USA advances to World Cup quarterfinals, clinches Olympic berth with win 89-73 vs. Brazil

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Before they even stepped on the court Monday in China, Team USA had already clinched a trip to the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals, the eight-team tournament and knockout round of the event. Greece upset the Czech Republic earlier in the day, which locked the Americans into the next round.

However, the USA still wanted the top seed, wanted to go undefeated in group play, and wanted to beat Brazil to secure a berth in the Tokyo Olympics next summer.

The USA got all that with an 89-72 victory over Brazil, behind 16 points each from Kemba Walker and Myles Turner.

The USA will now play France in the first round of the quarterfinals on Wednesday. The French team came into the World Cup as a dark horse to win it all thanks to Rudy Gobert locking down the paint on defense and scorers such as Evan Fournier, Frank Ntilikina, and former Spur Nando De Colo (who has been impressive in FIBA games). If the USA, as expected, knocks off France they likely will face Nikola Jokic and the Serbian team — the biggest threat to the USA in this tournament — but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Eliminating Brazil also put the USA into the Tokyo Olympics as one of the top two teams in the World Cup from the Americas (Argentina is the other one still standing). Brazil falls into the qualification tournament next summer before the Games.

Monday was a breakout game for Turner, who has been the USA’s best big man in this tournament (so much so that when he is not on the court Gregg Popovich tends to go with small ball now, Mason Plumlee and Brook Lopez get very little run). Turner scored at the rim, knocked down a Duncanesque 12-foot bank shot multiple times, and finished 8-of-11 shooting, with 8 rebounds and strong defense in the paint as well. Plus, Turner got Brazil coach Aleksander Petrovic ejected when the coach ran on the court to argue that a Turner block on Anderson Varejao was a foul. (Yes, Aleksander Petrovic is the brother of the late, great Drazen Petrovic.)

The USA also got 11 points from Jaylen Brown, who has arguably been the American’s best all-around player in the FIBA tournament. He is being decisive and attacking with the ball, something Celtics fans should love to see after last season.

There was another good sign in this game, the USA’s zone offense has improved. Most teams are going to a matchup zone against the USA (those teams don’t have the athletes to go man-to-man for long stretches) and at times that has frustrated the USA, especially when their threes are not falling (and Team USA was only 8-of-25 in this win from deep). Turkey had real success with it in the game that took the Americans to overtime. Now the USA is doing a better job of getting into the middle and the heart of the zone, and making plays off that. It’s a good sign for what is coming up, because when France plays a zone two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Gobert is the guy in the paint.

Brazil kept it close in the first half (43-39 USA at the break) with former NBA player Anderson Varejao working as the fulcrum of the offense. He finished the game with 14 points, as did another former NBA player Leandro Barbosa. Victor Benite led Brazil with 21 points for the game.

The USA pulled away in the second half with an 11-4 run sparked by tighter defense, which led to transition opportunities for the Americans. After that, the game was never really in doubt.

It was a good showing for the Americans because they had nothing on the line but chose not to mail it in. The USA had already clinched a spot in the quarterfinals before they took the court because Greece beat the Czech Republic in an earlier Group K game. (As an aside, Greece needed to win by 12 and have the USA beat Brazil to advance, and the Greeks were up 10 with 5:20 left when Giannis Antetokounmpo fouled out — on a terrible call, welcome to FIBA — and ended up winning by just 7.)

Here are the matchups for the first round of the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals:

Argentina-Serbia
USA-France
Spain-Poland
Australia-Czech Republic

The USA vs. France game is Wednesday. If the Americans and Serbians win (both will be favorites) their showdown will come Friday in Beijing. The championship game is Sunday in Beijing.

LeBron James, Doc Rivers, others around NBA react to, participate in protests

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The NBA family spoke out loudly and quickly in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer.

Protests have erupted nationwide following Floyd’s death, and the NBA family is commenting on — and in the case of some players, participating in — those protests. That includes the biggest name in the sport today, LeBron James.

Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey made a powerful statement recently, and on Sunday Doc Rivers released this statement through the Clippers.

A number of players have been involved in the protest, including Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie of the Timberwolves, who were with former NBA player Stephen Jackson — a childhood friend of Floyd’s — during a protest in Minnesota.

The Celtics’ Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to help lead a peaceful protest that started at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. He was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a brilliant op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times that talked about where the rage of the riots comes from in the black community.

“Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

“So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.”

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg of involvement of the NBA family, just like the protests are the tip of the iceberg of the frustration felt in black communities around the nation.

Jonas Valanciunas on return: “It’s kind of like coming back from the summer”

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Memphis is in when the NBA returns, and in whatever form it returns. The Grizzlies had earned the eighth seed in the West behind the standout play of rookie Ja Morant, and if the NBA goes with a play-in format for the final playoff seeds (as expected), there will be teams gunning for that slot.

Memphis’ veteran big man Jonas Valanciunas will be ready, he told Michael Wallace at the team’s official website. Valanciunas spent time in Memphis and Miami during the lockdown, checking in with family back in Lithuania, but is back in the gym getting up shots. He described the return process this way.

“It’s kind of like coming back from the summer. We’ve had two-and-a-half months off. But then again, I play with the (Lithuania) National Team every summer, so it’s not like you always have so much time off every summer. So it’s sort of like coming back and getting ready for training camp again, to get back in shape and into game rhythm. It’s unusual, with guys wearing masks and stuff, but it is sort of like getting yourself ready for training camp right now.

A lot of players feel the same way, that this was sort of like an offseason (just one where they couldn’t get in the gym and work on a specific skill or weakness). Now things are ramping up again. This is why players want a handful of games before the playoffs (or play-in tournament) start, to get their legs under them.

Memphis will have strong teams, and more veteran units, coming for their playoff spot in the form of Portland and New Orleans. Valanciunas says the Grizzlies will be ready.

We’re really motivated. We don’t need to find extra motivation. We’re young. We want to establish our names and build as a unit.

It’s going to be a unique format when the NBA returns, in what has been a season turned upside down. That, however, can be a bonding experience for this young Grizzlies team, something that makes them better faster.

Some NBA players reportedly expect families can’t come to Orlando until September

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Nothing is set in stone until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA’s return likely will have teams reporting to the “bubble” (or campus, or whatever term of art the league ends up using) in Orlando in mid-July. Games would start July 31 and run into late September and maybe even October.

For players, that’s a long time to be stuck in a hotel without seeing family or loved ones, so families joining the players has long been part of the plan. Except, now comes a note from Tim Reynolds at the AP that some players think their families may not be able to join them until deep into the postseason.

The smaller the bubble, the easier it is to maintain with extensive testing, which is why not all 30 teams are expected to be invited and the size of team traveling parties will be smaller. It has been expected that families wouldn’t be invited to join players at least until after the first round of the playoffs (when a lot of players left).

However, if games start July 31 and the league plans to play a couple of weeks of regular-season games, followed by a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot, then it will be September by the time the NBA gets to a final eight teams. Which will have players separated from their families for a couple of months.

It’s easy to understand the players’ frustrations with that. No matter what direction Adam Silver goes with this restart, there are going to be some unhappy teams and players.

 

Sixers head into playoffs with healthy Ben Simmons but new, untested starting five

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Philadelphia heads into the NBA’s restart — in whatever format it takes — as a team that, on the surface, benefits some from the break.

Ben Simmons was expected to return from his back issues in time for the playoffs, but it was going to be close, and he wouldn’t be fully rested and ready. Now, the All-Star is healthy and not the only player trying to shake off the rust from a long break. That’s 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists a game, and some strong defense back in the lineup.

But that lineup has never really fit together this season in Philadelphia, which is why heading into the restart playoffs the Sixers will have a new one.

Philly is expected to roll out a starting five of Simmons, Shake Milton, Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson, and Tobias Harris, reports The Athletic’s Derek Bodner. That lineup has played zero minutes together this season (Milton hit his groove with the team late and by that point Embiid and Simmons were battling injuries). Learning chemistry on the fly in what will be, at best, a shortened and condensed regular season before the playoffs start, is a tough way to go.

It’s also the right move, Milton brings the shooting and floor spacing this roster needs. Philly had envisioned Al Horford as a floor-spacing four (who could spell Embiid at the five), but it hasn’t worked out. When Simmons, Embiid and Horford have been on the court this season, the team has scored less than a point per possession (defensively, they also gave up less than a point per possession, the Sixers basically played their opponents even in those minutes). It hasn’t meshed.

When Milton, Simmons, and Embiid have played together this season — in limited minutes and different situations than the one proposed — the offense has been only slightly better and the defense has been a mess. That’s likely not the case with Richardson and Harris on the court, but nobody knows exactly how this will work. It looks good on paper, but we’ve thought that all season about the 76ers.

Which makes Philadephia one of the most interesting teams to watch when games restart. All season long this team has not lived up to expectations (for which coach Brett Brown’s seat is very hot, even if blame for the roster issues should go higher up the ladder). Now comes a real test. If the 76ers suddenly get it together they become a real threat to the Bucks in the East (if the league keeps an East/West format). Or, this could be the latest Sixers lineup to fall short.

Either way, they become must-watch television.