Team USA, player-by-player and role-by-role (Part Two)

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durant_team_usa.jpgNow that Team USA’s roster is finalized, it’s time to break down
exactly what each of Team USA’s 12 players will be asked to do. Some
members of Team USA are simply acting as an extension of their NBA
selves, but others have seen their responsibilities shift due to the
team’s needs, the overall makeup of the roster, and the nature of FIBA
basketball. In this second installment, we’ll look at the starting candidates for Team USA.

Derrick Rose – Rose started in Rondo’s stead during Sunday’s friendly against Spain, and figures to be Team USA’s starting point guard (at least, as much as this team really has one specific point guard) for most of the World Championships. Rose’s primary value is his scoring; though he can make plays off the dribble, it’s the threat of the drive and the mid-range jumper that could open things up for Team USA.

Rose isn’t a skilled three-point shooter, and that hurts him. When opposing defenses zone up or pack the paint, he’ll likely struggle to create shots for both himself and his teammates. Still, he’s smart enough to make the right plays and pick his spots, and he will. Rose is a weapon. He’s valuable and effective, even if he lacks Rondo’s abilities as a natural playmaker.
 
Chauncey Billups – Billups is both a veteran and scorer for Team USA, which badly needs his precision from the perimeter as well as his leadership. While the roster is certainly guard-heavy, most of those guards are resolved to win the day in a straight-line footrace. Billups is a bit more deliberate in his approach. A bit more methodical. He may ultimately succumb to the same vices (Chauncey is no stranger to the heat check), but the contrast between Billups and the other guards on the roster benefits Team USA all the same.

The Americans’ turnovers have been absolutely brutal thus far, but Billups — a slip-up against Lithuania aside — provides a calming influence on Team USA’s offense. He’s a prolific threat from deep (7-of-13 in the last three exhibition games, good for 53.8%), a strong defender, and unlikely to commit those facepalm-inducing turnovers that have become a Rose/Westbrook staple.

Andre Iguodala – Andre Iguodala will not be scoring much. He’s averaged just 3.7 points per game over USA’s last three exhibitions. No one should expect that to improve significantly.

However, Iguodala does have utility that goes beyond his defense. Iggy is easily Team USA’s top perimeter defender, but offensively, he moves the ball, is a decent spot-up option (just don’t ask him to shoot off the dribble…yeesh), and is a good positional rebounder. Iguodala’s just a dabbler. A little ball-handling, a little slashing, a lot of fast breaking, and a ton of fantastic defense.

Kevin Durant – Kevin Durant owns this team. He’s not renting it out while LeBron goes on vacation. He’s taken it and made it his own, for better or worse. Though Durant didn’t hand-pick his Team USA contemporaries, the roster was constructed with the hope that it would resemble KD. His versatility. His athleticism. His character. Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski clearly hoped that Durant’s nature would act as a thematic element for Team USA, and to an extent it has.

The only trouble is that no one on this year’s team has the talent to actually keep up with Durant, even if their commitment and intangibles follow through on the motif.

Durant hasn’t been the most consistent in his pre-Championship exhibitions, but he was in full effect against Spain, the United States’ most formidable foe. KD finished with 25 and 10 in that contest on 56.3% shooting, dropped a couple of threes, and picked up the game-saving block for good measure.

Durant is the only Team USA player that’s elite by NBA standards, and on this team his brilliance is crucial as both a driving force (KD will need to be fantastic against USA’s top opponents) and a beacon to his teammates. 
 
Tyson Chandler – Chandler is the only true center on the roster, which should be good enough to score him some regular playing time. However, as Krzyzewski proved in fiddling with Sunday’s starting lineup, Chandler’s positional standing in no way guarantees him a starting job. Coach K benched Rajon Rondo in favor of Derrick Rose, which was clearly a significant roster move. In the same game, he also brought Tyson Chandler off the bench to start Lamar Odom, who could very well tip-off at center for Team USA from this point on.

Regardless, Chandler will fulfill the same basic duties for the national team regardless of his starting status. He’s a quality rim protector, even if he doesn’t pick up a ton of blocks. His length and athleticism make him a quality all-around defender, even if he’s had some lapses in the exhibition games thus far. Overall, he’s the Americans best on-ball post defender, a good option to defend pick-and-roll bigs, and a solid defensive anchor, even if he’s something of an offensive liability.

Lamar Odom – The impact of Odom being a perimeter-oriented big is a bit overstated. Odom has never been anything more than a decent shooter from outside (he’s gone 0-fer in his first four attempts from deep for Team USA), and he really isn’t floating too much on the outside at present. And though Odom may initiate the offense frequently for the Lakers, that’s not his role on this team. Not with so many dynamic guards on the roster.

Instead, Odom is…oddly conventional in his capacity with Team USA. He screens-and-rolls, he plays nice help-side defense, and he rebounds well. It may not be the most creative way to utilize Odom’s unique skill set, but so far he’s been quite effective while masquerading as a traditional big. 

Damian Lillard reportedly playing through separated ribs suffered in Game 2

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Midway through the third quarter of Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Kevon Looney both dove for a loose ball near midcourt. Looney got it, threw the ball ahead to Stephen Curry, and in the process rolled over Lillard.

Lillard suffered separated ribs on that play, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Here is the play.

Lillard has shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) since the injury, including 5-of-18 in the Trail Blazers’ Game 3 loss.

Lillard shot 7-of-19 (36.8 percent) before the injury — the Warriors trapping him and forcing the ball out of his hands has been an issue for Lillard in this series, long before his collision with Looney.

Lillard himself did not bring the injury up, it was leaked. When asked in his postgame press conference Saturday night, Lillard admitted to being tired but would not use it as an excuse.

“Everybody’s tired,” Lillard said. “It’s the third round of the playoffs after a long season. Our last series, I got a lot of attention. The team was giving me a lot of attention and same thing in this series. It takes a lot to deal with that and then go out and chase guys around on the defensive end.

“But everybody’s putting that effort out. I mean, I feel fine enough to go out there and play 40 minutes like I have been, but you know, it’s definitely tiring.”

And he’s playing through pain on top of it.

Portland is already down 0-3 in this series and faces a win-or-it’s-over Game 4 on Monday night at the Moda Center.

Game 3 Déjà vu: Warriors slow down Lillard, come from behind to win, take 3-0 series lead

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It was Déjà vu all over again for the Warriors and Trail Blazers. And it all started with Damian Lillard.

The Warriors didn’t re-invent the wheel in this playoff series, they just have aggressively executed the game plan that has troubled Portland in the playoffs for years:

Take the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands, dare anyone else to beat you.

Oklahoma City and Denver could not do it, but Golden State has. Every chance the Warriors get they trap Lillard off the pick-and-roll, and even when they don’t do that the Warriors show the second defender early. Lillard has struggled with his shot against that, he was 5-of-18 shooting in Game 3, and in the series he is now 15-of-46 (32.6 percent).

What Lillard is doing right is making the smart pass to the big on the short roll at the free throw line, creating a 4-on-3 (or sometimes 3-on-2) for the Trail Blazers to attack, but they have not consistently taken advantage of that.

“I think what they want me to do is make the correct play, and for me, I try to do that for as long as possible,” Lillard said. “You know, as long as I can do it and we can stay in the game or have a lead like we have the last two games when I’m just making the right plays, and guys are doing what they’re supposed to do on the weak side.

“But I think in Golden State’s minds, they know at some point, if we’re going to beat them, I’m going to have to be rolling. They are just kind of banking on the fact that we’ll just live with what’s happening right now. Keep getting the ball out of his hands and you know, at some point, we’ll probably be able to take over the game.”

Golden State did take over the game, in part bucause they have a playmaker as good as Draymond Green.

Green is the master of the short roll, and on Saturday night he was doing that, plus driving end-to-end, owning the glass, and generally being the best player on the floor on his way to 20 points on 12 shots, 13 rebounds, and 12 assists.

“I don’t even know what to say about Draymond, he was like a wrecking ball out there,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said postgame. “He was just destroying every in his path. The pace he was generating was incredible and it seemed like he never got tired.”

Green was critical to another dominant Golden State third quarter that sparked a comeback from 18 down in the third to win 110-99.

Golden State now has a stranglehold on the series, up 3-0. Game 4 is in Portland on Monday night.

The Warriors are now 4-0 without Kevin Durant, still out with a strained calf (he’s not expected to return this series). Stephen Curry, who had 36 in this win, has scored at least 33 in each of those wins.

In the most important ways, Game 3 felt like a replay of Game 2, just in a different arena.

Feeding off that home crowd and energy, the Trail Blazers raced out to an early lead and were the better team through the first 24 minutes. Portland shot 11-of-22 outside the paint in the first half, compared to 9-of-27 for Golden State. Portland had a 125.7 offensive rating in the first half thanks to that shooting, plus grabbing the offensive rebound on 34.8 percent of their missed shots.

More than the offense, Portland played good half-court defense in the first half, taking the Warriors out of their rhythm. They trapped Curry and Thompson with size — Moe Harkless and Myers Leonard if possible — and the Warriors struggled to adapt

Leonard played the best basketball of his career in the first half, with 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting (he finished with 16 points) and making plays like this:

All that had the Trail Blazers up 13 at the half. It was impressive, then again they were up 15 at the half in Game 2. The Warriors were not fazed.

“It all started with our second half defense, we held them to 33 points,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “We had amazing contributions off the bench, every single guy came in and made an impact.”

That bench mattered. The Golden State starters and core lineups got back in the game, taking a small lead, but when Green and Curry rested to start the fourth, Portland left their starters in and were still -3 in those critical minutes.

Curry and Green came in rested, and the Warriors leaned on them heavily the rest of the way with the Curry/Green pick-and-roll — Portland has no answers for that.

The Warriors run also seemed to shake the Portland offense. The Trail Blazers shot 8-of-27 (29.6 percent) from three after the first quarter, and for the game the Blazers missed 13 free throws (they shot just 60.6 percent as a team from the stripe).

Portland was led by CJ McCollum, who had 23 points on 20 shots.

He’s going to have to do better, Lillard is going to have to do a lot better, and the Blazers are going to have to find something special in the third quarter Monday night, or they will be swept right out of the playoffs.

Blazers passing impressive as they push first-half lead to double digits (VIDEO)

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Back home, the Portland Trail Blazers looked far more comfortable.

Feeding off the energy of a loud crowd at the Moda Center, the Trail Blazers stretched out to a first-half lead thanks to a level of impressive ball movement and energy we have not seen from them all series. Check it out.

This may go down as the Myers Leonard game, he had 13 points in the first half.

Portland stretched their lead to as much as 18 and was up by 13 at the half. I wouldn’t call that comfortable because, well, Golden State, but it’s the best the Blazers have played all series.

Rockets will not bring defensive coach Jeff Bzdelik back next season

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Before the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 112.2 (points allowed per 100 possessions), 25th in the NBA.

After the All-Star break, the Rockets had a defensive rating of 105.3, second best in the NBA. In the playoffs, the Rockets had a 107.3 defensive rating despite six games against the Warriors.

There are multiple reasons for that change, but a key one: The Rockets backed up the Brinks truck and brought assistant coach and defensive specialist Jeff Bzdelik out of retirement to help fix the problems.

Bzdelik will not be back with the team next season, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Technically Bzdelik was fired, although that is not an accurate description of really what happened here. This was not because of poor job performance, it was a question of if he really wanted to be there, and the Rockets wanted someone all-in. Understandably. This is a Houston team still on the cusp of a title, just one that has run headlong into the Warriors dynasty in recent years. A dynasty that likely will look a lot different next year, opening the door in the West. The Rockets want to push through that door.

That said, replacing Bzdelik will not be easy.

It’s one of a number of challenging choices for the Rockets this summer.