Olympic Hoops Quarterfinals Recap

That’s more like it.

After an underwhelming yet still undefeated run through Group play, Team USA finally put it all together in a 105-78 thrashing of Argentina on Wednesday. A resurgent Spain awaits today in what is sure to be a more challenging game for the Americans. Before we get into the semifinals here’s a quick recap of Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

Australia 90, Lithuania 64

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Credit: San Diego Union-Tribune

Summary: The Boomers of Australia continued their eye-opening run in Rio, turning this one into a snoozer early on. Lithuania has to go down as one of the biggest disappointments of this tournament. Historically one of the top men’s Olympics teams and currently ranked No. 3 in the world, Lithuania underwhelmed, starting with star center Jonas Valanciunas, who looked out of sorts all tournament. This day – and perhaps this Olympics – was all about the Aussies. The two-headed point guard monster of Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills combined for 39 points and nine 3-pointers.

NBA Influence: Australia is the only non-USA team in this tournament to boast a starting five of NBA talent. Of course Mills and Delly, plus big men Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes, and wing Joe Ingles. Former Bull Cameron Bairstow sat this one out with an injury.

The Lithuanians boast just two current NBA players, Valanciunas and Thunder rookie Damontas Sabonis, who received little playing time in Rio.

Spain 92, France 67

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Credit: http://www.mysanantonio.com

Summary: My two initial reactions from this game were, “Uh oh, here comes Spain” and “What an embarrassing exit for France.” Those sentiments have only intensified since Wednesday. The French nearly toppled Team USA in Group play without Tony Parker, then turned around and laid an egg in the knockout round. Point guard Nando De Colo had a breakout tournament but his 13 points on 5-9 shooting wasn’t nearly enough Wednesday. The Spaniards, on the other hand, have been hiding in plain sight. After losing their first two games of the tournament in heartbreaking fashion, the 2nd-ranked team in the world became an afterthought. But Nikola Mirotic has been superb, including 23 points and five 3’s against France, and Pau Gasol is a constant factor. This game was over by halftime, setting up the dream matchup of Spain-USA in the semis. It was likely Parker’s final Olympic, as he passes the torch to De Colo and Thomas Huertel.

NBA Influence: Both teams are chock full of NBA players. Spain features Gasol (Spurs), Mirotic (Bulls), Ricky Rubio (Timberwolves), Willy Hernangomez (Knicks), Jose Calderon (Lakers), Alex Abrines (Thunder), Sergio Rodriguez (76ers), former Blazer Victor Claver, former Blazer and Nugget Rudy Fernandez and former Grizzly Juan Carlos Navarro.

France has even bigger NBA names, making their collapse quite a head scratcher. Center Rudy Gobert (Jazz) is a rising NBA star. Nicolas Batum is a cornerstone for Charlotte who played miserably in Rio, including a scoreless 18 minutes against Spain. Boris Diaw (Jazz) and Parker (Spurs) are NBA champions and Joffrey Lauvergne is a bit player for Denver.

USA 105, Argentina 78

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Credit: Yahoo!

Summary: It seems the United States finally figured out a semblance of a rotation. Their defense was porous in the Group stage, due to piss-poor effort and lineups heavy on minus defenders. Coach K realized he can’t have Carmelo Anthony, Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins on the floor together for extended minutes. Opposing offenses feasted on those three. Instead, guys like Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and Paul George provide versatility and two-way play that wins international games. Oh yeah, Kevin Durant is pretty good too. KD poured in 27 points on 13 shots against Argentina, while George had 17 and Butler made multiple plays on defense. Something tells me Cousins and DeAndre Jordan will be crucial against Spain sans Marc Gasol. Pau can’t defend those two in the post.

It was Manu Ginobili’s final game for Argentina and he got a nice send-off from the crowd. After a hot start, Argentina got blown away in the second and third quarters, sealing their fate.

NBA Influence: Team USA is a showcase of a top-3 NBA player (Durant), the 9th-19th best NBA players and Harrison Barnes.

Argentina features Ginobili (Spurs), Luis Scola (Nets), former Bull Andres Nocioni and former NBA journeyman Carlos Delfino.

Serbia 86, Croatia 83

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Credit: Associated Press

Summary: Wednesday’s quarterfinals wrapped with the one close game of the day, between bitter former Yugoslav rivals Serbia and Croatia. This game was thrilling until the final minutes turned into a free throw fest. The history these two share is dark from a geopolitical perspective and sad from a basketball perspective. Yugoslavia was probably the 2nd-best team in the world in the early ’90s, but war tore the Serbs and Croats on the team apart, highlighted most memorably by Serbia’s Vlade Divac ripping a Croatian flag from a fan’s hand and throwing it down on the court. Only recently has Divac dared to venture back into Croatia, as chronicled in the 30 for 30 documentary “Once Brothers.”

Clearly there is no love lost here, as things got chippy in the second half with Croatia’s Dario Saric shoving Serbia’s Nikola Jokic and earning a technical foul. Cooler heads prevailed and the rivals settled things on the court. Bojan Bogdanovic led Croatia with 28 points, capping off a marvelous tournament for the rising Brooklyn Net. Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic had 18, the gargantuan Miroslav Raduljica and Jokic each had 12 and guard Stefan Markovic contributed 12 points and solid defense. Serbia is a well-coached team with loads of talent that should give Australia all it can handle in the semis.

NBA Influence: For Serbia: Jokic (Nuggets), Bogdanovic (rights owned by Suns). For Croatia: Saric (76ers), Bogdanovic (Nets), Mario Hezonja (Magic).

A quick primer on USA-Spain coming shortly.

 

NBA Graveyard 2016: A Jazz Funeral (For Now)

It’s April and the season is over for 14 NBA teams. We have one last team to examine – the Utah Jazz, who were eliminated on the final day of the regular season. For a breakdown of the other 13 teams click on the “NBA Graveyard 2016” section.

The Utah Jazz, man, somehow, managed to die at the impotent hands of the 2016 Rockets and 2016 Kobe Bryant

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Postmortem: The Jazz were straight-up abused this year. Many jokes have been made about their role as the Washington Generals in Kobe’s 60-point explosion in the final day of the regular season. But the Jazz – who found out just before the Kobe game that they were eliminated from the playoffs – were victims of oppositional brilliance all season. In NBA Countdown’s video of the top 10 plays of the 2015-16 regular season, four of those plays came at the expense of the Jazz. In a 30-team league what are the odds that 40 percent of the best plays (admittedly subjective, but still) of a season would occur against one team?

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2015 Media Day Winners & Losers

As a Chicago Bears fan, the NBA season can’t start soon enough. As a Chicago Bulls fan, can’t someone unplug Derrick Rose’s microphone? More on that later.

Media Day marks the start of NBA training camps, and showcases the Association in all its quirky glory. You know the NBA is back when Twitter videos pop up of a star player wearing a fannypack while lip-synching and dancing to Montell Jordan.

After reading up on each team’s version of the Media Day circus, here are my winners and losers – although much like Media Day itself, this is mostly good-natured fun. Except for D-Rose (Dammit).

Media Day Winners

D-Wade – You have to applaud Wade for how he’s crafted his brilliant career. He won a title with Shaq early in his career, convinced LeBron and Chris Bosh to come play with him and won two more titles, and now he’s again a cornerstone of an impressive roster. Most importantly his balky knees haven’t affected his dance moves. This is just a phenomenal performance.

Body Image – A common theme, much mocked by the basketball internet, is the recurring training camp storyline of who’s dropped weight, added 15 pounds of muscle or gotten swole in the offseason. This year’s Media Day did not disappoint. NBA Media Day quote sheets can resemble an issue of Cosmopolitan with all the LBs shed and miracle diet plans. This year’s winners? Kyle Lowry, who struggled with injuries down the stretch and is no longer a spring chicken, is now looking “svelte” and jokes were made about the impostor wearing Kyle Lowry’s jersey at Media Day. Jared Sullinger also shed some much-needed poundage, while Rudy Gobert added muscle to help him bang down low. Danilo Gallinari is looking trim after Eurobasket. Let’s move on.

Phoenix Suns – Everyone was curious how Markieff Morris would comport himself after throwing a fit when the Suns traded his brother, and demanded a trade himself. Surprisingly, he said he is putting it all behind him and looking forward to playing with his Suns teammates. This is big for Phoenix, who need Kieff’s skills and not his poor attitude in a year when they can compete for a playoff spot. Glad to see he’s on board, and it makes sense. I mean, he can still see Marcus at Thanksgiving, right?

Houston Promise – Ty Lawson has spent the summer getting his personal life sorted out, and is sounding like the change of scenery is doing him some good. He’s poised to help the Rockets compete for a title and will take pressure off of James Harden, keeping the MVP candidate more fresh for a deep playoff run.

“This is like the turning point,” Lawson said at Monday’s Media Day activities in Toyota Center. “What type of career you gonna have, Ty? Are you gonna win championships or are you just be like one of the mediocre players?

“A point guard’s career is always judged on if you win or not. You can have the most points, the most stats, whatever. But if you don’t win a championship as a point guard, then you’re not really one of the best point guards out there. So this is my chance to really prove something, prove my career if I win a championship here.”

Alcohol is a powerful foe; I join Houston fans in rooting for Ty to defeat it.

Amateur Comedy – Media Day allows players and coaches to goof off and test their standup comedy skills in front of a willing media. There’s no pressure yet and everyone’s in a good mood (and getting softball questions). Some highlights include:

  • Danny Ainge responding to questions on Jared Sullinger’s weight loss, joked that he didn’t have a portable scale to weigh him.
  • Brad Stevens when asked where the Celtics are as a team: “Somewhere in the Top 30”.
  • The newly-svelte Lowry complained that none of his pants fit anymore.
  • In response to the DeAndre Jordan situation, Rick Carlisle said: “If cows were kittens, there’d be a milk shortage.” I think that’s a joke, not really sure what it is. An aphorism? Anyway, I laughed.
  • Portland GM Neil Olshey said it was “too much effort to fly to Dallas” when asked why he didn’t resign LaMarcus Aldridge.
  • Number 1 overall pick Karl Anthony Towns started off Minnesota’s media day by announcing his retirement. That’s actually a pretty good one.

Mike Malone – The new Nuggets coach sounds like he’s making an instant impact on the team, who figure to be a bottom-feeder this season. He preaches an up-tempo style, which suits the high-altitude Nuggets, and is quickly building a team identity. He doesn’t want a lot of fouls screwing up his team’s pace, stressing quick defense to offense transition. I love this Malone quote from yesterday: “Fouling negates hustle.” What a gem.

Optimism – Ghandi would be proud. Optimism reigned supreme at Media Days, as it does every year. Here are some things to be happy about going into the season, NBA fans: Joakim Noah is healthy and ready to play like his old self…Fred Hoiberg loves the Bulls’ roster flexibility…Kevin Durant and new coach Billy Donovan have hit it off, are excited to work together…rookie Stanley Johnson has the Pistons glowing…star shooting guards Bradley Beal and DeMar DeRozan aren’t worried about their contracts and are just focused on winning…even George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins are (supposedly) getting along.

Media Day Losers

D-Rose – I’m not going to drop a hot take here, but I’ll just say that as a longtime, staunch Rose supporter it’s getting harder and harder to defend him when he says dumb things to the media. I don’t think his talk about free agency is a huge deal but it’s definitely not a good look at this point in his career and as a leader of a team trying to fundamentally change under a new coach.

This Pop Interviewer – Man this video makes you cringe. The best part is even after Pop has made it plain that he’s messing around, the interviewer looks like he’s in a Southwest Airlines “Wanna Get Away” commercial. Brutal.

Brooklyn Nets – Hey Deron Williams, your former teammate Joe Johnson is confused why you wanted to leave the Nets so bad? “It’s not that bad here,” Johnson said. That should be plastered onto the outside of the Barclays Center.

New Orleans Pelicans – Things on the whole are looking up with a young beast in Anthony Davis and new coach Alvin Gentry. However, Gentry said at Media Day that Tyreke Evans is their undisputed point guard. On its face, I question this strategy. Less Evans dribbling, not more, would be my prescription for the Pelicans. The more foreboding news reading between the lines here is that Jrue Holiday must not be ready to come back and be a reliable contributor, let alone the main point guard.

Jeremy Lamb – In his first season as a Hornet, Lamb is setting himself up to learn some harsh realities. Here’s what he said at Media Day: “I like to shoot the ball but I also like to make plays for my teammates. I think it’ll open up things for Big Al but also he can kick out if they double team him…[I] like to help people play to their strengths.” Obviously Lamb, only 23, is still learning the League. Double team or not, Al Jefferson doesn’t kick it out, young’n.

George Hill – Apparently he plans on sporting this bleach blonde dye job during the season. This is not the way to build upon your best season as a pro.

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Cancer – It was awesome to see Craig Sager, who has been fighting Leukemia for the last year and is receiving treatment in Houston, make it out to Rockets Media Day. NBA broadcasts aren’t the same without Sager and his colorful suits, and Down on the Block would like to wish him a speedy recovery. There was a great moment yesterday when James Harden sought Sager out in a crowded media room and gave him a hug. Here’s hoping there are some good vibes in that Beard…

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NBA Risers – Utah Jazz

This exercise will look at the young, building and very entertaining NBA teams that are looking to gain contender status. Some of these teams appear to be on the fast track while others are grasping to build around a cornerstone player. We’ll look at the savvy and the haphazard, while enjoying an optimist’s view into the looking glass. It’s summer, real NBA games won’t start for another 4 months and so what better time to paint a rosy picture of what could be for the NBA’s mid-tier teams? Today’s team – the Utah Jazz.

Who are they? A somewhat anonymous defensive-minded group, but that’s about to change. The Jazz led the league last year in opponent’s points per game (94.9), which is pretty amazing for a team that missed the playoffs. Of course on the other side of that coin is their lackluster offense, 26th in the league at 95.1. In order to jump into the postseason in the Brutal Westthe offense needs to make drastic strides. The good news is I believe they are poised to do that, with young guards who should improve, forwards making the leap and a certain Frenchman on a path of destruction.

How have they been built? The Jazz have been savvy in the trade market, important for a team based in Salt Lake City – not exactly an NBA destination. Rudy Gobert was acquired in a draft day trade with Denver in 2013, in exchange for an obscure pick and cash. Derrick Favors came over in the Deron Williams trade with New Jersey and the Jazz’s patience in developing him has paid off and will continue to do so. Alec Burks, Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward and Dante Exum were Jazz draft picks, and Trevor Booker is their most noteworthy free agent acquisition (again, not an NBA destination, beautiful country though).

Core group – Rudy Gobert, Alec Burks, Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward. Gobert is a monster. A 7’1” 23 year old that protects the rim, runs the floor, dunks on everyone and has great vision as a passer. I look for him to score more this season, perhaps stepping out his range a bit. His stoicism even after vicious blocks and his fantastic nickname – The Stifle Tower – bodes well for his rising star factor. To compete in the West with the Marc Gasols, Dwight Howards, LaMarcus Aldridges, and others, a guy like Gobert is almost a prerequisite. Combine Gobert with his frontcourt mate Derrick Favors, and the Jazz have two key legs to stand on out West. Favors averaged 16 and 8 last year, his best season, and the arrow continues to point up. He’s becoming one of the top traditional power forwards in the league, providing physicality and an efficient post game. Hayward continues to quietly produce, steadily increasing his PPG each of his NBA seasons and enjoying a bounce back campaign from behind the arc last year. A healthy Burks can be a key cog in an improving offense.

Role guys – Rodney Hood, Trevor Booker, Joe Ingles. Booker provides toughness and can break out on the offensive end occasionally. Hood can score off the bench, much needed in Utah.

Boom or bust potential – Dante Exum, Trey Burke, Trey Lyles, Raul Neto. Utah has the frontcourt problem solved, now to it’s biggest remaining challenge – developing a star point ballhandler. The Jazz need Burke or Exum to be that guy in order to truly make noise in the West. Not only are teams expected to produce points at the PG position these days, but need backcourt defense to be strong to compete with the likes of Steph Curry, Chris Paul, James Harden, even Mike Conley. Exum would seem to be the best bet, given the hype and raw ability. Burke may be destined to be at best a Jamal Crawford/sixth man scorer. Exum has already shown flashes of brilliance on defense, showcasing his length and quickness. His offense was putrid in his rookie season, so all eyes will be on the youngster’s development on that end. He is in my view the most important piece when looking at the Jazz’s 2015-16 prospects.

Optimist view – The Jazz are poised to get back into the West playoffs just two years after completely bottoming out under Tyrone Corbin and a thin roster, which speaks to the success the front office has had in quickly rebuilding. Coach Quin Snyder seems to be the perfect man for the job of developing raw talent and drawing up schemes for that talent to be successful on the court (the Anti-Ty Corbin). With a boost in Exum’s understanding of an NBA offense, the Jazz stand to benefit from more of a scoring punch, with more easy buckets for Hayward, Gobert and Favors. If the Jazz can elevate their points per game closer to 100 while maintaining their stifling defense and a real home court advantage, 50 wins is very attainable. Look for the Jazz to push for the 7th seed and even threaten to jump into the top six with a couple breaks. A truly exciting team that makes the West even more fearsome.