FIBA World Cup preview: USA, Spain, then who else can medal?

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The world’s 24 top international basketball teams are not flying to Spain just for the gambas al ajillo tapas or to play for national pride, there is a prize when the FIBA World Cup tips off on Saturday:

A berth in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Win and your in, come in second to 24th and you need to go to qualifying tournaments next season.

Plus, you can win a medal. Gold, silver or bronze. And who doesn’t like getting a medal?

So who can win medals? Here’s a breakdown:

Gold/Silver medal contenders:

If the gold medal game is not the USA vs. Spain it will be an upset. These are the world’s two best teams and with Spain playing in front of their home fans it’s hard to imagine them getting beat. That final game likely will be close, but it’s far too early to predict an outcome. Only that the meeting is destined.

USA: The USA senior national team last lost a game in 2006 (at this World Cup) and has won everything since: gold at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics plus the 2010 World Cup. Despite late defections and other guys staying home, Team USA is still loaded and deeper than any team in the tournament — Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden will lead a USA squad that will use high pressure defense, three point shooting, transition scoring and superior athleticism to overwhelm teams.

Spain: They are the runners up the last two Olympics and they bring a lot of depth — Mark Gasol, Pau Gaol and Serge Ibaka form a formidable front line with Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes and Rudy Fernandez in the backcourt. Every guy on their roster plays NBA or high-level international ball, plus is experienced on the international stage. These guys have been playing with each other for years and have a real comfort level in what they do. They were right with Team USA in the London Olympics gold medal game until Marc Gasol got in foul trouble… you think that happens on their home court?

Bronze medal contenders:

Everyone else is competing for third, here are the teams that could win it.

France: They are the defending EuroBasket champions and they bring some NBA talent to the roster — Evan Fournier, Nicolas Batum, Boris Diaw, Ian Mahinmi, Rudy Gobert, plus you all remember Mickael Gelabale. However, they are without Tony Parker and Joakim Noah, two big pieces that keep them from being a dark horse gold contender. However they are still talented, still have plenty of shooting and versatility, and if Batum and Diaw can lead them they can get the bronze.

Brazil: They are loaded along the front line — Tiago Splitter, Nene, Anderson Varejao, — and are counting on guys like Leandro Barbosa and experienced internationals like Marcelinho Huertas to do enough in the backcourt. They will defend and score inside, if they get enough shooting and play on the wing they can certainly medal. But that’s a real big question.

Greece: They are in a transition from the older generation (led by the now gone Vassilis Spanoulis) to younger players, but they have some talent — NBA players Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Nick Calathes (Grizzlies), Kostas Papanikolaou (Rockets). They have real athleticism but do they have enough steady shooting to get the job done? If they knock down shots they are a medal threat. But we’re going to watch to see Antetokounmpo anyway.

Argentina: This is the last serious go around for Argentina’s golden generation, but they will have to do it without Manu Ginobili (a stress fracture that is not fully recovered). Still they have Luis Scola, Pablo Prigioni, Andres Nocioni, and even Walter Herrmann. Argentina will need to integrate good play from their younger stars and they will need to get past a very big internal controversy about the handling of money in the Argentinian basketball organization. But they might medal.

Lithuania: The world’s fourth ranked team has the advantage of being on the soft side of the draw — they should win group D handily and while they are not better than the USA only Turkey might really be a threat after that on their side of the bracket. This is a team that could and really should reach the bronze medal game, if they can overcome the loss of starting point guard Mantas Kalnietis (dislocated shoulder). They have real quality up front with Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors) and Donatas Motiejunas (Rockets) but they have solid, smart international players at every other position. Not great at any position, but solid to good at every one. Expect to see them playing for the bronze against one of the teams above.

Report: Russell Westbrook expected to miss Rockets’ first few playoff games

Rockets star Russell Westbrook and Thunder star Chris Paul
Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images
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Rockets guard Russell Westbrook could miss playoff games with a strained right quadriceps.

That’s no longer just a mere possibility.

It’s an expectation.

Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

Though the Rockets could only put a timetable on when they will next evaluate Russell Westbrook’s strained quadriceps muscle, the expectation is that he will be out for the first few games of next week’s playoff series and possibly longer, a person with knowledge of the team’s thinking said on Thursday.

The Rockets will face the Thunder in the first-round, and Westbrook missing games would be a major blow.

Both teams have similar median levels. But Oklahoma City is steadier. Houston has a higher ceiling (championship level) but a lower floor – which drops even further without Westbrook.

The Rockets re-engineered their team around Westbrook, going super small so he serves as the only player who doesn’t space the floor with 3-pointers. That gives everyone more room to operate, and the explosive Westbrook has taken particular advantage. Even if he returns during the series, lingering leg issues could really limit him.

James Harden is good enough to lift Houston to playoff relevancy. Role players like P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington can still contribute. The Rockets have plenty of guard who can step into larger roles – Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore.

But Westbrook takes this team to the next level.

The Rockets traded a valuable set of draft picks last summer to upgrade from Chris Paul to Westbrook, who looked more durable. Ironically, Houston must now face a rejuvenated and healthy Paul, now on Oklahoma City, with Westbrook sidelined.

Grizzlies’ other rookie, Brandon Clarke again leaping over expectations

Grizzlies rookie Brandon Clarke
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When Brandon Clarke signed with San Jose State in 2014, the Spartans bragged about landing their highest-rated recruit ever – Cody Schwartz.

When Clarke transferred to Gonzaga in 2017, Bulldogs fans viewed him as a consolation prize after the program struck out on other transfers like Chase Jeter, Kameron Rooks, Elijah Brown, Randy Onwuasor and Deontae Hawkins.

When the Grizzlies got Clarke with the No. 21 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis naturally focused on No. 2 pick Ja Morant.

Unlike the previous situations, the player coveted ahead of Clarke proved worthy of the hype. Morant is the rare rookie point guard who drives winning, and he’s the biggest reason the Grizzlies are still in the thick of the playoff race.

But, as usual, Clarke is quietly thriving.

“I don’t mind not being super famous,” Clarke said. “I don’t mind people kind of missing out on me.

“By now, I’m kind of used to it.”

Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Clarke give Memphis a promising, cohesive young core to build around. Just remember to include Clarke in that group.

After a long run of competitiveness, the Grizzlies were fortunate to go over the hill and bottom out in a year someone as good as Jackson was available with the No. 4 pick. Then, Memphis got lucky in last year’s lottery, nabbing the No. 2 pick in a two-player draft and getting Morant. What a quick way to rebuild.

Especially when nailing moves around the margins like getting Clarke.

In the 2019 NBA Draft, Memphis traded up to the No. 21 pick for Clarke, whom ranked No. 10 on my board. The power forward-center has only outperformed his ratings since.

Clarke’s per-game stats – 12.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 0.8 blocks – are modest. But he’s incredibly productive in his 22.3 minutes per game.

Incredibly productive.

Clarke doesn’t hold ideal size. He’s just 6-foot-8 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and weighs just 215 pounds.

But he’s a great leaper, both quick and high off the ground. And he plays with an attacking style that maximizes his athleticism.

Clarke is an elite finisher who gets above the rim, dunking or showing nice close-range touch. He has already developed pick-and-roll chemistry with Morant. Clarke is shooting 74% in the restricted area, placing him among the league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

When opponents wall off the basket, Clarke turns to his highly effective floater. He gets way up then shows the range of his touch. Clarke is shooting 58% in the paint outside the restricted area – second in the NBA behind only Nikola Jokic, who’s shooting 60% from that range. The league leaders (minimum: 100 attempts):

Clarke also shoots a keep-’em-honest 3-pointer, making 37% of his 1.1 attempts per game.

Clarke pairs well long-term with Jackson, a 3-point-bombing center (who’s out with an injury). Jackson’s outside shooting clears space for Clarke inside, and the attention Clarke should draw in the paint will free Jackson on the perimeter. Yet, both can flip roles – Jackson to the interior, Clarke to the perimeter – to keep defenses guessing.

“Oh, it’s amazing,” Jackson said. “Playing with a guy like him, who’s so explosive and somebody I can bounce off of really well, it’s a lot of fun.”

It’s unclear whether Clarke or Jackson can effectively defend big centers. That responsibility will likely fall to Jackson, who’s 6-foot-11 but must add strength. Clarke’s defense is more versatile. He blocks plenty of shots with his hops and timing, and he moves reasonably well in space.

Clarke knows his role and stays within it. He’s not much of a creator, for himself or teammates. He rarely gambles defensively. He just plays intelligently, makes positive plays and avoids negative ones.

On a certain level, Clarke should be an early contributor. He turned 23 before the season. But even experienced rookies rarely play this well.

Yet, Clarke is still overshadowed among rookies on his own team.

“It’s honestly fine,” Clarke said. “I’m not somebody that loves having a bunch of cameras on me and a bunch of pictures and videos being taken of me. So, I think it’s perfect of having Ja be that guy that gets all of that attention.”

Clarke should get some attention soon. He belongs on the All-Rookie first team with Morant.

The three Rookie of the Year finalists – Morant, Pelicans big Zion Williamson and Heat guard Kendrick Nunn – are locks. I had Clarke safely in my fourth slot. Really, he was closer to Williamson and Nunn that fifth.

But Clarke’s scoring average ranks just 12th among rookies. Williamson, Morant, Nunn, R.J. Barrett, Eric Paschall, Rui Hachimura, Tyler Herro, Coby White, De'Andre Hunter, Darius Garland and P.J. Washington all averaged more points per game. That statistic more than any tends to drive voters. So, it could be close for Clarke.

Yet, Morant and Clarke at least have the opportunity for a rare accomplishment.

Since the NBA entered an expansion era in 1988, just seven teams have put two players on an All-Rookie first team:

  • 2017 76ers: Dario Saric and Joel Embiid
  • 2008 SuperSonics: Kevin Durant and Jeff Green
  • 2007 Trail Blazers: Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge
  • 2007 Raptors: Andrea Bargnani and Jorge Garbajosa
  • 2005 Bulls: Ben Gordon and Luol Deng
  • 2002 Grizzlies: Pau Gasol and Shane Battier
  • 1998 Cavaliers: Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brevin Knight

Will the 2020 Grizzlies become the eighth?

They have more-pressing goals first.

Memphis faces the Bucks today with a chance to make the Western Conference play-in. Advancing would be a great achievement for one of the NBA’s youngest teams.

But Memphis is ahead of schedule even being in the mix. The Grizzlies’ future is bright, regardless. They’re talented, fun and seem to get along well.

In a game earlier this season, Morant threw Clarke an alley-oop, but Clarke missed the poster dunk.

“I’d be joking with him, saying, ‘Yeah, you don’t want to make SportsCenter,'” Morant said.

Later in the same game, Morant attacked the rim but passed rather than scoring. Clarke shot right back: “You don’t want to make SportsCenter.”

And in some ways, yes. Morant still views himself as the underdog from Murray State. But his game is too stylistic, his highlights too jaw-dropping. There’s no way for him to escape the spotlight.

“I wish I could be in the background,” Morant said.

Does Morant envy Clarke’s low profile?

“It’s not jealousy at all,” Morant said. “He’s getting attention. He’s not necessarily in the background. We love him in Memphis. I’m pretty sure his name will get out there even more soon.”

Chris Paul launches ball off Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler runs over CP3 in response

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Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler didn’t need fans to ramp up their intensity Wednesday night.

Just before half of Oklahoma City’s dramatic win over Miami (which cost the Thunder a first-round pick), Paul was getting into it with Miami’s Duncan Robinson. They were jawing back and forth, with Paul draped all over the Heat shooter. Then, on a poor inbounds pass, Paul ripped the ball away from Robinson, lost his balance in doing so and was falling out of bounds, then full-on fired the ball at Robinson to get the out-of-bounds.

Jimmy Butler was having none of that — next time down, he got the switch then intentionally ran over CP3.

“You’re not gonna throw the ball at my teammate like that. We don’t do that here. You mess with one of my guys, especially one of my shooters, then you gotta deal with me and everybody else.”

That was Butler after the game, when asked about the incident.

Paul, for his part, sees a steal on time down the court and drawing an offensive foul the next — two trips down the court the Heat didn’t get off a shot in a tight game. He’ll take that.

Unfortunately for us fans, that’s it for Heat/Thunder matchups for this season (unless you’re picking that as your NBA Finals matchup). I’ve got a feeling Butler and Paul are the kinds of guys who will remember a grudge like this across an off-season.

Every 2020 NBA playoffs first-round matchup set except one; West play-in scenarios

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The first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs is set.

Almost.

Seven of the eight first-round matchups are locked in, but there is still the matter of the eighth seed in the West. The Suns, Blazers, Grizzlies, and Spurs are still alive; which two teams make it to the play-in tournament over the weekend will be decided Thursday.

First, here are the first-round playoff matchups for the NBA restart bubble (times and dates for games have yet to be announced).

EAST

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Orlando Magic
Toronto Raptors vs. Brooklyn Nets
Boston Celtics vs. Philadephia 76ers
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers

WEST

Los Angeles Clippers vs. Dallas Mavericks
Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

For that eighth and final matchup, we know the Los Angeles Lakers are the top seed in the West.

The only 2020 NBA playoffs spot remaining is the Lakers’ opponent, the eighth seed in the West, which will be determined by a play-in series Saturday and (if necessary) Sunday. In a unique rule set up just for the NBA restart (because of the shortened season), if the ninth-seed team is within four games of the eighth seed (something that will happen in the West), the eighth and ninth seeds are put into a two-game play-in series. The eighth seed team needs only to win one of those games, the ninth seed needs to sweep both. The winner advances on to face the Lakers.

Here are the standings entering Thursday:

Portland and Memphis control their own destiny — win and they are in.

Let’s look at the play-in scenarios for each team.

• Portland: Beat the Nets and the Trail Blazers are the eighth seed. It’s that simple. If Portland loses, it only remains the eighth seed if everyone else loses (which is highly unlikely). Portland can lose and still be the nine seed if two of the other three teams also lose.

• Memphis: Beat Milwaukee — which is without Giannis Antetokounmpo due to suspension after his headbutt of Moe Wagner — and Memphis can finish no worse than ninth. If the Grizzlies win and Trail Blazers lose, then Memphis becomes the eighth seed. If the Grizzlies lose to the Bucks, they need both the Suns and Spurs to lose to stay in the playoffs.

• Phoenix: The Suns must beat the Mavericks and go 8-0 in the bubble or they are out. Even that may not be enough, Phoenix still needs Memphis and/or Portland to lose to move into either of the top two seeds (if both lose the Suns can be eighth, just one and they finish ninth).

• San Antonio: The Spurs must beat the Jazz to have any chance, lose and their 22-season playoff streak ends. Even with a win, San Antonio needs at least two of Portland/Memphis/Phoenix to lose to become the nine seed (if all three lose the Spurs can be the eighth seed, but that is an extreme longshot).

That’s a lot of options, but ultimately Damian Lillard and Portland are in the driver’s seat — and the way he’s playing it’s tough to imagine them losing Thursday, or two in a row after that.