Derrick Rose returns, Anthony Davis shines in USA Basketball’s exhibition win over Brazil

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CHICAGO — Derrick Rose played his first game at the United Center in almost nine months on Saturday, when the USA Basketball team took on the squad from Brazil in an exhibition contest.

Team USA cruised to a 95-78 victory, and while getting the win was nice, the focal point of the evening was Rose’s return, at least initially.

The building was legitimately sold out, and the fans seemed to be there for none other reason than to cheer their hometown hero. But they were also treated to a series of dazzling highlights from his teammates.

Rose did look a bit rusty; whether it was due to the nerves of being back on his home floor for the first time in so long, or simply the excitement brought by his first real competition over that same span, he definitely didn’t dominate the way he’s capable of. He did, however, manage to give the fans what they wanted on two separate occasions.

Even if Rose has changed his game as he recently proclaimed, his signature speed was as prominent as ever. He went the length of the floor in the blink of an eye and finished with a floater off the glass to beat the halftime buzzer, and then midway through the third, he used a devastating crossover that was followed by a hard-charging burst, which allowed him to convert an acrobatic finish at the basket.

Those are the types of plays that we know Rose is capable of, and the other ones, which included a missed breakaway dunk in the second quarter and at least a few errant passes, should become less frequent as time goes on.

“He’s shaking some rust off,” USA Basketball assistant and Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said afterward. “But his explosiveness was back.”

With the game well out of hand and just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter, the fans began a loud chant of “We want Rose!” Mike Krzyzewski complied almost immediately, and when Rose bounced up and jogged to the scorers table, the place went nuts.

“I didn’t react to the crowd,” Krzyzewski said with a smile. “I would never do that.”

While all eyes were on Rose in Chicago as expected, Anthony Davis made it impossible not to notice just how dominant he can be against the far less athletic international competition.

Davis flew around the basket for several highlight-worthy slam dunks, and flew into the stands head over heels trying to save a loose ball. He finished with a game-high 20 points, and you can just see how his being on the floor should be a complete game-changer for the USA team once tournament play begins for real in a few short weeks.

“Ant played great man,” Rose said afterward. “That’s what we need — blocking shots, rebounding, diving for the ball out of bounds. We didn’t know how he was going to play with the bigs they have because he’s kind of smaller than they are weight-wise. But he came out here and hooped.”

James Harden finished with 18 points, and his personal highlights included a step-back three off the dribble over a defender, and of course, scoring more than once on slashing drives to the basket. Stephen Curry hit some shots early, the most impressive of which involved some extremely nifty ball-handling to shake his defender before he effortlessly splashed a long three home.

Team USA started a lineup that consisted of Rose, Curry, Davis, Harden and Kenneth Faried, whose activity and effort remained consistent; his chances continue to improve as far as making the final roster. DeMarcus Cousins didn’t play due to injury, and DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond and Gordon Hayward received the always-dreaded DNP-CDs.

Getting the victory was nice, and it was one successful step on this summer’s travels for Team USA. But for Rose, his initial experience returning to his home floor was far more important, and an achievement all by itself — even if he downplayed it after the night was finished.

“I’ve been preparing for this for a long time,” Rose said. “If this was a couple of weeks ago, I probably would’ve been emotional. But right now, it feels great. We won the game.”

Rudy Gobert says lack of Team USA stars in World Cup will continue

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The 2019 FIBA World Cup is over, and the United States did not medal. It was a disappointing showing for Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, who led the U.S. national team in a year in which several stars did not want to participate.

Instead it looks as though players like Stephen Curry and Draymond Green will play next year in the 2020 Olympics in Japan. Meanwhile, what can FIBA do to entice stars to play in their tournament?

There are lots of issues with how the World Cup works, including the wonky qualifying windows and the fact that the Olympics come in short succession. That’s not to say that folks back in the States don’t want the World Cup to be a big deal — USA basketball head Jerry Colangelo has said that he wants the FIBA contest to be a premier event.

But some, like Utah Jazz and French national team big man Rudy Gobert, don’t ever see that happening. Speaking to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Gobert said that he doesn’t believe players will join in on the FIBA games thanks to how the modern NBA works.

Via NY Times:

“I wish all the best players would come, but it’s never going to happen,” Gobert said of the modern N.B.A. player’s approach in the Load Management Era. “They think about themselves more than anything — and it’s understandable. It’s a business. We all have families to take care of.”

Although FIBA has been around since 1932, it’s not a part of American culture yet and thus the Olympics seem to be what both players and fans care about in comparison. That the U.S. men’s team didn’t come away with the gold doesn’t even seem to be that big of a deal, culturally.

Gobert has the right idea in terms of the reality of the situation. Until respective national team organizations can entice their own players to join in, it’s not clear what the World Cup will mean for basketball fans in North America moving forward. As such, we are unlikely to see a star-studded World Cup Team USA in the near future.

Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young among players attending Rockets’ mini-camp

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The Houston Rockets have potential roster spots open.

With Iman Shumpert turning them down, the Rockets have just nine fully guaranteed contracts right now, plus eight guys on temporary deals. When the season starts, Houston has to have at least 13, and likely will have 14 or 15, players on the roster, even if some of those remain temporary contracts. In an NBA where guaranteed contracts are the norm, leaving very little drama for training camp, the Rockets are an exception.

Which is why a number of veterans — Corey Brewer, Raymond Felton, Nick Young, Thabo Sefolosha among them — are going to Houston’s mini-camp, reports Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Mbah a Moute has since changed his plans and will not show up.

Can Brewer and Felton — at their age — beat out guys such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Michael Frazier, Ben McLemore, and Gary Clark for spots on the Rockets’ roster? I’m not sold that they can (Hartenstein is very likely to make the final roster), but the first step is a good showing at mini-camp, which can lead to a training camp invite.

The Rockets are not a deep team, at this point in the summer they may present the best opportunity for anyone to earn their way into an NBA contract.

James Harden wants to win multiple championships — and he hears the clock ticking

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James Harden has a Hall of Fame resume already: An MVP (and he is convinced he should have won more), six-time All-NBA and seven-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champ (averaging the most points per game since Jordan last season), an assist champ, and a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. Right now he is the most lethal scoring threat in the game, and while I wouldn’t go as far as Daryl Morey he is undoubtedly one of the best scorers ever. His step-back is unstoppable.

However, there is one thing missing from that resume: A ring.

It’s something that irritates Harden but he cannot just get by himself. He has just turned 30 in the past month and told Howard Beck of Bleacher Report that he can hear the clock ticking, which is why he wants to win right now.

“I still haven’t accomplished half of what I want to accomplish,” he says. “Like, multiple championships. I want to be one of those basketball players that you won’t forget. And obviously, we all remember the Kobes and the Jordans and the D-Wades and all those guys. I want to be in that same conversation, obviously, in championships and all that good stuff, and best shooting guards to ever play the game…

“Of course [a championship] matters to me,” he says. “I’ve been thinking about it maybe the last year-and-a-half, two years. I’m on the right path. You can’t rush winning a title. Some win it early, some win it late. It’s perfect timing. The time is going to happen when the time happens. I’ve just got to be patient, continue to work my butt off, continue to be a great leader, great teammate, and just try to bring as much talent and as much guys that have that same drive that I have. I think we all have it right now.”

The Rockets have been the second-best team in the West — and maybe the second or third best team in the NBA — the past couple of seasons (by the playoffs last season the Rockets were back to that level). That has not been enough when faced with the juggernaut of Golden State, but Harden and company have been knocking on the door for years.

That door is now open. The Warriors, while still good, are not the fearsome force of previous seasons and the West is wide open — and seven teams think they can get through that door first.

Houston believes it should be at the front of that line, and they went and got Russell Westbrook as the latest and greatest superstar pairing of the Harden era. It’s a duo that will bring energy and, at least through mid-April, a lot of wins.

But there are questions: Can isolation players James Harden and Russell Westbrook strike a balance (especially in the playoffs when they will share the court more)? Can this team defend well enough with Harden and Westbrook on the court at the same time? Do the Rockets have enough depth to contend?

That’s a lot of questions, but every team in the West has questions, which is what makes this season so compelling.

Just don’t doubt for a second that Harden wants it and wants it badly. That alone, however, will not be enough.

Kevin Durant reverses course on championship: ‘Every day I woke up, I just felt so good about myself, so good about life’

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Following his first NBA title, Kevin Durant said, “After winning that championship (last season), I learned that much hadn’t changed. I thought it would fill a certain [void]. It didn’t.”

How does Durant now reflect on that time with the Warriors?

Durant, via J.R. Moehringer of the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s very rare in our lives when we envision and picture something and it comes together the perfect way you envision it. [Winning a title] was the only time in my life that happened, and that summer was the most exhilarating time. Every day I woke up I just felt so good about myself, so good about life.… That was a defining moment in my life—not just my basketball life.”

It’s difficult to reconcile those two quotes. I’d love to hear Durant eventually explain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t relish the championship aftermath as much he initially expected but, looking back, now realizes how much he actually enjoyed it. The end of his time with Golden State wasn’t totally pleasant. That might have provided perspective on the better times. Or maybe the difference is simply his mood on the day of each interview.

Durant is continuing to try to find himself while in the public eye. That isn’t easy, and it’ll lead to contradictions like this along the way. I appreciate his openness, even when he’s still difficult to understand.