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.

Wes Unseld Jr., Kenny Atkinson reportedly top list for next Chicago coach

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Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, the two guys at the top of Chicago Bulls basketball operations, fired a coach in Jim Boylen that the team owner liked. Which means they have to nail the next hire.

Chicago in on to the second round of interviews and four names stand out, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Bulls are narrowing to finalists for their head coaching job and expect to conduct final interviews soon, sources said. Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Philadelphia assistant Ime Udoka, Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham and former Brooklyn head coach Kenny Atkinson are among the coaches who have had strong interviews so far.

Atkinson has a more proven resume after what he did in Brooklyn, but the other three are top assistants who have earned their shot in the big chair. Unseld Jr. is a hot name right now because his team is still in the bubble and playing well — he’s Mike Malone’s lead assistant on the Denver Nuggets — but every name on this list is qualified.

Whoever lands the job will head a team with plenty of potential but also plenty of questions. The Bulls have quality young talent on the roster — Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter — but do they are fit together? How good Chicago is next season may depend more on the growth of White and the health of Markkanen than it does on who gets selected as coach.

Expect Karnisovas to spend a year putting his stamp on this roster and moving players around. First, however, he’s got to find his coach.

Michael Jordan, Denny Hamlin form NASCAR racing team with Bubba Wallace driving

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Michael Jordan is getting into the NASCAR game.

The North Carolina native has teamed up with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin to form a new NASCAR Cup Series race team — and they’ve signed Bubba Wallace to drive.

Wallace is the only Black man driving full-time in NASCAR’s top series (the previous three seasons he raced for Richard Petty Motorsports). Wallace has been at the forefront of bringing social changes to NASCARincluding the banning of the Confederate flags at NASCAR events and tracks.

“Growing up in North Carolina, my parents would take my brothers, sisters and me to races, and I’ve been a NASCAR fan my whole life,” Jordan said in a statement. “The opportunity to own my own racing team in partnership with my friend, Denny Hamlin, and to have Bubba Wallace driving for us, is very exciting for me.

“Historically, NASCAR has struggled with diversity and there have been few Black owners. The timing seemed perfect as NASCAR is evolving and embracing social change more and more. In addition to the recent commitment and donations I have made to combat systemic racism, I see this as a chance to educate a new audience and open more opportunities for Black people in racing.”

Michael Jordan becomes the first Black owner of a full-time race team in NASCAR top series since NASCAR Hall of Famer Wendell Scott in the 1960s and early 1970s (he owned the team and drove the car). Bubba Wallace is the first Black full-time driver in the top NASCAR series since Scott.

Hamlin will be a minority partner in the new team and continue to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I believe is a great fit for me at this point in my career,” said Wallace in a statement. “Both Michael and Denny are great competitors and are focused on building the best team they possibly can to go out and compete for race wins. I’m grateful and humbled that Michael and Denny believe in me and I’m super pumped to begin this adventure with them.”

The car manufacturer, number, sponsors and more will be announced at a later date.

Jordan is the primary owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.

NBA executives pick Luka Doncic as best player under 25 to build around

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Luka Doncic, in his second season, made the leap into the NBA’s elite — fourth in MVP voting and First Team All-NBA. All at age 21.

Not surprisingly, he’s the player under 21 NBA teams would want to build around.

Michael Scotto of Hoopshype polled 15 league executives (including four general managers) and players under 25 they want to build around and Doncic was the unanimous choice.

“To me, Luka is the clear No. 1,” one scout told HoopsHype. “He’s a guy who can be a lead ballhandler. He’s good enough to score and create at a high level, has the right mental makeup and is incredibly smart. He’s been a winner everywhere and will probably be a winner in the league.”

It’s hard to argue when Luka Doncic is already doing this in the playoffs:

Boston’s Jayson Tatum came in second, Phoenix Devin Booker was third, followed by Ja Morant (Memphis) fourth and a tie at fifth between Donovan Mitchell (Utah) and Bam Adebayo (Miami).

An interesting note about that top five: None of them was a No. 1 pick.

Zion Williamson had been on top of this poll a year ago, but after a season where he played just 19 games then looked a step slow in the bubble there are concerns about his long-term health.

“He’s just a special player inside the arc who’s an elite finisher,” one executive told HoopsHype. “Offensively, he can finish at an elite rate. He’s one of the best finishers behind Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and LeBron (James). He can hit the open man. He’s so physically dominant. His shooting shouldn’t be a problem, but we’ll see. I think he’s always going to be hurt, though.”

One healthy dominant season from Williamson and those opinions could shift, but even then Doncic will be an MVP level player the Mavericks can build a contender around. He’s the guy under 25.

Report: Raptors coach Nick Nurse earning $8M salary on extension

Raptors coach Nick Nurse
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Spurs president-coach Gregg Popovich reportedly had an $11 million salary in 2015 then signed a contract extension in 2019 that keeps him the NBA’s highest-paid coach. Doc Rivers was earning $10 million annually with the Clippers before his latest extension. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also signed extensions in recent years.

What about Nick Nurse, who just signed an extension with the Raptors?

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Raptors coach Nick Nurse signed a new multiyear contract extension on Tuesday — a deal that pays him around $8 million per year, sources say.

That’s a lot for a coach, especially in these times.

But Nurse has proven his value. He might even be the NBA’s best coach right now. He checks so many key boxes.

He has shown the ability to prepare his team for the playoffs then adapt through a long playoff run. His players have developed under his watch. He has dealt with roster upheaval and kept everything humming.

After just two seasons as head coach, Nurse still must prove himself in more situations, especially as opposing teams become more familiar with his strategies. But Toronto should want to keep him.

Credit Raptors ownership for paying to make it happen.

Now onto Raptors president Masai Ujiri