Associated Press

Jeff Van Gundy has Americans on brink of World Cup berth

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The challenge that Jeff Van Gundy accepted 16 months ago was a daunting one: Take a group of G League players, and turn them into a team that would be good enough to earn USA Basketball a spot in next year’s FIBA World Cup.

It was harder than he imagined.

Van Gundy hasn’t had one team for World Cup qualifying – he’s basically had five different teams, the U.S. roster changing so significantly from one round to the next that he’s had to essentially start from scratch every time. He’s made it work, and the U.S. will play at Argentina on Thursday night knowing that the job of clinching that World Cup berth is now finally within reach.

Thursday’s winner will basically be assured a spot in the World Cup. The U.S. and Argentina both have 7-1 records in their six-nation group, and would be three games ahead of the fourth-place team with three games left. The top three teams in the group are guaranteed World Cup berths.

“There’s been a lot of learning as we’ve gone along,” Van Gundy said. “You need to be adaptable in this whole thing. We’ve had a great group of coaches that have helped us and really, it’s the players that are the ones that drive it. Either you come into it for the right reasons or you don’t. This isn’t about putting up numbers. We’re all volunteers.”

He just didn’t think there would be this many volunteers.

Of the 12 players Van Gundy has with him on this trip – the Americans play at Uruguay on Sunday – only three have been part of any of the previous eight qualifying games. He’s now had 46 different players with him at various times during qualifying, and most of them have played in no more than two games to this point.

“I expected more continuity, no question,” Van Gundy said. “Some NBA teams have been incredibly helpful, incredibly helpful, and some not so much. Some agents have been incredibly helpful, and others not so much. Some G League franchises, incredibly helpful, incredibly helpful, others not as committed to the process. You sort of learn who shares your passion for this quest to qualify.”

Stockton Kings guard Reggie Hearn clearly shares that passion. When the U.S. calls, he answers.

Hearn is the most decorated player for the Americans in this process. He’s appeared in a team-high five of the eight games so far, is back with the U.S. for this trip and is embracing his role as the all-knowing veteran.

“I feel like I can somewhat give my knowledge and experience to the guys to kind of back what coach says,” Hearn said. “I can speak from personal experience, and as far as familiarity with Jeff, I feel like I can help things run a little more smoothly because I know what to expect from him and what he calls for us to do as players.”

The U.S. gathered for some practices in Houston before flying to Argentina, and players are aware that two wins on this trip – regardless of any other outcome – would clinch the World Cup berth.

But there hasn’t been a lot of big-picture focus.

“We’re just down here trying to go 2-0,” Hearn said.

U.S. PLANS

The U.S. has used G League players throughout this process because the qualifying schedule – by FIBA design – conflicts with the NBA season. If the Americans reach the World Cup, Gregg Popovich would coach the team and his roster would be filled by NBA stars.

ALREADY CLINCHED

There will be 32 nations in next year’s World Cup. Europe will send 12 teams, the Asia-Oceania and Americas zones will each send seven, and Africa will send five. China automatically got a spot as the tournament host. So far, in addition to the Chinese, six nations have clinched a berth: Tunisia, Nigeria, Germany, Greece, the Czech Republic and Lithuania.

QUALIFIERS FORMAT

This the fifth of six two-game “windows” on the FIBA qualifying calendar for this World Cup, with the final one coming in late February. Many spots will come down to those games, though there are several teams in very good position to clinch their berths in the coming days. They include the U.S., France, Spain, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada, Venezuela and Senegal.

Report: Lakers have interest in Joakim Noah

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The Los Angeles Lakers are reportedly interested in Dwight Howard. He has not yet been bought out by the Memphis Grizzlies, but a return to L.A. for Howard would be one of the most Lakers things of all time.

Howard infamously left Los Angeles under an auspicious circumstances in 2013 after things went south during the 2012-13 season between him, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash. He signed with the Houston Rockets that summer.

But Howard is not the only aging center under consideration by the Lakers. According to Shams Charania, Los Angeles is also considering adding Joakim Noah to their roster.

Via Twitter:

DeMarcus Cousins’ ACL injury has created a dearth of center depth for the Lakers, one that cannot be easily filled quickly. There aren’t a lot of available players left, and Los Angeles doesn’t have much to help facilitate a trade.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis need some help moving forward if they want to go deep into the Western Conference playoffs, and having only JaVale McGee playing at the center position won’t help them do that. They need to add somebody, but Howard or Noah being the answer to that is a scary proposition for a team with championship hopes.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar didn’t like how Bruce Lee was portrayed by Quentin Tarantino

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was friends with Bruce Lee before the actor’s tragic death in 1973. He was his teacher, pal, and co-star in in 1972’s Game of Death. Naturally, Abdul-Jabbar is protective of his friend’s legacy, and he’s not too happy about the way Lee was portrayed in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film.

Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a meandering, beautiful, boring tribute to the film industry as it was changing at the end of the 1960s. It’s worth seeing just as a thing to look at, but the narrative — or lack thereof — is plodding, and the ending harkens back to a kind of transposed version of Inglourious Basterds that leaves you wondering what the point of making the film was in the first place.

Somewhere in the middle of its 2h 45m runtime, there’s an extended scene in Once Upon A Time where Brad Pitt’s character Cliff fights Bruce Lee. Why? Probably because Tarantino wanted to pay tribute to Lee being an important part of that era, and because Tarantino is so untouchable that nobody can tell him to leave extemporaneous scenes on the cutting room floor.

Instead, what Tarantino’s tribute scene appears to have done is angered Abdul-Jabbar along with members of Lee’s family.

In an article penned in The Hollywood Reporter this week, Abdul-Jabbar called Lee’s portrayal “sloppy” and “somewhat racist”.

Via THR:

Quentin Tarantino’s portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not live up to this standard. Of course, Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants. But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being.

The John Wayne machismo attitude of Cliff (Brad Pitt), an aging stuntman who defeats the arrogant, uppity Chinese guy harks back to the very stereotypes Bruce was trying to dismantle. Of course the blond, white beefcake American can beat your fancy Asian chopsocky dude because that foreign crap doesn’t fly here.

Lee’s family, including daughter Shannon, has also spoken up about how Lee was portrayed in the film. In an interview with The Wrap, Shannon Lee said that, “He comes across as an arrogant asshole who was full of hot air.”

Once Upon A Time is a forgettable movie wrapped in the trappings of modern prestige media, where viewers are either unable separate production value from content, or unwilling to do so. It is beautiful, and the people involved are heavy hitters. But halfway through, the viewer is left asking “What’s the plot of this movie?” and that question remains until the final 15 minutes, when the inevitable, telegraphed ending finally, mercifully closes the story and the end credits roll.

Meanwhile, in true Tarantino form, his indulgences have created a mini-storm around one of his films in the most unnecessary way. An ill-conceived and executed scene that added nothing but length to Once Upon A Time has turned into a grating talking point for people like Abdul-Jabbar and Shannon Lee.

Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor to host ‘NBA Countdown’

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Things just keep getting better for NBA fans when it comes to national TV broadcasts.

It was announced in August that TNT would be doing away with the “Players Only” broadcast that appeared on NBA TV. Those broadcast crews were roundly criticized as being meandering and uninformed when it came to the product on the floor.

Now fans are getting more of what they want in the form of Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor.

According to a report from Richard Deitsch, Nichols and Taylor will be the hosts of ESPN’s pregame show, NBA Countdown.

Paul Pierce and Chauncey Billups Won’t return as analysts on the pregame show next year, leaving just Jalen Rose. That means there are a couple of spots open, and we don’t yet know who ESPN will fill them with. Nichols will reportedly continue to host her regular show “The Jump”.

As the league continues to get more popular, it makes sense that broadcast partners listen to the audience. Nichols is an NBA favorite, so having her be more visible makes a lot of sense.

NBA players roast Kyle Kuzma over outfit posted to Instagram (PHOTOS)

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Kyle Kuzma is going to be expected to have a big year for the Los Angeles Lakers. He thinks he can have the impact of a third star for L.A., a team that didn’t add Kawhi Leonard to go alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis this summer.

That’s big talk from Kuzma, but perhaps that talk has boosted his confidence a little bit. In a photo posted to Instagram this week, Kuzma could be seen wearing… whatever this is.

Via Twitter:

Twitter had a great time with Kuzma outfit, which looks like something pulled straight out of an early 2000s episode of TRL.

Kuzma’s contemporaries in the NBA thought he was getting a little wild with it, too, with several hopping onto the post to roast the Lakers big man.

Via Twitter:

I don’t know what this means for the upcoming Lakers season, but I’m sure it’s something interesting.