Suddenly Steady USA Poised for Gold Medal Game with Serbia

What a difference the threat of elimination makes. Team USA put together its second straight solid defensive effort, moving to 7-0 in the Rio Olympics and rolling to the Gold Medal game with an 82-76 win over Spain.

The United States led the whole way, thanks in large part to DeAndre Jordan imposing his will down low on the under matched Spanish bigs while Klay Thompson sniped from the outside. It was a rematch of the last two Gold Medal games, albeit with both sides a bit watered down. Without Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, Spain had no answers for Jordan down low. Meanwhile, much of the last USA team to beat Spain stayed home this year.

But, alas, it was a similarly tough-fought and close match to the previous two Olympic meetings between the two countries. This one had a decidedly more defensive slant. Each time it looked like the US might blow the doors off, Spain had an answer to keep it close or fouls brought the game to a halt. There were technical fouls galore and plenty of the common kind as well, noticeably hampering the flow of the game. Though Team USA jumped out to a 72-57 lead early in the fourth quarter, Spain would close the game on a 19-10 run to pull within single digits at the final buzzer.

I talked about Spain’s dilemma in the low post in my lead-up to the game yesterday, though I posited that it would be DeMarcus Cousins that exploited it. Cousins played OK, though fouls again limited him. The refs are in Boogie’s head, if you can go out on a limb and believe that. Jordan, meanwhile, posted nine points (many on alley-oop dunks), 16 rebounds and four blocks. He was an absolute beast.

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Credit: Getty Images

Thompson paced Team USA with 22 points (17 in the nip and tuck first half), including several clutch corner threes that halted Spanish runs. There’ nothing quite like a cold-blooded three from Klay to kill momentum. Ask the Thunder.

On Spain’s side, the old reliable Pau Gasol had 23 points and eight rebounds in another valiant effort to dethrone Team USA. As crafty and efficient as Pau is on the offensive end, he’s never been a true defensive stopper. Now at age 36, there was no chance he’d keep Jordan off the boards or from rolling to the hoop.

Team USA moves on to the Gold Medal game tomorrow against Serbia, who surprised most when they pummeled Australia 87-61 in the other semifinal. I’m a huge fan of Serbia’s squad and will have more thoughts on that matchup prior to tip off. Congrats to Serbia,    making it to the Gold Medal game in just their 10th year as an independent country.

Notes: 

  • The win over Spain was Team USA’s 75th straight victory.
  • Harrison Barnes and DeMar DeRozan picked up DNP’s, while Draymond Green played just under two minutes. The unofficial dick-pic suspension continues.
  • Jimmy Butler was held scoreless while Paul George managed just six points. I mentioned yesterday the big opportunity for one or more of the top three USA wings to go off. Only Klay did.
  • Kyrie Irving (+7) had the second-highest plus/minus behind Jordan (+11), scoring 13 points with two assists.
  • Carmelo Anthony has never been known for his defense. But his vicious block on Ricky Rubio’s layup attempt in the second half was a thing to behold. Olympic Melo remains the best Melo.

A Golden Nosedive (aka Thunder in 5)

The collapse of the 73-win, record-breaking Warriors was swift, and total. The setting was an Oklahoma house of horrors, where the defending champs laid down (Harrison Barnes, literally) in a way that seemed unthinkable just a month ago. In two straight high stakes games the MVP and his merry band of ballers were embarrassed, flabbergasted, annihilated.

There’s no question at this point that the Thunder are the better team. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams have been the best four players on the court in three of the four games. The series goes back to Oakland at 3-1, but the next time OKC sees its home building will be in the NBA Finals. We’ve seen this movie before. Just two years ago, a much-ballyhooed superteam in Miami, led by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, were flattened by a Spurs team composing its basketball masterpiece. We are witnessing the Thunder’s “5th Symphony.”

Improbably, the record-breaking Warriors, who up until last night hadn’t lost two games in a row all season, go home with their tails between their legs facing almost certain elimination. How did it go so wrong? Let me count the ways:

  • Draymond Green completely disappeared. After the “kick to the balls heard ’round the world” Green weirdly self-destructed.  The one-time triple-double machine has failed to notched one in his last two games combined (12 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists). He’s also a -73 in those disastrous two games. Maybe a suspension would’ve helped?
  • Steph Curry reverted to his pre-MVP careless self as he lost his patented quickness due to a knee injury. OKC has done a phenomenal job bodying him up, as the refs are letting plenty of contact go. Westbrook is staying glued to him in 1-on-1 situations and it’s obvious Curry has lost a step since the MCL injury. He can’t create separation like he’s used to, and has become a turnover machine at the worst possible time (six in Game). He also can’t make a layup for some reason.
  • They were murdered on the glass, to the tune of 56-40  (16 of them offensive rebounds) in Game 4. That followed a 52-38 beat down in Game 3. Too many times the Dubs were one-and-done while the Thunder got multiple cracks at a key bucket.
  • They resorted to non-stop fouling. It seemed every time I looked up Durant, Westbrook or Adams was on the free throw line in Games 3 and 4. The Thunder shot 77 free throws in the last two games.
  • Defensively they fell apart. This may be the ultimate explanation of their demise. In the regular season, Golden State ranked fifth in defensive rating. They won the title last year largely because it was so hard to score on them for long stretches. Their positional versatility was the trump card when things got tight late in games. Yet the Thunder have obliterated them in both transition and the half court. Their two superstars are getting 55+ points per game and the role players, a question mark all season, have stepped up big. In Games 3 & 4, the 73-win Golden State Warriors gave up 251 total points. That’s not a misprint.
  • Billy Donovan shocked the world (well, NBA Twitter) by outcoaching Steve Kerr. Donovan abandoned the Enes Kanter/Adams combo that was the Spurs’ kryptonite early on, favoring a smaller, quicker lineup with Ibaka picking up rim-protecting and switching duties. Meanwhile the Coach of the Year Kerr has thrown way too many guys into his rotations. Anderson Varejao, Brandon Rush and Ian Clark should not be seeing non-garbage time minutes in a conference finals. Festus Ezeli couldn’t hit a free throw, yet Kerr kept going to him when it was clear OKC was going to keep putting him on the line. The strategy to turn Andre Roberson into Tony Allen by completely ignoring him defensively backfired when Roberson started hitting threes at will. It just seems like Kerr is getting flustered on the sideline just as much as his team is on the court. Again, unthinkable stuff.

Many of these factors are linked. Teams that are getting manhandled on the boards foul out of frustration. Same goes for a team that’s getting out hustled to every loose ball. The 50/50 balls have been more like 90/10 for the Thunder. Coach Kerr is scrambling for solutions as he sees his team give up flurries of points, leading to uncharacteristic coaching blunders. OKC’s frantic defense, predicated on switching, closing out hard on shooters and denying everything at the rim, has discombobulated the Warriors into forced and unforced turnovers. The trapping on a less than 100 percent Curry leads to erratic passing, leads to fast breaks, leads to crowd explosions.

A staple in this historic two-year run for Golden State has been their sense of calm under pressure, their uncanny knack for getting hot at the right time. Russ, KD and the awesome Oklahoma City crowd have stolen their resolve. Don’t count on them giving it back. Sure, the next game is in Oakland and a Game 7 would be too, if the Earth’s rotation reversed and we somehow got to a Game 7. But there’s simply no coming back from this type of utter embarrassment in two straight conference finals games. The Warriors are beaten just as absolutely as those 2014 Heat were going into Game 5 in San Antonio.

So, Thunder in 5. Imagine the odds you could have gotten on that bet. Almost as juicy as picking a Thunder-Raptors Finals. Sheesh. The NBA universe is inverted. Pull the wool from over your eyes. Time is a flat circle (maybe this has to do with Matthew McConaughey and his damn Lincoln ads).

Prove me wrong Dubs, please. We’ve been looking forward to the Western Conference Finals all season. Congrats to OKC and all, but five games is a colossal rip-off for NBA junkies. What a sad ending to this fairy tale.