Andre Iguodala likes what he sees from Team USA, especially on defense

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iguodala_USA.jpgPreviously I cautioned not to draw too many conclusions from the USA Basketball victory over Greece Wednesday. Greece sat its two best inside players, the USA quickly went deep into the bench and both teams kept it simple, trying not to tip their hand in the event of any future meetings.

Andre Iguodala, however, saw another step forward in the team’s growth, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. That’s what he put in his team diary, something he is doing for the Philadelphia Daily News.

I thought in (yesterday’s) game (against Greece in Athens) we played really well. We got off to a good start, and our defense was really clicking. I think we held them to just one field goal in the first 6 minutes, or something like that. This was our best defensive game by far.

We have really come together as a team since we first got together in Las Vegas and have gotten a lot better, especially defensively. I think the reason is because we are getting more acclimated with each other. That is such a big part of any kind of success we’re going to have when we start the championship games. I was talking to Lamar Odom about it, and he was saying that with the Lakers, he would go onto the court and for about 30 games, they didn’t have to talk to each other out on the court because they were so in tune what each of them were supposed to do. I’d like for us to get close to that point, and I think it’s coming.

For the record, when the Lakers stop talking on defense is when their defense falls apart. Odom is correct that the Lakers are a team with a lot of veterans that know each other, and because of that can fall into moments of silence because they understand what to expect from each other. But that silence almost always leads to breakdowns as picks don’t get called out and the like. So Odom’s point about knowing and trusting is correct, but you still have to talk.

Team USA’s defense has been good, mostly because of the fantastic and long athletes on the squad that tend to overwhelm the competition. In the five warmup games so far, opposing teams are shooting just 37 percent against the USA. But this preseason — and really the next five games in the group stage — is about building unity, particularly on defense.

Because when it gets to the final 16, the one-and-done tournament stage of the FIBA World Championships, there can be no off nights. Then the defensive lapses mean you’re on a plane home and Michael Wilbon is ripping you on PTI. The USA is a squad built to run, but running is built on defense. So far their half-court defense has been good and improving — the USA is running more zone and getting more comfortable with it — but they will run into teams better able to exploit it. Greece could be a team like that. The question about the Wednesday win is did the USA overwhelm them or did the Greeks not play their best? Or a little of both?

Either way, Iggy makes it clear that the USA is gaining confidence heading to Turkey, and that is a very good thing.

Rajon Rondo returning to Florida to continue injury rehab

Rajon Rondo injury
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Rajon Rondo is coming back to Floria to continue his injury rehab — but not inside the bubble. Yet.

The Laker point guard fractured his thumb during practice before the season started, requiring surgery expected to sideline him 6-8 weeks, the team announced at the time. Three weeks into that, he is coming back to Florida for rehab, coach Frank Vogel told the media (via Dave McMenamin of ESPN).

Rondo is likely a few weeks from being back on the court. So long as he tests negative for seven consecutive days before returning to the NBA’s “bubble” campus, he will only be in quarantine for four days. While he can do some conditioning work during his rehab he’s still going to need some time to work back into game shape.

Rondo came off the bench for the Lakers this season, averaging 7.1 points and five assists a game. More importantly, he was the guy running the offense when LeBron James was off the court. Dion Waiters has stepped into that role, and the pairing of him with Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma has looked good so far (small sample size alert).

The Lakers have locked up the top seed in the West, they don’t need Rondo for the seeding games. However, when the playoffs start, Vogel and the Lakers will need all hands on deck to get through a deep and talented West.

Three Things to Know: Luka Doncic, Devin Booker show bubble is for the young

Luka Doncic Devin Booker
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) Devin Booker drains game-winner, bubble Suns undefeated

Devin Booker desperately wants to be mentioned among the best guards in the league — and he puts up the raw numbers to be in that club. It has been his defense and the fact his team is still woeful that has kept him from getting membership.

Not in the bubble.

Phoenix is 3-0 at the NBA restart after Booker drained a turnaround game-winner over Paul George — giving Booker 35 points on the night — to beat the Clippers.

The Clippers helped beat themselves. The Suns had the ball with 31 seconds to go and the Clippers — Kawhi Leonard in particular — defended them well, forcing Ricky Rubio into a difficult, high-arcing shot he missed. Ivica Zubac did a good job grabbing the rebound, but then he hurried the outlet pass and Mikal Bridges tipped it, Deandre Ayton grabbed it, and the Suns got to reset and take one more shot. Then, on that shot, Zubac came out high to double, giving a lane to Booker to drive, and the rest is history. The Clippers are 1-2 in the bubble and not impressing anyone.

The Suns and Booker are impressing everyone.

2) Luka Doncic‘s historic triple-double reminder Mavericks are playoff threat

Those stumbling Clippers mentioned above most likely will face the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the playoffs — and that has upset potential. In part because the Clippers have yet to find the chemistry and cohesion in the bubble — or have their key players all together — that they had the weeks before the league was shut down.

And in part because Luka Doncic can take over a game — and maybe a series. Doncic put up a ridiculous line of 34 points, 20 rebounds, and 12 assists, leading the Mavericks to an overtime win against the Kings. Doncic, at age 21, became the youngest NBA player ever with a 30-20-10 stat line, beating Oscar Robertson (23).

Doncic will be an All-NBA player this year (first or second team) and will get bottom-of-the-ballot MVP votes — he is an elite, franchise cornerstone player. Dallas is building a dangerous team around him (Kristaps Porzingis as the pick-and-pop partner, Tim Hardaway and Seth Curry as shooters, Dwight Powell doing the dirty work, and more) that seems a year or two away. But if youth is being served in the bubble, maybe not.

3) Jaren Jackson Jr.‘s injury changes feel of race for eighth in West.

The Memphis Grizzlies entered the restart with huge advantages — a 3.5 game lead for the eighth seed in the West, plus only having to win one-of-two games in a play-in series.

However, Memphis has started 0-3 in the bubble, and now this — young star center Jaren Jackson Jr. is out for the rest of the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee. It’s a blow to the Grizzlies, who have been competitive in those losses but now have lost their second-best player.

Memphis suddenly doesn’t feel safe as the eighth seed, not after Carmelo Anthony‘s dagger helped Portland beat Houston Tuesday night.

Portland is now just 1.5 games back of ailing Memphis for the eighth seed, with San Antonio (2 games behind Memphis) and New Orleans (2.5 back) lurking. Portland has three tough games coming up — Nuggets, Clippers, 76ers — while New Orleans has Zion Williamson playing more minutes and a soft schedule ahead. The race for the eighth spot in the West — the only real race in the bubble — feels wide open with five games to play.

And youth may be served.

Carmelo Anthony sinks dagger into Houston, Portland gets win

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Damian Lillard scored 21 points and Carmelo Anthony hit a big 3-pointer late to help the Portland Trail Blazers to a 110-102 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night.

The Blazers led by one before Lillard made one of two free throws. Anthony’s three then extended the lead to 107-102 when less than a minute to go.

Lillard raved about the contributions of Anthony, who found a home with the Trail Blazers after spending several months without a team last year following a brief stint with the Rockets.

“I think it’s more disappointing that people are surprised by it,” Lillard said. “He’s a Hall of Famer … he’s a great teammate and that’s what we expect from him.”

Coach Terry Stotts loves how Anthony has evolved to help his team.

“Earlier in his career, the ball would have been in his hands to start with,” Stotts said. “He has assimilated to his role and this team. He loves the game. He loves the camaraderie, he loves being in the NBA.”

Lillard added two free throws and Anthony, who had 15 points and 11 rebounds, made one in the final minute to secure the victory for Portland, which is fighting for a playoff spot.

“We understand what’s on the line and we know what we got to do to to give ourselves a chance in the postseason,” Lillard said. “And that’s what we’re doing.”

James Harden led Houston with 23 points and nine assists on a night he was slowed by foul trouble.

“I couldn’t be as aggressive as I wanted to being in foul trouble,” he said. “But we had a lot of open shots that if we make those those it’s a different ballgame.”

Jeff Green added a season-high 22 points as the Rockets lost for the first time in the bubble after winning their first two games.

The Blazers were up by six midway through the final quarter after CJ McCollum and Lillard made consecutive baskets. But Green scored all Houston’s points in a 7-1 spurt that tied it at 98 a minute later.

McCollum finished with 20 points as the Blazers pulled within 1 1/2 games of eighth-place Memphis.

“Our biggest problem with the whole game is first of all we didn’t come out with a lot of energy, and our defense was pretty slow to start,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.

The game was tied again later in the fourth when Gary Trent Jr. made a 3-pointer to put Portland up 103-100. A driving layup by Harden cut the lead to one with about 2 minutes to go.

Danuel House made a 3-pointer to get the Rockets within two midway through the third quarter. Lillard then scored all of Portland’s points in a 9-3 run that pushed the lead to 82-74 with about 3 1/2 minutes left in the third.

Lillard had a three-point play and then sank 3s on consecutive possessions to allow the Trail Blazers to build the lead. Harden spent the last five minutes of the third quarter on the bench after picking up his fifth foul on the three-point play by Lillard.

Hassan Whiteside had four points for the Trail Blazers late in the third, but Austin Rivers capped the quarter with a 3-pointer to get Houston within 86-80 to start the fourth.

 

Jimmy Butler sits, Miami still beats Boston 111-106

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — With or without Jimmy Butler, the Miami Heat felt they needed to send a message to the Boston Celtics.

Bam Adebayo had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and the Heat never trailed in beating the Celtics 111-106 on Tuesday to remain alone in the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Celtics had their lead for the No. 3 seed cut to 1 1/2 games over the Heat. Miami has a game lead on Indiana and improved to 2-1 so far in the seeding games, despite Butler sitting out with a sore right ankle after playing Monday in a loss to Toronto.

“A lot of guys stepped up,” Heat coach Eric Spoelstra said. “This couldn’t be two, three guys playing well. We’re going to need several guys playing well and doing it over the course of 48 minutes.”

Adebayo said this victory meant something more after losing twice to Boston during the regular season.

“Instead of being beat 3-0, we were like, ‘We got to make a stand. We got to prove a point,’” Adebayo said. “And like I said before, I feel like this team can battle with anybody … Who knows how the game could’ve been if had we had Jimmy?”

Duncan Robinson also had 21 points for Miami. Goran Dragic added 20 off the bench, Kelly Olynyk scored 15 and Tyler Herro 11.

Jayson Tatum led Boston with 23 points. Jaylen Brown had 13 points and 10 rebounds, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker each added 15 points and Enes Kanter scored 10.

“We let our emotions play too much of a part today,” Tatum said. “We’ve just got to do a better job of just focusing on what we can control and not worry about other things.”

Walker, who beat the buzzer with a shot from mid-court at the end of the third, hit a 3 with 1:26 left to pull Boston within 108-101. Daniel Theis hit a pair of free throws with 19.8 seconds left, then Dragic traveled. Walker hit another 3 with 13 seconds remaining to pull Boston within 109-106.

Andre Iguodala hit a free throw, and Robinson hit two more in the final seconds in a win that meant a lot to someone who grew up 45 minutes north of Boston.

“I grew up going to TD Garden,” Robinson said. “We’ve played them multiple times, we haven’t done well. I haven’t done well, and I was reminding myself of that constantly.”

Miami scored the first bucket and led by as much as 10 before being up 33-28 at the end of the first quarter. The Heat pushed that lead to as much as 16 in the second quarter with a 10-point spurt capped by four free throws by Adebayo. The last pair, with 51.6 left, made it 63-47. Miami led 63-51 at halftime.

The Celtics went on a 16-3 run to pull within 69-68 on an alley-oop dunk by Theis off a pass from Tatum with 6:08 left in the third. The Heat answered with a 14-2 spurt capped by a three-point play by Adebayo with 3:20 to go for an 83-71 lead. Miami led 91-83 at the end of the third.

“We weren’t solid, and they exposed that,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Our defense has to improve from what it’s been in the three games or so. Credit Miami. They played with unbelievable intensity and togetherness tonight.”