Morning Shootaround — Aug. 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Fear factor vanishing for Olympic team? | Group B gets crazy in Rio | Lebron’s new deal about more than money | Thomas convinced rest of the league knows Celtics are on the rise

No. 1: Fear factor vanishing for Olympic team? — All it takes is a couple of close calls in Olympic competition for the legion of doubters to appear for Team USA in Rio. That aura of invincibility vanishes with each and every tight game survived by this current group of All-Stars led by superstars Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving. Michael Lee of The Vertical shines a light on the turning tide in Rio as Mike Krzyzewski and his coaching staff continue to search for an identity for this particular group (perhaps in time for today’s game against France, 1:15 p.m. ET):

The hilarious Snapchat prank sessions, Facebook sing-alongs and Instagram video shenanigans were much more entertaining than the actual games for the United States men’s Olympic basketball team through a barnstorming exhibition tour and two effortless but sloppy beat-downs to start these games in Brazil. But just as this group was headed toward earning the playful title of the Meme Team, the Americans have encountered some genuine adversity in their past two games that – if mistakes aren’t corrected or adjustments not made – could find them on the wrong side of the joke.

Team USA might survive these Olympics unscathed. Ten All-Stars, including a former MVP, might prove to be all that the Americans need to escape the Rio games with gold medals around their necks. Getting shoved around by Australia and gasping for air until Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic’s potential tying 3-pointer drew iron, however, should give anyone pause that “the real world” – as coach Mike Krzyzewski has dubbed his team’s current predicament against superior opponents – is theirs to dominate. The Americans won’t be beatable until they actually lose, but the veil of invincibility has been exposed in too-close-for-comfort wins against Australia and Serbia.

“They are just players,” said Serbian center Nikola Jokic, the promising Denver Nugget who bludgeoned the U.S. for a game-high 25 points in a 94-91 loss. “If you think about who they are, you are not going to be good at this. Maybe Australia showed us they can get beat. They can get beat.”

Even without LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden or Chris Paul, the talent on Team USA is overwhelming in comparison to the other teams in this tournament. The performances have been extremely underwhelming, though, exposing the vulnerabilities and deficiencies without those aforementioned stars.

The off-court camaraderie that this group has developed appears authentic, as players have repeatedly discussed the bonds that have been formed in less than a month. But they are still learning to play with each other. Before confronting a fearless group from Australia, Team USA’s games were played at All-Star Game-level intensity and provided little in the form of preparation for what would be in store against legitimate competition outside the United States. The ease with which won made it easy to overlook that the team has 10 players making their Olympic debuts, including six who have never played any international competitions.

The Americans have all been asked to assume roles that are different than the ones they play on their NBA teams and the adjustment has been far from seamless. On the previous two Olympic gold medal-winning teams, Paul or James controlled the floor, Kobe Bryant embraced the role as defensive stopper, Dwyane Wade and later Westbrook came off the bench as cold-blooded assassins and Chris Bosh and later Tyson Chandler served as the defensive anchor protecting the rim and covering mistakes.

Through four games, this team is still waiting for those positions to be filled. Wins over Australia and Serbia were claimed in disjointed, grinding fashion. 

Team USA hasn’t looked sharp. Winning the past two games by a combined 13 points makes it obvious that something is amiss, but before trouncing Venezuela by 43, the Americans were tied with one of the worst teams in Group A after the first period.

“We got to expect this,” said DeMarcus Cousins. “Every time we step on the floor, guys are going to give us their best effort, everybody wants to beat Team USA. We know that coming in, but at the same time, we can’t crumble the way we’ve done the past two games. Right now, we’re hurting ourselves. Not taking away credit of how Serbia played, because they played amazing tonight. But we’ve got to be a lot stronger mentally.”

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No. 2: Group B gets crazy in Rio — For all of the attention being paid to the U.S. Team as they continue their trek through the competition in Group A in the Rio Olympics, it’s Group B where things have gone haywire. As our man on the scene, John Schuhmann, points out, the uncertainty of it all is intriguing as group play wraps up for several teams many thought were near locks to move to the quarterfinal round:

Through four days of action, every team in Group B has at least one win and one loss.

And on a day where Spain may have righted its ship and two rivals produced an instant classic, Nigeria threw another wrinkle in the standings with an upset of Croatia. And with one more day to go, every team is still alive.

Andres Nocioni is 36 years old and hasn’t played in the NBA in four years. But put “El Chapu” in an Argentina uniform for the final time (we think), and he can do special things.

On Saturday afternoon, Nocioni played more than 47 minutes and scored 37 points (the high for the Olympics thus far) in Argentina’s 111-107, double-overtime victory over Brazil. The atmosphere, with the two South American rivals facing off in Brazil’s gym, was incredible. The stakes were high and the game delivered the goods.

“No matter what sport or whatever’s going on, if it’s Brazil against Argentina, it’s going to be a battle,” incoming Spurs rookie Patricio Garino (who had several key steals) said afterward. “The atmosphere was unbelievable. Playing in this kind of setting is going to be memories for life.”

Facundu Campazzo added 33 points and 11 assists for Argentina, but the biggest play of the game was an offensive rebound from the 5-11 point guard off a Manu Ginobili miss in the final seconds of regulation. With Argentina down three, Campazzo found Nocioni, whose step-back three tied the game with 3.9 seconds left.

Brazil couldn’t get a good shot off at the end of regulation, and Ginobili’s runner to win was off the mark at the end of the first overtime. Campazzo started the second OT off with two threes and Argentina withstood a big flurry from Leandro Barbosa to pull out the win, with Ginobili securing the game with another critical offensive rebound in the final seconds.

“What we did today was big, everybody, because we fight, we play hard, and we try to compete,” Nocioni said. “We lost control of the game sometimes, but always, we try to keep going, keep going.”

Nene (24 points, 11 rebounds) had a big game for Brazil, but the hosts are facing a disappointing scenario if they don’t qualify for the quarterfinals. They looked to be in good shape after beating Spain in their second game, but have come up just short in each of their other three, having lost them by a total of just 14 points.

Twelve years after they won it all in Athens, Argentina’s golden generation (with some help from a 25-year-old point guard) is still alive and will be in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. No matter what happens from now on, it’s already been a fun last ride … if it has indeed the last ride.

“It was the last ride four years ago,” Nocioni said with a laugh. “Maybe, you never know, maybe we’re coming back in Tokyo.”

After losing to Croatia and Brazil and struggling to pull away against Nigeria, Spain (2-2) played its best game on Saturday night, thumping previously unbeaten Lithuania 109-59. Because they don’t have the tiebreaker vs. Brazil, Spain’s elimination games began Saturday. And they got the first one they needed to stay alive.

“We had two finals,” Ricky Rubio said afterward. “Today we came to play, and Monday, it’s another final.”

Pau Gasol (23 points, five rebounds, five assists, two blocks, 5-for-5 from 3-point range) dominated his matchup with Jonas Valanciunas (0-for-6). Rubio (3-for-4 from 3-point range) finally hit a few jumpers and kept Lithuania on its heels defensively. And Nikola Mirotic (17 points, 8-for-11 shooting) was strong inside and out.

Spain is missing Marc Gasol, but still could be the second best team in the tournament when it’s all said and done. Of course, it could also be going home early if it doesn’t beat Argentina on Monday.

“We were trying to find our DNA out there [in the first two games], and I think we found it [Saturday],” Rubio said. “We haven’t done anything special yet, but I think we’re on the right track.”

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No. 3: LeBron’s new deal about more than money — In a time and space (and city) where his every move is being scrutinized a million times over, it’s no surprise that LeBron James has inspired even more conversation after signing his three-year deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto theorizes that the new deal was about more than just a ton ($100 million to be exact) of money for the northeast Ohio’s favorite son:

Most of us in the media assumed James would sign another 1-and-1 deal for a maximum salary.

LeBron’s agents — Rich Paul and contract negotiator Mark Termini — pioneered the 1-and-1 deal first signed by James in the summer of 2014. Those deals allowed him to become a free agent after every season.

More about that later.

But here’s one of the big points being missed by many in the media.

The contract is about money, but also confidence in the Cavs. James never talked about this when he signed those 1-and-1 deals with the Cavs.

But think about the Cavs in the summer of 2014.

1. In the four years he was gone, the team had the worst record in the NBA.

2. They had just signed David Blatt to be the coach. He was a virtual unknown to James and the NBA. Blatt’s entire career was spent coaching in Europe.

3. David Griffin was a rookie general manager, having been on the job for only five months.

4. The pressure was on him to win a title for his hometown franchise. The Cavs had signed Kyrie Irving to an extension. They had salary cap room and draft choices to trade for players such as Kevin Love. But would that be enough to win a title?

5. In July of 2014, there was no way to know the Cavs would win a title two years later. Could Blatt coach? Could Griffin make good trades? Could Irving mature into a star or be upset by all the attention given to James?

It’s two years later. The Cavs have won a title. James has confidence in new head coach Tyronn Lue. He has seen Griffin make some very smart trades. Owner Dan Gilbert will spend about $54 million in the luxury tax.

He feels much better about the situation. The Cavs have key players Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and Irving under long-term deals. They probably will eventually reach a deal with J.R. Smith, just as the Cavs signed Thompson a year ago.

Thompson, Smith and James are all represented by Klutch Sports agency.

If you check out the video posted by LeBron, you can sense his excitement about the upcoming season. He knows the Cavs are in excellent position to win the Eastern Conference. Golden State adding Kevin Durant and all the hype around the Warriors is fuel for LeBron to knock them off again.

From a basketball situation, this is an excellent spot for James.

It’s also home, a very important part of the story to him.

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No. 4: Thomas convinced the rest of the league knows the Celtics are on the rise — Seeing is believing this summer in Boston. And after his first glimpse of the 2016-17 NBA schedule, Celtics All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas is convinced the rest of the league sees what he sees in his team. The Celtics, a playoff team in each of the past two seasons, are poised for much more with the addition of All-Star big man Al Horford and the continued growth and development of the returning core. Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com explains why a spike in national television exposure has Thomas licking his chops for the start of the season:

Boston Celtics All-Star point guard Isaiah Thomas says he thinks the schedule makers got it right by scheduling Boston for 22 national-television appearances during the 2016-17 season.

“The NBA knows we’re going to be pretty good,” Thomas told reporters Saturday morning at his youth basketball camp in Reading, Massachusetts. “Teams know. Everywhere I go, everybody’s excited about the Boston Celtics and we’re just going to try to take steps forward and continue to work. And I know Brad [Stevens] and the coaching staff are doing everything they can to put us in position to be successful. So we’ve got to bring it come October.”

Added Thomas: “The NBA’s excited. Boston’s almost back. We go to 22 national TV games (after playing seven last season). That means something. That says a lot, especially when you’re on national TV and the NBA puts you on there. We’re excited about it. I’m excited about the opportunity to put a smile on more people’s faces around the world.”

Thomas said he “always dreamed of a game on Christmas” and is particularly amped about Boston’s holiday matinee with the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He’s more excited about the overall potential of this year’s team.

“We got a big addition in Al Horford. Got my guy Gerald Green coming back to Boston,” Thomas said. “I’m excited. I think we’ve got the right pieces to go forward. Danny Ainge and those [front office] guys, they might have a little bit more work to do but, at the same time, the group that we have, I’m excited about the opportunity to get together and get things going. I’m anxious to get a new season going because it should be a lot of excitement around here in Boston.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Even with all of their recent struggles (mentioned prominently above), Team USA remains the odds on favorite for gold at the Rio Olympics … Kevin Durant inspired an Australian swimmer to gold and a little more … Somehow, in this summer of wild free agency, a dentist — yes, a dentist — brought Phil Jackson and Joakim Noah together in New York …

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