, Memphis, and Utah. The Celtics make the list because they landed Al Horford, the second best free agent on the market. They got better immediately — Boston is probably the second best team in the East now — and it opens the doors for future free agents.

And Boston isn’t done this summer; they are looking hard at trades, according to the team’s lead owner Wyc Grousbeck. Via Kevin O’Connor of CSNNE.com:

“Well, I feel the phones are definitely ringing. Danny is definitely talking to people for sure, and has indicated that our work is not yet done,” Grousbeck said at the Celtics practice facility in Waltham. “But I’ve got to say that I feel good about this team and I feel patient. We have draft picks coming up. We have a long-term strategy. I don’t just want [Banner] 18. I want 19 and 20.”

Ainge supported those comments, telling reporters in Utah, “We are still looking at doing deals and we’re certainly not finished for the summer.”

By landing Horford as a free agent, the Celtics didn’t lose any of their assets — nice young role players, picks (including one more unprotected one from Brooklyn) — they can put in a trade to get the kind of star player that would put the Celtics into contender status. Ainge will keep looking for those.

With the moves in Chicago, Jimmy Butler is off the table as an option, and despite the wishes of many in Boston DeMarcus Cousins was never seriously on it (maybe after this season… maybe). Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel are available, but the Celtics likely don’t spend too much to get them.

Danny Ainge should keep his powder dry to see if some of the big potential trade names — Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin, others — come on the block. Which will happen. He needs one more real difference maker, and with Horford in the fold it’s easier to land that next one. He just has to be patient.

So do Celtics fans. Which is less likely than Ainge sticking to his plan.

Dwyane Wade speaks out on racial violence, aims for change

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MIAMI (AP) — All-Star guard Dwyane Wade said Saturday that he intends to try to find ways to stop racial violence, and that he has friends who are willing to commit to the cause.

“I think this is a worldly thing. This is not just an African-American thing,” said Wade, who will be signing soon with the Chicago Bulls. “We all believe in one common goal, to stop the violence.”

Two of Wade’s closest friends – Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James – have spoken out on social media in recent days in response to two recent shootings of black men by police officers. Then Thursday in Dallas, five police officers were killed and seven others wounded; one of the suspects allegedly said he was targeting white officers.

Anthony’s message included the words: “There’s NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore.”

Wade said he loved seeing Anthony say that.

“As an athlete and as a person who has this platform, we like to sell things, we like to be on commercials, we like to do all these things,” Wade said. “But when things come up in life I think you have a responsibility as a face of this world, if you believe in something to get behind that.”

This will not be the first time Wade tackles a polarizing issue. When unarmed teen Trayvon Martin was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer in a gated Central Florida community in 2012, Wade and James – then members of the Heat – arranged a team photo with all players in hoodies, just as Martin wore on the night he was killed.

“It’s awful. It’s always been awful,” Wade said. “Now because of all these cameras and social media, we’re able to see it more. We have to do better. It’s going to take certain people to lend their voice, lend their time to do that. I’m happy to say that I have friends that are willing to do that. We’ll all get together to see what we can do and we can go from there.”

Wade’s foundation also plans on trying to develop safe-havens for kids in Chicago, his hometown and a place that has long been dealing with a gun-violence epidemic. Wade had a nephew injured by gunfire in Chicago in 2012.

James Harden signs four-year, $118 million contract extension to stay with Rockets

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Even when a player wants to stay with his current team, the CBA makes it generally better for them to become a free agent and re-sign with that team than to take a contract extension.

But the glut of cap space for the Rockets allowed them to set up a new four-year, $118 million deal that keeps James Harden as the core of the franchise that now wants to get out and run under coach Mike D’Antoni. Harden gets a raise this season and next on his existing contract — eating up some of the Rockets’ cap space — and then adds two seasons beyond that, with the final year being a player option. Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports has the breakdown.

Harden talked about the extension at a press conference.

This is a good deal for the Rockets, who lock up their best player at what is now a slightly below market rate. It’s a good deal for Harden as he gains a little security and gets a nearly $10 million raise this season and next over the contract he was on (which was a max when he signed it).

If Harden shows up in shape this training camp, expect a big season from him. Like maybe leading the league in scoring (I’d bet on him or Russell Westbrook).

The Rockets have had a solid offseason, shifting the roster around to one that better fits what Mike D’Antoni wants to do. They are not a threat to Golden State — Houston will be a mess defensively — but they should take a step forward off last season, plus be entertaining. Which is an improvement.

Larry Bird on free agency: “I couldn’t imagine going to the Lakers and playing with Magic Johnson”

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Do you want to know the biggest reason Larry Bird never left the Boston Celtics in his prime?

He couldn’t.

Free agency as we understand it didn’t exist until 1988, that was after Bird had won his MVPs and titles. Before 1988, even if your contract was up, you could only leave your team if they let you and the team signing you sent them compensation (more of a trade than free agency). Good teams didn’t have to let their best players leave, so they didn’t. We’ll never know how Bird (or Magic or any superstar pre-Jordan) would have handled true free agency as it exists today.

Of course, that’s not how Bird remembers it. No doubt he’s as competitive as anyone who ever played the game, and in speaking with on “SiriusXM NBA Radio” with hosts Mark Boyle and Chris Spatola Bird compared his era with this one and what Kevin Durant did in free agency.

“Well, it’s hard, Mark, because when these players get together and go play it just makes them a lot stronger.  But that’s why we have free agency.  If they stay within the rules I have no problem with it and I’m happy for them but you like to be on a team where you can be competitive.  I know back in the day I couldn’t imagine going to the Lakers and playing with Magic Johnson.  I’d rather try to beat him.  But, you know, these guys are different and I understand a lot of it and it’s within the rules so they can do whatever they do.  I can remember years ago we were fighting, when I played, for free agency, you know, pure free agency so there’d be more movement.  But I could never imagine myself going and joining another team with great players because I had great players and I was in a great situation.”

This will be fuel for the “Durant took the easy way out” crowd, even though with this move Durant put more pressure on himself. Durant had earned the right to choose his working environment, and the same people who will judge him on how many rings he won now complain he took the best route to getting himself those rings — which makes these people hypocrites. Welcome to the Internet.

We’ll never know how Bird and Magic’s careers might have been different — and how the super teams they were lucky enough to be drafted into and were built around them would have changed — in the kind of free agency we have now. Different eras in the NBA are hard to compare for those reasons. But take to the comments and tell me how I’m wrong and everything used to be better back when you were younger — “Make the NBA Great Again.”