Kurt Helin

Lithuania outlasts Serbia, headed to Rio Olympics


It wasn’t pretty. The winning team shot 14.3 percent from three. The team that shot 32.8 percent overall only lost by three. The referees allowed a wrestling match in the paint (then called some random fouls, because it’s FIBA). It was a defensive slugfest that saw 43 free throws in 40 minutes of play.

But it was entertaining.

Lithuania will take it. All game long they would make runs and gain a little separation only to see previously unbeaten Serbia charge back. It happened again late in the fourth quarter when Lithuania got a little room to breathe only to have Serbia’s Milos Teodosic hit a leaning three to make it a one-point game with 14 seconds to go. Serbia had their chance, however after an ugly Bogdan Bogdanovic turnover Lithuania held on to win, 67-64. With the victory, Lithuania advances to the EuroBasket Finals to face Spain.

More importantly, Lithuania earns an automatic berth in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Serbia will need to go through next summer’s qualifying tournaments to get in the Brazilian dance (although they will be a favorite to do so).

Lithuania was led by Raptor big man Jonas Valanciunas, who had 15 points and four blocked shots. Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Renaldas Seibutis each had 13, but the guy whose line told the story of this game was Mantas Kalnietis: 12 points nine assists, eight turnovers. Kalnietis was alternately making plays or doing something sloppy that kept Serbia in it.

We saw that in the first half. Lithuania had led by as many as 11 in the second quarter and was controlling play with their physical defense, but a few missed shots and turnovers sparked a Serbian run in the final couple minutes of the half, and it was a one-point game at the break.

In the third quarter, Serbia tried to so smaller and at first it didn’t work, and again it looked like Lithuania might pull away. But Lithuania was ice-cold from three (and they missed a lot of good looks), and by the time there was just four minutes left in the third the tide had turned and Serbia had taken the lead. Then things swung again by the end of the third it was Lithuania up by 5.

And so it went. Back and forth, right down to the end. After the Teodosic three to make it a one-point game with 14 seconds left, Serbia fouled but Lithuania only hit one of the two free throws — it was a two-point game. Rather than set up a play or give the ball to the hot hand of Teodosic, Bogdanovic got the ball, drove before the defense could set and put up a wild shot trying to draw the foul. He failed. Lithuania got the rebound and it was all but over.

Teodosic had 16 points to lead Serbia. He has been rumored to want to jump to the NBA before, but he wanted to get paid to do it. Incoming Timberwolves rookie Nemanja Bjelica added 10 (and looked like a guy with potential but who needs to sharpen his body and skills to impact the NBA).

51 Q: Can Cousins, Rondo, Karl all just get along?

Atlanta Hawks v Sacramento Kings

PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Can DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo, and George Karl get along well enough to lead Sacramento back to the playoffs?

The last time the Sacramento Kings took part in a playoff game, you were walking around singing “So Sick” from Ne-Yo and were meeting your friends to see “Phat Girlz” at the theater. Well, maybe not because nobody really went and saw Phat Girlz at the theater. But you get the idea, it’s been a while. Nine seasons to be specific.

On paper, the Kings have the talent to keep that from becoming 10. DeMarcus Cousins is the best traditional center in the game today, he’s a beast who averaged 24.1 points and 12.7 rebounds a game last season. Rudy Gay is a 20 point a game wing player. Rajon Rondo is a former All-Star point guard who even last season led the league in assist chances per game — he can still dish the rock. There are quality rotation players such as Marco Belinelli, Darren Collison, Kosta Koufos, Caron Butler, and Omri Casspi, plus an intriguing rookie in Willie Cauley-Stein. All coached by one of the winningest coaches in NBA history, George Karl.

Or, the entire thing could blow up.

There seems to be no middle ground with the Kings this season — either they are a playoff team (or close to it, the West is deep), or things get ugly fast.

It all comes down to one simple question: Can some headstrong players and a stubborn coach all get along?

Kings players were bonding all summer (Cousins even went to Israel with Casspi), and a lot of that was done without Karl around. Sources around the Kings think the players have started to bond, in part over their dislike of Karl — and that could bring them together and make it all work.

There’s the other simple fact of NBA life: Winning solves a lot of chemistry problems. If the Kings can get there.

Cousins has been understandably frustrated with ownership’s constant changing of directions in recent years. Last season he formed a great bond with coach Mike Malone, who had changed the culture in that team’s locker room. Then Malone was fired mid-season, reportedly because owner Vivek Ranadive wanted to run more. They got Karl to put in that up-tempo system.

Karl and Cousins have already had a feud because Karl reportedly pushed to trade Cousins (something Ranadive and GM Vlade Divac oppose, so don’t expect it). Cousins responded on Twitter calling Karl a “snake in the grass.” Now the two have sat down and talked, but the underlying tension has not gone away.

“All our guys are hungry for winning, but Cuz is our best player, most talented kid,” Karl told PBT this summer (before he met with Cousins). “We need him to feel like there’s a commitment from both sides. He to us and us to him.”

Then there is a headstrong point guard in Rondo who likes to call his own plays — just ask Rick Carlisle — trying to mix with Karl, a coach who has feuded with more than one of his former stars. Add in the fact Rondo is on a one-year contract, so he could have an eye on his numbers, not just the win column.

“He’s a very basketball high IQ guy,” Karl said of Rondo. “He’s going to challenge us as coaches because I think he knows the game and he’ll have some things; we’ll probably some give and take on. But this kid’s an All-Star, he’s a triple-double machine when he’s playing well. He likes to lead teams, he leads teams with a spirit that has some toughness to it.

“He’s a pass-first point guard, which I think is important. In the end, he and Darren (Collison) really excite me. We’re going to have two guys who can take control of the team, play together, and keep the pace of the game where we can play with a lot of freedom and creativity, and also play without turnovers…

“I think it’s going to be fun coaching (Rondo). I think he wants to lead our team, but he also wants to be a part of the decision making. That can be somewhat combustible, but that also can work at a high level.”

Combustible is a good word for these Kings.

These Kings could use that combustible fuel to jet higher up in the standings than anyone expects, or they could just explode.

In recent years, Sacramento has not been the kind of stable environment you want for handling volatile compounds. It leads to doubts about how good this team will be; there’s a feeling that things could just be shaken up at any time. Or, maybe the Kings have started to figure it out — they have to prove that, but maybe.

The bottom line, because they are combustible, they are must watch TV.

Hawks use Ashley Madison parody to sell tickets

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Ashley Madison, the website fueling the fantasies of cheating husbands around the world, has been all over the news this summer and sent everyone involved with it running in the opposite direction.

Except the Atlanta Hawks — they have gone for the parody. All in the name of selling tickets. From their press release sent out Friday: “The Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club announced today that they have signed three real-life people named Ashley Madison to promote the team’s new 10-game flex plans.”

Those plans let people buy 10 tickets and choose games in the package, of course using a “cheating on your other team” theme.

You can see the first video from this effort above. The Hawks say they found three Georgia residents named Ashley Madison — two women, one man — who will be part of the ad campaign. I think the only thing that makes the video work is the inclusion of Harry the Hawk, is there nothing he can’t do?

I suppose somebody will be offended, because someone is always offended, but it sells some tickets, why not?

Daryl Morey, Shane Battier sing duet from Wicked

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Well, you don’t see this every day. Thank god.

Thursday night was former NBA player Shane Battier’s annual “Battioke” event to raise money for his charitable foundation. It takes place in Houston and Battier brought in celebrities to sing in front of the crowd, including Roger Clemens.

Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey was there, put on a gown and teamed with Battier to do some “Wicked,” which we present to you above (and with all apologies to Kristin Chenoweth… and your eardrums).

After the two tweeted about it.

At least it was all for a good cause.

(Hat tip to the Houston Chronicle.)

Report: NBA studying wearable technology for game use

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The NBA is already becoming more and more data driven, or at least the reams of data coming in are being considered in basketball decision making. What kind of data? Thanks to the Sports VU cameras that track every on-court move of a player in every arena, we know that Damian Lillard and Andrew Wiggins averaged running 2.5 miles a game, the most in the league. Or that Rajon Rondo made the most passes per game (76) and with that created the most assist opportunities per game (20) last season. Or that Russell Westbrook attempted 10.9 pull up jumpers a game last season and scored just 8.7 points per game on them. And all that is just the made public, scratching the surface data.

However, NBA teams want more — including data that will tell them about player conditioning and maybe potential injuries before they become serious.

That means wearable technology — something a majority of NBA teams use already during practices. Zach Lowe has a must-read piece about it at Grantland.

The NBA is putting its own money into the study of wearable GPS devices, with the likely end goal of outfitting players during games, according to several league sources. The league is funding a study, at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, of products from two leading device-makers: Catapult and STATSports….

Weighing less than an ounce, these devices are worn underneath a player’s jersey. They track basic movement data, including distance traveled and running speed, but the real value comes from the health- and fatigue-related information they spit out. The monitors track the power behind a player’s accelerations and decelerations (i.e., cuts), the force-based impact of jumping and landing, and other data points. Team sports science experts scour the data for any indication a player might be on the verge of injury — or already suffering from one that hasn’t manifested itself in any obvious way.

The devices can show, for instance, that a player gets more oomph pushing off his left leg than his right — evidence of a possible leg injury. They will show when players can’t produce the same level of power, acceleration, and height on cuts and jumps. Those are typical signs of fatigue, but there is near-total consensus among medical experts that fatigued players are more vulnerable to all sorts of injuries — including muscle tears, catastrophic ligament ruptures, and pesky soft-tissue injuries that can nag all season. The Warriors rested Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry last March after data from Catapult devices (used in practices) and SportVU cameras indicated their bodies had reached extreme fatigue levels, as Ken Berger of CBS Sports reported during the Finals.

Wearing these during games is something that would require players’ union approval, which is where the study likely comes in (plus it gives the teams a look at different versions of the technologies out there). The NBA and union are already starting some level of new CBA talks in an effort to avoid a 2017 lockout (or at least avoid missing games due to one) and you can bet these wearable devices will be on the table in those talks. They have already been used in the D-League, but teams want to use them in games.

At the purest level, nobody is going to be opposed to using this data to improve players’ health and reduce injury, as the Warriors did last season. That’s just smart for the teams and players. The concern is how this data could come into play in contract negotiations — if a team has data a player could have an underlying physical issue, would they offer less money? Do other teams then get access to this data? Shouldn’t the player and his agent then have access to the data to have it looked at by their experts? Would teams limit minutes and opportunities in a contract year for a player, and use the data as an excuse? You can see where this would get messy and complicated.

Still, it is coming to the NBA. Sooner rather than later.

Like the Sports VU camera data, what matters more than the information itself is how teams learn to use it. Some teams will sift through it and have people on staff who can figure out what matters, what doesn’t, and how to apply that information best in terms of things like player minutes and rest. Other teams will put most of the information straight into the circular file (at least at first). The smarter organizations will adapt more quickly and gain an advantage. And in the NBA, every team is looking for that little advantage.