On guard: US team locking down on defense for Rio gold

Getty Images
1 Comment

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — “Go get him!”

Tom Thibodeau’s booming, baritone voice knifed through the air inside sold out Carioca Arena on Saturday as the U.S. team dropped back to play defense early in its Olympic tournament opener against China.

“Stay home!” he barked. “Back, back!” “Get up!” “By yourself!”

Thibodeau didn’t stop, and his commands could even be heard by fans sitting in top rows of the upper deck.

From the opening tip to the final horn in the 119-62 blowout, Thibodeau, a hard-driving, hoops lifer who prides himself on teaching the old-school way, screamed instructions at the American players. They have quickly learned that their Team USA assistant coach – and the new head man with the Minnesota Timberwolves – is demanding when it comes to defense.

“I’m used to Thibs, man,” U.S. center DeMarcus Cousins said with a laugh. “That’s Thibs in walkthrough, so we’re used to it.”

And the rest of the world better get used to this U.S. team playing lock-down defense. Armed with unmatched offensive firepower, the Americans, seeking their third straight gold medal, are creating an identity with their backs to the basket.

“We get after it on that side of the ball,” said forward Draymond Green.

They got after China from the outset. Warriors forward Klay Thompson, one of the game’s elite perimeter defenders, made a steal on China’s first possession and the U.S. finished with 15 steals, forced 24 turnovers and held China to 30 percent shooting.

With another roster of NBA stars, there is a continuous red-white-and-blue wave of players flooding in from coach Mike Krzyzewski’s bench. When the U.S. starters needed a break against China, Krzyzewski sent in a fresh group and Thibodeau made sure they knew what they were doing defensively from the moment they stepped on the floor.

From his seat next to Coach K’s, Thibodeau pointed like a traffic cop at a busy intersection, and of course, made certain his demands were heard.

“Thibs is going to lose his voice by the time this is over with,” four-time Olympian Carmelo Anthony said. “I think everybody in the world can hear Thibs on the sideline. It’s motivation for us, to know that we have somebody on the sideline that’s in tune to it. He’s pushing us and he’s keeping us uplifted.”

The U.S. plays its next game on Monday against Venezuela, a team it beat by 35 last week despite a poor shooting performance.

Thibodeau, fired in May by the Chicago Bulls after five solid seasons, is relishing his role as the U.S. squad’s minister of defense. This is what he lives for, and the chance to mesh a group this talented to play team defense is as good as it gets.

And it’s already apparent that Thibodeau’s message has gotten across as the U.S. players, some of whom are not exactly known for their defensive skills, are being more vocal on the floor. During the win over China, the Americans were calling out screens, switching and looking to help each other whenever possible. They’ve clearly bought in.

During the first quarter against China, Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving poked the ball away before diving headfirst on the floor trying to come up with the steal. As he laid face down, Thibodeau clapped in approval.

Floor burns are a badge of honor to Thibodeau, who feels the U.S. team is embracing his principles.

“The strength is our versatility,” he said. “We have 12 guys who play hard and play for each other and they are committed to doing that. It started the first day and there’s no let up so when we go to our bench there’s is no drop off. Every one of these guys is a great player and is s starter, so when we sub that pressure is going to remain and we’re going to keep coming for 40 minutes.”

Kevin Durant, who along with Anthony is the only returning player from the 2012 London team, said he and his teammates know that when the shots aren’t falling, they can always fall back on their defense.

“Defensively, we’re pretty good,” he said. “When we put Draymond out there and just start switching everything, that makes us even better and then we got two guys that are different rim protectors in Marcus, who takes charges and covers the paint, and DJ (DeAndre Jordan) who blocks shots at the rim. We just got every area covered. And we got long defenders on the wing and great point guards that use their hands, so we got to continue to lean on that.”

Thibodeau will make sure of it.

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

0 Comments

NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

0 Comments

A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

0 Comments

It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
0 Comments

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.