USA’s path to gold could feature rematch from 1972. Or 2008.

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We have reached the medal round and if you look at the way the USA played the last two quarters against Argentina — pressure defense where they did not gamble, then LeBron James and Kevin Durant scoring — nobody can stop them. We’re just going to pretend the first two quarters didn’t happen.

So what does the USA’s path to a gold medal look like? It starts out smooth but can get bumpy. Probably not bumpy enough to stop them, but bumpy.

First: Australia. If the USA we saw in the second half against Argentina shows up with its smothering defense, this will be a rout. Australia is led by Patty Mills, the feisty former St. Mary’s point guard who played in China during the lockout then hooked up with the Spurs after that and he played very well for them (PER of 21.5). He’s averaging 20.2 points per game these Olympics. It’s a good story. But if you think the Spurs second string point guard is going to lead a team that beats this Team USA you probably thought “In Time” was a good movie.

Second Round: Brazil or Argentina. The USA has already beaten the Argentines twice — by 6 in a tune-up game and then by 29 on Monday when their overwhelmed Argentina in the second half. When Argentina is able to grind the game down they are a threat to the USA, and Manu Ginobili may be the best single player so far in these Olympics, but there is no reason to doubt that the runs that the USA made in both meetings so far would not happen again. The USA playing its best is just too much.

The USA also easily dispatched Brazil in an Olympic tune-up, but on paper they look like a team that could give the USA trouble. First, they have size up front with Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao — the USA would struggle to match that. Especially since Tyson Chandler is a foul sponge for the USA, just soaking them up then having to sit. Brazil also has a savvy veteran point guard in Marcelinho Huertas and Leandro Barbosa’s three-point explosion lifted them over Spain. But again this is a team that could not keep up with the runs Team USA makes and doesn’t have the firepower to come back after the inevitable spurts by the Americans. If the USA lost to Brazil it would be because of how they came out, now how Brazil played.

Gold Medal Game: Russia or Spain. First off, I applogize to France and Lithuania but they are not making it this far. France maybe could swing a bronze.

The 2008 silver medalists Spain could, they put themselves on this half of the bracket by losing to Brazil on Monday. We’ve covered Spain before because they should be the second best team in London — they have Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol up front, they have good point guards in Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro, they have shooters like Rudy Fernandez. They should be a team that could push the USA. But they haven’t played like it at all. They were 3-2 in group play (although both losses were close) and the USA handled them easily in a tune-up in Barcelona. Spain can be a side that should be able to threaten Team USA in a one-game playoff, but they need to play a little better at both ends to really do that.

Russia would be an interesting matchup, a rematch of the controversial 1972 Olympics finals on the 40th anniversary of that game. First, the Russians are getting great play from two future Timberwolves: Andrei Kirilenko has averaged 18.2 points per game and played fantastic pressure defense on opposing bigs; Alexey Shved has averaged 12 points and 5.4 assists per game while really controlling the tempo and flow. Two other interesting notes from the ESPN Stats Department — Russia is holding opposing teams to 27 percent shooting from three and has been the best transition defense team in the games. Those are the two areas Team USA uses to get easy buckets.

Russia may be the Americans new biggest threat — defend the three, take away easy transition buckets, have Kirilenko control the paint and Shved controlling the tempo. Like Spain, if this were a seven game series there would be no doubt the USA would win. But it’s not. It’s the NCAA tournament — one and done. Lose and go home. And for one day Russia could put it all together and threaten the USA.

At least until LeBron James and Kevin Durant took over.

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.

Spurs playoffs hopes remain alive with 123-105 win over Rockets

Spurs playoffs
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The Spurs aren’t out of it yet.

Keldon Johnson had 24 points and 11 rebounds, and San Antonio kept alive its chances of becoming the first team in NBA history to make 23 consecutive playoff appearances with a 123-105 victory over the Houston Rockets on Tuesday.

San Antonio has won three straight and five out of seven since arriving in the Florida bubble.

DeMar DeRozan added 23 points. Jakob Poeltl finished with 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Johnson said his mindset since the season restarted has been to fill in whatever role is asked of him.

“Whether it’s hustling, running the floor – just doing whatever I need to do to help us win,” he said. “Help from my teammates has definitely helped the game slow down for me.”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Johnson is playing with the confidence they saw when they drafted him 29th overall last year.

“That’s what he does,” Popovich said. “He’s a high-energy guy. He’s very physical. Very competitive. Very coachable. He’s just a winner.”

The Western Conference is guaranteed to have a play-in for its final playoff spot, with Memphis beginning the day with just a half-game over Portland and one game ahead of Phoenix and San Antonio.

The Spurs will need help to be one of the teams playing this weekend for the final spot in the Western Conference, but made sure they couldn’t be eliminated Tuesday with their win.

Russell Westbrook had 20 points and seven turnovers in his first game back in the lineup for Houston after missing two games with a bruised right quadriceps. Jeff Green had 17 points. Ben McLemore added 16.

The Rockets played without guards James Harden (rest) and Eric Gordon (ankle).

The Spurs took control in the second quarter, outscoring the Rockets 35-24. San Antonio led by as many as 29 points.

San Antonio built a 19-point lead in the first half. DeRozan set the tone with 15 points in the opening 24 minutes, with Lonnie Waker IV, Poeltl and Johnson each scoring 10.

Regardless of whether the Spurs make the playoffs or not, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is proud of how his young players have stepped up in during their time in the bubble.

“Part of it is you have to be realistic,” Popovich said. “I don’t think our chances of winning the championship were great at the beginning of this, nor are they now. If that’s a fact, then you need to do everything you can to develop and be prepared for next season.

“The development has been off the charts. We’re thrilled with it. So it’s a win-win no matter what.”

Popovich said it would be “thrilling” to get some help and have a chance to extend their season, but he’s not using it as a measuring stick for the season.

“We’ve already accomplished what we thought we were capable of accomplishing, that’s what’s important. If we got in now it would be icing on the cake.”