USA plays one good half, that’s enough to beat Argentina handily

8 Comments

If the USA can play the next four games like they played the second half against Argentina, they will cruise to a gold medal.

Let’s just forget about the six quarters before that, shall we?

After a sloppy first half of the defensive end and a lot of three point shots, Team USA got it together on both ends in the third quarter to win it 42-17 and cruised from there to a 126-97 win over Argentina. The USA is 5-0 and finishes in first place in Group A.

Their reward is they start the sudden-death medal round against an Australian side they should be able to overwhelm, with the game Wednesday at 5:15 ET (on the NBC Sports Network). Argentina (3-2) finishes third in Group A and will face South American rival Brazil in the first game of the medal round.

The first half just had to be frustrating for Team USA. Because it was for their fans — it did not look like they learned the lessons of the close game against Lithuania two days before.

Team USA hit 7 threes in first quarter, including a Kevin Durant shot at the buzzer, but led only 34-32 because their defense was flat-footed again. All the issues players said they recognized and rectified from the Lithuania game resurfaced — Argentina shot 65 percent in the first quarter, led by Manu Ginobili with 9 (and he was just getting started).

At the half it was 60-59 USA and Ginobili had 16 for Argentina (he would not score in the second half). Just as disturbing for the Americans was Argentina was without Knicks point guard Pablo Prigioni (kidney stones) and Luis Scola had not set foot on the court in the second quarter. The USA was barely beating and Argentina team playing with one hand tied behind their back.

USA shot 9-of-22 from three in the first half — that is not a bad percentage (40.9%) but it shows they could not or would not take the ball inside. The looks from three were often good, very open ones. But still, 22 in a half.

The USA team that came out in the second half looked like the USA side that rolled through its first three games, the one USA fans expect to see. A team that imposed its will (particularly on defense and at the rim) with its superior athleticism.

It started because LeBron James had 9 early third quarter points (on his way to finishing with 18. He set a tone, hitting a three and making a play in the post.

Then the Kevin Durant show started. He had 17 points in the third quarter — as many as the entire Argentinian team in that stretch. He was 8-of-10 from three for the game and finished with 28.

More important, the USA’s hounding defense was back — they weren’t gambling they were harassing. Pressuring. Andre Iguodala was making his presence felt, the USA was controlling the paint and glass.

Pretty soon the USA’s lead was blowing up and Argentina started to take it foot off the gas pedal — they have an older team and were locked into the third seed. They decided to rest not challenge the USA late.

It’s a good bit of momentum, something they can take into the medal round against Australia. That is another team they can overwhelm and build up confidence against. It’s another game they should win handily.

Hopefully that doesn’t lead to bad habits establishing themselves again. Because now things get serious. Now it is lose and go home, and more quarters like the six before the final two against Argentina could spell trouble for the USA.

Loaded with expiring contracts, Pacers still scraping and clawing together

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Thaddeus Young faced a tough decision last summer.

Coming off the best season of his career, he held a $13,764,045 player option with the Pacers. Opting in probably, though not definitely, maximized his salary this year. But opting out would have allowed him to sign a long-term deal with more total compensation.

Young opted in.

“Obviously, I had a few teams that wanted to pay me some money and stuff like that,” Young said. “But I figured that playing another season and going into it with these guys is better for me.

“We’re a family. We built something. We have some unfinished business.”

That decision, several others and Victor Oladipo‘s season-ending knee injury sent Indiana toward its identity – a tough, balanced team full of players incentivized to look out for themselves.

Several key Pacers – Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans – are on expiring contracts. But they don’t play like it. Indiana has remained cohesive amid obstacles, including the contract situations.

Don’t expect that to change with the Pacers trailing the Celtics 2-0 in their first round series entering Game 3 tonight.

Indiana proved its mettle last season. Largely written off after the Paul George trade, the Pacers became the NBA’s surprise team by winning 48 games. Victor Oladipo broke out as a star.

This season brought a new complication – players on the verge of getting compensated for their success. It could have happened more gradually, but circumstance created a rush.

Young opted in. Indiana exercised a $10.5 million team option on Bogdanovic and a $10 million team option on Collison, locking this in as the final year of their contracts. Matthews got bought out by the Knicks and signed for the rest of the season with a Pacers team that presented major opportunity with Oladipo sidelined. Evans, finding an underwhelming market in free agency last summer, prioritized a one-year deal. Joseph was the only one who was clearly entering the final season of his contract in Indiana.

The Pacers have given 68% of their minutes this postseason to players on expiring contracts. That’s a close second to the 76ers (only because I counted a few players with sure-to-be-declined player options – Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Khris Middleton – as having expiring contracts).

Here’s the percentage of minutes given to players on expiring contracts this postseason:

image

In the regular season, Indiana trailed only the Wizards.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said he addressed the contract situation before the season. His message, as summarized by Joseph: “We’re better when we play together, and if we do, then everybody will get rewarded.”

Players clearly bought in. Indiana surged to a 32-15 start. But Oladipo’s injury tested the Pacers’ cohesiveness.

They clearly wouldn’t be as good without their star, and they went just 16-19 since his last game. It would have been a logical time for players to go their own ways and start playing for themselves in what looked like it’d be a lost season.

Instead, they tightened their bond. This team has been quite competitive without Oladipo. The schedule got tough in March, but the Pacers stuck together.

“We don’t have big names, big stars on our team,” Bogdanovic said. “But we are fighting every single night.”

The delicate balance of Indiana’s offense – especially considering contract-year motivations – is quite stunning.

The Pacers averaged 5.4 double-digit scorers per game this season – the most in nearly two decades. Not bad for a team that finished 22nd in the NBA in points per game. Though scoring is up this season, 69 other teams averaged more points per game since another team had so many double-digit scorers per game.

“There’s a lot of players on the other teams that play for their own stats,” Bogdanovic said. “…We have this season, eight or nine players with expiring contracts, and we are still playing the right way, sharing the ball. We don’t care who’s going to score. That’s why we are successful.”

Unconcerned about their scoring numbers, Indiana players exert their energy on other things – defending, rebounding, screening. The Pacers impose a hard-nosed style, just as they did last year.

Indiana’s professionalism and focus on winning is a tribute to its players and organizational culture. This is a veteran team with the right priorities.

As much as he believed in this group, as well as he has guided it, McMillan wasn’t quite certain how the contract situations would affect his squad.

“That can go either way,” McMillan said. “It can be good or bad. It’s been good for us. Our guys have committed to playing together.”

Possible top-10 pick Sekou Doumbouya declares for NBA draft

Mike Stobe/Getty Images
1 Comment

Just three 18-year-olds have played in the NBA since the league instituted its one-and-done rule: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Dragan Bender and Devin Booker.

Sekou Doumbouya – who’ll remain 18 until Dec. 23 – could become the fourth.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

French forward Sekou Doumbouya has submitted paperwork to the league office to make himself eligible for the 2019 NBA draft, his agent, Bouna Ndiaye of Comsport, told ESPN.

Doumbouya projects as a potential lottery pick.

The 6-foot-9 power forward is extremely physically developed for his age. He’s strong and mobile, and he can elevate.

But he’s still early in his skill development. His shot, handle and feel all need work.

Doumbouya has plenty of tools. His rebounding is already impressive. The rest? It’ll be a project.

Report: Pelicans cut Lakers GM Rob Pelinka from Anthony Davis trade talks

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
4 Comments

On Jan. 31, a report emerged the Pelicans hadn’t returned the Lakers’ calls about Anthony Davis. Later that day, another report said the Pelicans and Lakers discussed a Davis trade.

That sparked questions: Was the first report wrong? Did New Orleans and Los Angeles begin talking that day?

Maybe we missed an important distinction.

The first report said then-Pelicans general manager Dell Demps hadn’t returned Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka’s calls. The second report said Demps spoke with Lakers president Magic Johnson.

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

Pelinka was mostly cut out of trade talks between L.A. and New Orleans, with the Pelicans preferring to deal directly with Johnson, multiple league sources told ESPN.

Since Johnson stunningly resigned, Pelinka has assumed control in Los Angeles. The Lakers surely still want to trade for Davis.

Will having Pelinka running the front office impair their ability to do so?

We don’t know why the Pelicans rebuffed Pelinka. Different theories bring varying levels of present concern.

Maybe the Pelicans just didn’t want to waste their time with someone who’s not in charge. That’s often an issue when lower-level executives contact other teams. If that’s the case, Pelinka assuming the top job in basketball operations would solve the problem.

Maybe Demps was still bitter with Pelinka over Pelinka’s time as an agent. In 2012, New Orleans restricted free agent Eric Gordon – represented by Pelinka – signed an offer sheet with the Suns. Gordon lobbied hard to leave New Orleans, even saying his heart was in Phoenix. Though New Orleans matched, the saga caused animosity. But the Pelicans fired Demps and hired David Griffin, who’ll now oversee Davis. If this was a personal issue between Pelinka and Demps, that’s now irrelevant.

Maybe Pelinka is just that off-putting. I definitely don’t buy everything people say about him. Being a good agent often means ruffling feathers, and it’s easy for people he countered in negotiations to gossip about him now. But maybe there’s some truth to Pelinka being difficult to work with. If so, that’d come up again – not just with the Pelicans, but every team.

Report: Hornets not trading for Marc Gasol soured Kemba Walker on Hornets

AP Photo/Brandon Dill
1 Comment

Kemba Walker has never had an All-Star teammate. For someone as established as Walker, that’s unprecedented.

The Hornets nearly paired Walker with a former All-Star, though. Shortly before the trade deadline, they reportedly nearly dealt for Marc Gasol. But talks stalled, and the Grizzlies instead sent Gasol to the Raptors.

Unsurprisingly, that didn’t go over well with Walker, who was trying to lead a playoff push before entering free agency this summer.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

I got the sense in talking to people, that trade deadline really deflated him. When they were pretty close on a Marc Gasol deal, and it fell apart. It didn’t happen. He goes to Toronto. And he looks around and goes, “Come on, what are we trying to do here?”

The reported outline of the Gasol deal: Gasol for Bismack Biyombo, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and a protected first-round pick. The hang-up was reportedly on the specifics of the protection.

Which is important!

The Hornets shouldn’t have relinquished too high of a pick for a 34-year-old center just for a likely first-round loss.

Making the playoffs matters. Keeping Walker happy matters. But so does keeping draft picks to build the team going forward. Without knowing the exact line of the protection being haggled, I can’t say whether Charlotte erred by not making the trade. But there’s plenty of room to make passing the right call.

Shortly after the deadline, a rumor emerged Walker would likely leave the Hornets in free agency. This probably explains why.

But a lot has and will happen before Walker makes that call. Charlotte still made a strong late playoff push, though fell short. Walker could make an All-NBA team, which would make him eligible for a super-max contract.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he re-signs. I wouldn’t be surprised if he leaves, either.

What’s clear: He wants to win right now. Though it certainly won’t be the only factor, the Hornets’ stagnancy looks like a real negative when Walker ultimately decides.