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.

Wembanyama scores 37 Scoot Henderson 28, both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who watched the Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France) knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, showed why he is a true 7’4″ unicorn who can do seemingly anything. He finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks, showed off some handles and even brought the ball up court a couple of times.

This play sums him up well: at 7’4″ Wembanyama is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, looks smooth, and when the defender goes under the pick casually drains a 3.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in the next draft, flashed his explosive athleticism to the tune of 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans, scouts, and GMs to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.

Royce O’Neal on Durant, Irving trade rumors: ‘That was the summer’

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The Brooklyn Nets are trying to move on from a turbulent, awkward summer where their two best players tried to get tradedone throwing down a “me or the coach and GM” ultimatum — and they are tired of talking about it.

It sounds like they have moved on from the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving drama in the locker room, at least based on what Royce O’Neal told Michael Scotto of Hoopshype.

“That was the summer. Nobody cares about it now. We’re all here, and we’re going to make it work. We have a lot of work to do to get to where we want to go. That’s what we’re focusing on.”

No doubt that is the mantra in the locker room, and it’s easy to do during the carefree, optimistic days of training camp or even the first preseason games. The players believe they have moved on.

The real question about these Nets is what happens when adversity hits? And it will hit, it does every team. How will Ben Simmons handle the stress? Irving? Can coach Steve Nash keep the Nets all on task, or will the finger-pointing start, and will the locker room get split?

Those questions are why everyone is finding it hard to predict these Nets — they could win a ring, they could have Durant demanding a trade again by Christmas. Most likely they land in the middle somewhere, but every possibility is on the table.

Speaking of teams being broken up, Scotto also asked about O’Neal’s former team, the Utah Jazz, and Danny Ainge’s decision to trade Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell this summer. Ainge said “this team didn’t believe in each other,” but that’s not how O’Neal saw it. He was surprised the team was blown up.

“I was definitely shocked. I had been there for five years. The team we had for a couple of years fell short. I thought we were going to build on it. Things happened, so keep it moving.”

The question is will the Nets keep moving when things get hard?

Collin Sexton expects to start for Jazz once he gets back to full speed

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After the blockbuster trade that was centered around Donovan Mitchell sent Collin Sexton to Utah, the immediate expectation was that he would start for the Jazz and have the ultimate green light.

However, that wasn’t the case in their first preseason matchup with Toronto on Sunday. In 18 minutes off the bench, Sexton finished with 11 points on 4-for-9 shooting (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to go along with one rebound, two assists, two steals, and two turnovers.

It came as a bit of a surprise to most viewers that Sexton didn’t get the starting nod, but he told Sarah Todd of Deseret News that he expected to come off the bench for this game. He acknowledged that it was because he hasn’t played much since his meniscus surgery, but he expects to start once he gets back to full speed.

Utah hit the reset button by dealing away four of their five starters from last season. They’ve ushered in a new era that is centered around Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Jarred Vanderbilt, and a ton of first round picks. Sexton has talked about wanting to improve on his assists numbers this season, which we should definitely see him get the opportunity to do.

The Jazz have cemented their place in the center of the Victor Wembanyama race, so they’ll have no problem letting their young guys learn through trial and error. Sexton averaged 4.4 assists per game for Cleveland just two years ago. However, he won’t be playing alongside another young guard like Darius Garland, so Sexton should have the ball in his hands more than he ever has in the NBA.

Ben Simmons looks fine in return, is ‘grateful just to be able to step on that floor’

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Ben Simmons played in an actual, live basketball game on Monday night.

It’s preseason, sure, but the Nets rolled out their likely starting five — Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Nic Claxton — and had Simmons initiating a lot of the offense early.

The results were not bad. Fine. Good in flashes. Simmons ran the floor well and finished with six points on 3-of-6 shooting, five assists and four rebounds. He missed both free throws he took and all three of his makes were at the rim, his three missed shots were all in the paint and included an ugly skyhook-like thing and a turnaround that missed. There was clear rust.

The Nets got him a lot of touches, having him initiate the offense early. Whether that is something that carries over into the season remains to be seen, the offense moved better with the crisp passing and decisions of Kyrie Irving.

Simmons sounded comfortable after the game, quotes via Nick Friedell of ESPN.

“I’m grateful just to be able to step on that floor,” Simmons said. “Step on an NBA floor again. I had a lot of fun out there.”

“That’s the one thing, I thought I was going to be nervous,” Simmons said. “But I wasn’t nervous. I was excited.”

Simmons pushed for a trade off these 76ers a year ago, then sat out all last season due to mental health concerns. Having him back on the court for 19 minutes over a couple of shifts was enough for the Nets.

The 76ers sat Joel Embiid and James Harden for the night, but Tyrese Maxey was the best player on the floor with 20 points in 14 minutes and showing a confident 3-point stroke.

Furkan Korkmaz, another player coming off an injury, added 15 His play will add depth to the Sixers roster.

Claxton ran the floor hard and finished with 12 points on 6-of-6 shooting (all at the rim), while Durant led the way with 13 points.