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Remembering what went wrong in 2000-2004 Olympics for Team USA

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It’s different now.

Not just that Team USA has lost only once since Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball back in 2006 (and have won gold medals and two world championships), but there is now a real program, a culture where the “you must play for USA Basketball” mentality starts young.

It was a prestige honor before, but once they came in and built up a culture, it totally changed into a different dynamic,” Kyrie Irving told NBCSports.com in Las Vegas. “Every generation that is coming up has to come through USA Basketball if you’re, quote/unquote, a top player in the country….

“I myself played when I was 17 years old going into Duke. I end up going (to college) for one year, then I end up playing on the select team that I’m playing against today (the NBA rookies and young stars that the USA scrimmages against).”

What was different back in 2000 — when the USA almost lost in the semifinals to Lithuania and looked vulnerable — and then in 2004 when the USA won bronze? Bill Leopold and Ben Teitelbaum of NBCOlympics.com put together a rich oral history of that time in a story you should read. Here are a few highlights of the 2004 run, when the USA won bronze.

Russ Granik (USA Basketball President, 1990-2000; NBA Deputy Commissioner 1990-2006): What happened was the fear of terrorism.

Mike Breen (NBC Olympics play-by-play announcer): I brought my family, my wife and children, with me on all the Olympic Games but I did not bring them to Athens. There was real heightened tension there about the possibility of something happening.

Chris Sheridan (ESPN basketball reporter): This was the first Olympics after 9/11. Everybody was hearing that the Greeks don’t have their act together and it was going to be dangerous….

There wasn’t what you have now, a desire to play for the national team that was really overwhelming. There wasn’t a program in which guys had come up through the select team or maybe through the U-16 or the U-18 team, which is what USA Basketball has now. It was more of a “Let’s just pick the 12 best players we can and put them out there. Look we’re Team USA; we are going to be able to beat everybody.”

Craig Miller (USA Basketball Chief Media/Communications Officer, 1990-present): Literally a couple days before training camp we were still adding people. People see LeBron James, Carmelo and D-Wade on the roster and they’re like, “How could you lose?” You’ve got to remember those guys were 19 years old, 18 years old, first time they’d ever played internationally, in most of those cases.

Those young players were being coached by Larry Brown, known in NBA circles as a guy who liked veterans over youth — he didn’t like the team makeup. He publicly criticized the team, which added to the tension.

In Athens, the USA got a wake-up call with an early loss to Puerto Rico in group play. Eventually, they lost in the semi-finals to a much better Argentinian team led by Manu Ginobili and a great class of players.

Andrés Nocioni (2004-16 Olympian, Argentina): In my mind, it was kind of that we controlled the game the whole game. We did it really well. I think USA never had the option to win the game.

Sheridan: Argentina schooled the U.S. with picks and rolls on the back-cuts, and that game wasn’t even competitive. Argentina kind of mopped the floor with them.

Breen: The game is still played at its best when five players are working together, and the United States just didn’t have enough of those moments, where Argentina it was like five guys on a string.

In the wake of that bronze (and the sixth-place finish at the World Championships two years earlier), USA Basketball was overhauled. The oral history gets into all of that, too.

Since then, they have just the one loss. The USA — again with a “second team” due to concerns about the host nation — are still the clear gold medal favorites heading into Rio. But it’s good to look back and remember.

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.

Paul George: “I feel great again,” says Clippers finally fully healthy

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Paul George symbolized the Clippers’ health all season long. George missed the first 11 games of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, then all season long it was still a lingering issue — until the suspension of play gave him time to heal.

“The whole season, all the way up until maybe a month or two ago, I had to always do shoulder rehab stuff, warming the shoulder up,” George said Friday on a conference call with reporters. “Just so much went into stuff I had to do before I actually took a foot on the floor. Now I feel great again.”

It wasn’t just Paul George, the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard managing his knee/thigh issue and an assortment of other injuries that didn’t give Doc Rivers the full arsenal at his disposal. That was until around the All-Star break — after that break Los Angeles went 7-2 with a +11.5 net rating that was best in the league by far.

The season being shut down may have halted that momentum, but it also gave a banged-up Los Angeles roster a chance to get healthy.

“For this team, man, I think our aspirations, again, this time off has given us what we needed,” George said. “We had some guys that was banged up, nagging injuries. The more time gave us more time for us to aid those injuries and to get back to 100.”

Health matters — which is why Montrez Harrell brought his own personal, portable sauna, a secret Reggie Jackson let out of the bag.

Health matters to Rivers, too, but what he wants more is that team chemistry back — and the Clippers have a long way to go on that end in Rivers’ eyes.

“This is not a normal way of starting back,” Rivers said of the mini-training camp all 22 teams at the NBA restart will get in Orlando. “Usually going into training camp, guys have been scrimmaging for three and four weeks, they’ve been playing, shooting on hoops. That’s not happening. This is a group, some of the guys have not touched a basketball or seen a gym until two weeks ago. We got a lot of work to do on both ends.”

The Clippers are not alone, every team is going to take time to find its rhythm again. Pick-and-roll combos need to get used to reading each other (and the defense) again at full speed, defensive rotations will be a step slow, and a few passes are going to head into the bench rather than the player in the corner.

When the Clippers get that rhythm back, with a healthy roster — finally — they again become a legitimate threat to win it all.

First, they just need to navigate the bubble. And maybe borrow Harrell’s sauna.

Atlanta G League affiliate promotes Tori Miller, first female GM in league

Tori Miller
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The Atlanta Hawks aren’t just talking about progress and giving Black women a chance. They are acting.

The College Park Skyhawks, Atlanta’s G-League affiliate, has promoted Tori Miller to general manager. She is the first female GM in the G-League.

Miller, who grew up in Decatur (a city next to Atlanta), had worked for the team in Erie (when they were the Bayhawks) and followed the team with its move closer to its parent franchise. Miller served as an assistant GM last season before being promoted.

G League front office positions can be a stepping stone into an NBA front office.

The Hawks progressive move comes just as the team’s WNBA franchise, the Dream, has players trying to oust co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican Georgia U.S. Senator, because she advocated against the league supporting Black Lives Matter. Loeffler has said she will not sell. It’s a problem not going away anytime soon.