Team USA’s Spanish vacation over, this week things get serious

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So far Team USA’s vacation in Spain has been a relaxing romp — they are 6-0 at the FIBA World Cup in Spain and the closest game finished with a 21-point USA win. The Americans felt no stress and had plenty of time to take in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and nosh on gambas al ajillo.

Team USA has averaged 99.5 points a game on 52.7 percent shooting as a team. Their pressure defense has overwhelmed everyone they faced and they have the best defensive points per possessions allowed in the tournament. More importantly, the depth and versatility of the American roster has allowed them to just beat their opponents at their own games.

Now the vacation part of the trip ends — starting Tuesday this is a business trip for Team USA.

There have been cracks in the USA armor — a stagnant halfcourt offense, defenders getting lost (they switch screens a lot and the communication has been an issue, defenders get lost on backcuts) — but they have not faced anyone who can exploit it.

Frankly, only Spain has the talent and system to exploit the flaws enough to beat Team USA, however the Americans will not see the host nation until next Sunday’s World Cup final.

Prior to that this week Team USA will see two teams that have the skill to pick at those flaws, to play the blueprint that gave the USA trouble against Turkey for a half. Team USA should win those games, likely handily, but if the Americans do not start to fix those flaws Spain will rip them wide open.

The Americans cannot just flip the switch against Spain.

First up for the Americans is Goran Dragic (and his brother Zoran Dragic) and the Slovenian team — a squad Team USA overran and beat by 30 in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden. On the surface it doesn’t look like much of a test, but there are a couple things at play here. First, Slovenia has seen the Americans and their system before, they will not be as overwhelmed and intimidated.

Also, the Slovenians run a lot of pick-and-rolls and that has been a minefield for Team USA — starting Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and James Harden always meant perimeter defense was going to be an issue. The Americans are running a very Tom Thibodeau influenced system where they are going under most picks, but Turkey zig-zagged off picks, which caused problems, and Turkey showed if you run some back cuts defenders get lost and easy shots open up. Slovenia runs a system offense and will look for these kind of actions, and the Dragic brothers have the skills to make the Americans work.

It’s not that Slovenia will win, but if they are getting a lot of clean looks and open layups, it will be a bad sign of things to come. This game will be closer than the game in New York a few weeks back.

Next up on Thursday will come either Turkey — who laid out the blueprint for beating Team USA (remember Turkey led by five at the half) — or a Lithuanian team that runs a good system and has talent. Lithuania rolls out NBA big men in the Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas and the Rockets’ Donatas Motiejunas, which would make the American front line works. Lithuania would be another real test for the Americans, but they don’t really have the talent to exploit the flaws enough to win.

Everything still points to a USA vs. Spain World Cup final Sunday in Madrid. They have clearly been the two best teams in the tournament.

Spain has Pau Gasol, who is having a tournament MVP level run, along with his brother Marc Gasol, and they bring Serge Ibaka off the bench. That front line is a serious challenge for the American front line of Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins (a group which has owned the glass so far). For guards the Spanish have Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Sergio Rodriguez, Juan Carlos Navarro, and on the wing there is Rudy Fernandez — they have great shooting, as well guys who are unselfish. They have guys who match up with the American wings (this is where they miss Paul George and Kevin Durant, they miss the size).

Also, all those Spanish players have played together for at least six years on the national team — they know their system. Their big men pass well and you can expect a lot of back cuts and pick-and-rolls, you have guards who can handle the Americans’ athleticism and pressure and not buckle. Lose your man on defense and they will get and hit the open shot.

Bottom line, the Americans need to play better against Spain than they have so far to beat them.

Which means Team USA needs to clean up their flaws against Slovenia and whoever they play Thursday. If they just try to flip the switch against Spain, it will not end well.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020: First round dates, times, matchups

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We’ve all had our fill of the seeding games appetizer, it’s time to dig into the main course: The playoffs. On Thursday, the NBA released the first-round playoffs schedule for 2020.

Those seeding games saw unexpected stars — Indiana’s T.J. Warren looking like an elite scorer — and teams we didn’t expect exploding on the scene, such as the 8-0 Suns. The playoffs promise even more of that — and a few upsets.

Here are a few more notes on the NBA’s first-round playoff schedule 2020:

• The NBA is continuing with the Summer League/AAU style format with four games a day spread out over the course of the day.
• Games are played every other day in all eight series.
• It will not be known who which team the West’s top seed (the Lakers) will face in the first round until the play-in games on Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday.
• The first Western Conference Play-In game is Saturday, Aug. 15 at 2:30 ET (ABC). If the eighth-seeded team wins the series is over and that team moves on to the Lakers; if the eighth seed team loses a second game will be played on Sunday at 4:30 ET (ESPN).
• The Heat and Pacers played last Monday, meet again on Friday, then next Tuesday start a best-of-7 series. Miami won that first game in impressive fashion.
Chris Paul, now wearing a Thunder uniform, will take on his former team, the Houston Rockets.
• The NBA has released an NBA Finals schedule to teams.

NBA playoffs schedule 2020, first round, by date (all times are Eastern):

Western Conference

No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. Play-in winner

Game 1: Aug. 18, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 L.A. Clippers vs. Dallas

Game 1: Aug. 17, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 3:30 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

No. 3 Denver vs. No. 6 Utah

Game 1: Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD

Oklahoma City vs. Houston (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Eastern Conference

No. 1 Milwaukee vs. No. 8 Orlando

Game 1: Aug. 18, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 6 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 1:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

No. 2 Toronto vs. No. 7 Brooklyn

Game 1: Aug. 17, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 1:30 p.m. (NBATV)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 1:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

No. 3 Boston vs. No. 6 Philadelphia

Game 1: Aug. 17, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Aug. 19, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Aug. 21, 6:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 23, 1 p.m. (ABC)
Game 5: Aug. 25, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 27, TBD (ESPN)
Game 7: Aug. 29, TBD (TNT)

Miami vs. Indiana (4/5 finish order yet to be decided)

Game 1: Aug. 18, 4 p.m. (TNT)
Game 2: Aug. 20, 1 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 3: Aug. 22, 3:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 4: Aug. 24, 6:30 (TNT)
Game 5: Aug. 26, TBD
Game 6: Aug. 28, TBD
Game 7: Aug. 30, TBD

Memphis advances to play-in; Phoenix goes perfect 8-0 but needs help to join them

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Memphis entered the bubble with a 3.5 game cushion as the eighth seed in the West. All Ja Morant and company had to do was hold on to that and they would be in the league’s new play-in series.

They didn’t.

Phoenix entered the bubble as a playoff afterthought, so far back of Memphis — and with so many teams between them — that Devin Booker would have to explode and the Suns would need to be perfect in the bubble.

They were. With a win over Dallas Thursday, Phoenix went 8-0 in the seeding games.

That still may not be enough.

Memphis beat Milwaukee 119-106 Thursday, with that the Grizzlies are assured of a spot in the play-in as at least the nine seed.

That means Phoenix needs Brooklyn to beat Portland later Thursday night. If the Nets pull the upset, the Grizzlies become the eight seed and the Suns would jump to the nine seed. If Portland wins, it is in the play-in against Memphis (with the Trail Blazers as the eighth seed), and Phoenix takes off for Cancun and the offseason.

The Grizzlies and Suns winning means the San Antonio Spurs historic playoff streak ends at 22 seasons, they are now mathematically eliminated.

Thursday’s games came with the promise of playoff-chase drama but ended up the kind of duds we see at the end of a typical regular season when one team has something to play for and the other is coasting and disinterested.

The Grizzlies didn’t win because Rookie of the Year to be Morant put up a triple-double (12 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists).

Rather it was a testament to the Memphis front office building out a solid, balanced roster around their young stars. Memphis got 31 from third-year player Dillon Brooks (a second-round pick they developed), plus 26 points and 19 rebounds from Jonas Valanciunas (acquired in a trade).

The Bucks were without Giannis Antetokounmpo who was suspended one game for headbutting Moe Wagner of the Wizards. That certainly helped the Grizzlies, although it’s unlikely the Greek Freak would have played significant minutes.

Phoenix got 27 points from Devin Booker, plus balanced scoring behind him. Dario Saric added 16 points off the bench.

A lot of fans had hoped to see Booker and the electric Suns in the play-in game, but in the NBA winning games matters — and not just the last eight in the bubble. All of them. The Suns didn’t do enough of that before the coronavirus shut down the NBA for four months.

The Grizzlies did, so they advance.

Adam Silver: Players not in bubble have heard such positive reports, they’ve asked to join

NBA commission Adam Silver and Warriors star Stephen Curry
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NBA commission Adam Silver warned that everyone involved must be comfortable with some positive coronavirus tests in the bubble.

So far, there have been none.

Silver, in a Q&A with Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated:

SI: The bubble—sorry, the campus—is operational. Is it what you hoped it would be?

AS: It’s better than what we had envisioned. Players have taken to it in a more spirited way than we thought they would. We knew that this would require enormous sacrifice on everyone’s part, but I think that what is hard to calibrate—and this maybe goes to my experience when I first came into the arena—is the human emotion that comes with being around other people. And I think everyone realized they missed it more than they even understood. There are players either whose teams are not participating, who were unable to engage this summer because of injuries or other issues, who, once they spoke to fellow NBA players, have asked to join the experience down in Orlando.

People generally enjoy being around other people. Basketball players like to play basketball.

The NBA bubble has made those activities – otherwise dangerous due to coronavirus – sufficiently safe.

That surely must be fulfilling for participating players (even if the reason for the whole operation is money, not fulfillment).

Warriors star Stephen Curry admitted his FOMO, and the Trail Blazers – presumably with Trevor Ariza on board – reportedly tried to get Ariza late admission into the bubble.

But I wonder whether there’s a level of “grass is greener on the other side” from the players who asked to join. The bubble participants are away from their families and friends for at least a month, longer if their team advances. That’s easier to accept in theory without actually experiencing it.

2020 NBA Finals schedule sent to teams (but it’s tentative)

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In a typical NBA season, the start date of the NBA Finals is set before training camps ever open.

Nothing about 2020 is typical, including the NBA’s bubble restart in Orlando. While we had known the league had a Finals start date of Sept. 30, and we knew games would be roughly every other day, there were not a lot of details.

At least not until the league sent a memo to teams on Thursday detailing the 2020 NBA Finals schedule, a memo obtained by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

 

While times have not been announced, expect tip-off at 8 or 9 Eastern.

The 2020 NBA Finals schedule has games every other day, except for the two-day gap between Game 4 (Tuesday, Oct. 6) and Game 5 (Friday, Oct. 9).

There is a theory some subscribe to around the league that playoff series will be shorter this year because the weaker team will not have the home crowd to pump them up to steal games. When a team gets down, they will be more likely to stay down. If that proves true — and good luck to you predicting how these Finals will actually go — then the league might move up the Finals date. But don’t be on it, moving the Finals would take coordination with television partner ABC and more, and more than likely the games stay where they are.

The road to the finals, the NBA playoffs, start next Monday  Seven of the eight series are set, with the final spot in the West still up for grabs and headed to a play-in series (the teams in that series will be determined Thursday, with the games Saturday (Aug. 15) and, if necessary, Sunday.