LONDON — Kobe Bryant normally lives for these moments.
The big moment, on the big stage, with the whole world watching.
But save for a vintage few minutes in a win over Nigeria during pool play, his time here for the Olympics had been more about his presence away from the court than it had been on his in-game exploits with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team.
He popped in at Wimbledon to see some tennis, strode over to the beach volleyball venue to see friends get after it and he even made it to the velodrome Tuesday night to cheer on fellow athletes chasing gold in their respective disciplines.
It wasn’t until the second half Wednesday night, with Australia making a run against the U.S. in a quarterfinal matchup at North Greenwich Arena, that the Bryant Los Angeles Lakers and NBA fans have known for the better part of the past decade made his debut in this competition.
His six straight 3-pointers, a staggering four in 75 seconds during a backbreaking fourth-quarter run, proved to be the sparked needed to push the U.S. past Australia 119-86 and into a Friday night semifinal rematch with rival Argentina, an 82-77 winner over Brazil in the first game of the evening session.
“We we were right there with them,” said Australian forward David Andersen. “And then Kobe starts shooting and making those [3-pointers] and it’s raining down on us. No team really has answers for that. ”
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — For the longest time, going all the way back to middle of summer, we weren’t sure what it was Chris Paul was looking for.
We heard the rumors. Then we heard from him, dispelling the rumors. And then came the sit down meeting with the Hornets’ brass and word that everything was good.
But we still had no idea what it was CP3 wanted.
Then the season started and everything cleared up. The Hornets rolled to the best start in the league and went about their business like the summer and all the drama had never happened.
We see it now. Chris Paul wants his crown back, the one Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose and several others have tried on in his absence from the throne as the NBA’s top point guard.
Even better, Paul is going about getting it back the ol’ fashioned way, he’s going to earn it back. It always helps when the organization has your back. And the Hornets are making all the right moves these days.
Their weekend trade — Toronto sent Jarrett Jack, David Andersen and Marcus Banks to New Orleans for Peja Stojakovic and Jerryd Bayless — is just the latest master stroke of new GM Dell Demps, who knows a thing or two about building a winner after working in San Antonio prior to taking over the Hornets in the summer.
(The Nuggets might want to take notes or at least call Demps for some pointers, what with Carmelo Anthony‘s name being mentioned more prominently than Paul’s in nearly every trade rumors since draft night.)
The message the Hornets are sending is as simple as it is impressive. If you want to keep your superstar happy and in the fold, don’t just talk about it, act like it!
The Hornets have not only reshaped the roster and shown Paul that they can put the winning pieces around him, they’ve also slid out from under the looming guillotine of the luxury tax, proving that you can be proactive and tax-minded at the same time (while retaining just enough usable assets to make more moves, if need be, in the coming months).
Think about all the work the Hornets have done since summer, all of the new faces that have been added and all of the dead weight tossed overboard. It’s a rather remarkable makeover on the go when you sit back and admire the changes. And they’ve used a splendid mix of old and new to run off this 11-1 start, which is a product of the approach of coach Monty Williams (the defensive-minded Hornets have allowed just one opponent to score 100 point so far).
David West and Emeka Okafor are playing fantastic basketball right now, as the top-flight recipients of Paul’s assists tend to do. But raise your hand if you knew where Marco Belinelli‘s played this time a year ago. Trevor Ariza, Willie Green and Jason Smith are all doing their part. And the additions of Jack and Andersen give the Hornets some much-needed depth.
With Jack in the backcourt rotation, he can play both spots, ensures that Paul’s minutes can be managed throughout the course of the season and the Hornets can continue their feel good story for the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, it might be time for someone to get Paul his crown back!
It’s time for a fresh start and Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo made that clear with the way cleaned up after Bosh’s departure to Miami (via free agency), where he’ll team with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in a title chase that will be the envy of so many in Toronto and beyond.
The holdovers in T-Dot — a relatively motley crew including the likes of Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Jarrett Jack, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Sonny Weems as well as newcomers Linas Kleiza, Leandro Barbosa, Ed Davis, Julian Wright, David Andersen and Solomon Alabi — will have to come together quickly if the Raptors want to erase the nasty taste of summer from the mouths of their fans.
Still, we have to ask, exactly whose team is this now?
Jack provided HT with some answers to that and more after a recent workout:
HANG TIME: It’s been a tough summer. What’s the internal outlook in terms of what kind of team you’ll put on the floor this season?
JARRETT JACK: It was rough when the trade got rescinded that was on the table with Charlotte. Basically, both teams agreed and then I guess at the last-minute it got refused. If we could have added Barbosa, Boris Diaw and Tyson Chandler to the team that we already had that would have given us a shot at being a legitimate team in the Eastern Conference. So I think that set us back a little bit. From what I understand we are still exploring some avenues to try to add to our team and hopefully we can make it happen. But if not, we’ll just have to go with what we’ve got.
HT: Going into the summer, when everybody was still in play in free agency, was there a feeling that even if you didn’t keep Chris (which seemed bleak even then) you’d get something in return to help rebuild this team?
JJ: Sure, assuming that Chris would just got traded straight up and it wasn’t going to be a sign and trade, we figured no human being in this lifetime was going to do something like that and leave $30 million on the table. But it was a situation where they worked it out and he didn’t leave $30 million on the table, we were able to get a trade exception back in exchange. We’re still trying to make some moves. And it’s not over until training camp starts. We’ve still got a little time, and it only takes a phone call and two sides to agree. So you never know how quickly things could change.
HT: You know they’re talking championship in Miami, Boston, Orlando, Chicago and places like that. What’s the attitude for a team like yours, when you know the climb is going to be much steeper than some of your competitors?
JJ: It’s definitely steeper. We just have to find our own identity, really. All these other teams have established stars and we have a pretty young group of guys. We have guys that really haven’t established themselves in the NBA yet. I think once we do that, once we establish ourselves individually and as a team, once we decide what brand of basketball we’re going to play night in and night out, we’ll be fine.
HT: When you are watching all that goes on in a wild and crazy summer like this, with players going from this team to that one and the balance of power shifting the way it did, how do you stay focused only on your team?
JJ: I just worry about the things that affect me, my teammates, the organization I represent and let that other stuff be what it is. You really can’t worry about where everybody else is going or what they are doing. I’m just worrying about how we’re going to get better, what steps we’re going to take, what kind of positive moves that can be made so we can be a factor in the Eastern Conference. All you can do is mind your own business and see where it lands at the end of the day.
HT: From afar it seemed sort of strange last season watching the Raptors’ point guard situation. You started 43 games and Jose started 39 games, but it was hard to tell who was “the guy.” One minute it looks like your team and the next it seems like Calderon’s team. Who leads from that spot this season?
JJ: Just play, man. And that’s the frame of mind I’m going in with. If they have me leading the team and running the squad, then that’s what it is. If not, then I’ll come off the bench and do whatever I have to do and keep doing what I’ve been doing since I got in the league. Even if I wasn’t starting, I was coming in off the bench as a positive influence and trying to lead the team on the floor when I’m out there. I’m always trying to be the best leader I can possibly be whenever I’m out there.
HT: With such a passionate and knowledgeable fan base in Toronto that’s thirsty for a winner, how do you think they’ll respond to this team this season?
JJ: I think they’ll follow our lead. If we come out there and play a tough brand of physical basketball night in and night out, win or lose, they’ll respect us. To me, Toronto is a blue collar city. It reminds me of New York, Philly and those type of fans that are really passionate and rowdy. They definitely make their presence felt, if you’re playing bad or well they’ll let you know. So I think it’s up to us. If we go out there and show every single night that we’re hungry and just truly passionate about the game, they will respond to that. And honestly, that’s what you love about them the most as a player.
HT: I know you and Chris are good friends and have been for years. So you’ve obviously spoken to him about what they have going on in Miami. I know you guys have business to handle in Toronto this season, but you have to be curious to see how things play out down there, don’t you?
JJ: Yeah, I’m curious. The bottom line is, one person is going to have to be left out. And I’m not pointing fingers or anything. That’s just real talk. It’s very rare that you have three superstar guys in this league and everybody get’s their fair share amount of touches and whatever. And I know they all “compromised” some things to play together in the first place. But it’s one thing to say we’re going to do it and something else to actually swallow that pill and be that third option. Going from a superstar to that third option, when you’ve been “the guy” on a team for four or five years of whatever … it’s different. It’s like when you go from college to the league and you’re not that dude anymore and you have to take that step back. Some people can handle it and some people can’t. Like I said, somebody is going to get squeezed out of the equation down there. And that’s just how it is.
Nachbar didn't play a big role in this game, but he was ecstatic with the result. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images)
ISTANBUL — This should have been one of the better matchups in the round of 16, but it was a totally one-sided affair. Slovenia cruised to a 87-58 victory to reach the quarterfinals.
Australia had the sixth best defense in pool play, but they were just average offensively. And on Sunday, they were just awful. They failed to score on their first 10 possessions of the game and had just 21 points on 34 possessions in the first half.
Slovenia really opened up the game with a barrage of threes early in the second quarter. They were 6-for-10 from downtown in the period and had a 42-21 lead at halftime without Bostjan Nachbar scoring a single point.
Australia’s offense finally showed up in the third quarter (24 points on 19 possessions), but they just couldn’t get any stops. Slovenia hit five more threes in the third to put the game away.
Before pool play began, Nachbar told me that his team’s goal for this tournament was to make the top eight. Well, they’ve done that, and they won’t necessarily stop there. Slovenia is 5-1 at the World Championship with an impressive win over Brazil, and with their only loss coming at the hands of the U.S.
After Sunday’s game, Nachbar said that the goals and expectations haven’t changed, no matter how well his team has played. And the win over Australia gave the Slovenians somewhat of a championship feeling.
“We’re going to play more relaxed now,” he said. “We’ve achieved our goal. You have to realize this is our biggest success in our basketball history. To make the top eight in the world is amazing.”
Some more notes…
For the game, Slovenia was 16-for-33 from 3-point range. They shot just 33 percent (15th among the 24 teams) from downtown in pool play.
Slovenia’s Uros Slokar aggravated a sprained left ankle that he suffered in pool play. He limped off floor with 5:22 left in the third quarter and did not return.
Patty Mills had his usual burst of speed for Australia and got to the rim pretty easily on a couple of occasions, but he shot just 1-for-7 from 3-point range, finishing with 13 points and three assists.
Raptor center David Andersen shot poorly (2-for-7) as well.
Slovenia will play the winner of the France-Turkey game.
The folks in the know, mainly Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, aren’t giving the buzz coming from China, where Yao Ming was quoted about what he’d do if he suffered another foot injury, any credence. Morey issued a statement that should calm any fears Rockets fans have of their All-Star center hanging it up anytime soon:
“Yao Ming is working diligently on his return and has consistently received positive feedback at each of his scheduled medical checkups. He is currently participating in on-court basketball workouts and we continue to expect him to be ready for the start of training camp which begins on September 25th.”
That works for us here at the hideout.
Yao’s comments to the assembled media in his native land (“If the foot injury does not heal next season, I might choose to call it quits”) sent people over the edge. And we’ll admit, Yao’s injury history — he has seen each of his last five seasons interrupted or ended by bone injuries — raises some red flags. But big men his size always have to deal with injury issues.
That said, we’re not expecting Yao to go anywhere anytime soon. He’s 30 and should still have plenty of All-Star caliber basketball in him. In addition, Morey has assembled some quality frontcourt pieces around their big man — Luis Scola, Brad Miller, David Andersen, Jordan Hill, Jared Jeffries and the always-reliable Chuck Hayes will all help take the pressure off of Yao.
We’re just not buying into any of this retirement hype surrounding Yao.
And with him healthy, the Rockets could certainly make some serious noise in the Western Conference playoff chase this season.