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Croatia asserts itself among Team USA’s biggest threat in 2020 Olympics

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Team USA was the team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball. Team USA is the team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball. Team USA will be the team to beat in Olympic men’s basketball.

The Americans have won 14 of 18 gold medals in the sport, half the misses coming in controversy – the stolen 1972 finish and a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games. The U.S. has won the last two golds and carries a 23-game winning streak.

The United States’ biggest competition is the field. Play enough games in what becomes a single-elimination tournament, and you’re bound to slip somewhere.

But there are always another nations that presents bigger tests than others. Right now, Spain leads the pack. The Spaniards have won the last two silver medals, looked darned good against top competition in Rio and spooked Team USA more than anyone else.

By the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. could have a new top challenger. Keep an eye on Croatia.

Croatia was narrowly eliminated by Serbia in a quarterfinal yesterday, but the Croatians impressed prior. They beat Spain, Brazil and Lithuania to win Group B. A loss to Nigeria is inexplicable, but it can probably be attributed to another reason I’m so high on Croatia: its youth.

The Croatians – led by Bojan Bogdanovic (27), Dario Saric (22) and Mario Hezonja (20) – are the youngest team to win a game in Rio.

Here’s every team in the 2016 Olympics sorted by average age, weighted by playing time:

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China went 0-5, losing by nearly 30 points per game. It’ll take far more than typical player development for the Chinese to make an impact in Tokyo

Serbia is nearly as young as Croatia, and 21-year-old Nikola Jokic remains underrated. The Serbs aren’t going anywhere, either.

But it’s also about who’s missing. While Serbia is playing without Boban Marjanovic and Nemanja Bjelica, Croatia could add three 2016 draft picks: No. 4 pick Dragan Bender (Suns), No. 23 pick Ante Zizic (Celtics) and No. 32 Ivica Zubac (Lakers).

Of course, Croatia isn’t the only team with talent that didn’t reach Rio.

Australia – which beat Serbia, which beat Croatia – has Ben Simmons, Dante Exum and Thon Maker in the wings. But don’t count on Patty Mills (28), Andrew Bogut (31), Aron Baynes (29), David Anderson (36) and even Matthew Dellavedova (25) to be as good four years from now.

France could reload with Evan Fournier, Ian Mahinmi, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Petr Cornelie and maybe even Joakim Noah. (The Knicks think the 31-year-old Noah will be fine in four years.)

Canada, which didn’t even qualify for the 2016 Olympics, might be able to build a roster full of NBA talent. Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Trey Lyles, Jamal Murray and Kelly Olynyk look formidable.

But, aside from Team USA, nobody in Tokyo will match Croatia’s Olympic success, youth and incoming talent – at least if all goes to plan. Four years is a long time, and a lot can change between now and 2020.

Still, Croatia entered the 2016 Games looking to be an Olympiad away from seriously threatening for a medal. The Rio results should only lift expectations for Croatia in Tokyo.

Marc Gasol completes historic double, Spain wins World Cup

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BEIJING (AP) — Marc Gasol looked to the sky as confetti fell, some sticking to his massive shoulders, and then cradled and kissed the giant golden chalice that goes to the World Cup champions.

He’s getting good at hoisting trophies.

Gasol got to bask in a championship celebration for the second time in three months — and this time, he did it for his country. Tournament MVP Ricky Rubio scored 20 points, Sergio Llull added 15 and Spain won the World Cup for the second time by topping Argentina 95-75 on Sunday.

“We weren’t the most talented team,” Rubio said. “We weren’t the bigger team. Put anything you want, but we were the team with the biggest heart and we showed it tonight and we showed it during the whole tournament.”

Gasol scored 14 for the winners, who never trailed and added this crown to the one it claimed in 2006. And for him, 2019 will go down as a year the likes of which few others have enjoyed.

The Toronto Raptors center becomes the second player to win an NBA title and a FIBA world gold medal in the same year, joining Lamar Odom — who did it for the Los Angeles Lakers and USA Basketball in 2010. Gasol also became the 19th to win either an NBA or WNBA crown along with a gold medal, either of the Olympic or World Cup variety, in the same year.

The first 18 all did it for the U.S.

This time, Vamos España!

“NBA champion and a World Cup champion as well,” Gasol said. “What can I say? How does it sound to you? I feel very fortunate to be in this position and be able to play this game and help these guys be part of history of Spanish basketball.”

Llull and Rudy Fernandez — the team captain, the one who initially got to accept the Naismith Trophy — went to cut down the nets shortly after the final buzzer. Gasol carried the game ball to the gold-medal ceremony, and Spanish fans wept in the stands during the national anthem.

Gabriel Deck scored 24 points for Argentina (8-1), which got off to a slow start and played uphill the rest of the way. Luis Scola was held to eight points, shooting 1 for 10 from the floor.

“We’re sad right now. We’re very sad,” Scola said. “But I feel confident, in hours, we’ll be able to look back and be very proud. They just played better than us. They were better. They deserved to win. They were the better team in the game and the tournament.”

Spain led 43-31 at intermission, after putting together a 14-2 run to open the game and a 17-1 run later in the half.

“This is basketball,” Argentina coach Sergio Hernandez said. “If you play better than the other team, you win the game. And Spain was the best team today.”

Scola, even at 39 years old still Argentina’s best player throughout the tournament, didn’t get on the scoresheet until he made a pair of free throws with 2:57 left in the third quarter. But they only cut the Spain lead to 19, and by then the Argentinian fans who stood, sang and chanted for much of the game were relatively quiet.

The day belonged to Spain.

And the year belongs to Gasol.

“It’s unbelievable,” Gasol said.

Watch highlights from France taking bronze at World Cup, beating Australia 67-59

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Just as they did five years ago at the last World Cup, France has come away with the bronze medal.

The French came from 15 down at one point to beat Australia 67-59 and win the third-place game at the FIBA World Cup in China. Former Spur Nando De Colo led the way for France with 19 points, Orlando’s Evan Fournier added 16 but on a rough shooting night (5-of–17), and Charlotte’s Nicolas Batum added nine points and six assists. You can see the game’s highlights above.

After the game, Fournier was talkative, including slamming the travel and schedule of this World Cup, spread all across China.

Utah was led by 17 points from Utah’s Joe Ingles and 15 from San Antonio’s Patty Mills.

Michael Jordan sells portion of Hornets to two new partners

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Michael Jordan is adding two partners to the Charlotte Hornets’ ownership group, selling them each a portion of the NBA franchise.

Gabe Plotkin, founder and chief investment officer of Melvin Capital, and Daniel Sundheim, founder and chief investment officer of D1 Capital, have joined the Hornets as partners, pending NBA approval.

Jordan, a six-time NBA champion, will remain the majority owner.

Jordan said in a statement released by the team Saturday that he’ll continue to be the man making decisions about the direction of the Hornets.

“I’m excited to welcome Gabe and Dan as my partners in Hornets Sports & Entertainment,” Jordan said. “While I will continue to run the Charlotte Hornets, make all decisions related to the team and organization, and remain the team’s NBA Governor, Gabe and Dan’s investment in the franchise is invaluable, as we continue to modernize, add new technology and strive to compete with the best in the NBA. Both Gabe and Dan are industry standard-setters and proven leaders, with a belief in philanthropy and a passion for the game of basketball. They share my commitment to Charlotte and the Carolinas, and I look forward to working with and learning from them.”

Marc Gasol goes for history when Spain meets Argentina in World Cup final

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BEIJING (AP) — Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Lamar Odom, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving.

Those are the only five players to win an NBA title and a gold medal in the same year, whether it was in FIBA or Olympic competition, with Pippen doing it twice.

It is an exclusive club – one that Marc Gasol is on the cusp of joining.

A mere three months after helping the Toronto Raptors win the NBA Finals, Gasol has led Spain to the gold medal game at the World Cup. It’ll be Spain against Argentina on Sunday, with both nations looking for their second title. Spain won the world championship in 2006 when Gasol was a 21-year-old backup, and Argentina won the inaugural tournament in 1950.

“I’m so deep in the rabbit hole right now that I don’t get to see much light,” Gasol said. “You’re so focused on your opponent, your next rival, recovering, doing whatever’s necessary to win games that you don’t look at the big picture. It’s been great. I’m very fortunate.

“I knew that committing to the national team this summer would not be easy physically. But it’s so worth it, and not just because we’re in the final game.”

He simply willed Spain into the final game.

Gasol scored 33 points – his career-high for any of the 18 FIBA-sanctioned or Olympic tournaments he’s played over the last 18 years – in Spain’s double-overtime win against Australia in the semifinals. He gave up his NBA offseason to be part of this team, a group that failed to medal at the last World Cup in Spain five years ago, and knows he might not have too many more years left on the international stage.

“It’s the responsibility of passing along that commitment, that loyalty to the team,” said Gasol, who still remembers the thrill of getting invitation letters from the Spanish federation to be part of youth teams when he was 11 or 12. “Those values that we were taught so many years with the older players, now it’s our turn to pass on the legacy to the next generation. And that’s not talent, that’s just commitment.”

Argentina has one of those passing-legacy-on players, too.

Luis Scola, 39 years old, was part of the team that won gold for Argentina at the 2004 Athens Olympics – and he’s been the best player for his team at the World Cup. He scored 28 points in the semifinal win over France, and on a team that has flashy guards who aren’t afraid to throw behind-the-back passes in any situation Scola has been the steadying force in the biggest moments.

“I’m only 27,” France center Rudy Gobert said as he lauded Scola after the semifinal matchup. “Maybe when I’m 39, I’ll know the secrets that Scola knows.”

Here’s some of what to know going into Sunday’s final:

DOUBLING UP

Pippen’s double-gold years came in 1992 and 1996 with Chicago. Jordan’s was in 1992 with the Bulls, James’ was in 2012 with Miami and Irving’s was in 2016 with Cleveland – all of those being Olympic years. Odom played on the U.S. world championships team in 2010, after his Los Angeles Lakers won that year’s NBA Finals.

OTHER DOUBLES

There have been 14 U.S. women who won a WNBA title along with a World Cup or Olympic gold medal in the same year, led by Sue Bird – who did it three times (2004 Olympics, 2010 world championship, 2018 World Cup).

UNBEATENS

Spain and Argentina are the only unbeaten teams left in the World Cup, each 7-0 so far. This is the fourth time that the gold medal will be decided in a game between unbeaten teams. The others: U.S. over Turkey (both 8-0 entering) in 2010, Spain over Greece (both 8-0) in 2006, and Argentina over the U.S. (both 5-0) at the first world championship in 1950.