USA’s best half of basketball propels them to easy win vs. Lithuania, into gold medal game

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Team USA has been a second-half team all World Cup long, letting teams hang around (or in Turkey’s case, lead) for 20 minutes, and at the same time absorbing the best an opponent has to offer. Then in the second half they find another gear and blow the opponent out.

Things started out the same way Thursday against Lithuania. James Harden and Stephen Curry struggled on defense and struggled to find their shot but did find foul trouble, all of which helped make it a seven point USA lead at the half .

Then the Americans unleashed their best half of basketball all tournament long.

The USA started off the third quarter with a 10-0 run (Curry and Harden hitting threes, Anthony Davis with a putback off a miss in there too) and from there on owned the third quarter 33-14. Harden had 16 points in the third alone.

The USA coasted from there to a 96-68 victory. The USA has won every game in this tournament by at least 21.

The victory puts the USA in the gold medal game Sunday in Madrid against the winner of Friday’s France vs. Serbia contest. A game where the USA will be a heavy favorite (now that France eliminated host Spain).

The first half of Thursday’s game was physical, chippy and both teams were struggling to make shots. Which is just how Lithuania wanted it. The Americans had multiple guys in foul trouble, and going against a big front line of Lithuania the USA went away from Davis and Kenneth Faried inside and instead relied heavily on guard play. Which normally works but Team USA shot 33 percent overall in first half, and 4-of-16 from three. Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving were a combined 1-of-7 from beyond the arc before the break.

Yet the Americans led 43-35 at the half because of their team defense, which held Lithuania to 31 percent shooting (Lithuania bricked some looks in there, too). Well, that and Klay Thompson’s 14 points on 11 shots in the first 20 minutes. As they have done all tournament long, in the first half the Americans absorbed the best their opponent could offer, all while trying to establish their up-tempo style.

Then in the second half the USA released the Kraken.

The tempo the USA established earlier picked up steam thanks to their defensive pressure, which carried over to the other end as transition baskets opened up and the threes started falling. With that the USA big men started to run the floor which led to Davis and Faried getting buckets (and a couple impressive dunks). It was a whirlwind and there was nothing Lithuania could do to stop it.

The Americans played their best half of basketball in this game, when it mattered most. By the time the third quarter was over the USA was up by 26 and from there they just let Kyrie Irving take charge of the offense as he finished with a team-high 18 points. Harden and Thompson each finished with 16, Curry added 13. (Derrick Rose struggled with his shot again and was 1-of-8.)

The only time that Lithuania seemed to contest the Americans was after the game when the two sides went to shake hands and the two sides started a little pushing match. Mike Krzyzewski jumped in the middle and made himself the peacemaker.

Well, that and when an elbow caught Rudy Gay in the mouth and sent him to the locker room late in the third quarter.

Lithuania was led by the Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas, who had 15 points (11 of them from the free throw line) and 7 boards. He helped keep the USA big men in foul trouble, but he couldn’t really slow down the scoring. Lithuania is now on to Madrid for the bronze medal game, taking on the loser of the Serbia/France contest.

For the Americans, they are where they expected to be now, the gold medal game. Most importantly, they are playing their best ball at the right time — one more game like this one and they will take home the gold from Spain.

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.