Big Men of Today Are Playing a Different Game Than Those of the NBA’s Past

When did big men in the NBA turn into a legion of seven-foot softies? If DeMarcus Cousins isn’t stomping to the bench as if he’s been denied dessert, Roy Hibbert is standing under the basket like the world’s tallest third-grader who just had his lunch money stolen. Or Dwight Howard is performing Shakespeare in the Park begging for a whistle. Or JaVale McGee is sprawling like a giant Bambi to star in yet another blooper reel.   

Where are the scowling successors to Alonzo Mourning? The knock-you-on-your-ass progeny of Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn? The stoic descendants of Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish?   

Has the personality of NBA centers really changed that much in the last decade or so?

The instinctive answer is yes. Everyone and everything seems to be softer and more sensitive than in years’ past, at least when it comes to sports. From youth teams where everyone gets a trophy for merely showing up, to the pro level where the rules discourage being too physical or demonstrative, how competitors are treated, and treat each other, seems to be dictated more by those administrating than those participating. The concept of those within the game maintaining the code by which they should play seems to have been hijacked by external rulesmakers, be they parents or commissioners or lawyers. But have NBA big men somehow been affected by this shift more than others?

Former big man Will Perdue says yes. And no. Yes, they have been affected by the shift. No, it’s not because today’s big men are somehow emotionally different from their predecessors.

Perdue played on four championship teams over 13 seasons, retiring in 2001, and since then has worked out a legion of today’s NBA-bound big men—from Chris Kaman to Robin and Brook Lopez to Joel Embiidto give them a sense of what to expect when they turned pro. But he admits that the challenge they face is different than the one he met coming out of Vanderbilt.

“Look, I’m not going to say I was a tough guy, but I knew what my job was,” Perdue says. “You wanted guards to think twice about coming into the paint. There’s still banging in the game today, but there’s a lot harsher penalty for ordinary aggressive play. Before it was two free throws, now it could be two free throws and the ball and a suspension or fine. What’s more, there’s no fear about attacking the rim because the perimeter players know it. You have to think about what you’re doing.”

The game has changed for big men at the offensive end as well. Once upon a time every team in the league was in search of a big man who could score, and playing through that big man in the post was a central precept to almost every offense. They were featured the way multi-functional small forwardsLeBron, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Kawhi Leonardseem to be today. In any case, they were a prized commodity and treated as such. Now it’s all about scoring before a defense is set and creating high-percentage three-point shots off drive-and-kick sets, at least during the regular season.

“They’re ‘The Forgotten Guy,’” says John Lucas, the former point guard and head coach. Lucas has made it his mission to reintroduce big men scoring on the block through a grass-roots movement in his hometown of Houston, where he runs clinics that teach post moves to 6’6″ and taller teenagers, players who he finds are more commonly developed as small forwards in today’s youth leagues.

“Offensively, they’re the power forwards of the early ’80s,” he says. “They’re defenders and rim protectors and that’s all we want from them. A part of that is the analytical mind of GMs these days. They don’t believe in the two-point shot anymore. It means you’ve stopped developing centers in the post. So many of the offenses now are above the free-throw line. Before you used to play inside-out, and if the big men weren’t happy, you couldn’t do anything.”

Big men had various ways of expressing their displeasure and all it took was a couple of trips down the floor without them touching the ball to have them exercise one. The more overt ways were to defend the rim, box out or set screens with a shade less enthusiasm, leaving a perimeter player unable to shake free for a shot or look bad when their defensive assignment flashed to the rim. A subtler one would be to snatch a rebound and, rather than immediately fire an outlet pass, hold the ball for a beat or two, just long enough to spoil the chance at a breakaway basket. And if you think such distinguished big men as Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem or Shaquille O’Neal never acted out when they were ignored, you weren’t paying attention.

“I remember even Bill Cartwright getting upset,” says Perdue, referring to the former Bulls’ center and his ex-teammate. “He didn’t jump up and down, but he let it be known: ‘Get me the ball.’”

If no one ever criticized a center back in the day for disrupting a team to serve his own interests, it’s because keeping a big man involved and engaged simply was considered practical. A perimeter player at that time couldn’t just run to the three-point line and fire away or drive into a defender and flail his arms to get to the free-throw line; the first was frowned upon as a low-percentage tactic and the latter wouldn’t draw a whistle. Keeping the big man involved increased everyone’s scoring chances, especially with rules that prohibited zone defenses.

“The NBA game has changed,” says Warriors scouting director Larry Riley. “You don’t need a center to win an NBA title, or at least Miami proved that it’s possible. The game is more perimeter-oriented, and, as a league, we drop it into the post a lot less.”

The game also wasn’t scrutinized the way it is today. Players only had to be on their best behavior when they were on a national broadcast, because that was the only way a significant audience saw them. Now, every second of every play is available and anything the least bit awry lives on forever via YouTube.

“We know the players so much better because they’re brought into our living rooms every day,” says Mitch Kupchak, an NBA power forward and center for nine seasons before spending most of the last three decades as GM of the Los Angeles Lakers. “Truth is, big men have always been a bit off-kilter. They’ve also developed a bit slower.”

That second part makes them more vulnerable today than ever before as well. Thanks to scouting websites that critique players before they’ve reached middle school, a young prospect’s aptitude is being measured on a game-by-game basis. Thanks to social media, everyone and anyone who wishes to say something mean or critical, can and have it reach the eyes or ears of the subject.

“They’ve always been treated different,” says New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps. “But now when you have social media, they’re exposed to it more. They are criticized by bloggers at all levels. You take a young kid who already feels awkward because he’s so much taller than everybody else and add that to it and it can’t help.”

They’re also spending less time at the college level, which means less time maturing and going through socialization. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the bigs who have had the hardest time curbing their emotionsCousins and Howardspent a combined one year in college.

“Guys go to college with a totally different mindset,” Perdue says. “It’s not about winning a championship or going to a certain school or even playing in a certain league. It’s a quick stop and it’s all about the coach and his staff.”

The use of zone defenses in college has long made it hard for big men to show their post skills, but now many college programs don’t even attempt to develop them. Hence, there are fewer players who unequivocally are two-way centers. Cousins, Howard, Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez and Hibbert are about the only big men who are counted on to defend and score with their back to the basket on a regular basis. Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Jordan, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Tyson Chandler either alternate between power forward and center or specialize at one end of the floor.

“There’s a much lower number of true centers in the league now,” says Warriors associate head coach Alvin Gentry. “You can count them on one hand. So everything they do stands out.”

The silver lining is that they have a chance to do that when it matters most—the postseason. That’s when the game slows down, the rules on physicality historically loosen and the value of a big man rises. Just check shot attempts by Howard and Gasol in the regular season versus the playoffs. The general number of shots per game invariably goes down thanks to a slower pace and more careful selection, yet their personal allotments never have failed to go up.

None of this is to condone Cousins sling-shotting his head band or McGee futilely trying to dunktwicefrom the free-throw line. Being young isn’t an excuse for acting out. Every player is expected to adjust, in one way or another, when he turns pro. The point is, in comparing big men of today to those of previous eras, a case can be made that they have not changed as much as how they are prepared, what is asked of them and when they are asked to do it. Today’s centers would no doubt welcome the chance to play under the rules of 20 years agoand if Perdue’s view is any indication, the centers of yesteryear would want no part of playing in the league today.

 

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.

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UNC to host Harry Giles III and team for a game

Wesleyan Christian Academy (High Point, N.C.) to play Tar Heels JV men’s basketball team.

      
 

 

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Kobe Bryant’s Effort to Rediscover Game Moving Forward, but Far from Complete

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Kobe Bryant has always chosen his own context.   

Accordingly, the perspective has mostly tilted in his favor, toward his grandeur, serving in construction of his legend.   

It has not been ineffective marketing.

Bryant came to the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility a week ago, told new coach and longtime friend Byron Scott how much rust felt coated on his bones despite how healed everything was and how much more focus he had been placing on his craft all summer.

Bryant did not want the team’s website or TV network in the gym, as was allowed for other informal scrimmages for Lakers players. He had worked out with teammates such as Jeremy Lin for a week early in the offseason, but this was different.

This would be real five-on-five, a meaningful test.

Did Bryant pass? Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak termed the results “comforting” and was moved a few days later to remind: “He gives you a chance, no matter the circumstances, to be really good.”

Scott saw enough to suggest Monday at Lakers media day that Bryant would average 24 points and play all 82 games. Scott’s doubt about how well Bryant could raise up to get his jumper off was eased to the point that Scott described Kobe’s outlook as “very exciting.”

Bryant executed his footwork in the mid-post. He had the lift also to reach high for much-needed rebounds.

He played three games.

He hit two game-winning shots.

Asked on the eve of training camp about his dramatic scrimmage success, Bryant said, “I hadn’t played, so I spent the whole summer just kind of preparing and training. It was important for me to get a five-on-five game in, so I could see what I can and can’t do.

“And I felt like me.”

Bryant didn’t say it with any bravado, however. He also wasn’t cavalier about it or making it seem like a no-brainer. He didn’t even mention those oh-so-Kobe winning shots that the public was unaware he had hit.

He was pleased, but he was not emboldened.

He chose that context, and he chose not to feed the hype—or even believe it himself.

All he wanted to say about it was that it was a small, personal, positive steppingstone.

And I felt like me.

That’s not to be taken lightly as Bryant, 36, tries to inspire his public all over again with a comeback from the fractured right knee on top of the torn left Achilles and playing just six games last season.

“It’s just trying to see if I can prove to myself,” he said, “that I can be myself.”

Bryant added that the “words of doubt” from the outside—haters, critics or realists, whatever they might be—fan his flame, but only secondarily.

“I’ve always been that way, though,” he said. “I feel that [makes for] a much healthier journey. It’s much more enjoyable to look to the side every now and then and look at who you’re proving wrong in the process. That’s never been the main driver for me.”

Listening to Bryant speak Monday, it was clear that he is confident in his health. What he is uncertain about is the high hurdle of this recovery, which requires him to re-establish his game in the face of the unyielding aging process.

To that end, Bryant placed more focus on the craft, the details, the crux of his game, than anything over the summer. He dropped about 10 pounds but did so without using the track, his usual haven for early morning conditioning, and holed himself up in the gym. He feels potent on offense, as usual, but he wonders whether his lower body can slide defensively the way he knows it must if the Lakers’ defense is to meet Scott’s expectations.

The fundamentals have to be Bryant’s foundation more than ever. His outsized self-confidence was always rooted in faith that his work ethic leads to his game being there when he needs it.

So the only issue now that he is healthy is whether he will meet his own challenge.

Long before anyone else can judge how much this old snake looks like the Black Mamba, either he will feel comfortable in his skin or he won’t.

Bryant admitted he was “anxiously awaiting” the Lakers’ first practice. The first exhibition game is a week after that.

The regular-season opener sits a month away.

A year ago, Bryant was in a similar position, returning to the court from a prolonged absence, but also with facing an uphill struggle against his Achilles.

“Now there are questions, but they don’t center around health,” Bryant said of the difference this year.

As much as the suggestions so far sound good, Bryant’s inflection won’t change back to certainty until he has a different answer, and answer that isn’t: “I felt like me.”

It has to be: “It’s me.”

Anything less, and it’s going to be a long, unsatisfying march into retirement.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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The One Flaw in Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s Game That He Must Fix

If his first season in the NBA was any indication, New York Knicks shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is a gunner. 

During runs of hot shooting, the bunches of points he poured in sparked the Knicks offense and carried the team. But when he cooled off, the shot volume didn’t change.

If he ever wants to develop into a truly great player, he’ll have to address his shot selection when he’s having a poor shooting night. 

It’s said that great shooters have no conscience and short memories. The Ray Allens of the league trust their mechanics and keep firing, knowing that they’ll get a few shots to drop eventually. 

But turning around cold streaks isn’t about powering through them; it’s more crucial to find shots in the flow of the offense that don’t disrupt rhythm. 

With Hardaway‘s all-around offensive game, it’s understandable why he rarely encounters a shot he doesn’t like. 

His lethal outside touch, both off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations, has defenders guarding him closely all over the floor. His ability to penetrate and finish with strength punishes defenders who crowd his space. 

No coach will ever fault Hardaway for attacking the rim or letting fly a wide open three-pointer. It’s the difficult floaters, one-dribble pull-ups, and mid-range fadeaways that get him in trouble, especially early in the shot clock. 

Former Knicks guard Beno Udrih saw this troublesome sign early last season (via The New York Times): “Sometimes he’s so excited to be here, his shot selection can hurt him. But he’s confident, and that’s always a good thing.”

Before being drafted by the Knicks, DraftExpress also noted that “Some of Hardaway‘s struggles were due to his less than stellar shot selection.”

At least a part of the blame for Hardaway‘s difficulty in choosing the right shots can be assigned to a Knicks offense that crumbled in the latter half of the season. 

The focus on Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith isolations with little weak-side movement quickly bred a selfish attitude among non-primary ball-handlers. With very few touches left for the remaining players, it was hardly surprising that Hardaway‘s trigger finger became that much more itchy.

Hardaway‘s final season at Michigan was the real birth of this trait. His 460 field-goal attempts only trailed teammate Trey Burke, despite his 43.7 field-goal percentage ranking worst among players with significant minutes averages. 

In his rookie year on the Knicks, the statistical trend continued but shifted to the three-point line. Despite only playing 23.1 minutes per game, Hardaway still found time to jack 4.4 three-pointers per game while only knocking them down at a 36.3 percent clip.

Further cementing the problem was Hardaway‘s reliance on off-the-dribble jumpers. Though his 38.9 shooting percentage on such attempts, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), was actually well above league average, his willingness to hoist the lowest-percentage shot type in the game drove down his overall efficiency.

With 23.1 percent of his shots coming off the dribble, Hardaway‘s percentage of those types of shots was extremely high for a non-primary scorer. Compare that to Anthony, arguably the best off-the-dribble shooter in the game, whose 25.2 percent of attempts preceded by a dribble was only slightly higher.

Considering their respective roles in the offense, the difference should have been far greater. 

This isn’t to say that dribbling before shooting is necessarily a bad thing for role players. Sometimes overzealous closeouts on catch-and-shoot three-point shots fuel easy pump fakes, a quick dribble and an open pull-up.

Here’s Hardawday doing just that against the Chicago Bulls, when a double-team of Amar’e Stoudemire leads to multiple ball swings. When it lands in Hardaway‘s hands in the corner, his feet are set and he’s ready to shoot.

Chicago’s Kirk Hinrich knows of his shooting prowess and runs him off the three-point line, almost baiting Hardaway into dribbling past him. Hardaway obliges and properly pulls up, as the rotating defenders protecting the rim would make any drive and finish difficult.

Everyone can live with these types of shots. It was Hardaway‘s inability to make the right (or any) pass and his penchant for cutting short basket attacks in favor of pull-ups that got him in trouble, leading to a flurry of difficult and guarded shots. 

Take a look at this play from last season against the Brooklyn Nets, when Hardaway receives the ball in a similar closeout situation and is able to slip by his defender, Marcus Thornton. Even the minimal penetration draws a second defender in Jorge Gutierrez, who abandons Shannon Brown.

A quick dribble and pass would have led to an open three-pointer for Brown, but Hardaway elects to rise up for a fadeaway with 10 seconds on the shot clock. 

Even though he does miss the easy pass here, it’s not the end of the possession. Hardaway could have quickly felt out the isolation opportunity against the smaller defender in Gutierrez and moved the ball if it failed. There was still time to generate something better.

Hardaway‘s predatory attitude has him capitalizing on any opening to get his shot off. In some sense, this relentless and attacking mentality can really plague defenders who can’t guard him.

But Hardaway‘s not quite at that level offensively to beat multiple defenders, and more often than not he’s caught taking bad shots against help defense once he gets past his original man. 

What’s even more frustrating about Hardaway‘s game is his unwillingness to completely attack creases in the defense with his dribble. He just loves that pull-up a bit too much and settles too quickly. 

In the play below against the Miami Heat, a confused Miami defense has three players triple-teaming Stoudemire in the post. Stoudemire recognizes this quickly and gets rid of the ball to Hardaway, who now has Ray Allen sprinting at him.

Hardaway smartly pump fakes and slides around him, with a gaping hole in the Heat defense now staring him in the face. With a quick left-to-right crossover, Hardaway can get all the way to the rim or draw more defenders to set up a teammate.

Instead, he settles for that pull-up. Because he’s slightly leaning left and Allen is bothering him from behind, what appears to be an open and easy shot isn’t quite that. 

To be fair, Hardaway isn’t a great ball-handler. With time he’ll improve this aspect of his game, but he’ll always be a perimeter shooter first. Still, that doesn’t excuse his aversion to probing defenses more.

In pick-and-roll situations, Hardaway has mostly limited himself to jump shots. In an NBA that features more and more defenses with bigs dropping to the rim, teams are encouraging these off-the-dribble, mid-range shots.

Hardaway, thus far into his career, is playing right into the defense’s hands. The Toronto Raptors ran this dropping scheme in the pick-and-roll below involving Hardaway and Jeremy Tyler, and Hardaway takes the space given to him as an opportunity to shoot.

When he lets the ball go, there are 17 seconds left on the shot clock.

Part of the learning curve for all NBA players is understanding shot types in terms of time and score. In the simplest sense, this means that the first available shot is not always the best one. 

The best players, and typically the best scorers, have mastered how and when shots become available. Pull-up jump shots off the pick-and-roll, contested three-pointers or isolations are possible at virtually any time.

If an offense has to resort to these shot types due to a shrinking shot clock, so be it. Avoiding them at all other times, however, tends to be a major offensive key. 

Early in the shot clock, better players explore pick-and-rolls with multiple dribbles and pass the ball, or they back it out and try something else. Allowing a possession to mature gives the best option time to reveal itself or the defense an opportunity to make a mistake. 

Though Hardaway is certainly capable of hitting any type of shot, that doesn’t mean any shot he takes is a worthwhile look. 

If he hopes to improve his shooting percentage and role within NBA offenses, it won’t be about drilling hard in the offseason to strengthen his skill set or scoring more points in games.

It will be about efficiency and shot selection. Sometimes less is more.

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USA vs. Serbia: 2014 FIBA Gold Medal Game Score and Twitter Reaction

There was never a doubt for the red, white and blue.

Team USA destroyed Serbia in the 2014 FIBA World Cup final to the tune of 129-92. Kyrie Irving led the way with 26 points on 10-of-13 shooting from the field and 6-of-6 from downtown, while James Harden added 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting.

Irving was named the MVP for the World Cup, while NBA on ESPN shared the entire all-tournament team:

Nikola Kalinic and Nemanja Bjelica each scored 18 points for Serbia. 

The blowout victory in the championship game completed a World Cup where the Americans were never challenged. In fact, their closest winning margin in nine games was 21 points over Turkey in the group stage.

The entire 2014 FIBA World Cup was supposed to be all about a showdown between the United States and Spain in the championship game. France ruined that by shocking Spain in the quarterfinals, and then Serbia knocked out France in the semis.

The Americans would have none of the upset bug.

However, it was Serbia that jumped out to an early eight-point lead in the first quarter. Perhaps Team USA expected to simply roll over Serbia just by showing up, which would explain the slow start. Brian Mahoney of The Associated Press noted that the early deficit was uncharted territory for Mike Krzyzewski’s team:

Grantland’s Zach Lowe and Kurt Helin of Pro Basketball Talk described just how Serbia took an early lead:

Irving then decided to take matters into his own hands. The Cavaliers point guard scored 15 early points and started 6-of-8 from the field and 3-of-3 from behind the three-point line. NBA on ESPN and Duke Basketball gave him a shoutout:

Behind Irving’s efforts, the Americans seized a 35-21 lead after the first quarter.

Team USA extended its lead in the second quarter, but not without some concern. Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried both picked up three fouls in the first half, which meant it was DeMarcus Cousins‘ time to shine.

NBA on ESPN shared a highlight, while Nate Duncan of Basketball Insiders noted how critical Cousins’ defense was:

While the interior play was certainly impressive, it was the three-point shooting for the Americans that completely put the game away before halftime. In fact, Irving hit four treys, Harden connected on three from distance, Klay Thompson had two from long range and Rudy Gay and Stephen Curry each hit one.

In all, Team USA shot 11-of-16 from three-point range in the first half.

Duncan offered up some solid advice for Serbia:

Thanks to the barrage of perimeter shooting, Krzyzewski’s squad had an overwhelming 67-41 lead at the half.

Things didn’t look much different in the third quarter. The United States’ NBA superstars were hitting on all cylinders with their shots. It really wasn’t even a fair matchup on paper.

The Americans do deserve credit for coming out of the locker room with some intensity. Duncan suggested as much, while ESPN’s Marc Stein pointed out that the coaching staff was matching the energy: 

Things simply got out of hand for Serbia in the third quarter. The United States stretched its lead to more than 30 points midway through the third and eviscerated the Serbian defense. Zach Harper of CBS Sports thought Serbia should maybe change its defensive look:

While it was easy to criticize Serbia’s defense, ESPN commentator Fran Fraschilla told Bleacher Report before the game that Krzyzewski deserved plenty of credit: ”I’d be very surprised if Team USA, because of Coach K’s influence, takes their eyes off the prize. There’s less of a sense of entitlement among these NBA stars than there was eight or nine years ago. To beat this team, you have to play an A+ game.”

The only team playing an A+ game Sunday was the United States. It took a commanding 105-67 lead into the fourth quarter.

Harper summarized how many were feeling, while John Schumann of NBA.com pointed out just how ridiculous the Americans’ effort really was:

With the game well in hand, it was time to watch individual players. Duncan provided some encouraging news for Chicago Bulls fans:

However, Derrick Rose was among the few Americans who hadn’t cracked the scoreboard, as Sam Smith of Bulls.com pointed out:

Fortunately for the United States, plenty of players were stuffing the stat sheet. As NBA on ESPN noted, seven players were in double figures as the game entered its final minutes:

Thanks to a blistering shooting performance from the majority of the team, the fourth quarter was simply a formality. In fact, Serbia outscored Krzyzewski’s team 25-24 in the final frame, but Team USA still won the game by 37 points.

It was yet another dominating performance for Team USA, which hardly had to bat an eye on its way to gold.

 

What’s Next

While the Americans were clearly more impressive than any other team by a wide margin at the World Cup, some may view the triumph with hesitation because it didn’t come against Spain. 

Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated commented on that idea:

From an NBA perspective, this experience should prove beneficial for the superstars that played for Team USA. Players like Irving, Davis, Faried and Cousins, who were excellent for much of the tournament, will likely be more confident in their own abilities, while Derrick Rose’s knees passed an extended test.

The Chicago Sun-Times suggested as much during the game:

While NBA fans are certainly looking forward to that, Team USA has some time to revel in its World Cup title.

 

*All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.

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USA vs. Serbia: Live Score, Highlights for 2014 FIBA World Cup Championship Game

After two weeks of play, the field for the 2014 FIBA World Cup has been narrowed down to Serbia and Team USA for the title game Sunday in Madrid, Spain.

The Americans have coasted to this point, as they’re undefeated and the smallest margin of victory was 21 points against Turkey.

Serbia may be the toughest test yet, thanks in large part to Milos Teodosic.

The 6’5″ Serbian guard is averaging 14 points during the tournament, but he’s been especially dangerous lately, averaging 23.5 points in his team’s last two games.

U.S. guards Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and James Harden have never been known for their defense, so reserve Klay Thompson could have a bigger role. The three-and-D specialist should have a better shot at slowing Teodosic down than any other American.

 

Tipoff3 p.m. ET

Coverage: ESPN2

 

Keys to the Game

Serbia will need a miracle, maybe even a few miracles, to upset the heavily favored Team USA. The Serbians will have to try to slow the pace way down, pack the paint, hope USA goes cold from the outside and get a huge game from Teodosic.

On the other end, the Americans have done their best work in this tournament during second halves, when their opponents wear down and fast-break opportunities are more readily available.

If they work the ball inside to their more athletic bigs, Kenneth Faried and Anthony Davis, early, they could get to that point sooner.

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Minnesota Timberwolves: Four reasons Kevin Martin steps up his game

It may seem odd to predict a significant improvement in play from a 31 year old player like Kevin Martin, but I think that there are a lot of differences from this year to last for Martin and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Reason number one: As a shooting guard, Martin’s main job on the basketball court is to put the ball in the hoop. Martin did pretty well at that last year, scoring around 19 points a game and shooting 43 percent from the field and above 38 percent from beyond the arc. However, for much of the season last year, Martin was dealing with a lacerated pinky finger, and while that is certainly an injury that Martin could play through, you could tell by watching Martin play that the injury was throwing off his shot, even if it was off only slightly so.

Reason number two: Another reason I think Martin will improve is the fact that he will be the main outside shooting threat for the Timberwolves, which will lead to him getting more chances to shoot and more chances to get into a groove. Even before K

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FIBA World Cup 2014: Latest Results and Championship Game Preview

With the 2014 FIBA World Cup having its share of surprises, fans should be ready for anything in the championship game.

France earned third place in the tournament thanks to a narrow win over Lithuania in the consolation game. All that is left is to decide which team takes home the gold and which will get silver in the final competition between the United States and Serbia.

Although most expect an easy American win, there have already been plenty of upsets at this event, with top squads like Spain and Brazil going down early. Based on what Serbia has done to this stage, it is hard to count the squad out now.

This final game is certain to be an entertaining one, so make sure you do not miss a second of the action. Here is a recap of the knockout stage plus a look ahead to the final matchup. 

 

Championship Game

Who: United States vs. Serbia

When: Sunday, September 14

Where: Madrid, Spain

Time: 3 p.m. ET

Watch: ESPN2

Live Stream: ESPN3

 

The United States roster is full of recognizable names for basketball fans, as players like Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and James Harden patrol the backcourt, while Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and others have impressed down low.

After winning each of its first eight games in this tournament by at least 20 points, it would certainly be surprising to see the squad finish with anything besides a gold medal.

However, Serbia is not going to give up without a fight. Center Nenad Krstic told NBA analyst Chris Sheridan, “We’re not going to be scared, for sure. Some players never get this chance—the chance to do something great in our lives.”

“If they beat us, when it is over I will shake their hands. But we are going to play our game,” head coach Sasha Djordjevic explained.

The squad is led by point guard Milos Teodosic, who is averaging a team-high 14 points and 4.1 assists in this tournament. Zach Harper of CBS Sports gave this short analysis:

While he does not play in the NBA, it is not because of lack of talent, as ESPN’s Marc Stein notes:

He is an excellent shooter while also doing a great job of creating for others. Nemanja Bjelica and Miroslav Raduljica are quality inside scorers, while Bogdan Bogdanovic can rack up points from the perimeter.

Still, they have not faced a defense as good as the United States in this tournament. John Shuhmann of NBA.com noted this has been the best unit in Spain:

Davis and Faried are excellent interior defenders and should be able to limit the points in the paint. Their rebounding ability will also limit most possessions to just one attempt. While Teodosic could have a good game individually, he will not be able to do too much himself.

On the other end of the court, the Americans will simply use their athleticism to get easy baskets and outscore their opponent.

This will be a close game early, but the United States should be able to utilize its depth to pull away and earn a championship.

 

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Lithuania vs. France: 2014 FIBA Bronze-Medal Game Score and Twitter Reaction

In what was unquestionably one of the most entertaining games of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, France defeated Lithuania 95-93 Saturday in Spain to secure the bronze medal. 

According to Eurohoops.net, it was a landmark victory for the French:

Lithuania received a huge effort from Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, as he finished with 25 points and nine rebounds, but he was neutralized by the 27 points from Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum for France.

While both Lithuania and France suffered disappointment in the semifinals by falling short of their ultimate goal, there was still plenty to play for in Saturday’s game.

Lithuania entered the matchup with hopes of equaling its third-place result from the 2010 FIBA World Cup. Conversely, France was making its first appearance in a medal game in this tournament since 1954.

Prior to the game, Batum made it clear that his squad was ready to put Friday’s semifinal loss to Serbia in the rear-view mirror, per FIBA.com.

“We have to win,” Batum said. “If we don’t find the motivation, there’s no point in competing in this sport. The final, that’s over with, we won’t play it. We can’t dwell on it and we need to move on to something else. Let’s carry on being conquerors.”

There was no love lost between these two sides as they met in the 2013 EuroBasket final in Slovenia, according to FIBA’s official Twitter account:

France won that game convincingly, so Lithuania figured to have a huge chip on its shoulder. The Lithuanians also had a bit of added pressure with national minister of foreign affairs Linas Linkevicius urging them to come away victorious:

It would have been easy for the French to come out flat after losing to Serbia by just five points on Friday, but they looked to be the hungrier team early on. France raced out to a 7-2 lead with all seven points being scored by center Joffrey Lauvergne.

Batum ultimately paced Les Bleus with eight points in the opening quarter, and they led 22-19 entering the second.

Much like the first quarter, the second frame was back-and-forth. The star players for both teams did much of the damage with Batum and Lauvergne excelling for France, while Valanciunas looked great offensively for Lithuania.

According to Eurohoops.net, France and Lithuania were particularly effective in terms of exploiting mismatches:

Lithuania gained some ground in the second quarter as it outscored France 23-21 and pulled to within one point at the break. Valanciunas finished the first half with 12 points to lead the Lithuanians, while the vast majority of France’s offense went through two players, per Euroleague Basketball on Twitter:

The tide started to turn even more in Lithuania’s favor at the start of the second half. Not only did the Lithuanians do a much better job on Batum and Lauvergne defensively, but they also started to heat up from beyond the arc on the offensive end.

In fact, consecutive three-point daggers from Adas Juskevicius and Houston Rockets forward Donatas Motiejunas put Lithuania on top just a few minutes into the quarter:

Although Batum started to find his range again as the quarter progressed, Lithuania’s lead continued to balloon. Valanciunas was the main reason for that, as he added six points in the third and helped Lithuania to a 71-64 lead with just one quarter left to play.

France simply had no answer for Valanciunas, which likely has Raptors fans quite excited for the upcoming NBA season. If Valanciunas’ play against the French is any indication, Bleacher Report’s Andy Bailey could see Toronto utilizing him to greater effect in 2014-15:

Just when it seemed like France was potentially down for the count, it mounted a comeback in the fourth quarter. The French grittiness was on full display as the slight underdogs chipped away at Lithuania’s advantage.

Batum led the way, but San Antonio Spurs forward Boris Diaw finally started to contribute in a big way as well. With less than five minutes remaining in the game, Diaw put France back on top 77-75.

Valanciunas refused to be denied, however, as he tied it at 77 with a thunderous dunk and then converted an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 80-77 Lithuania with about three minutes remaining on the clock.

A 5-0 run put France back on top 82-80, though, and it was punctuated by a Diaw layup with just a minute and a half left.

Diaw extended the lead to four with another basket, and guard Thomas Heurtel added a pair of free throws with 30 seconds left to give France a seemingly insurmountable 86-80 lead.

Closing out the game would prove difficult, though. Juskevicius hit two free throws and then pulled Lithuania to within one point with a bucket and the foul 16 seconds before the final horn. That came on the heels of Heurtel missing two key free throws.

Heurtel would atone for his misses with two makes on his ensuing trip to the line, giving France a three-point lead, per Sportnado:

The cat-and-mouse game continued with both teams trading successful spells at the charity stripe. France held a 90-89 lead with eight ticks remaining after Renaldas Seibutis converted two free throws.

A missed free throw by Batum left the door open a crack for Lithuania with four seconds left. Valanciunas made two free throws to make it 93-92 France. Batum made two free throws to extend the lead to three, and French forward Florent Pietrus smartly fouled Jonas Maciulis with one second left so he couldn’t attempt a three-pointer. The Lithuanian forward purposely missed his second free throw, but France grabbed the defensive rebound to come away with the win.

There is no question that both of these teams have a long way to go before reaching the United States’ level, but they have certainly proven capable of competing with the world’s best teams at the international level.

Lithuania has been among the elite teams in the world for quite some time, and this loss doesn’t change that. A second consecutive bronze in this tournament would have been a great result, but reaching the semis was a big deal nonetheless.

Les Bleus made it this far without Spurs point guard Tony Parker and Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah, so the sky is the limit. France also upset a full-strength Spanish team on its home court in the quarterfinals in addition to winning the bronze medal, so this tournament was most definitely a success.

Lithuania and France will now look ahead to the 2015 EuroBasket tournament as two 2016 Olympic berths will be on the line. A rematch of the 2013 final between them is a very real possibility, and it would be yet another chapter in what is quickly becoming one of the best rivalries in international basketball.

 

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France vs. Lithuania: Live Score, Highlights for FIBA World Cup 3rd-Place Game

After losing to USA and Serbia in their respective semifinal matchups, France and Lithuania are set to do battle in the consolation game at the 2014 FIBA World Cup on Saturday.

Lithuania will likely look to pound the ball inside with big man Jonas Valanciunas, while France will attack from the perimeter with Nicolas Batum and Boris Diaw.

 

Tipoff12 p.m. ET

Coverage: ESPN3.com

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