Eleven guys who came out of London Olympics big winners

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The USA is the big winner in London — in our “winner take all” society they won the gold medal, they get the spoils. And no doubt they were the best team in the games.

But a number of players came out of London as winners in the reputation game. Eric Freeman nailed a great look at what the gold means to the members of Team USA over at Ball Don’t Lie, but I want to broaden the list — a number of players from around the globe leave London big winners.

Here are my 11 players who came out on top individually from London.

• LeBron James. You don’t have to like him, but you have to admit he has cemented his place as the most dominant player in the game today. For most people the fact he is NBA MVP, NBA champ and Olympic gold medalist at the same time helps move the needle on his perception and legacy. Him saying after the gold medal game that this was all about the USA just helps reinforce a perceived change.

Four years ago in Beijing, when things got tight against Spain in the fourth quarter, it was Kobe Bryant who took over. That was his team. This time, there was no mistake throughout the London tournament that this was LeBron James’ team — he was the guy that took over games, he was the guy setting players up, he was making big buckets (the three over Marc Gasol in the Gold Medal game was the last of many). Doug Collins had a good line about all this on the NBC broadcasts — LeBron’s fingerprints were all over these games. He had the first ever Olympic triple-double to prove it.

• Pau Gasol. Shortsighted Lakers fans (and some basketball fans in general) like to rip the guy as a soft Euro (forgetting how he stood up to Dwight Howard in the NBA finals, for one of many examples). That has always been shortsighted. Gasol is a finesse player who can use power in the right situation, but that is different than soft. He remains the most skilled scorer in the low post in the game today. Mike Brown hurt Gasol last year, trying to take advantage of his variety of skills (passing, mid-range shooting) and moved him out of the post most of the time. It was a mistake. Hopefully with a more fleet-footed Dwight Howard at the other big Brown can start to get Gasol the post touches he deserves.

• Chris Paul. Simply put, the best pure point guard, the best floor general in the game and the Olympics showed it. Deron Williams is good. Derrick Rose is explosive and good. But nobody controls the tempo and flow of a game like Chris Paul. Nobody. I’ve already written an ode to him, so I move on.

• Manu Ginobili. If LeBron James was the single best player in this tournament, Ginobili was second. He scored 19.4 points per game, shot 44 percent from three and more than that really controlled the flow of the offense for Argentina. He helped set up Luis Scola (18 points a game). Manu looked young in transition and deadly in the half court. At 35 the Spur has a few years left.

• Kevin Durant. In case there was still any lingering doubt, he is the best pure scorer walking the face of the earth. If you want points, he’s the guy who can get them with threes, off the drive, in transition, cutting, whatever you want. The LeBron/Durant two-man game the USA ran (LeBron with the ball handing off or not to Durant coming off his screen) was simply the USA’s best and most unstoppable play.

It feels even more and more like he will get his soon.

Andrei Kirilenko/Alexey Shved. Minnesota Timberwolves fans had to love these Olympics. Over the summer it seemed GM David Kahn overpaid for Kirilenko (well, he did), but in the Olympics he was the best player on the bronze medal winning Russian team, averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The question with AK-47 has always been consistency of effort, but he looked good in London. Shved and his shaggy hair were a hit in the games as he averaged 11.5 points and 5.9 assists per game. He looked like the perfect backup point guard to Ricky Rubio.

• Andre Iguodala. He played a key role with Team USA as a defensive stopper on the wing and a guy asked to score in transition and with space in the half court. In the middle of the Olympics he gets traded to Denver where he will be asked to do what he did for Team USA (just on a slightly expanded scale). Let me put it this way, I would move Iggy way up your fantasy boards.

Juan Carlos Navarro. He had one unhappy season in Memphis and was back to Spain. We NBA fans lose out because of it, that guy can flat out play.

• Anthony Davis. The question with the No. 1 overall draft pick of the Hornets is not does he have the talent but can he develop said talent. Starting out your NBA career by getting to hang out with and watch the work ethic of Kobe, LeBron, CP3 — really everyone on this team — gives him a huge head start on the learning curve. Plus, he gets a gold medal.

• Linas Kleiza. He can fall out of pubic consciousness up in Toronto, but consider this a reminder the Lithuanian forward can play — 13.8 points per game as the leader of Lithuanian team.

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.”