After lackluster start, Team USA rallies to blow out Dominican Republic, secure group top spot

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Team USA has won the FIBA World Cup Group C.

Which is about as big a surprise as your mother forwarding an email with a cute cat video in it — we all knew that was coming. We’re all still waiting for something more interesting.

The USA grabbed the top spot with a 106-71 thrashing of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday, improving to 4-0 in the World Cup. Team USA was not energetic and focused to start the game — they led just 25-22 after one quarter — but went on a 22-0 run late in the third into the fourth, turning a comfortable win into a laugher.

The USA has one group game left, Thursday against the Ukraine (ESPN 2 at 11:30 ET), then they start the knockout round Saturday in Barcelona against an opponent yet to be determined. That’s when things start to get interesting, although it may well be a couple games after that before the USA gets its first real test.

Once again Wednesday it was the energy of Kenneth Faried that led the way for Team USA, he had 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus pulled down six rebounds. He’s the big story right now — and to do it heading into a contract year is a good time to break out. DeMarcus Cousins had 13 points and six steals and brought some passion to the court, Anthony Davis finished with 10 points and five blocks as again it was the inside play of the Americans that anchored them and got them the win.

The Dominican Republic was without Houston Rockets swingman Francisco Garcia — he’s averaged 21 points a game and played 31 minutes a game so far this World Cup — who sat out with a sprained ankle. He tweaked it at the end of Tuesday’s game against Finland and with Thursday’s Dominican Republic game against Turkey determining whether or not they advance to the knockout stage (win and they move on, lose and it could get dicey), the Dominican Republic coaches wisely gave Garcia a game off. A game they weren’t going to win anyway.

Credit the Dominican roster, filled with guys who played college ball in the USA, for playing well early on. They slowed the game down at points, got back on defense in transition, ran a solid zone defense, made smart fouls and drove the lane. The problem was they struggled with the length of Team USA when they tried to finish those drives (DR shot just 39.6 percent on two pointers). The USA had five first quarter blocks and altered many more shots — the USA bigs were cleaning up a lot of messes.

It also was close early because the USA just missed stuff they normally make. Davis missed a couple dunks, Curry clanked a wide open three, and the USA started 2-of-7 from the free throw line. Just not in a rhythm, not playing with energy. USA struggled again against the zone.

The USA got a spark off the bench, particularly some chemistry between Cousins and Derrick Rose. It wasn’t a great statistical game for Rose — six points on five shots, three assist in 13 minutes — but his defense was better than the guys on the floor, he made some smart passes, and bottom line he was out there when the complexion of the game started to change. By the half the USA was up 15, 56-41, and had yet to go on a real run.

In the second half the USA played improved defense (the Dominican Republic scored just 30 points after the half) and with that started to really pull away and make this a rout.

Thursday’s game against Mike Fratello’s Ukranian team likely ends in pretty similar fashion.

Again for the USA there are legit areas of concern. There are the slow starts, we can pick apart the half court defensive decisions at times, not to mention the ball movement vs. too much isolation basketball ratio, but the USA seemed a little better about those things today (well, not the slow starts). It’s not easy to judge until they face a team they can’t just overwhelm, but that likely does not happen until the quarter or semi-finals next week.

Against Spain (or maybe Slovenia or Lithuania) these kinds of sloppy starts and defensive miscues could be real trouble. But the USA knew how this game would end and it’s human nature not to be as focused in those cases.

Thursday likely sees more of the same.

Knicks reportedly near deal to waive, stretch Joakim Noah, making him free agent

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The Joakim Noah era with the Knicks is finally, mercifully coming to an end.

Back in the summer of 2016 — the summer when NBA GMs spent like a drunk sailor on shore leave — the Knicks’ Phil Jackson looked at Joakim Noah, who had played 29 games the season before due to injury and was showing the wear and tear of Tom Thibodeau miles on him, and thought “I should give him four years, $72.6 million because he will totally bounce back to Defensive Player of the Year form.” In the two year’s since Noah has played in 53 games total, and while he can still grab some boards when he gets on the court, he is not near the defensive force he once was, and he was never a great offensive player.

The Knicks are finally moving on and doing so in the next 48 hours, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at The Athletic.

Much like the Luol Deng move by the Lakers, this is about freeing up cap space for next summer for the Knicks. New York will pay his full $18.5 million salary for this season, then stretch his final season of $19.3 million over three seasons, which works out to about $6.43 million a season on the books. That is without any discount in the buyout Noah may give New York.

For the Knicks, that frees up about $12.9 million in extra cap space next summer, when they want to go big game hunting for free agents. (The Knicks reportedly have Kyrie Irving at the top of their list, although most sources I talk to around the league don’t expect Irving to leave Boston next summer.) It does mean the Knicks will have some of that Noah money on the books through the summer of 2023. The risk for New York is if they strike out in free agency then they still have that Noah money on the books, rather than just taking their medicine and paying the full price, although having him in the locker room and wanting minutes would be a distraction, one the Knicks would like to move past.

As for other teams having interest in Noah, maybe if he can prove he’s healthy some team might consider him for a backup center, or third center on the roster spot. Maybe. But most teams would rather have a young player they can get cheaply and develop in that spot rather than a 33-year-old veteran with an injury history. It’s something to watch, but I doubt the market is very deep. That said, it just takes one.

76ers set to turn promising season into must-see TV

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CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — Ben Simmons is set to turn the 76ers into must-see TV.

But he hopes to have another smash hit off the court. NBC has given a script commitment to “Brotherly Love,” loosely based on the life of the Aussie-born NBA rookie of the year.

Deadline described the pitch like this:

“Brotherly Love is inspired by the life of Ben Simmons and centers on a unique sibling relationship within a multi-ethnic family. Together, they pursue their dreams while navigating life in the spotlight in Philadelphia, a passionate city where sports is in your blood, and your blood is always boiling.”

Don’t touch that dial – well, unless the 76ers are on.

“It’s just funny because a lot of people probably pitch their lives and think everything should be a TV show,” Simmons said Friday. “We brought it to life. (My brother) wrote something up, pitched it to a few different people. NBC loved it and went with it. It’s really going to be about our relationship and how things just happen. It’s more of a comedy-sitcom type of show. It will be pretty funny. Hopefully, that goes through and works out.”

Oh, and LeBron James (through SpringHill Entertainment) is listed as an executive producer.

The 76ers were shooting for Ben & Bron.

The Sixers met with James’ representatives just hours before the free-agent signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, the brief flirtation enough to make the organization think they might have a shot at the NBA great.

“I feel like he could have been a great piece to add to get us where we need to be,” All-Star center Joel Embiid said.

So the 76ers will try to win their first NBA title since 1983 without The King.

But with Embiid, Simmons and 2017 No. 1 NBA draft pick Markelle Fultz aboard, the Sixers believe they can top the 52 wins and a playoff series win from a year ago as they chase a championship.

Embiid, speaking at 76ers’ media day, said a successful season would be “an appearance in the NBA finals.”

That’s a pretty lofty goal for a franchise that made no meaningful offseason additions and just this week named 39-year-old Elton Brand, who retired only two years ago, as general manager.

“I just remember dunking on him really bad,” Embiid said. “That’s crazy it was two years ago.”

Coach Brett Brown expected a dominant season out of Embiid (22.9 points, 11 rebounds) and Simmons, whose friendship with Kendall Jenner made TMZ headlines this summer. He spent the offseason working on his jumper.

“I’ve never been on a team where I have to take shots,” Simmons said.

But the player who can make the most impact as a pseudo-newcomer is Fultz. Bordering on bust territory after just one season, Fultz had his rookie year derailed by a mysterious shoulder injury, a broken shot and confidence issues. He played the first four games, missed 68 games because of the injury and was benched in the playoffs against the Celtics.

Fultz struggled with his mechanics when he played, and his shooting form was widely mocked around the NBA.

Even his personal trainer, shooting coach Drew Hanlen, said Fultz suffered from the “yips” and “completely forgot how to shoot.”

The 20-year-old Fultz said Hanlen used a “misterm in words.”

“What happened last year was the injury, let me get that straight,” Fultz said. “It was the injury that happened that didn’t allow me to go through a certain path that I need to shoot the ball. Just like any normal person, when you’re used to doing something the same way each and every day and something happens, of course you’re going to start thinking about it. It’s just normal.”

Fultz took about 150,000 shots this summer and reworked his form to prove he’s ready join Embiid and Simmons on the Big Three.

“This summer was really just me working to get my mechanics back, my confidence back, my swagger back,” Fultz said.

The Sixers need it all – the swagger, the shots, the early success that can propel them toward Eastern Conference contention. The franchise that won just 10 games three seasons ago is now on the cusp of becoming an elite team.

“It’s going to be a great year,” Embiid said.

 

Minnesota reportedly moving to trade Jimmy Butler after ownership demands it

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Jimmy Butler met with Tom Thibodeau Tuesday and asked for a tradespecifically to the Clippers/Nets/Knicks. Thibodeau wanted no part of that, and he along with GM Scott Layden have shot down any other team that called, and not in a “we’re not doing that.. but what would you offer?” way, but in an “I’m hanging up now” way. Part of that may be smart negotiation tactics, but the more significant factors are that right now offers the trade offers are lowball, plus Thibodeau realizes his job on the line and this team is not as good without Butler.

So owner Glen Taylor has stepped in and laid down the law — he told Thibodeau and Layden to get on with a trade, ideally done by next Tuesday before the first day of training camp, according to multiple reports. From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Against the displeasure of Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau, owner Glen Taylor has mandated that a deal needs to be negotiated to trade disgruntled All-Star forward Jimmy Butler in the next several days, league sources told ESPN….

Thibodeau has been willing to coach the Timberwolves through the dysfunction that has surrounded his star players, but Taylor has sided with Butler and agreed that the four-time All-Star should be away from the Wolves for the foreseeable future, sources said.

So far, few franchises, if any, are engaged in serious conversations with the Timberwolves on Butler, sources said. The list of organizations interested in talking further with Minnesota is significant, league sources said: Brooklyn, Detroit, Houston, the LA Clippers, Miami and Philadelphia are among the teams interested in probing for deals.

The problem is those initial offers will be lowball ones, in part because there are real concerns about Butler’s durability, while he is just 29 he has a lot of Thibodeau miles on him. The Timberwolves can put the offers they get in front of and his agent, see which teams he would consider re-signing with as a free agent next summer, then using that to get a better deal out of them. But to get all that done by Tuesday seems rushed and like it would lead to even a worse deal.

Even so, within a week Butler could be somewhere else in the league, once again

76ers invite Emeka Okafor to training camp (on non-guaranteed deal)

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Emeka Okafor was back in the NBA last season at age 35, after having been out of the league for four years trying to recover from a neck injury. He earned that chance going through the G-League, averaging 6.8 points on 61.2 percent shooting, plus pulling down 8 rebounds a game in 20 minutes a night, with a PER of 18.6, for the Delaware 76ers.

That was enough for the New Orleans Pelicans to call him up when DeMarcus Cousins went down, and Okafor got into 26 games. He played solid defense, and while he wasn’t putting up counting stats (4.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game) he was a steadying presence, and he had a PER of 18.6.

Then this summer, no team offered him a new contract.

Until now, the 76ers — and new GM Elton Brand — are going to bring him in on a training camp deal.

It’s a longshot Okafor makes the roster, the Sixers have 14 guaranteed contract and that does not include T.J. McConnell. Which means the roster is pretty much set. They also have Joel Embiid as the starting center and Amir Johnson behind him, plus some small ball lineups they will roll out.

However, have a good camp and another team looking for a backup center may notice.