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Gasol leads Spain to bronze

Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic were too much for Australia on Sunday (Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports).

Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic combined for 45 points in the win. (Photo credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports)

RIO DE JANEIRO — At 36 years old and surrounded by NBA talent, Pau Gasol is still El Rey of Spanish basketball.

Gasol led Spain to its third straight Olympic medal, scoring 31 points (making 12 of his 15 shots) and grabbing 11 rebounds in an incredible bronze medal game against Australia.

After an incredible, back-and-fourth second half (in which the teams combined for 99 points), the game went down to the wire and was decided by a tough foul call on Patty Mills that gave Spain’s Sergio Rodriguez two free throws with 5.4 seconds left.

After a timeout, Australia tried to run a hand-off play for Mills, but Ricky Rubio got his hand on the ball, Australia was never able to get a shot off, and Spain escaped with an 89-88 victory.

Another medal for Spain and Gasol, the clear MVP of this tournament (given how many different guys have stepped up for the U.S. in its run to the gold medal game).

“He’s amazing,” Rubio said of Gasol afterward. “There’s no words to describe the way he dominates FIBA basketball. He’s one of the best ever and that’s why he put Spain on the map. Of course, we’ve had great players around him, but he’s the key of this generation.”

“It’s not only about just his game,” Jose Calderon added. “It’s about leadership. It’s about a lot of things. He’s been great for us forever and he’s still got some more years, I think, on him.”

More years for the national team?

“I really don’t know how the process is going to play out,” Gasol said. “I love playing for my national team. That’s pretty obvious. I have a lot of fun. I feel something special when I play for the national team, something unique. I always said that I’d like to do it as long as I can.

“I’m just enjoying the ride and I’m going to continue to work hard to extend it.”

Rough finish for the Boomers

Australia bounced back after an ugly performance in Friday’s semifinal against Serbia, but its finish is still such a huge disappointment for what looked like a clear medal favorite through pool play and the quarterfinals. Australia has now reached the Olympic semifinals on four occasions and finished fourth each time.

“My two worst games of the tournament were the last two games,” said Andrew Bogut, who fouled out with 7:54 to go in the third quarter on Sunday. “That’s going to eat at me for the next couple of days.”

Mirotic banged up

Nikola Mirotic helped Spain get off to a strong start with eight points in the first quarter. He injured his right knee in a collision with Aron Baynes early in the fourth, but returned after a brief stint on the bench and finished with 14 points and seven rebounds.

Afterward, Mirotic said the initial injury scared him “a lot,” saying the collision was “very strong, knees against knees.”

“But it was the last five minutes of the tournament,” he continued. “I didn’t want to miss that opportunity to play. I was hot in that moment too, so I didn’t feel a lot of pain. Right now, I’m feeling hurt. But it’s OK. We won the medal. That’s the most important thing. Hopefully, this is nothing. I need to do some tests now and I expect it’s all good.”

Serbia thumps Australia, sets up another meeting with USA

RIO DE JANEIRO — For the second straight time in a major international tournament, it will be the United States vs. Serbia for the gold medal. And for the second time, Serbia has followed mediocre pool play results with an impressive run in the elimination rounds.

At the 2014 World Cup of Basketball, Serbia went 2-3 in pool play, beating only the two teams – Egypt and Iran – that didn’t advance out of Group A and losing to the other three teams – France, Brazil and Spain – that did. Then it beat Greece (the top seed from Group B), Brazil and France before losing to the U.S. in the final.

In these Olympics, Serbia went 2-3 in pool play, beating only the two teams – Venezuela and China – that didn’t advance out of Group A and losing to the other three teams – Australia, France and USA – that did. And now it has beat Croatia (the top seed from Group B) and Australia to face the U.S., once again, in the final.

On Friday, Serbia never trailed, beating Australia 87-61 in the second semifinal and earning their first Olympic medal in men’s basketball (since the break-up of Yugoslavia). The question now is whether it will be gold or silver.

The U.S. won the ’14 gold medal game by 37 points, but only beat Serbia by three last Friday, allowing Serbia to shoot 52 percent. The U.S. defense has shown improvement since then, but will be tested by Serbia’s passing and the playmaking (and shotmaking) of point guard Milos Teodosic.

“We gave them a pretty good fight,” Serbian big man Miroslav Raduljica said about last week’s meeting, “showed that they’re not unbeatable, and that we can play against them.”

Going to settle for silver?

“No, never,” Raduljica replied. “We are Serbian.”

Teodosic led all scores with 22 points on Friday, shooting 9-for-14 and adding five assists. The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic shot just 2-for-7, but grabbed 11 rebounds.

Friday’s result was a disappointing one for Australia, which looked like the second best team in the tournament. It entered the semis at 5-1, with the tournament’s second best offense and second best defense, having only lost to the U.S. by 10. The Boomers beat Serbia by 15 in their first meeting (though the game was much closer than the final margin would have you believe).

But the Australia offense came up empty on Friday. The Boomers shot a brutal 6-for-29 in the first half, scoring just five points in the first quarter and nine points in the second. They trailed by as many as 31 points midway through the fourth.

Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes combined for just 11 points on 3-for-9 shooting. Matthew Dellavedova, who had 13 assists in Australia’s first game vs. Serbia, registered just two on Friday. And Patty Mills made just one of his nine 3-point attempts.

“This definitely wasn’t what we were expecting,” Dellavedova said. “I really don’t know what happened. They played well and we didn’t.”

Australia still has a chance to earn its first Olympic medal in men’s basketball, but will need to beat Spain in Sunday’s bronze medal game.

Australia is pretty good in routing Lithuania; Valanciunas: ‘I was pretty bad’

RIO DE JANEIRO — Australia (5-1) continued it’s strong run at the Olympics, advancing to the semifinals with a blowout, 90-64 win over Lithuania (3-3). The Boomers have become the clear favorite to reach the gold medal game from the side of the bracket opposite the United States, and need one win in their next two games to earn their first Olympic medal.

“It’s a hard and long road to go,” Patty Mills said afterward. “I can tell you this is one hell of a group that I’m very happy and proud to be a part of.”

Matthew Dellavedova started Wednesday’s game with two 3-pointers and Australia never trailed. It led by nine at the end of the first quarter and by 18 at the half. Mills led all scorers with 24 points, hitting five of his 11 3s. The guards’ aggressiveness opened up things for everybody else and the Aussie offense, which ranked second through pool play, just kept clicking.

“We lead the tournament by far in assist-to-field-goal percentage,” Australia Andrej Lemanis said. “I think that reflects that fact that we play together as a group and we’re all prepared to do what’s in the best interest of the team.”

This is the fourth time that Australia has reached the Olympic semifinals. But on the previous three occasions (1988, 1996 and 2000), it finished fourth. On Friday, it will face the winner of Wednesday night’s quarterfinal game between Croatia and Serbia. It should be the favorite in the semis and certainly has a shot (especially with how poorly the U.S. has been on defense) to win the gold medal.

“We believe,” Andrew Bogut said. “I’ve been on teams where you say all that, but there’s that doubt still there. We believe we can beat teams. We come in with that mind set and a resilient group that plays hard.”

Lithuania’s Olympics started with three straight wins and ended with three straight losses. It hurt itself with 13 first-half turnovers on Wednesday.

“Everything slipped away,” Jonas Valanciunas said afterward. “We didn’t come away with the same energy, same focus. We were not playing basketball. We were just trying to, I don’t know, score, whatever. We were not enjoying basketball.”

Valanciunas was maybe the most disappointing NBA player in the tournament. He averaged just 6.7 points on 39 percent shooting over Lithuania’s six games. He scored just five points on 2-for-5 shooting in the quarterfinal.

“He and [point guard Mantas] Kalnietis were our focuses,” Australia assistant coach Luc Longley said. “We managed to get a lot of pressure on the ball early and a lot of Valanciunas’ looks come off Kalnietis. If he’s not rolling, it’s hard for Valanciunas to get rolling.”

Lithuania’s lack of perimeter shooting (it ranked last in 3-point percentage among teams that advanced to the quarterfinals) gave Valanciunas less space to operate, and he just never got going offensively.

“I was pretty bad,” he admitted. “I got to do something with my head.”

2016 Olympic quarterfinals preview

RIO DE JANEIRO — The 2016 Olympic basketball tournament is wide open. Eight great teams remain and every one of them has a chance at a medal.

The United States is the only undefeated team among them and carries a 50-game winning streak in international tournaments into the quarterfinals. But, it has looked vulnerable over its last three games, allowing Australia, Serbia and France to score more than 110 points per 100 possessions. If it doesn’t get enough offense in any of its next three games, the U.S. can lose.

And every other team can win. The only team in the quarterfinals that doesn’t have a quality win in Rio is Serbia. But Serbia lost to France by one and had a wide-open three to send its game vs. the U.S. to overtime. And, oh yeah, Serbia won silver at the 2014 World Cup, having beat Greece, Brazil and France to get to the final (after, just like this year, picking up no quality wins in pool play).

Here’s a rundown of each of Wednesday’s quarterfinals…

Pace = Possessions per 40 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Stats are from games vs. remaining teams. For full Olympic pace & efficiency stats, go here. (more…)

Morning shootaround — Aug. 11

NEWS OF THE MORNING

George calls Australian team ‘dirty’ | Australia driven to win medal in Rio | Bonner’s days with Spurs likely done

No. 1: George calls Australian team ‘dirty’ — Team USA had a struggle on its hands yesterday in Rio in the Olympics against fellow 2-0 team Australia. Although the U.S. defeated Australia 98-88 thanks in large part to a monster game from Carmelo Anthony. Fellow Team USA starter Paul George finished with five points in the win and afterward had much to say about the Australians’ style of play, writes Tony Harper of Fox Sports Australia:

Team USA star Paul George said the Boomers lived up to expectation that they’d be a “dirty” opponent when his team ground out a tough win in a brutal battle at the Olympics.

“We knew we were going to get their best,” George said after the heavily-fancied Americans escaped with a 98-88 win.

“It was an adjustment for us. The game kind of got out of hand early with the physical play.

“We knew that coming in – this team has a knack for being a little dirty.”

George said the US team rose to the physical challenge after emerging from halftime.

“I thought the second half we did a good job of just matching them,” he said.

“We were doing the same stuff they were doing and we got hacked for it. We’re fine playing physical, that’s our game in the NBA, but if they going to allow us to play that way they got to play it both ways.”

Boomers legend and now assistant coach Luc Longley fired back in response: “Tell ‘em that’s international basketball.’’

George tangled with Matthew Dellavedova in one of the game’s first confrontations and admitted he had targeted the man known around the US as “dirty Delly”.

“We just had to match their physicality,” said George. “That’s what we had to do. That’s the only way a team is going to get us out of our comfort zone is to muddy the game, doing little stuff to get to us.”

His Delly clash was a way to “let them know it wasn’t going to go the way they thought it was going to go”.

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — Aug. 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Bogut reinvigorated by Olympics run | Bird, Miller talk 3-point prowess | Jackson says Rondo, Butler want him on Bulls

No. 1: Olympics run lifting Bogut’s spirits after rough summer — A hyperextended knee kep Andrew Bogut from being anything more than a spectator for the Golden State Warriors in Games 6 and 7 of The Finals, both of which they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers to in turn lose the series. Then came the offseason for Bogut, who was dealt to the Dallas Mavericks as the Warriors cleared salary cap room to sign former MVP Kevin Durant from the rival Oklahoma City Thunder. Things were looking pretty down for Bogut until he got word he could play in the Olympics, writes Michael Lee of The Vertical:

That nasty collision with J.R. Smith in Game 5 of the NBA Finals set off a unsettling chain of events that put Andrew Bogut on crutches, made him a helpless bystander as LeBron James dunked the greatest season in NBA history into the trash, and sent him packing for his third professional home as a casualty in Kevin Durant’s free-agent decision. Each situation was crushing in itself. Combined, they nearly sent Bogut into a funk this offseason.

“The first couple of weeks, it was rough waters,” Bogut said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

But what kept the 31-year-old Bogut from sulking through his summer were the only encouraging words he heard throughout that whirlwind month: six weeks. Bogut was given that as the earliest estimated timetable for his possible return from bone bruises and a hyperextended knee – which meant that Bogut could be ready just in time for the Rio Olympics if he dedicated himself to an intense rehabilitation program. Far-fetched as it seemed, the chance to represent Australia for possibly one last time in the Olympics was enough incentive, enough of a needed distraction to avoid dwelling on his sorrows.

“Mentally and physically, it was good to have another goal straight away,” Bogut said. “It was a freak play, like most of my injuries. It was frustrating, the way the whole thing played out. It wasn’t great. But it happened. The reason why we’re professional athletes and there’s all these big contracts is because we have to deal with that, we have to suck it up and move on. Move on to the next thing, and that’s the Olympics.”

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has been one of the more vocal detractors of NBA players participating in international competitions but didn’t want to block the pursuit of his latest acquisition. And Bogut waited until last Friday – the day before Australia’s opening win against France – to declare himself fit to compete in these.

“If it wasn’t right, I’d put my hand up and I’m on a flight back home. It was good enough to play,” Bogut said, adding that Cuban “has been great. We have a great relationship via email and via text. The whole thing was, if you feel like you’re 100 percent, and you feel like your knee is a go, we’re going to support you. I couldn’t ask for a better organization to give me that confidence.”

Bogut will have a reunion with two former Warriors teammates (Draymond Green and Klay Thompson), a former Warrior turned current Mavericks teammate (Harrison Barnes) and the man who created the entire awkward situation (Durant) on Wednesday when Australia takes on the United States in an intriguing matchup of undefeated teams in the preliminary round.

“It’ll be all right,” Bogut said. “I’m in Texas, so I’m pretty pumped about it. Harrison is still my teammate, so we’re good. Those guys are guys I’ll always remember and have friendships with. You win a championship with a group of guys, it doesn’t happen very often, and you all remember that.”

After missing the London Olympics with an ankle injury, Bogut endured back spasms during the 2015 regional Olympic qualifier with the understanding that he might never get another chance to compete on the most recognized international stage. Australia has never medaled in the Olympics and has a decent chance after already recording wins against France and Serbia.

“He’s playing great. It’s good to see him out there healthy because he had a tough injury in the Finals. We definitely missed him,” Thompson said. “I knew this was potentially his last Olympics and I knew he didn’t want to miss it for anything and he was going to do everything he could to get back. You don’t want to be sitting at home, sulking on what could’ve been. We all wanted, obviously, to get that second ring, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

A medal won’t erase the disappointment of being absent when an NBA-record 73 wins wound up only being good enough to secure finishing as a championship runner-up. But just being at these games, being back on the floor, has already ensured that his summer wouldn’t be wasted with regret. “I didn’t want it taken away that easily,” Bogut said.

*** (more…)

Morning shootaround — Aug. 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Okafor hoping to re-enter NBA this season | How good can Saric be? | USA ready for stiff challenge in next game

No. 1: Okafor seeks NBA comeback — Just 10 or so years ago, Emeka Okafor was a former Rookie of the Year winner and one of the promising young big men in the NBA. Fast-forward to today and Okafor has been out of the NBA for three seasons and last played in an NBA game on April 12, 2012 as a member of the Washington Wizards. A herniated disc in his back has kept Okafor from playing in a game since that date, but in an interview with ESPN.com’s Jackie MacMullan, Okafor is working toward a return to the league:

Emeka Okafor, the former No. 2 overall pick who has been out of the NBA for three seasons, has decided to attempt a comeback with an eye toward joining a “contending team” in December or January.

Okafor’s agent, Jeff Schwartz, confirmed that Okafor, who last played for the Washington Wizards in 2012-13 before suffering a herniated disc in his neck, is in the gym training and working on his conditioning.

“He’s probably five or six months away,” Schwartz said. “He’s been working hard rehabbing. For some guys that means one thing. To Emeka, who understands his body as well or better than some trainers that have worked with him, it means something else. He’s healthy. He feels great, but he’s a perfectionist, and he wants everything to be right.”

Okafor, who had back surgery in college, struggled with neck pain, and when doctors discovered he had herniated the C4 cervical disc, the injury forced him to step away from the game. In October 2013, Okafor and his expiring $14.5 million contract were dealt to Phoenix in a five-player swap that netted the Wizards center Marcin Gortat. Okafor never played a game for the Suns.

His best years were with the Charlotte Bobcats, the team that drafted him as the second pick after Dwight Howard in the 2004 draft. Okafor averaged 15.1 points, 10.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks as a rookie and posted double-double averages in all five of his seasons in Charlotte.

Retired University of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said he spoke with Okafor last week. According to Calhoun, his former player, who helped UConn win a national championship in 2004 (while leading the nation in blocks), is “really excited about getting back.”

“He’s in great shape,” Calhoun said. “He had offers last season from teams for $6-7 million to play just a portion of the season, but you have to know Emeka. He’s only coming back when he feels the time is right.

“He’s not going to make a decision based on money. He doesn’t need it. This is a kid who graduated with a 3.9 GPA. He wants to play a couple more years then go to business school at Harvard. He’s only going to play for a contending team.”

Warriors general manager Bob Myers, whose club lost big men Andrew BogutFestus Ezeli and Marreese Speights in the purge to make room for free agent Kevin Durant, said he had “a conversation” with Okafor a couple of months ago and will monitor the big man’s progress.

In the meantime, the Warriors have signed veterans David West and Zaza Pachulia to fill the void.

“We have 14 players right now, but you learn every year that someone you didn’t expect to be available becomes an option,” Myers said. “Ideally, you try to have the flexibility to keep a spot open in case that happens.”

The biggest hurdle for Okafor will be to prove to teams he’s both healthy and durable. Aside from his back and neck injuries, Okafor missed a chunk of 2005-06 with an ankle injury and part of 2011-12 with a knee injury.

San Antonio lost center Tim Duncan to retirement after 19 seasons and is likely in the market for big man insurance, but general manager R.C. Buford stopped short of expressing interest in Okafor.

“We always pay attention to whatever is out there,” Buford said. “But Emeka is three years removed from a time when his body was letting him down.

“It’s just hard to get enough information to evaluate a player like that, who won’t be in training camp, who hasn’t had game action for a prolonged period of time.”

Calhoun said the long layoff has not only rejuvenated Okafor physically, but also mentally.

“He misses the game,” Calhoun said. “Hey, he’s 6-10 and was a double-double guy in the NBA. He’s also the greatest guy you can find in the locker room. He’ll have plenty of teams lining up to talk to him.”

***

No. 2:

How will Saric’s game translate to NBA? — In NBA lore, the list of players from Croatia who have had success in the league includes former standout players such as Toni Kukoc, Peja Stojakovic, Dino Radja and Hall of Famer Drazen Petrovic. The Philadelphia 76ers are hoping they have one of the next players in line in that lore in rookie forward Dario Saric. Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe is covering the Olympics and reported on how Saric’s abilities might work in the NBA:

As Pau Gasol reared up to launch the hook shot NBA fans have seen many times, it seemed a cinch he would loft it into the basket and force overtime between Spain and Croatia.

Suddenly, under the rim, a tall man launched himself, raising his right hand to meet the ball at the apex and swat it away. Dario Saric’s block of Gasol’s layup in the final second secured a 72-70 upset win for the Croatians and let the rest of the basketball world know what his homefolks already do.

Saric is headed to the Philadelphia 76ers this fall, and for the first 39-plus minutes Sunday at Carioca Arena he looked as if his transition to the highest level would be difficult. Yet, that block secured a momentum-boosting win for Croatia and perhaps answered some questions about the guile of the 22-year-old, 6-foot-9-inch power forward after being a draft-and-stash for the past two years.

Saric spent two years with his Turkish team after he was drafted 12th overall by Orlando and then acquired in a draft-night trade by the 76ers in June 2014. He took that trip to New York for the draft two years ago, participated in all the activities with the fellow lottery picks — including the Celtics’ Marcus Smart — and walked the stage to shake hands with commissioner Adam Silver, knowing full well he was headed back overseas.

The Croatian signed a two-year deal with Anadolu Efes in Turkey, finally agreeing to opt out of his deal and join the 76ers for next season.

And the pressure is coming from all sides. Philadelphia fans, after years of putrid play in former general manager Sam Hinkie’s “Trust the Process” philosophy that resulted in 47 wins in the past three seasons, want Saric to become an impact player. In Croatia, there also is pressure from his countrymen and the media to become the next Drazen Petrovic or Toni Kukoc.

“Maybe you guys are not aware,” Croatian guard Roko Ukic said. “But whoever comes from our country to the NBA is like our next big thing [in Croatia], so much pressure from the media and for us, if we are like sixth in the Olympic Games, it’s not great. It’s pressure for those kinds of kids [like Saric], so this kind of game can give him a push in the back for his career.”

In a key sequence late in the fourth quarter with the Croatians trailing by 1 point, Saric used his ball-handling skills to get to the basket, only to be tied up by Spain’s Felipe Reyes and Croatia lost the possession.

Until the final seconds, Saric appeared to be another European product not quite ready for the rigors of the NBA. And then that final play happened, and his international image soared.

“This last play from Saric, that’s like a picture of our team,” Ukic said. “Everybody thinks he needs to get the medal by himself. It’s not easy to play the first time in Olympic Games and things didn’t go well for him offensively, but the effort he made and saved the day with the last block, that shows character.”

Croatia is seeking to return to respectability. They did not qualify for the 2012 London Games and finished 10th in the FIBA World Cup in 2014. They needed three consecutive wins, including in the FIBA qualifying tournament final against host Italy, to clinch an Olympic berth.

So his comrades are accustomed to such clutch plays from Saric, and that block against a six-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion perhaps catapulted Croatia to the favorite in Group B.

“He has no fear of anything,” Croatian coach Aleksandar Petrovic said. “[Sunday] he just wasn’t able to gain offensive rhythm, but he’s a guy who brings us a lot of different [things] so he maybe misses five shots but he [does] so many little things that makes my team better. I’m not afraid at all [that he won’t play well], not here, not in the future with his NBA team in Philadelphia.”

***

No. 3: True test lies ahead for Team USA on Wednesday — The U.S. men’s national team is 2-0 in their first two games in the Rio Olympics, having won both of those games by a combined 101 points. Those victories combined with how the team looked in its exhibition slate has left many wondering just how good the team is given the gap in talent and ability between it and its opponents. That will change in USA’s next game as it faces a solid Australia team, writes our John Schuhmann who is on hand for the Olympics:

The U.S. plays its final three pool play games against Australia, Serbia and France. And suddenly, Wednesday’s opponent looks like it will be the Americans’ toughest test in pool play … and maybe in the entire tournament.

Before the last few days, you might have overlooked Australia as a medal contender because it only had to outscore New Zealand in a two-game series last summer to qualify for the Olympics. Other teams, especially those in Europe, had a much tougher route. And before action tipped off on Saturday, the next tier of teams behind the United States appeared to be France, Lithuania, Serbia and Spain. In fact, Australia was below those three teams, Argentina and Brazil in the latest FIBA rankings.

But Australia has begun the tournament by beating two of Europe’s top four. It opened with an easy win over France on Saturday and followed that up by outlasting Serbia on Monday afternoon. Australia doesn’t just have six more NBA players than the Americans have faced in their first two games (zero), it’s been playing the best of any team not wearing “USA” on its chests. And there should be no intimidation factor on Wednesday.

“It’s the ultimate test,” Australia’s Andrew Bogut said. “They’re the best team in the world, best players in the world. I think if we go out there with the mindset that we can compete with them, win or lose, we will be happy with that. If we go out there and we’re intimidated by them, try to get our shoes signed before the game, and a signed jersey, we won’t win with that mindset.”

Australia will have two ball-handlers — Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills — who run the pick-and-roll better than anybody the U.S. has faced in its five exhibition games or its two games in Rio. Mills (47 points in two games) has been Australia’s leading scorer, while Dellavedova has tallied 23 assists and just one turnover in the two wins. They’re bench guys in the NBA, but they’ll still test a defense that has only been together for three weeks.

“Delly’s ability to read defensive coverage and systems over the course of games,” Australia coach Andrej Lemanis said, “is really, really impressive.”

“Offensively, we started to understand what was required in order for us to put some heat on the rim and find different ways to exploit their defensive schemes,” Lemanis said. “We got some really smart players and over the course of the game, they figure out what are the best offensive opportunities for us.”

Though he usually focuses on one opponent at a time, USA coach Mike Krzyzewski has clearly been paying attention to what Australia has done so far. In talking about Dellavedova and Bogut, “two of the better passers in the tournament,” Krzyzewski said that they have “maybe 35 assists” and “four or five turnovers.” He almost nailed it, as the pair have combined for 34 assists and only four turnovers. The preparation for this particular opponent started early.

The U.S. beat Australia in the quarterfinals of each of the last two Olympics, winning by 31 points in Beijing and by 33 in London. But this will be the best Australia team the Americans have ever faced.

Australia has already put itself in position to finish second in Group A and be placed on the opposite side of the Americans in the elimination-round bracket. After Wednesday’s game against the U.S., it will complete pool play with games against China and Venezuela.

It’s playing its best basketball at the right time, both to compete for an Olympic medal, but also to give the Americans a much tougher challenge than they’ve faced thus far.

“They can beat us,” Krzyzewski said. “We know that, and we’ll prepare accordingly.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Rudy Gay is reportedly interested in being traded to the Miami Heat … Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons could end up taking on some point guard duties next season … LeBron James has his own locker in Ohio State’s locker room … Former Sacramento Kings forward Kenny Thomas is opening a new restaurant near the Kings’ new Golden 1 Center … Former Utah Jazz big man Kyrylo Fesenko may be nearing a deal with an Italian league team … The Oklahoma City Thunder may have Ronnie Price on their radar

Australia gives Jokic a lesson in physicality

RIO DE JANEIRO — Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic was the MVP of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Serbia last month, leading the home country with 17.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.

Jokic earned First Team All-Rookie honors last season, but the qualifying tourney was his first action for the senior national team, a veteran-laden squad that won silver at the 2014 World Cup and finished fourth at least year’s Eurobasket. On the international stage, it was a coming out party.

On Monday, however, Jokic looked like a rookie again in Serbia’s 95-80 loss to Australia in Group A pool play. Jokic was playing behind former NBA player Miroslav Raduljica and was unable to make much of an impact off the bench. His numbers (seven points, three rebounds, two assists in 17:55) don’t tell the whole story, because his body language made it look like he didn’t want to be there.

Australia has a starting frontline of Aron Baynes (Pistons) and Andrew Bogut (Mavericks), who are backed up by the Pistons’ Cameron Bairstow and former NBA player David Andersen. They play physical and that was a problem for Jokic, a skilled big who needs to get tougher.

“They played man basketball,” Raduljica said afterward. “This is a man’s sport.”

“Obviously, the intensity of the big guys from Australia is huge, second to none,” Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic added. “Baynes, Bogut, Andersen and Bairstow know how to play a tough, physical game and maybe [Jokic] felt it a little bit. But he has to respond.”

Jokic didn’t get many touches in the Serbia offense. But he was pushed away from the basket by Bairstow on a post-up in the second quarter and his jump-hook was well off the mark. On a key fourth-quarter possession (in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated), Jokic let Andersen back him down for a basket that put Australia up six.

Djordjevic immediately took Jokic out of the game after that defensive possession, but brought him back after Stefan Bircevic fouled out. Jokic later took a hard foul from Australia’s Joe Ingles (Jazz).

“He’s young and this is great experience for him,” Djordjevic said. “He’s a very smart player, so we need more from him, obviously. But maybe it’s normal, a player like him, he’s a quick learner. This is a good thing. Yes, he had a good qualifying tournament, but I believe and I hope that no one is living in the past, because every day is a new practice. Every day is a new game. Every day is a new challenge.

“We need his creativity. He’s very smart. I believe that in the tournament, he’s going to become instrumental.”

More challenges await Jokic this week. Serbia will face France (with Rudy Gobert, Boris Diaw and Nuggets teammate Joffrey Lauvergne) on Wednesday and the United States on Friday.

Morning shootaround — Aug. 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Kerr: Don’t call Durant “villain” | Gores: Pistons are in a good place | Cuban behind Bogut’s Olympic run | Ray Allen may not be finished yet

No. 1: Kerr: Don’t call Durant “villain” The Golden State Warriors clearly hit the jackpot in free agency this summer, bringing in Kevin Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder in a move that not only made the Warriors stronger but also weakened the rival Thunder. But according to Warriors coach Steve Kerr, in an appearance on ESPN Radio, calling Durant (or any of the Warriors, for that matter) villains would be “absurd.”:

“To think of Kevin Durant or Steph Curry or any of our guys as villains, it’s kind of absurd. Especially Kevin,” Kerr said Sunday in an interview on ESPN Radio’s TMI with Michelle Beadle and Ramona Shelburne. “This is one of the most likeable people in this league. He’s just an awesome human being. What he did in Oklahoma City was just amazing for that community.

Kerr added: “Circumstances kind of dictate, I guess, that some people are going to see him as a villain. But it’s only because he decided to go elsewhere to play. He wanted to change his scenery, he wanted a new challenge. More than anything he wanted to play with our guys. He loves Draymond [Green] and Steph and Klay [Thompson] and Andre [Iguodala]. Seeing those guys in New York, he loved seeing the chemistry that exists and he wanted to be a part of it.”

Durant said last month that he didn’t leave the house he’d rented in the Hamptons for 48 hours after he announced his decision because he knew how strongly fans would react to him leaving.

“For a few days after, I didn’t leave my bed, because I was like, ‘If I walk outside somebody might just hit me with their car, or say anything negative to me,'” Durant said last month at Team USA training camp in Las Vegas.

“I mean, I’ve been somewhere for so long, and then to make a change like that, [which] nobody knew was coming, that nobody didn’t think I would do, of course I didn’t know how it would be received afterward. But at some point, I just said, ‘Look, man, life goes on. Life moves on, and I can’t hide forever,’ so I just had to face it.”

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No. 2: Gores: Pistons are in a good place The Detroit Pistons won an NBA title in 2004, but rebuilding following that title run proved to be a tough task. But since becoming owner of the Pistons in 2011, Tom Gores has presided over a building project that finally has the Pistons a perennial postseason contender, with aspirations of much more. As Vince Ellis from the Detroit Free Press discovered in a wide-ranging Q&A with Gores, despite the solid foundation finally in place, Gores isn’t satisfied with just being a playoff team and talks about that, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope‘s future and more:

Q: The Pistons appear to be on the rise. With downtown Detroit becoming more of a destination, it appears the time could be ripe for a move. You’ve never closed the door, but can you quantify the importance of the next year for the franchise?

Gores: “I think last year was the beginning of the important years. I think we began to set the course last year. We proved a point. We got into the playoffs. I really like the way we finished with the roster with (forward Tobias Harris) coming in. This year, everybody’s a year older, we’ve got the core set with our folks, so it’s an important year that we prove that we are making progress. I’ve always said patience with progress, so this is an important year because they really just jelled last year, if you think about it. Tobias was new, what a steal with (forward Marcus Morris), (point guard Reggie Jackson) as a true starter in his first year. (Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) is still a young man. (Forward Stanley Johnson) just turned 20. This a very young team and very, very talented. … It’s an important year for everybody to keep developing, and that’s what Stan’s been focused on, not sitting still to make sure everybody’s got a place to improve. … We have a very focused group. There’s nobody in the locker room that’s a problem for us. These are good guys.”

Q: What can you say right now on the potential to move downtown?

Gores: “We’ve always been open-minded. I’ve always respected (Mike and Marian Ilitch) in terms of what they’re doing. We do have an understanding of some of the things they’re developing down there. There’s a lot going on downtown. …”

Q: Dan Gilbert is doing a lot of business there.

Gores: “Dan (Gilbert), as well. Dan and I have been talking about the soccer team. Whatever we do, I’d like to be that third piece of the triangle between Dan and the Ilitches and then myself to really finish bringing the city together. I think we can do that. I think we have a lot of value to add. Not just the basketball team, but our business expertise. There’s a ton going on and Detroit is getting close to being in the red zone. I don’t know if we’re there quite yet, in terms of the city coming back, but we’re not on the other 20. (Detroit is) getting close, and I think I can be helpful there. We’re staying open-minded and I’ve always said in terms of the Ilitches and what they’ve meant to the city, I think definitely we could be good partners for each other. So we’re evaluating everything and I think we should. I’ve been paying attention to a lot going on in downtown Detroit.”

Q: With a possible KCP extension, you could threaten the luxury tax line (an NBA mechanism to curtail teams’ spending). Thoughts on being a luxury taxpayer?

Gores: “Look, if we weren’t building a core, there’s really no point in paying the luxury tax. Because we are building a core, would I do it? Yeah, absolutely. This is a tremendous team. If you go down the line, player by player, and especially our young folks, these are real players. You look at KCP as a very diverse player. He keeps working at his game and you look at his improvement and just like anybody else, he will improve in other areas. Part of Stan [Van Gundy]’s coaching philosophy obviously is defense. So you say go into the luxury tax for nothing, then that would be silly because then we’re putting the franchise behind. But given that we have such a good core, if that’s what it took, and we feel we’ve made such progress this year, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it because we want to keep getting better.”

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No. 3: Cuban behind Bogut’s Olympic run Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has historically been critical of NBA players playing in the Olympics, rightfully reasoning that NBA teams have huge financial investments with little upside from Olympic success. But in the case of newly signed Mavs center Andrew Bogut, Cuban signed off on Bogut’s appearance with the Australian National Team, telling the AP that they view Bogut’s Olympic appearance as an important part of his comeback from the injury he suffered in the 2016 Finals:

Mark Cuban has been opposed to NBA players competing in the Olympics, but the Dallas Mavericks owner gave Andrew Bogut the clearance he needed to play for Australia after injuring his left knee in the NBA Finals.

And Cuban is pulling for his new center, who scored 18 points to lead the Aussies to an 87-66 victory over France on Saturday in the opening game of the tournament.

“We obviously were nervous and I’m still not a fan of NBA players in the Olympics, but Andrew was going to have to go through a process to get back on the court anyway,” Cuban wrote Sunday in an email to The Associated Press. “Our staff has communicated with him and we knew he would be cautious in his approach to returning.”

Bogut suffered bone bruises in Game 5 while playing for Golden State. Players need a release from their NBA teams to compete internationally if they have a pre-existing injury, and Bogut said he was a little worried he might not get it from the Mavs, who acquired him last month in a trade.

“They were very, very nervous obviously because my prognosis was six to eight weeks and this is right on six weeks right now, but I was open with them and honest,” Bogut said. “I said, ‘Look, if I know I’m not ready and the knee’s swelling up, I’m pulling the pin.’ And they said fine, we trust you.”

Bogut said he even received an email from Cuban before the Olympic opener.

“I told him make sure he has his green-and-gold jersey on watching the game, and he threw a couple of other words I can’t repeat and said let’s go,” Bogut said. “So it’s been a good relationship by email so far.”

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No. 4: Ray Allen may not be finished yet — Sharpshooting guard Ray Allen hasn’t played in the NBA since the Miami Heat lost to the Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals. But speaking to the Hartford Courant at a basketball camp this weekend, Allen said he may still be interested in playing if the situation was right:

“I worked out the other day in New York with a friend of mine,” Allen said Saturday, during a break from his annual instructional camp at East Granby High. “I was shooting, I was going through my routine just like I’d always done. Yeah, I was a little winded, but I was able to go through my routine like I’d always gone though my routine and I didn’t feel like I’d missed any time in doing what I was doing. For me, it’s not ‘Can I do it anymore?’ It’s how I feel after I do it. And yesterday, I felt great.

“I could not have learned all that I’ve learned in 20 years of my life, dealing with coach [Jim] Calhoun, and how to sleep right, eat right, and then go to the NBA and do what I’ve done there and then afterwards just drop the ball and let everything go. I still weigh the same I weighed in college.”

Allen, 41, the former UConn star who won two championships and was a 10-time NBA All-Star, is gearing up or a comeback after two seasons out of the league. While he is not certain he will suit up again, he made it clear that this is not just idle chatter.

“My decision is predicated on what is available,” he said. “I said that I was interested because I never retired for a reason. I’ve been watching, seeing what teams have been doing and I’ve been waiting to see if the opportunity presented itself where I think I could fit.”

It has been assumed that Allen, who last played for the Heat in 2014, would be most likely to join the champion Cavaliers, reuniting in Cleveland with LeBron James, or the runner-up Warriors, who have added Kevin Durant to the team that went 73-9 in the regular season.

The Spurs and Clippers have been mentioned, also, but Allen said he has spoken with the Celtics, with whom he won a championship in 2008, and the Bucks, his first NBA stop.

“I would love going back to those places if it worked out,” Allen said, “because both teams are good, too. It doesn’t necessarily have to be championship-or-bust for me to go back to the NBA.

“I want to be in a situation where I thought I could help, play a little bit and help where they have good young talent.”

Allen, who lives much of the time in Miami, has opened a restaurant called Grown, said he is not yet sure what direction the Heat are taking. How about the Knicks? “Spike Lee has been trying to recruit me,” Allen said. “We’ve been texting.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Paul George is trying to set up a meeting with the French gymnast who suffered a broken leg in the opening days of Rio 2016 … Nick Anderson made it out of the violence in Chicago, and wants to help bring it to an endJoel Embiid was excited by the game-sealing block in Croatia’s win over Spain from his potential 76ers teammate Dario Saric

Bogut looks fresh in Australia’s win over France

RIO DE JANEIRO — Andrew Bogut didn’t know if he’d be able to play in the Olympics until Friday. Bogut, who injured his left knee in Game 5 of The Finals, played less than 10 minutes in just one of Australia’s six exhibition games leading into the games, and wasn’t going to make a final call on his status until the day of the opening ceremony, when final rosters were due.

“If it wasn’t right yesterday, I’m going to fly back home,” he said Saturday. “But it was good enough to play.”

Not only that, Bogut looked to be 100 percent in leading Australia to an easy, 87-66 win over France in the opening contest in Rio. Bogut tallied 18 points on 9-for-10 shooting, elevating for several dunks, even one where he ran a pick-and-roll (as the ball-handler) with teammate Joe Ingles setting the screen.

Australia looked terrific. France, thought to be a medal favorite, did not. Tony Parker scored 18 points, but didn’t get much help. Boris Diaw shot 4-for-11 and Nicolas Batum took just three shots, as France couldn’t handle the physical play of Australia.

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Andrew Bogut finished with 18 points in Australia’s win over France in the 2016 Olympics opener.

“Before this tournament, we said our identity’s going to be we need to be ***** defensively,” Bogut said. “We need to be in guys. We need to be physical. That’s the only chance we have to beat a lot of these teams that are a little more talented than us.”

France needed some aggressiveness from someone other than Parker, but it’s not necessarily in them to take advantage of one-on-one matchups.

“It’s not our game to play one-on-one,” Diaw said. “That’s not us. We got to move the ball.”

More concerning was their defense, which got beat back door early and often. Even with Rudy Gobert on the floor for France, Australia controlled the paint.

And Bogut was a huge part of that. If he couldn’t play, there would be a big void in the Australia offense, which counts on him more than the Warriors did (and the Mavs will).

“Obviously, with the Warriors, he doesn’t have the ball as much,” Ingles said. “He’s more of a screener and a ball-mover. With us, we want him to have the ball as much as possible. Between him and Patty [Mills], we’re trying to get them [going] and play off it.”

Mills led Australia with 21 points, while Matthew Dellavedova dished out a game-high 10 assists. Bogut added five dimes himself, as Australia registered 29 assists on its 35 field goals.

“He’s the best big passer in the NBA, probably in the world,” Ingles said of Bogut. “The more the ball’s in his hands, the better for us.”

Bogut’s play is an encouraging sign for Australia, which should have no problems qualifying for elimination out of Group A with a win already in hand and games against China and Venezuela still to come. France certainly has the ability to bounce back, but will likely need a win against Serbia to avoid finishing fourth in the group and facing Group B’s top team in the quarterfinals.


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