Mexico stuns, upsets U.S. in World Cup qualifying, 78-70

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MEXICO CITY (AP) — Jeff Van Gundy warned the Americans that they were in for a serious challenge.

To his chagrin, he was right – and the U.S. was handed a rare loss.

Francisco Cruz scored 24 points, Mexico opened with an 18-0 run and went on to beat the United States 78-70 on Thursday night in a qualifying game for next year’s FIBA World Cup.

According to USA Basketball, it was just the second loss by the U.S. in 30 games against Mexico – with the other defeat coming in the 2011 Pan Am Games.

Orlando Mendez-Valdez added 20 points for Mexico, which held the U.S. scoreless for the first 5:51 and forced the Americans into missing their first 10 shots from the floor.

Marcus Thornton scored 14 points for the U.S., which is using a roster composed primarily of G League players for the qualifying rounds. Xavier Munford added 11 points while David Stockton and Reggie Hearn each had 10 for the Americans.

The U.S. lost for the first time in 10 contests under Van Gundy, who is coaching this team that’s tasked with getting the team of NBA stars that will be coached by Gregg Popovich to the World Cup.

“We can’t underestimate how hard it is going to be to play on the road, at altitude, and against a team desperate to qualify for the FIBA World Cup,” Van Gundy said leading up to the game. “We have to make sure we match that type of intensity and passion that we know they’ll bring.”

By the time the U.S. found its stride, it was already in deep trouble. Mexico led 31-10 after the first quarter, then staved off a big second-half rally try by the U.S.

Trey McKinney-Jones’ basket late in the third quarter capped a 15-1 run and put the U.S. within 53-51. Thornton made a pair of 3-pointers about a minute apart in that burst, and Hearn’s 3-pointer early in the fourth cut Mexico’s lead to 56-54.

But the U.S. never got the lead.

The Americans (4-1) – who have already ensured a spot in the second round of qualifying that starts in September – end the first-round series of games Sunday when they go to Havana to face Cuba (0-5). It’ll be the first time a U.S. men’s national team has played in Havana since the 1991 Pan American Games. Mexico (3-2) also wraps up its first round on Sunday, when it plays at Puerto Rico (3-2).

David Huertas had 18 points, Angel Rodriguez and JJ Barea each had 15 and Puerto Rico rallied in the fourth quarter in another qualifying game Thursday to top Cuba 84-80.

Under FIBA’s new qualifying format, teams are playing home-and-home games against teams in their region to earn places in the World Cup in China, which begins on Aug. 31, 2019. That tournament will qualify seven teams for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

This was the first time the U.S. played a true road game during this tournament. The Americans opened qualifying in November with an 85-78 win in what was a “home” game for Puerto Rico – but the contest was actually played in Orlando, Florida because of continued problems in San Juan following Hurricane Maria.

And this was very much a real road atmosphere.

Not only was the game played at Mexico City’s 7,500-foot altitude, but in a filled 5,000-seat arena that Mexican officials said sold out in only 45 minutes.

The tone was set by the U.S. turning the ball over on each of its first three possessions, and Mexico was off and running.

The U.S. routed Mexico back in November, winning by 36 points.

That was a very different Mexico team.

Only four players from the Mexican roster then were in uniform on Thursday night, with the team now able to add those who were playing in their various professional leagues and unable to take part when the qualifying rounds began. Cruz and Mendez-Valdez each had 13 points by halftime, and Gustavo Ayon was a big factor even without big numbers – four points, four rebounds and five assists by the break.

If their names are familiar to U.S. basketball aficionados, it’s for good reason.

Ayon appeared in 135 NBA games in parts of three seasons with four different franchises, and just helped Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid win the EuroLeague. Mendez-Valdez was part of the Western Kentucky team that went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2008, and he won the Sun Belt’s player of the year award in the following season. Cruz played at Wyoming and has played in pro leagues in Mexico, Latvia, Argentina and Spain.

LeBron James NBA all-time scoring record tracker

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has held the NBA all-time scoring record at 38,387 points since he retired in 1989. It is one of the most iconic records in sports and one thought by many that would never be broken, but LeBron James is on the verge of breaking that scoring record and doing it at age 38. How many more points does LeBron need to take over the scoring record? When is it projected to happen? Let’s break down the latest numbers (this will be updated after every Lakers game until the record is set).

How many points does LeBron James need to set the scoring record?
36

Abdul-Jabbar career points: 38,387
LeBron career points: 38,352

Lakers’ upcoming schedule:

Feb. 7 vs. Thunder
Feb. 9 vs. Bucks
Feb. 11 at Warriors
Feb. 13 at Trail Blazers

When is LeBron projected to break the all-time scoring record:

LeBron is averaging 30 points per game this season, at that pace he would set the record on Feb. 9 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks, although a hot game on Feb. 7 against the Thunder could make that game a possibility.

How long has Kareem held the scoring record?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar set the all-time scoring record — too less fanfare than is happening with LeBron (although Wilt Chamberlain was unhappy with all the attention KAJ was receiving) — on April 5, 1984, when he scored his 31,420th point, breaking the record which had been held by Chamberlain. This was the height of the Showtime Lakers era and the team made the Finals that season but lost in seven games to Larry Bird and the Celtics. The Lakers would win the NBA title three of the next four years and Kareem would keep adding to that point total and his legacy until he retired after the 1989 season.

News and notes on LeBron’s quest for the record:

• LeBron tuned out the Lakers’ Kyrie Irving trade speculationat least until after the game — and dropped 27 points on the New Orleans Pelicans Saturday night, shooting 10-of-22 overall but 1-of-7 beyond the arc. It wasn’t enough as the Pelicans snapped their 10-game losing streak, 131-126, behind 35 points from former Laker Brandon Ingram. This was a tough loss for a Lakers team trying to climb up in the West standings, but it puts LeBron within striking distance of the record next game.

• LeBron scored 26 points and added seven rebounds and seven assists on Thursday night. He also gave the Lakers their first lead of the game on a 3-pointer with 2:35 left, and the Lakers held on to beat the Pacers 112-111. LeBron shot 11-of-19 from the floor and 2-of-5 from 3 for the game.

• LeBron had his first triple-double of the season — and became the first player ever with one in his 20th season — scoring 28 points with 10 rebounds and 11 assists — to help lead the Lakers past the Knicks in overtime on Tuesday night. With those 11 assits LeBron moved past both Mark Jackson and Steve Nash to be fourth on the NBA’s all-time assists list.

• LeBron James did suit up to play Tuesday night against the Knicks (in Madison Square Garden on national television, that shouldn’t have been a surprise). Anthony Davis was cleared to play as well.

• After sitting out against the Nets on Monday, LeBron is officially questionable to play Tuesday in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks and will be a game-time decision. Lakers coach Darvin Ham said LeBron has “really significant soreness” in his left foot (after playing 44 minutes against Boston). LeBron and the medical staff will speak after LeBron starts to warm up Tuesday to determine if LeBron can play in Madison Square Garden, a game he hates to miss because he loves playing in that venue.

• The Lakers have officially listed LeBron (and Anthony Davis) as out for the game Monday night in Brooklyn. That is the first game of a back-to-back for the Lakers, and they have rested LeBron in half of those for most of the season. This will push back the date he breaks the record, making it likely it happens at Crypto.com Arena.

• LeBron scored 41 points — and felt he should have had a couple more — in the Lakers’ overtime loss to the Celtics Saturday on national television.

• Sixers Doc Rivers on what impresses him in LeBron’s run to this record: “LeBron has done it so differently to me [thank Kareem]. Because LeBron is not a natural scorer. LeBron is a playmaker. He got criticized early in his career for making the right decisions. And the fact that he’s now about to break the scoring record, it really points out his greatness.”

• LeBron scored 20 points in the Lakers’ win over the Spurs, a game in which Anthony Davis returned from injury and Rui Hachimura made his debut as a Laker after being traded from the Wizards.

• What has Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said about LeBron passing his record? There has been a bit of frostiness between the two men, but Abdul-Jabbar was gracious in comments to Marc Stein back in 2021 about the possibility of his record falling: “I’m excited to see it happen. I don’t see records as personal accomplishments, but more as human achievements. If one person can do something that’s never been done, that means we all have a shot at doing it. It’s a source of hope and inspiration. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile back in 1954. Since then, not only have 1,400 runners beaten that time, but the new record is 17 seconds less. We all win when a record is broken and if LeBron breaks mine, I will be right there to cheer him on.”

Kings active before trade deadline, looking to add defense

Philadelphia 76ers v Sacramento Kings
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The Sacramento Kings will make their first playoff appearance since a Bush was in the White House (2006).

If the 29-22, third-seeded Kings will do damage in the postseason, their bottom 10 defense has to be better. The Kings are being active at the trade deadline with the focus being on a defensive upgrade, sources told NBC Sports. As bait, they are dangling their reserve bigs — Richaun Holmes and/or Alex Len — but the problem is the backup big market is busy at the trade deadline.

The Kings have been linked to the 76ers’ Matisse Thybulle, with Marc Stein confirming those talks are still ongoing (but the Hawks are chasing Thybulle, too). Stein added a new rumor, as well.

Sources say Sacramento has inquired about the availability of Charlotte’s Mason Plumlee.

Charlotte is selling and Plumlee would be an upgrade behind All-Star Domantas Sabonis.

One way or another, expect the Kings to try and make a move at the deadline.

Latest on Kyrie Irving trade request: He’d prefer to land with Lakers

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Kyrie Irving requesting a trade out of Brooklyn before the Feb. 9 trade deadline has the entire league buzzing.

That doesn’t mean it has the entire league leaping into action — the Lakers, Suns and Mavericks are interested, but beyond that the market is thin. And even those teams have some reservations. That said, this trade could come together fairly quickly so all the teams involved can make other moves before next Thursday’s deadline (there is no perfect deal out there).

A lot is going on, here is the latest on an Irving trade from reports around the league.

• As it was over the summer, Irving’s preferred landing spot is with the Lakers, according to multiple reports (Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports and Marc Stein most prominently).

• Unsurprisingly, sources tell NBC Sports that the Lakers are interested, with the core of the trade being Russell Westbrook and the Lakers’ two available first-round picks (2027 and 2029) going back to Brooklyn. From there, putting together a Lakers trade gets complex (which is why it didn’t get done over the summer when the sides talked): The Lakers want to put lottery protections on the 2027 pick; the Nets want to stay competitive and want players back, not just picks; Brooklyn wants to send out Joe Harris in the trade (reports Jovan Buha at The Athletic) and get back either Austin Reaves or Max Christie (the Lakers don’t want to include those players); and, if the Nets take on Westbrook they would add $58 million to their luxury tax bill (and they get worse in the process). There likely is a third team involved in any trade between the Lakers and Nets, Brooklyn wants to stay competitive and will need more considering the drop-off between where Irving and Westbrook are in their careers.

• Irving is playing the long game and wants to get paid, something Brooklyn was hesitant to do. However, does that change in a new setting? Both the Lakers and Mavericks are reportedly reluctant to give Irving the four-year, $198.5 million max extension he wants, Adrian Wojnarowski reports at ESPN

• A Dallas trade with the Nets would involve Spencer Dinwiddie and Dorian Finney-Smith heading to Brooklyn, but the Mavericks may also want to unload other contracts in there. However, it’s not unanimous in the Nets front office that they should add Irving, some have concerns about how Luka Dončić and Irving would mesh off the court, reports Tim Cato of The Athletic.

• Don’t bet on the Clippers getting involved, despite their need for a point guard and to make things work with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, something sources told NBC Sports and was reported by ESPN’s Zach Lowe on his podcast.

• Irving’s trade demand caught the Nets and Kevin Durant off-guard, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said on his podcast.

• Irving was set off and demanded a trade after the Nets extension offer had incentives tied to the Nets winning a championship to get all four years, reports Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report. Now Irving will not accept any offer from Brooklyn — including the full max — and wants out.

• The max extension any team that trades for Irving can offer is two years, $78.6 million. To get Irving the four-year max he wants, a team would have to use its Bird rights this offseason to re-sign him.

• A number of teams — hello Miami! — are more interested in how the Irving demand impacts Kevin Durant’s future in Brooklyn than acquiring Irving.

Mo Bamba comes off bench to fight Austin Rivers, five players ejected

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Well, that escalated quickly. I mean, that really got out of hand fast.

Friday night saw a rare true punches-thrown brawl in the NBA. The Timberwolves Austin Rivers — who was in the game — had missed a corner 3 in front of the Magic bench a few possessions previously and there had been a lot of trash talk. He came over and confronted the Magic’s Mo Bamba and the fight started when Bamba came off the bench and threw punches at Rivers. And then it was on, with other players jumping in.

After the officials watched the tape, five players were ejected: Rivers, Jaden McDaniels and Taurean Prince from the Timberwolves; Bamba and Jalen Suggs from the Magic.

Before the media, Rivers took a conciliatory tone postgame, at least at first.

“This isn’t like a cool moment for me,” Rivers said, via the Associated Press. “I feel embarrassed. I’m the oldest on the team. I consider myself the leader of the team, or one of the leaders of the team. It was a weird game, and I don’t think that helped at all. If anything right now, I’m just (ticked off) that we lost, and that I had (something) to do with that. It doesn’t make me feel good.”

However, on social media the punches continued.

All this comes a couple of days after Dillon Brooks and Donovan Mitchell got into a fight (Brooks was suspended for a game). Maybe guys need the All-Star break to get away from it all for a few days.

Expect suspensions (plural) and fines to be handed down over the weekend by the league.

The Magic went on to win the game 127-120.