Lithuania gives USA a real test, but LeBron passes it in 99-94 win

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There is a script for beating the USA, we talked about it before the Olympics: Pack the paint on defense and hope they miss threes, play good transition defense, don’t turn the ball over, and have a hot shooting night yourself.

Lithuania did almost all of that, playing their best game of the Olympics by far.

But there is no script for stopping LeBron James.

With the USA down USA 84-82 in the fourth, LeBron scored 9 of the USA’s final 17 points to lead the USA to a hard-fought 99-94 win. A win that keeps them undefeated (4-0) in Group A play and headed to the medal round.

For three and a half games LeBron had been a facilitator, a guy doing all the little things for Team USA. But when it was on the line for real LeBron reminded everyone he was the best player on the face of the earth. In the final minutes he hit a key three, threw down a dunk in transition, backed his man down in the paint and put up a pretty spin move — seven key, fast points that changed the tide of the game. He was clutch. He was everything his detractors said he wasn’t a year ago.

The USA coaching staff and players will spin this game as “it was good for us to be tested in group play, it helps us going forward.” I’m not totally on board with that. It might remind them they need to be focused every game, but Lithuania (and every team the USA plays from here on out) is good and if you let them get a foot in the door they will make it a game. A real game. The playground of the Nigeria game is long gone.

It was close because Lithuania played smart, played to the script and flat out executed against the USA better than they have all tournament.

On defense they switched every pick then the big man would slide back a step and dare the USA ball handler to shoot the three. The USA took the bait, especially in the first half, turning that big-on-small into isolation basketball and then settling for jumpers. In the first half the USA was 6-of-19 from three (31.7 percent) and shot 47.6 percent overall.

For the game, the USA was 10-of-33 from three (30.3 percent) and for the game shot 44.3 percent.

When the shots weren’t falling they adjusted in the second half and worked hard, making the extra pass and attacking the paint. It worked, the Americans drew fouls, but the USA was just 19-of-31 from the free throw line (61.3 percent). Kevin Love could not find his stroke, he was 3-of-8 from the stripe.

The USA is supposed to cover its off offensive nights with good defense, but they didn’t for much of this contest.

The USA did a terrible job on transition defense, allowing a slower Lithuanian team to get good looks pushing the ball. The USA also did a poor job switching — or whatever it was they were trying to do — on the pick and roll, allowing former NBA point guard Sarunas Jasikevicius to carve them up. Linas Kleiza had 25 points and outplayed the USA in the paint for much of the game.

And it was a game. Lithuania’s Achilles heel turned out to be turnovers — they had 23 of them. They struggled to enter the ball into the post late in the game, they made some unwise passes that led to USA fast breaks. It was a key difference.

LeBron James had 20 points for Team USA, along with Carmelo Anthony who also had 20. Kevin Durant had 16.

So the USA will spin this as “a wake up call” or some such thing, but in a short Olympic tournament (8 games at most) you shouldn’t need one.

What this shows is that when the outside shots are not falling, and when their pressure defense takes a night off or doesn’t work on experienced guards, the USA is vulnerable.

But despite all that the Americans may still win, because at the end of the day they still have the best player in the world on their team. And probably the next five or six on that list as well.

Cavaliers officials reportedly joke about LeBron James: ‘The tread is off his tires’

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LeBron James has played more minutes, regular season and playoffs combined, than Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and John Stockton did in their entire careers. Last year alone, in his age-33 season, LeBron played 3,947 minutes – the most by anyone since LeBron in his first season with the Heat and the most by anyone so old since Michael Jordan in his last season with the Bulls.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Cavs officials have privately joked that “the tread is off his tires” as James transitions to L.A. after playing so much last season.

I wonder how much genuine thought is behind that joke. I’d bet some, though I bet it’s also some self-perceived true belief masking a coping mechanism.

If LeBron wanted to sign a five-year max contract last summer, the Cavaliers would’ve jumped to do it. Instead, he left them for the Lakers.

I also wonder how LeBron feels about that joking. He takes his training seriously and has defied typical aging curves.

This is why LeBron was right to leave for Los Angeles if that’s what he wanted to do. For players with power to do something about it – LeBron definitely qualifies – NBA careers are too short to work with people whose vision doesn’t align with theirs. I’m not sure whether this qualifies as a divide, but there was already plenty of acrimony between LeBron and the organization in Cleveland.

That said, the Lakers unconditionally believing in LeBron’s staying power could do them in. He is in his 16th season and will turn 34 in December. He’s not worn down yet, but the clock is ticking.

Jeanie Buss: Phil Jackson fired by Knicks because ‘people close to you will take the knife and put it in your back’

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When he hired Phil Jackson as team president, Knicks owner James Dolan infamously said he was ceding control “willingly and gratefully.”

But New York kept Steve Mills, who had been running the front office, on staff as general manager. Mills also replaced Jackson as president after Jackson got fired.

That served as a lesson for Jeanie Buss, Lakers owner and Jackson’s former fiancée.

Sam Amick of The Athletic:

Jeanie had learned from Jackson’s mistakes in New York, where he took that job as the head of the Knicks front office in March of 2014 and was fired three years later after, as she saw it, he fell prey to the internal politics that have plagued that franchise for decades.

“He should’ve made sure (to control) who was surrounding him, because the people close to you will take the knife and put it in your back,” she continued.

Buss doesn’t name Mills or anyone. But it’s hard not to jump to man who was both Jackson’s predecessor and successor. After regaining control, Mills said he tried to steer Jackson in other directions (which, hopefully).

This reflects poorly on Dolan, whose poor leadership has cast a shadow over the organization for years. There is a toxic culture within the Knicks, from the top down.

But it’s not as if Jackson were simply a victim of that culture. With the notable exception of drafting Kristaps Porzingis, Jackson failed miserably in roster-building. He contributed to the malaise with a comedy of incompetence.

Maybe Mills stabbed Jackson in the back. But Jackson was his own problem, anyway.

Report: Knicks, Lakers, Clippers will pursue Kevin Durant in free agency

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The Warriors are reportedly bracing for Kevin Durant to leave in free agency next summer.

Just because of the New York rumors? Maybe. They’re spreading like wildfire.

But the Knicks won’t be the only team chasing Durant.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

The New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers will take a run at the back-to-back Finals MVP, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Of course, every team wants Durant. But not every team will actually pursue him. Many teams believe they have no chance of signing him and won;t waste their time.

It’s probably not coincidental this early list of suitors includes only the very biggest markets. Durant already plays for the best team in a desirable location. How do you differentiate yourself from Golden State? Maybe by being in an even bigger market.

The Clippers are reportedly the frontrunner to sign Kawhi Leonard. Could they get Durant, too? That’d be intriguing.

The Lakers are definitely looking to get LeBron James a star teammate, and Durant’s name has at least come up. But Durant is already dogged by the perception he’s just riding the Warriors’ coattails. He wouldn’t change the narrative by joining LeBron.

The Knicks don’t even project to have max cap space, though they’d rush to move Courtney Lee or someone else to get Durant. But this is already the worst team on the list. New York is going to further deplete its assets while remaining appealing to Durant? Hey, it could happen.

Or maybe Durant will look at these teams and see has it pretty good in Golden State.

It could also go the other way. If Durant gives even the slightest indication he’s interested teams not yet planning to pursue him, they’d jump to get into the race. So, don’t assume Warriors, Knicks, Lakers and Clippers is anything more than the preliminary pool of vying teams.

Report: Jimmy Butler trade talks ‘mostly dormant’

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Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau reportedly raised his asking price for Jimmy Butler after the star’s explosive return to practice.

Unsurprisingly, potential trade partners – who already weren’t offering enough to satisfy Minnesota – didn’t rush to meet Thibodeau’s new demands. Not even close, apparently.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

For now, Minnesota’s talks with teams around the NBA are mostly dormant, league sources told The Athletic.

Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor and Butler reached an agreement: Minnesota would continue to try to trade Butler, and Butler would be a good teammate and play hard.

But how long will this détente last if the Timberwolves aren’t making progress on a trade?