FIBA World Cup match preview: United States vs. Finland

Team USA begins their quest for the FIBA World Cup.

      
 

 

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Team USA Big Men Proving They Can Match Up with Spain at 2014 FIBA World Cup

If their last two FIBA tuneups are any indication, Team USA’s template will be as follows: author a somewhat forgettable first half that gives the opponent a modicum of confidence, before steadily pulling away behind a balanced scoring effort.

So long as Mike Krzyzewski’s decision to load up on frontcourt talent yields the desired result—a win over the Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka-led Spain—it’s a trend the Team USA coach is more than willing to live with.

Playing in their lone exhibition in the Canary Islands just two days after announcing their final round of roster cuts, the Americans rolled to a breezy 98-69 win over the Goran Dragic-led Slovenia Tuesday afternoon.

From here, Team USA will head to Spain, where they will face Finland in the opening round of group play on Saturday.

Ahead of what many believe will be his global coming-out party, Anthony Davis led the way with 18 points, 11 rebounds, four steals and four blocks. More amazing still, Davis’ most impressive number might’ve been the lowest one possible:

Meanwhile, Davis’ frontcourt mate, Kenneth Faried, registered a fine outing of his own, tallying 14 points and nine rebounds.

Headlining one of the deeper American frontcourts in recent memory, Davis, in particular, is serving notice that Team USA has every intention of matching Spain’s formidable size with a dose of its own.

And while his offensive repertoire only continues to grow, it’s at the other end of the floor that Davis has made his domain.

As they had in their second and final pre-FIBA tilt against Puerto Rico in Madison Square Garden this past Friday, head coach Mike Krzyzewski and company struggled early to keep the opposing guards from wreaking havoc on the perimeter—this despite the struggles of Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic, who finished with six points in limited action.

And, just like Friday, the second half saw Team USA throw it into a gear the opposition simply couldn’t match.

Beginning with a pair of technical free throws by Stephen Curry—awarded following a halftime outburst from Slovenian coach Jure Zdovc—Team USA commenced what’s become its strategic bread and butter: ratcheting up the pressure and turning its defense into offense. By the 4:50 mark of the third quarter, the Americans had opened up a 69-39 lead.

But it’s in his cast of big men that Krzyzewski has staked his team’s fortunes.

Krzyzewski clearly has the host country on his radar screen. And rightly so: Not only are the No. 2 ranked Spaniards brim-loaded with quality big men; they have a two-headed point guard monster in Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio that itself boasts oodles of international experience.

All of which invites the question: In preparing exclusively for Spain—and, to a slightly lesser extent, Brazil—have Krzyzewski and Team USA president Jerry Colangelo painted themselves into a corner (no pun intended)?

In a recent column, Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley raised precisely that point:

The international stage tends to promote floor spacing, both to take advantage of shorter three-point arcs and to break opponents out of zone defenses. USA has stretched opposing teams thin in the past, but this super-sized attack doesn’t offer the quantity of perimeter-oriented players as those clubs did.

Of course, what it lacks for quantity in terms of three-point snipers, it may completely compensate for in quality.

Taken together, Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and DeMar DeRozan would seem to offer Team USA plenty of backcourt firepower. Where the quintet falls a bit short, however, is in the dual combination of perimeter size and playmaking—two areas where Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, two of Krzyzewski’s final cuts, could’ve paid significant dividends.

During a July press conference, Krzyzewski sounded adamant in his belief that beating Spain didn’t necessarily own a monopoly on Team USA’s strategic radar screen.

“Everyone talks about matchups (with big teams such as Spain), people have to matchup against us, too,” Krzyzewski said. “What you have to do is put your best 12 together and then make adjustments with the best 12. Obviously we’re not going to have 12 guards, but that’s what we’ve done.”

It’s difficult to say whether Krzyzewski’s shift amounts to a strategic about-face, or a natural reaction to what he sees as a FIBA fact: Spain remains the only real threat to Team USA’s six-years-long hardwood hegemony.

Here’s what we know: Of this year’s four FIBA groups, Spain—with France (No. 8 in the FIBA rankings), Brazil (10) and Serbia (11) all in its midst—has by far the toughest draw. Team USA, by contrast, could be in for a cakewalk, with Turkey (7) and New Zealand (19) being the drawing’s most formidable competition.

Might Krzyzewski be banking on a banged-up Spain being a team of walking wounded headed into tournament play? It’s certainly possible—even strategically clever.

Then again, if Krzyzewski can rely on this kind of consistent performance from Davis and Faried—ditto backup bigs DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee—looking like a genius might never seem so easy.

Given the level of competition it’s about to meet, Team USA is bound to encounter a handful of teams built, either by design or happenstance, to give it fits.

From Krzyzewski’s perspective, though, the philosophy is all too obvious: better to weather the small storms, so long as you’re boarded up tightly for the big one.

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Can Kobe Bryant Match NBA History’s Best 36-Year-Old Wings?

Succeeding in the NBA is hard enough for young studs fresh out of college, but—with a few notable exceptions—it’s downright impossible for a 36-year-old to excel.

Kobe Bryant, who celebrates his 36th birthday this Saturday, will attempt to join a handful of standouts throughout league history as a veteran who simply won’t conform to the mandates of Father Time.

Bryant has always been one of the league’s best scorers, but he’ll have his work cut out for him if he hopes to join Alex English, John Havlicek and the rest of the premier point producers who suited up at either shooting guard or small forward when they were 36: 

There’s a clear conflict here. 

No 36-year-old wing player has ever touched the 20-point milestone, although Michael Jordan averaged 22.9 and 20.0 points per game in 2001-02 and 2002-03, respectively. Jordan was 38, 39 and 40 in those two seasons. Of course, he retired for the second time after the 1997-98 campaign and missed his age-36 season.

Bryant averaged 27.6 points per contest during the two campaigns prior to his injury-plagued 2013-14 go-around. 

How about passing, which the Lakers 2-guard has done better and better as his career has progressed?

Matching Scottie Pippen’s mark will be rather difficult, though Bryant has been above 5.9 dimes per contest each of the past two seasons. Admittedly, one of those years saw him play only six games, so his role as a de facto point guard might have been a small-sample-size fluke. 

He’ll have a better chance at the No. 1 spot there than as a rebounder, though. 

Bryant’s career average of 5.3 rebounds per game is barely higher than Pippen’s record for wing players at 36 years old, and most players have tended to trend downward in rather definitive fashion. Coming off a season in which he averaged only 4.3 boards per contest, he could have his work cut out for him. 

Finally, we have the catch-all stat—win shares: 

Reggie Miller is the clear-cut winner in this category, but Bryant will be hoping to get somewhat close. That would mean the Lakers are far more competitive than most expect, seeing as win shares require wins. 

Of course, Bryant is doing more than playing at 36 years old in 2014-15; he’s doing so while coming off a second major injury in two years. The odds aren’t exactly in his favor, but we’ve also learned that betting against this particular veteran is never a good idea. 

So, what are you expecting from Bryant during his age-36 season? Where will he place in these rankings? 

 

Note: All statistics come from Basketball-Reference.com

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The Most Difficult College Basketball Players to Match Up with in 2014-15

In college basketball as in the NBA, some players are able to create mismatches no matter who tries to guard them. Even with the likes of Jabari Parker and Cleanthony Early off to the pros, there are plenty of stars remaining in the college ranks who have the physical tools or unexpected skill sets to keep any defender back on his heels.

One of last year’s biggest success stories, Frank Kaminsky, poses an inside-outside threat on par with Parker or Early. Now heading into his senior year, the Wisconsin center is too tall for perimeter defenders, but he’s too skilled a shooter for big men to handle.

Herein is a closer look at the challenges posed by Kaminsky and the rest of the 12 most intimidating matchups in the college ranks for the 2014-15 season.

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How Do Warriors Match Up vs. Likely First-Round Opponents, Clippers and Rockets?

The Golden State Warriors have been on a tear since the All-Star break, winning 10 of their past 12 games and raising their profile in the packed Western Conference. The Warriors (41-24) are now 17 games over .500 for the first time since April 1994.

With recent victories have come rising expectations, but they remain a second-tier Western Conference playoff team, hot stretch or no. That idea wasn’t lost on Dirk Nowitzki after the Warriors 108-85 win over the Dallas Mavericks Tuesday night.

The Warriors now find themselves in sixth place in the Western Conference standings, 4 games behind the L.A. Clippers, 3.5 games in back of Houston and L.A., and 1.5 games behind the Blazers.

Yes, there are five weeks of regular-season basketball left, but a realistic look at the situation leads you to one conclusion: The Warriors are going to open with either the Houston Rockets or L.A. Clippers. Question is: Which team does Golden State prefer?

That’s a tough one.

On the surface, it would seem like the Warriors would want the Rockets, a less established, less experienced team than Los Angeles. But it’s a tough call, and there’s plenty to consider.

Why the Rockets:

 

Iguodala’s presence: Yes, the Rockets defeated the Warriors two out of three times this season, but Andre Iguodala didn’t play in the losses. He did play in the Warriors’ overtime win against Houston late last month, and had a part in Chandler Parson’s 8-for-23 shooting night.

If you’ve watched the Warriors, you know they’re a better team with Iguodala, who owns the best plus-minus of any NBA player. If need be, the Warriors can use Iguodala to defend James Harden in stretches.

Not scared of Howard: The Warriors feel like they can handle Rockets center Dwight Howard, whether they play big or small. If the Warriors play their traditional lineup, they believe Andrew Bogut is more than capable of matching up with Howard.

 

Bogut didn’t play on Feb. 20, when the Warriors beat the Rockets in overtime. Using some small lineups over the course of the game, the Warriors hurried Howard into a 4-for-13 shooting night.

Why the Clippers:

 

Psychological stalemate: The bottom line is the Warriors don’t view themselves as underdogs against the Clippers. Nor should they. Golden State has beaten the Clippers in five of the past seven games and are 7-4 against them in the past 11. In other words, the Warriors like their chances against the Clippers and would seem to hold a mental edge.

Two key matchups: While Chris Paul and Blake Griffin form a scary twosome, the reality is that the Warriors have matched up well with them over the past couple of seasons. Stephen Curry, who has worked out with Paul in offseasons past, looks more than comfortable going up against him.

Warriors power forward David Lee has also proven troublesome for Griffin. Lee has shown he can get his offensive numbers against Griffin and, perhaps surprisingly, he and Andrew Bogut have gotten under Griffin’s skin at the defensive end.

Favorable pace: The Clippers have been playing at a faster pace than they did a year ago. They’re getting up and down the court to the tune of 98.3 possessions per game (6th in league), compared with 93.6 in 2012-13. While this may make the Clippers’ style more pleasing to the eye, it also plays into the Warriors’ hands.

Why? Because the Warriors are at their best when they’re in transition, spacing the floor and allowing their 3-point shooters terrific looks.

 

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Suns no match for Jazz without Dragic

SALT LAKE CITY — Gordon Hayward had 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists to lead a balanced Utah Jazz offense in a 109-86 win over the slumping Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night.
Richard Jefferson scored 17 points and Diante Garrett had a career-high 15 points as the Jazz had seven players with 10 points or more in Utah’s largest margin of victory this season.
The Jazz shot 57.5 percent from the field, the highest mark of any Phoenix opponent this season.
Gerald Green had 17 points and rookie Archie Goodwin matched his career-best with 16 for the Suns.
Playing their only road game in a nine-game stretch, the Suns have been looking to improve their playoff position. However, with a third straight loss, Phoenix leads Memphis by just one-half game the eighth and final Western Conference berth.
Hayward, mired in a shooting slump (31 percent in his previous 13 games), made plays all over the court in this one.
Some fans chanted to put Hayward back in the game to get his first-ever triple-double. He just smil

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Duke Basketball: How Blue Devils Match Up vs. ACC’s Elite Teams

You can count the number of college basketball teams in the entire country with more talent than Duke on paper with one hand.

The Blue Devils have won 11 of their past 13 games, including a thriller over Syracuse, and are poised to make noise in March with a top-10 ranking. However, they find themselves in third place in the ACC regular-season standings with only two games remaining.

That begs the question, where does Duke stand in the ACC pecking order as we head down the stretch run?

For one, all of that talent will be critical in the one-and-done formats of the conference and NCAA tournaments. With Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Andre Dawkins and Amile Jefferson among others, Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t have to rely on just one player to score.

It makes an off night for a given star at an important time much easier to overcome as a team.

On account of that talent and the overall production of the season, one team we can definitively say Duke is better than is Pittsburgh.

The Panthers were ranked highly at one point, but they have nose dove with three straight losses heading into the contest with Boston College. In fact, the only wins Pittsburgh has in the past seven games both came in overtime against Virginia Tech and Miami.

Pittsburgh has zero marquee wins and is a combined 0-5 against the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.

Speaking of the Cavaliers, no team in the ACC has a better conference record. The upcoming game with Syracuse will likely determine the No. 1 seed in the league’s tournament, and if you ask Notre Dame’s head coach Mike Brey, he would say Virginia is the best team in the conference.

At least that’s what his postgame comments after the Cavaliers beat the Fighting Irish indicated (via Notre Dame’s official athletic website):

That is an example of how fragile a game can be. For thirty minutes, I really liked what we were doing. Virginia is really good, they are really, really good. I think they are the best team in the league and they put it on us twice. Their big guys hurt us tonight. Their two big guys were fabulous. The whole team is so explosive. It is a beautiful facility and a great atmosphere.

Virginia might be the best team right now talent wise. They are very physical. They are really good at guarding you and they dictate the tempo of the game. I think they are a really confident group. Their team knows who they are on both ends of the court.

Despite Virginia’s impressive turnaround from a nonconference schedule that included losses to VCU, Wisconsin, Green Bay and Tennessee by a whopping 35 points, Duke gets the edge here.

For one, the Blue Devils already beat the Cavaliers in their only game. It came down to the final few possessions but only because Coach K’s squad nearly collapsed down the stretch of a contest it absolutely controlled for 35 minutes.

What’s more, the fact that Virginia has only played Duke once, hasn’t played Syracuse yet and doesn’t have to travel to North Carolina this year has played a factor in its impressive league record.

The Blue Devils did have to go to North Carolina and came away with a difficult loss.

Based on the one head-to-head contest, it’s hard to give the advantage to Duke in the rivalry right now unless it beats the Tar Heels in the rematch. The Heels have won nine games in a row heading into the contest with North Carolina State.

Let’s give a tentative edge to North Carolina for the time being. If the talented Blue Devils win the rematch, we can revisit, but the Heels’ physicality and prowess on the boards plays right into one of Duke’s few weaknesses.

That leaves Syracuse.

Jim Boeheim’s tantrum aside, the Orange and Blue Devils have treated college basketball fans to two of the best games of the entire season. It is safe to call the matchup a potentially budding rivalry at this point, and talent-wise there may not be two teams in the ACC more poised to go deep in the NCAA tournament.

However, the Orange have lost two of their past three games, and their last three wins have come by a combined five points against Maryland, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh.

There are two ways to look at the close calls—Syracuse isn’t good enough to create separation against teams it should beat handily, or it will be battle-tested come tournament time. With seemingly every game in the postseason a tight one, the thinking here is that the close game experience will come in handy come March.

Taking the two tightly fought head-to-head contests that went to the home team, Syracuse’s two-game lead over Duke in the loss column and the Orange’s recent struggles all into account, let’s call the Duke versus Syracuse debate a push for now. 

Here’s to hoping we get a decisive rematch in the ACC tournament.

 

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Takeaways from Los Angeles Lakers’ Grudge Match vs. Houston Rockets

The Los Angeles Lakers couldn’t provide their fans with the beatdown of Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets they so desired and ended up getting trounced themselves by a final score of 134-108.

The Lakers’ porous defense was no match for the Rockets, as James Harden, Dwight Howard and company were able to manhandle the Lakers on their home court, proving that this injury-riddled team has completely lost its edge and has very little left to cling to for the remainder of this lost season.

The Lakers crowd expended plenty of effort making sure Howard knew how the City of Angles felt about him, but the on-court product lacked any of the venom and vitriol of a proper grudge match.

This is mostly due to the fact that the players who could provide the true adversarial edge this night required, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, were in street clothes.

The Howard storyline was edged to the margins somewhat before the game as news broke that the Lakers had traded Steve Blake to the Golden State Warriors for Kent Bazemore and MarShon Brooks, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. 

The Lakers played like they expected nothing but bad news all night long. 

Harden finished with 29 points and was the obvious star of the show, but explaining his continued assault on the league’s perimeter defenses can be a bit redundant after a while.

He makes the spectacular routine, and there were plenty of other notable takeaways from this grudge match that ended up decidedly one-sided.

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Johnson, Nets match season high with 3rd straight (Yahoo Sports)

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 06: Joe Johnson #7 of the Brooklyn Nets shoots against Elton Brand #42 of the Atlanta Hawks during a game at the Barclays Center on January 6, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

If only the Brooklyn Nets could get a mulligan on that 2013 part of the 2013-14 season. ”We’re undefeated this year,” swingman Alan Anderson said. ”So as long as we just keep that rolling, man, we know we’ve got a couple of tough games ahead of us, but like I said, take it one game at a time, one practice at a time, and keep building.” Joe Johnson snapped out of a slump with 23 points against his former team, and the Nets matched a season high with their third straight victory by beating the Atlanta Hawks 91-86 on Monday night. Mirza Teletovic scored 16 points and Anderson added 14 starting in place of the injured Deron Williams as the Nets moved to 2-0 on four-game homestand that finishes with visits from Golden State on Wednesday and Miami on Friday.


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Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks Are an Ideal Match for a Carmelo Anthony Trade

There has been some chatter recently that the New York Knicks have discussed dealing Carmelo Anthony, specifically in a trade for Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers, per Chris Broussard of ESPN The Magazine.

A deal like this seems unlikely, as the 24-year-old Blake Griffin is much younger and has been an integral part of the Clippers’ success this season. He has filled many of the holes in his game, shooting much better from the outside and improving his free-throw percentage to over 70 percent (he is a career 62.4 percent shooter from the line).

Also, while Chris Paul is the team’s best player, Griffin has been the face of the Clippers since he was drafted first overall in 2009, making him less likely to be dealt.

Even further quelling the Griffin rumors was Clippers coach Doc Rivers reaction to them, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:

Although Griffin is a less realistic target, the fact that the Knicks discussed dealing their star is still big news.

Signing Carmelo to an extension at the end of the season could be a big mistake, as he would likely decline with age and the new contract would hinder the Knicks’ efforts at adding other pieces to their roster. The Knicks would be wise to try to get some value for their star in the trade market rather than letting him walk via free agency.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons proposed that the Phoenix Suns were an ideal destination for Carmelo Anthony in a trade:

While the Suns have assets that would appeal to the Knicks, Phoenix probably wouldn’t pull the trigger on a deal with the Knicks, as Anthony likely wouldn’t re-sign with the Suns. If Carmelo wanted out of Denver, a relatively stable situation at the time, he would likely leave Phoenix for a bigger market as well.

The Knicks have tough decisions to make as they approach the trade deadline this season. Re-signing Carmelo could harm the team’s long-term aspirations, but so would letting him walk in free agency or dealing him for minimal pieces.

There is one team out there in which a deal including Carmelo Anthony would make sense for both teams: the Chicago Bulls.

The trade would be constructed like this (or something similar, with interchangeable pieces):

The Knicks send Carmelo Anthony and Beno Udrih to Chicago, while the Bulls send Carlos Boozer, Marquis Teague, Tony Snell, the rights to Nikola Mirotic and the Charlotte Bobcats’ top-10 protected 2014 first-round pick to New York.

According to ESPN’s trade machine, the trade works financially. It also would benefit both teams tremendously.

 

Why the trade makes sense for Chicago

The Bulls are currently sitting at 14-18 and would have the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference if the season ended today. They have lost their star, Derrick Rose, for the season just as they did last season.

Despite Rose being hurt last year, the Bulls still went to battle with the champion Miami Heat in the playoffs. Adding a star scorer like Carmelo Anthony to their already-vaunted defense would be an exciting combination and could cause problems for teams in the playoffs.

In this constructed deal, the Bulls would also keep their defensive core in tact. Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah would complement Anthony superbly in their frontcourt, and Luol Deng would still be there as a defensive stopper against the opposing team’s swingmen.

Beno Udrih is far from an elite player, but he would still provide the Bulls with point guard depth in Derrick Rose’s absence.

The Bulls are also a big-market team, making it more likely than other destinations that Anthony would re-sign with Chicago. With Rose coming back healthy next season, a combination of Rose and Anthony, along with the defensive role players Chicago already has, would make the Bulls a championship contender.

 

Why the trade makes sense for New York

From the Knicks standpoint, the proposed deal also makes a lot of sense. The trade would benefit the long-term aspirations of the club, but wouldn’t set the franchise back too far, as competing in the 2015-16 season would be realistic.

Carlos Boozer has two years remaining on his contract, just as Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani’s contracts do. The 2015 free-agent class could include players like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge, and with their cap room and New York appeal, the Knicks could potentially rebuild quickly through free agency.

Neither Marquis Teague nor Tony Snell is an elite prospect, but both are young and have upside. They would be nice additions to the Knicks roster as potential long-term pieces that could eventually be important rotation players when the Knicks are good again.

Adding Charlotte’s 2014 first-round pick (likely to end up in the 11-17 range), the Knicks would sport a young roster that could be enticing to members of the 2015 free-agent class.

The key piece to the trade for the Knicks would be the rights to Nikola Mirotic. While he likely will never be the superstar that Carmelo Anthony is, Mirotic has All-Star potential and should be a good NBA player from the moment he chooses to leave Europe.

Mirotic is a star in the making. He plays for Real Madrid and could be the best player in all of Europe despite being just 22 years old. He won the ACB MVP last season, and according to Sean Deveney of Sporting News, a scout claimed Mirotic was “the best player who is not in the NBA right now,” which includes star draft prospects Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle.

Mirotic is an incredibly efficient scorer who would help the Knicks as soon as he arrived. Via In-The-Game, so far this season, Mirotic is averaging 16.8 points per game while shooting 72.7 percent at the rim and 59.4 percent from three. Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta described Mirotic’s jumper as “wetter than the ocean between the U.S. and Spain.” 

With a potential star in Mirotic as the center of the package, along with the cap space that would still be available during the 2015 offseason, this is a deal that would benefit the Knicks tremendously. Chicago would get a star to replace Rose this season who would also complement Rose perfectly once he returns from injury.

This proposed trade is pure speculation at this point, but as the season wears on, hopefully both organizations realize that a trade within these parameters makes sense for both sides.

 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.

You can follow Sean on twitter at @S_CunninghamBR.

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