Posts Tagged ‘Jonas Valanciunas’

Morning Shootaround — March 15


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

A “defining moment” for the Heat | Warriors talk it out | Lillard becomes a leader | Beal goes down in Wizards’ win | Lakers can move on without Jackson

No. 1: A “defining moment” for the Heat — When they won their first six games after the All-Star break, we thought the Miami Heat had flipped the switch in preparation for the playoffs. But they’ve since lost five of their last six, falling to the below-.500 Denver Nuggets at home on Friday. There’s still a month left in the regular season, but LeBron James believes this is a “defining moment” for the champs, as Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald writes:

This shrine of basketball on Biscayne Bay hasn’t known tedium for some time, but a little bit of that stuff has crept into the cracks of the hardwood in recent days. The Heat (44-19) has lost five of its past six games and is 3-5 in March.

“A tough loss at home, and we just have to figure it out,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s not the way this streak started. Sometimes, it just happens to you in this league where things turn and moment changes and you find yourself in a hole you feel like you can’t get out of. Obviously, we’ll be able to get out of it. When? We don’t know.”

Said James: “We’ve been here before. It has been a while, but we’ve been here before, and this moment will either define our season or end our season. … We always have one defining moment, and this is it right here for us.”

***

No. 2: Warriors talk it out — The Heat weren’t the only good team to suffer an embarrassing loss at home on Friday. The Golden State Warriors gave up 68 points across the second and third quarters in a 103-94 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s not acceptable for a team that has mostly won with defense this season. So the Dubs aired it out in a post-game meeting, as Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News writes:

Mark Jackson took extra, extra time to come out to speak to the media and spoke about as harshly as he has allowed himself to during his Warriors tenure–so the mood was clearly a little different.

Why? This season has been built on defense, and the Warriors built a huge early lead and then got shredded by a bad Cleveland team, which is just about what Jackson said.

Then, after Jackson’s presser, maybe 30 minutes after the game ended, the locker room was opened to the media and players were noticeably still talking to each other – not at all heatedly, but with nods and solemn expressions.

One player stood out – Stephen Curry was still in uniform and walked up to Jermaine O’Neal, Andrew Bogut and David Lee (among others) and had long one-on-one discussions in the locker room corridors.

***

No. 3: Lillard becomes a leader — Speaking of locker room meetings, the Blazers had one after Wednesday’s loss in San Antonio, their fourth straight. And it started with Damian Lillard, who doesn’t want to settle for having just played hard. He wants results and Jason Quick of The Oregonian writes that the point guard’s speech may have been a turning point for the Blazers:

“Hold on,” Lillard said.

And from there, a passionate, pointed and spontaneous flow of emotions and leadership came from Lillard. His interjection, and subsequent soliloquy, sparked a team meeting. The players and coaches want the details of the meeting to stay in house, but Lillard said the essence of his speech was that it was up to the players, not the coaches, to step up in crunch time, and to not accept the “we competed hard” as a pacifier for losing.

“He took control,” said Dorell Wright, who is in his 10th NBA season. “It was a big step for him.”

Added Wesley Matthews: “It showed he’s grown. He’s one of those guys who has always led by example, and he put it on himself. He was tired of losing so he voiced his opinion. It was good.”

***

No. 4: Beal goes down in Wizards’ win — The Washington Wizards came back from six down in the final 65 seconds of regulation to win in Orlando on Friday. But Bradley Beal turned his right ankle in overtime, meaning that the win may cost the Wizards in the long run. They play a big game against the Nets – with whom they’re tied in the standings – in Washington on Saturday. Michael Lee of the Washington Post had the story from Orlando:

The night didn’t end without a brief scare. On the next possession, Beal forced rookie Victor Oladipo (15 points) into missing a driving layup and rolled his right ankle when he landed. Beal hit the floor, weeping in the hardwood, thinking that he had broken his ankle, as his concerned teammates gathered around him. Kevin Seraphin and Otto Porter Jr. eventually had to carry Beal to the locker room but he walked out of the arena on his own power.

“I was just hoping it wasn’t broken. That’s always a player’s first instinct — hope and pray it’s nothing too too serious and fortunately, it was only a sprain,” Beal said. “We just keep going, keep attacking. You’re not always going to stay hot all the time. You’re not going to make all your shots. For us to get this win up underneath us is a great feeling.”

***

No. 5: Lakers can move on without Jackson — It’s been almost three years since Phil Jackson left the Los Angeles Lakers, but only now can the franchise finally have some closure. Lakers fans may still want Phil, but he was never going to get what he wanted (full control) in L.A. Ramona Shelburne has a good read on the Jackson story from the Lakers’ perspective:

Over the past three years, he’s been neither coach nor consultant. His fiancée, Jeanie Buss, is the one still receiving Laker paychecks, not him. But in his absence, Jackson’s presence has only grown larger among the Lakers and their fans. By remaining in the shadows, his enormous shadow has hung over the franchise. The “We want Phil” chants still ring out at Staples Center from time to time.

People got used to it that way. It was comforting to know Jackson was still there, close by. Just a tweet away. That also made it hard for other things to grow, but it was better than the alternative.

When legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss passed away last February, Jackson was still the one subsuming that patriarchal role in this very strange, dysfunctional saga. The Lakers and their fans never really had to stare into the abyss in front of them.

Now they do. That it took a full week for Jackson to formally sign on as the Knicks president after word of their serious mutual interest leaked only prolonged the torture for Laker fans.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: In a response to an Op-Ed by agent Jeff Schwartz, Chris Paul detailed the NBPA’s search for a new executive director … In an up-and-down season, Jonas Valanciunas had a big night against the Grizzlies … Nikola Pekovic couldn’t play through ankle pain on FridayThe Nets have signed Jason Collins for the remainder of the season … and O.J. Mayo is out of the Bucks’ rotation.

ICYMI of The Night: Lillard backed up his words, scoring 27 points (including 16 in the fourth quarter) in Friday’s win in New Orleans:


VIDEO: Nightly Notable: Damian Lillard

Taking A Crack at Rising Stars Draft

Do they pick Anthony Davis, who will have his chance to shine in front of the hometown crowd in New Orleans? Or jump at the chance to get reigning Rookie of the year Damian Lillard?

BBVA Compass Rising Stars ChallengeDo they go with point guard Michael Carter-Williams, who’s dazzled in his first year in the Eastern Conference, or Trey Burke, who’s lived up to the advance billing in the West?

Those are just a few of the questions confronting Grant Hill and Chris Webber when they act as “general managers” and pick the teams for the 2014 BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge (tonight on TNT at 7  ET). The choices will be part of a special one-hour addition of TNT NBA Tip-Off.

Al the participants in State Farm All-Star Saturday Night (featuring the Sears Shooting Stars, Taco Bell Skills Challenge, Foot Locker Three-Point Contest and Sprite Slam Dunk) will also be revealed, along with a revamped format.

But the heavy lifting will be done by Turner Sports analysts Hill and Webber in assembling their teams. So NBA.com colleague Steve Aschburner and I thought we’d lend a hand by providing a few tips in advance.

Here’s the way we stocked the teams, alternating picks, with me going first:

Anthony Davis (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Anthony Davis (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

1 — Anthony Davis, F/C, Pelicans (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “One brow, one choice. It’s got to be the obvious hometown favorite who was snubbed for the big show.”

2 — Damian Lillard, G, Trail Blazers (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Could dominate if he uses Friday as dress rehearsal for Sunday.”

3 — Michael Carter-Williams, G, Sixers (Rookie) — Blinebury: “Foundation to Philly future, a steal at No. 11, probably should have gone here in 2013 draft.”

4 — Jonas Valanciunas, C, Raptors (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “On a roll lately: stats 16.7 ppt, 10.2. rpg, 58 percent last six games.”

5 — Tim Hardaway, G, Knicks (Rookie) — Blinebury: “From the D-League to NBA, baskets the same size and he can fill them.”

6 — Brady Beal, G, Wizards (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Mature beyond years, will be comfortable in second Rising Stars Game.”

7 — Steven Adams, C, Thunder (Rookie) — Blinebury: “You can’t teach height, or sharp elbows.”

8 — Giannis Antetokounmpo, G/F, Bucks (Rookie) — Aschburner: “Re-draft the class of ’13 and this guy’s in the top three.”

9 — Andre Drummond, C, Pistons (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “Young, tall and knows how to get me the ball.”

10 — Victor Oladipo, G, Magic (Rookie) — Aschburner: “East Rookie of Month in December, guards can thrive in this game.”

11 — Trey Burke, G, Jazz (Rookie) — Blinebury: “Comes off the injured list to be the everything the Jazz hoped.”

12 — Jared Sullinger, F/C, Celtics (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Stepping up as soph starter, he brings toughness.”

13 — Terrence Jones, F, Rockets (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “He’s filled the Rockets’ void at the 4, maybe making a trade unnecessary.”

14 — Harrison Barnes, F, Warriors (Sophomore) — Aschburner: “Coming off bench has been a challenge, he’s ready for reset button.”

15 — Dion Waiters, G, Cavaliers (Sophomore) — Blinebury: “Since he doesn’t have to rely on Kyrie Irving to get him the ball, should get plenty of shots.”

16 — Kelly Olynyk, F/C, Celtics (Rookie) — Aschburner: “Averages half this, but per-36-minute numbers are: 13.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.”

17 — Mason Plumlee, F/C, Nets (Rookie) — Blinebury: “Up and down with limited playing time, but has a true shooting percentage of 64.8.”

18 — Pero Antic, C, Hawks (Rookie) — Aschburner: “Lock as All-Star Weekend’s Macedonian MVP.”

G.M. Steve Aschburner: Since Team Fran cheated on the coin flip – funny how that can happen over the phone! – I picked second and lost out on host-city favorite Anthony Davis, who probably has the game’s MVP award half in the bag on sentiment alone. But that’s OK, because I managed to round up enough bigs to occupy Davis – Jonas Valanciunas with his size and skills inside 15 feet, Jared Sullinger with his burly game and Kelly Olynyk with pick-and-pop proclivities.

Besides, games of this All-Star ilk tend to be dominated by the guards, who have the ball in their hands and initiate plays. My backcourt of Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal and Victor Oladipo is superior, and those three will spend a lot of time on the floor together to run his crew ragged in small ball. I’m counting on Lillard, who will participate Sunday in the big game, to take this one seriously and not save himself. Surely the 2013 Rookie of the Year doesn’t want any half-season wonders like Carter-Williams, Hardaway or Burke getting over on him.

My squad also has the game’s X factor: the Greek Freak. Given Milwaukee’s dreary season, this will serve as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s coming-out party on a national – wait, international – stage. As the youngest rookie, whose coltish skills and breathtaking moments inspire all sorts of enticing, five-years-from-now dreams, Antetokounmpo conceivably could challenge Davis in wowing the crowd and ride that adrenaline high to a special night.

Prediction: Team Asch 138, Team Fran 127.

G.M. Fran Blinebury: Maybe it was the good fortune that came with wearing my Broadway Joe Namath lucky coyote fur coat. Or maybe it was because when Team Asch, acting like wide-eyed rubes on their first trip to Bourbon Street, asked about having a coin flip, I quickly agreed and bounced a quarter off the coffee table. It was legit and I’d give you a link to the video, but we seem to have had some technical problems. Anyway, it was a no-brainer to make the Anthony Davis the No. 1 pick in the draft (again). With the hometown support he’ll have from the crowd, A.D. should pile up enough dunks and rejections to have the MVP award tucked safely inside his Pelican pouch by halftime.

Asch only thinks he’s got the most physical a lineup up front. I’ve got Andre Drummond and Terrence Jones, who like to mix it up on the inside and can get the ball off the backboard. And don’t forget those sharp elbows of Steve Adams that occasionally (oops!) deliver a message.

In a game where point guards control the ball and set the tone, Michael Carter-Williams and Trey Burke will push the pace and take turns setting up A.D. for highlight reel dunks (and they’ll finish some themselves). If you want a dark horse contender to steal the spotlight, Tim Hardaway Jr. could carry the banner for the NBA D-League.

Prediction: Team Fran 152, Team Asch 131


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried was the MVP of the 2013 version of the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge in Houston

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 20


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 19

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Durant’s beautiful mind | Heat hunting for inspiration | Magic hit the floor to end skid | Dragic has to sustain his energy for Suns

No. 1: Durant’s got it between the ears, too – Seven straight games with 30 or more points from the greatest scorer in the game should surprise no one. Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant can do 30 a night with his eyes closed. And when you are a scoring genius and think through the game the way Durant does, eyes opened or closed … it doesn’t matter. At least that’s the way Thunder coach Scott Brooks explained (sort of) to Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman after Durant and the Thunder dismantled the Sacramento Kings:

Durant hit his scoring average, needing only 15 shots (and 10 makes) to score 30 points for a seventh straight game.

But his nine assists — the most he’s recorded in the last 25 games — was a more encouraging and revealing sign of the Thunder’s impressive night.

“I just love the way he thinks,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said of Durant. “He thinks about the team … He took 15 great shots and made 10 of them. Everybody else got involved and had an opportunity to score.”

The biggest benefactor was Serge Ibaka, who scored 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting. But he wasn’t the only one.

For the first time this season, OKC had six players in double-figures: Durant, Ibaka, Reggie Jackson (16), Thabo Sefolosha (10), Jeremy Lamb (10) and Nick Collison (10).

“When we move the ball like that,” Durant said of the Thunder’s 23 assists, “everybody touching it, that helps our defense as well.”

And so it did on Sunday night, allowing OKC to stifle every King not named Isaiah Thomas (a career-high 38 points), holding Sacramento under 100 points for only the third time in its last 16 games.

“They, for years, do a great job of turning you over,” Kings coach Mike Malone said, pointing to his team’s 20 giveaways. “But more importantly, (they) convert them.”


VIDEO: Check out Kevin Durant’s seventh straight 30-point outing for the Thunder

***

No. 2: What’s Miami’s motivation at this point of the season? – The two-time defending champion Miami Heat have a problem. They cannot seem to locate the proper motivation at this stage of a regular season that they know means little if they don’t finish it off with another parade. They have the luxury of not being pressed about finding it immediately, courtesy of a weak Eastern Conference playoff field that includes just the Indiana Pacers and Heat at the top. But, as Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald points out, they still have to find something to motivate them, some sort of rallying cry for the second half of the regular season:

Last February, the Heat watched the Super Bowl in Toronto, listened to Shane Battier give a theatrically hilarious, yet poignant speech on the team bus, and then won 27 games in a row. The streak was such an important part of the Heat’s season that the team’s ownership inscribed the accomplishment on the championship rings.

Players have called that day in Toronto one of the most memorable of their careers, and Sunday in Atlanta was a similar experience.

Of course, up until now, little has been memorable about this season, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the Heat is 29-11 through the first 40 games of the season. Last season, before the streak, the team was 28-12 at this point, and on the way to 28-13.

On Monday, the Heat plays the grand finale of an unconventional six-game road trip that has dragged on for 11 days. Miami has played five consecutive games against teams with losing records and will end the road trip against the Hawks (20-19), who have the fourth-best record in the East, but are without their best player, forward Al Horford, for the remainder of the season.

The Heat’s overtime victory against the Bobcats on Saturday salvaged the six-game swing, which began with back-to-back losses to the Knicks and Nets, and gave Miami a chance to break even on a road trip that began with three consecutive losses.

“We haven’t lost three in a row in a very long time, so we got to put together a run and head into this All-Star break and this is the way to do it,” said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who had 10 rebounds against the Bobcats. “You look at the two teams that we’ve beaten, they’re young, they’re energetic, and even though their record doesn’t say so, those are the teams we struggle with, the teams that are .500 and below, so for us to come out here and be professional and get this win says a lot.”

Of the Heat’s 11 losses, nine have been to teams currently with losing records. The Bobcats were in position to become the 10th team on that inglorious list, but a staunch defensive effort by the Heat forced overtime, and the Heat dominated the extra period for a 104-96 victory.

“We were really upset with ourselves and we had to be honest,” Chris Bosh said of the Heat’s first-half effort against the Bobcats. “Charlotte is a good team, but 60 points in a half is too much. I don’t care if you’re playing the best offensive team in the league, that’s too much.

“They just seemed to be scoring at will, and we wanted to change that. We didn’t do a very good job of defending in the first half, but we picked it up in the second and got the win.”


VIDEO: The top five plays from Sunday’s action around the NBA

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No. 3: Magic hit the floor to end their skid – When you are mired in a complete free-fall, any solution to get out of that mess needs to be considered. For the Orlando Magic, a team that endured a 10-game slide before ending it with a win over Boston Sunday, elbow and knee pads were the solution. Actually, they didn’t sport the elbow and knee pads, but they could have used them with the way they hit the deck repeatedly against the Celtics, according to Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

After their losing streak reached 10 games, Orlando Magic players and coaches realized something fundamental needed to change. Not X’s-and-O’s, but something intangible.

Players and coaches talked together when they gathered for practice Saturday.

Whatever they had been doing during the first half of the season, and especially during their 10 consecutive losses, wasn’t working. They faced a choice: Either they would make a change and modify their collective spirit, or the second half of their season would devolve into a freefall of epic proportions.

They made that adjustment Sunday night. Magic players repeatedly dove to Amway Center’s parquet floor to collect loose basketballs. They covered for each other when they made defensive lapses. And that sustained intensity and improved cohesion, they said, played a direct role as they beat the Boston Celtics 93-91 and ended their losing streak.

“I could feel no personal agendas,” Arron Afflalo said after the win. “I could feel nothing but five guys who were on the court and the two guys who came off the bench really looking for a way to get a victory tonight.”

Afflalo scored 20 points, tied a career high by grabbing 13 rebounds and dished out six assists.

He also provided one of the game’s key baskets, tying the score 89-89 on a driving layup with 1:08 remaining.

After Rajon Rondo missed a jumper on Boston’s ensuing possession, Jameer Nelson drew a foul with 35.3 seconds left and hit a pair of free throws.

Boston’s Jeff Green countered a few seconds later, scoring on a layup as Afflalo fouled him. But Green missed the foul shot, and Victor Oladipo fell to the floor to corral the loose ball.

“When you have a mindset of just playing hard from the jump, you just continue to play hard,” Oladipo said. “When your teammates have your back, when they’re positive throughout the game, it’s hard not to be involved and it’s hard not to be focused and locked-in all night.”

***

No. 4: No slowing down for Dragic without Bledsoe – Goran Dragic doesn’t have the luxury of slowing down at the catalyst for the Phoenix Suns, not without Eric Bledsoe healthy and in the lineup. That means the veteran point guard has to keep his motor cranked constantly for a Suns team trying to stay afloat in the Western Conference playoff chase. Dragic’s ability to sustain his high level of energy could very well be the key to the Suns’ season. He has to hold up. Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic explains:

It is becoming taxing for Suns point guard Goran Dragic to take on more playmaking and more of the burden to score with more defensive attention on him. All the while, he is guarding the playmaker on the other side, a duty that usually fell to Bledsoe.

“I’m not thinking about that,” Dragic said. “If I’m going to think about how I’m tired, then it’s going to be even worse for me. I just try to battle. I try to be positive. I’m from Slovenia so back home it’s no excuse if you’re tired. Even when I was growing up, my father always said there’s going to be some hard days so you have to go through that. You can sleep after the thing that you do, if it’s work or a basketball game. Now, I’m feeling tired. But when the game is going on, I’m not thinking about it so much.”

Dragic had averaged 41.3 minutes over the previous three games entering Sunday night’s game against Denver. He does not back off his effort and now has a collapsing defense concentrating on him too.

“That’s always a concern, trying to keep an eye on a guy’s minutes and seeing if he’s getting worn out,” Suns coach Jeff Hornacek said. “We’ve had a pretty tough stretch of games where they haven’t had a lot of rest. When we’ve had days off between games, we’ve limited them from really doing anything trying to get their legs back. As we move forward, it doesn’t get any easier but we’ve got to get through that time.”

Dragic gave the Suns control Sunday night with 15 rebounds and six assists and he got some needed rest in return, logging only 24 minutes.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Are there rotation changes coming in Denver? Could be … Jonas Valanciunas gets benched for not producing … The Bucks get yet another lesson, this time from the best in the business … Danny Ainge assess all things for the Celtics at the halfway mark of the season … LaMarcus Aldridge will go left if need be for the Trail Blazers

ICYMI(s) of The Night: DeMar DeRozan has blossomed into a potential All-Star and the scoring leader for the playoff-bound Toronto Raptors. But he’s still one of the league’s elite above-the-rim finishers, as he shows here:


VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan is what we call a finisher, especially above the rim

Ujiri The Ultimate Chemistry Teacher




VIDEO: DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors are on a roll right now, winners of four straight games

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Masai Ujiri‘s front office peers around the NBA should pay close attention to the way the Toronto Raptors’ star goes about his business. While some franchise architects like to work their so-called magic with the public watching intently, Ujiri has done a masterful job (first in Denver and now in Toronto) tweaking chemistry and getting results.

In fact, Ujiri has proven himself to be the ultimate chemistry teacher these days in terms of knowing how to tweak a roster just right. The reigning NBA Executive of the Year, an honor voted on by his peers, Ujiri is making a strong push for repeat honors with the way the Raptors are playing since the Rudy Gay trade went down.

They are 9-3 and winners of eight of their last 10 games since moving Gay to Sacramento Dec. 9. It was a move designed to give the Raptors long-term flexibility and not necessarily an immediate jolt that has helped them climb all the way up to the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.

But Ujiri has a way of studying a roster, figuring out what works and what doesn’t and then being fearless in his attempts to change things for the better. Since Gay was jettisoned, the Raptors have scored huge wins over the likes of Dallas and Chicago, and most recently in Oklahoma City (where they handed the West-best Thunder their first home loss of the season) and kicked off 2014 with an impressive home win over the East-best Indiana Pacers.

As much as this is about the fine work being done by Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his staff, and of course, the contributions of a roster full of grinders like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez and others, this is about the man who put it all together.

Ujiri just happens to have the magic touch right now. And if you don’t believe it, just look at the hard times his former team has fallen upon in his absence. The Denver Nuggets have lost eight straight games, their longest such skid since the end of the 2002-03 season. Veteran point guard Andre Miller turned the heat up even more by ripping first-year coach Brian Shaw after Wednesday’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, making matters worse in Denver while Ujiri has his new team soaring.

A boss like Ujiri keeps those dustups contained, as best can be, or at least at a minimum and away from the public. You don’t have to worry about those sorts of altercations when working conditions are at a premium. And Ujiri has freed up virtually every key rotation player on the Raptors’ roster to do what he does best after the Gay trade.

DeRozan and Lowry in particular are allowed to play more to their natural strengths on the perimeter, while Valanciunas has become more of a focal point as well. Role players like Johnson, the ridiculously underrated Vasquez, who came over from Sacramento in the trade, and young journeyman forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Patrick Patterson have become critical pieces in the Raptors’ current run.

“No one on this team is selfish; everyone accepts their roles,” Patterson told reporters after the Raptors outslugged Paul George, Roy Hibbert and the Pacers to kick off the New Year. “No one wants to get more shots, no one wants to do more of this, no one is jealous of another player … we all understand what we have to do in order to make this machine keep rolling smoothly.”

The man responsible for making sure that machine runs without a hitch, of course, is Ujiri. He understands, as well or better than most right now, that team chemistry trumps just about everything else that goes on inside a team’s fabric in this day and age. Even the Miami Heat needed a year (and a Finals defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team that had off the charts chemistry) to figure that out.


VIDEO: The Raptors took it to the Pacers, kicking off 2014 in style before the home crowd

It’s Time For New Year’s Resolutions

VIDEO: The Starters review the year so far

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Ring out the old. Ring in the new. As the calendar turns, it’s time for resolutions throughout the NBA:

Atlanta Hawks — Look Back to the Future: This was supposed to be the start of a brand new era for one of the NBA’s most moribund franchises, and things were actually looking good until Al Horford tore a pectoral muscle. With their undersized big man done for the season, the Hawks will only stay afloat because they’re in the horrid Eastern Conference. But they’re going in the right direction under GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, and will get the lottery pick of the sinking Nets, so there’s reason for hope out of a draft class teeming with talent.

Boston Celtics — Move Fast on Rondo: According to the old saying, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. When Rajon Rondo is finally able to get back onto the court and prove that he’s close to his old self, rookie coach Brad Stevens and GM Danny Ainge have to find out right away if he’s mentally ready to anchor the rebuilding project. If not, the Celtics could reap a windfall in new pieces ahead of the trade deadline.

Brooklyn Nets — Fuhgetaboutit: OK, it was a nice little pipe dream to think that a couple of old codgers like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could shuffle up and down the court in slippers and robes to tangle with the Heat and Pacers. Fortunately, team owner Mikhail Prokorov can afford their salaries with the kind of change he finds in his sofa cushions. Pay them off, send them away and get back to building around Brook Lopez and Deron Williams with players who aren’t signing up for Medicare.

Charlotte Bobcats — Keep Him: For the first time in who can remember how long, Michael Jordan won’t have to spend next summer looking for a coach. The merry-go-round can stop. Steve Clifford has given Charlotte a sense of purpose, respectability and a solid identity on the defensive end. Now they’ve got to work on boosting production out of that woeful offense. One thing at a time.

Chicago Bulls — Play Derrick and the Dominoes: Even Layla couldn’t have knocked the Bulls off their feet like the second straight significant injury to their All-Star, MVP guard Derrick Rose. It might be time to reshuffle the bones on a club that hasn’t even won a conference title and already has significant money locked up in Rose, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson before re-signing Luol Deng to a big contract.

Cleveland Cavaliers — Stop Winning the Draft Lottery: Of course, that would require the Cavs to actually make the playoffs and not qualify for the lottery. This is a team that was supposed to be on the rise with enough young talent to make LeBron James think about returning, but instead has Kyrie Irving trying to do everything, Dion Waiters angry and Andrew Bynum maybe ready to give up the game. Time for an adult to take control here, coach Mike Brown.

Dallas Mavericks — Embrace Reality: It’s a bit ironic that a guy like Mark Cuban that has made a name for himself in the world of reality TV shows rarely faces up to it with the Mavs. He’s fun. He’s entertaining. He’ll say anything, such as there’s no telling whether Houston getting Dwight Howard or Dallas getting Monta Ellis was a better free agent signing last summer. Now go get yourself some defense, Mark, before Dirk Nowitzki winds up running on his tongue trying to outscore everybody.

Denver Nuggets — Respect Yourself: There shouldn’t be a decent team that breaks camp without a solid sense of its identity. A year ago with George Karl pulling the strings from the sidelines and Andre Iguodala setting the pace on the court, the Nuggets had that. Now they are often just a bunch that is stuck in the middle of the pack on offense (18th) and defense (16th) and too often can’t defend its home court.

Detroit Pistons — Say It Ain’t So, Joe: A few years ago, it was signing Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva as big-money free agents. This time GM Joe Dumars figured it would be a good idea to upgrade the Pistons by tossing the combustible Josh Smith onto the fire to light up the frontcourt. So, Smith is already calling out coach Mo Cheeks and the Pistons are backsliding from the .500 mark. Things are getting ugly early again in the Motor City. And, oh yeah, nobody is coming to watch the Pistons, who are last in the league in attendance.

Golden State Warriors — Do the American Hustle: Like the hit movie, was last year’s magical little run through the playoffs by Mark Jackson’s team just one glorious con job? Yes, they’ve played a tough schedule, but something is missing. Lack of last year’s bench? A failure to take care of the ball? You get the sense that the Warriors were just trying to pick up this season right where they left off without putting in all of the gritty groundwork.

Houston Rockets — Rebound, Then Run: Everybody loves watching the Rockets run like methamphetamine-fueled hamsters on a wheel. But for a team that has Dwight Howard in the middle, they are horrible at giving up second-chance points to opponents and it has often proved costly. It’s nice to run, but better not to turn your back and head down the court while the other guy is dropping another put-back into the net.

Indiana Pacers — Don’t Stop Believing: The Pacers came into the season convinced that they could live up to the old axiom of playing them one game at a time and that grind-it-out method would eventually deliver the best record in the league and home-court all the way through The Finals. With Paul George tossing his hat into the MVP ring and Roy Hibbert making opponents ears ring with his physical style, it’s working quite well for coach Frank Vogel’s team.

L.A. Clippers — Say Goodbye to Hollywood: The sooner the Clippers can get rid of all the extraneous things in their game — yes, you, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan — and get down to the serious business of playing some real defense around the basket, the sooner we’ll take them seriously as real contenders in the Western Conference. At this point, despite all the good work by Chris Paul, the Clips are still one of those acts that gets eliminated early on “American Idol.”

L.A. Lakers — Lock Up Kobe: Yes, we know he’s the Black Mamba. We know that he’d be the guy standing out in the rain with a fork and still believe he’d quench his thirst. But the Lakers aren’t going anywhere this season and it doesn’t help their cause for next year if Kobe Bryant returns and pushes himself to the limit again in a debilitating run that winds up far short of the playoffs. It’s time to think about the limited — and high-paying — future he has left. Oh yeah, and trade Pau Gasol.

(more…)

Break Up The Raptors? No, Really…


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry has a team-high 16 points as the Raptors beat the Bulls

CHICAGO – A funny thing is happening to the Toronto Raptors on their trudge to the basement in the Eastern Conference standings.

They walked through an unmarked door last week, assuming it was another flight of stairs to take them down, only to realize too late they’d stepped onto an elevator headed up.

Toronto’s decision to trade highly paid scoring forward Rudy Gay, as well as to shop point guard Kyle Lowry, sprang from general manager Masai Ujiri‘s newness to the situation this season and an eye to the future in terms of cap space and roster flexibility. But the present has perked up considerably, with today looking pretty good regardless of tomorrow.

The Raptors’ smackdown Saturday of a beleaguered Bulls team did more than demonstrate that too many unfamiliar faces is a better problem to have than too few healthy bodies. It left Toronto with a 3-1 mark since Gay played his last game for the team and, at 9-13, looking downright viable as an Atlantic Division contender and Eastern Conference playoff possibility.

Those things are relative, of course, and they could reverse direction overnight if Ujiri and Toronto ownership hews to the grander plan of prime lottery position for the Draft in June and greater cost savings or manageable contracts. That’s the backdrop against which Gay was dealt to Sacramento and Lowry possibly could be moved this week (in the NBA calendar’s sweet spot for trading summer acquisitions and repackaging returns). With a prize like Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins on the board in one of the deepest drafts in recent hyperbole, one more year of sub-.500 ball and missed playoffs conceivably could be a small price to pay.

That’s not the same thing as no price, though, any more than playing respectably and winning more now would bring no benefits. It might not be enough to keep Dwane Casey around – the Raptors head coach is in the last year of his deal, working for a boss who did not hire him – but it’s more in line with what DeMar DeRozan, the team’s default leader now, has in mind.

After the Bulls game, DeRozan talked about the bad habits and general depression that can set in with losing. Today’s players are the ones tomorrow’s stars wind up replacing, so projecting who and what and where Toronto might draft is of little interest to most of those inside the dressing room.

“No matter who’s on the court, we’ve still got to play to win,” DeRozan said earlier in the evening. “That’s our whole mindset, to go out there and play as well as we can. Put our hearts out there and play to win the game.

“I think everybody in this locker room is living game-to-game. Nobody looks too far ahead. We just take care of our job and do it every single day.”

The “we” is a little different now but then, so are the results. In the three games since Gay’s departure was made official, the Raptors have moved the ball for 23, 25 and 26 assists, uncorked from the forward’s ball-stopping ways. Toronto still ranks last in the league at 18.3 assists per game – but in a mere week’s time, it has boosted that average by a full assist.

Of the new guys, Chuck Hayes still is being held out, his past heart condition requiring more thorough cardiac testing before he’s physically cleared. But the other three – Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and John Salmons – have done well off the bench. In two games, they have combined to average 23 points on 16 of 34 shots (47.1 percent). Gay for the Raptors this season: 19.4 points on 38.8 percent shooting.

Swapping out his $17.9 million salary, with Quincy Acy ($800,000) and Aaron Gray ($2.7 million), was what drove the deal; Vasquez ($2.1 million), Patterson ($3.1 million), Salmons ($7.6 million) and Hayes ($5.7 million) bring way more bang for the bucks. Especially with what looks to be some fast-tracked transition time.

Casey said he expected another week or two might be needed to get them all clicking. But Vasquez seemed to play with the right pace and vision for Toronto and Patterson found his spot for repeated foul-line jumpers. The starters, with Lowry still around and running things deftly, were unruffled with 69 points Saturday. Terrence Ross is getting the sort of minutes he craved, Jonas Valanciunas (15 points, 11 rebounds) continues to develop, DeRozan seems more mature all of a sudden and D.J. Augustin was missing his shots for the Bulls this time, not the Raptors.

Wiggins? Jabari Parker? The lottery? That’s for Ujiri and the folks upstairs. But the Toronto players and Casey are on the ground level of something that feels refreshing, with no interest in cellar doors.

Raptors’ Valanciunas Recharges Batteries After Long, Busy Summer

The expectations for Jonas Valanciunas remain considerable, even grandiose: Double-double production on a nightly basis, pushing toward 20/10 status. Heavy minutes regardless of his team’s or the opponents’ strategy, with the discipline to avoid foul trouble that would thwart that.

Sooner rather than later, the ability to score like Brook Lopez, rebound like Tyson Chandler and protect the rim like Roy Hibbert. In short, become the cornerstone at both ends of the floor that the Toronto Raptors envisioned when they spent the No. 5 overall pick on him in June 2011 and then waited 14 months to see some return.

Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas (Ron Turenne/NBAE)

The results so far have been much more modest.

In Toronto’s first three games, the 6-foot-11 center from Lithuania averaged 6.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 shots in 21.7 minutes, essentially a push with his 2012-13 stats (8.9, 6.0, 1.3 and 23.9). Still 21 with a mere 65 games of NBA experience, Valanciunas has made nine of his 22 shots and had only two chances from the line.

He logged just 16:16 in the Raptors’ victory at Milwaukee Saturday, with three first-half fouls only part of the reason. Though he was effective (seven points, six rebounds) when he was out there — and the other Toronto starters made sure to look for him in the early going, something that doesn’t always happen with ball-stickers Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan – Valanciunas played fewer than six minutes in the third quarter and none at all in the fourth.

With the Raptors at home against Miami Tuesday, it’s possible his court time will be limited again, given the Heat’s propensity for smaller, quicker lineups. In other words, Valanciunas’ breakthrough season is still tap-tap-tap-tapping from the other side.

“He’s gonna get there,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey after the victory over the Bucks. “Believe me, he’s gonna get there.”

Just not overnight or even in 15 months of overnights. One of the reasons for Valanciunas’ idle time in Milwaukee was small ball, with Casey countering the lineup Bucks coach Larry Drew put out there. No Larry Sanders, no Zaza Pachulia, no Ersan Ilyasova down the stretch. The Raptors had encountered the same thing 24 hours earlier in Atlanta, where the big guy played only 4:40 after halftime.

“It’s just such a challenge for him, not only in the halfcourt game but getting back in transition,” Casey said. “Because they had [Al] Horford bringing the ball down in transition and now it’s 5-on-4. It was a quick game. But again, for him to grow and get better, he’s going to have to learn to play in those situations.”

Another reason is Casey’s desire not to let winnable games slip away. The coach is in the final year of his contract. He has new bosses, including GM Masai Ujiri, who aren’t the folks who hired him. And anything even close to the Raptors’ 3-13 start last season, for a team with rumbling ambitions of the postseason, likely would be curtains for Casey.

The coaches did force-feed Valanciunas some minutes last season, and the results paid off more for the individual than the group. In the 20 games in which he played 30 minutes or more, he averaged 14 points and 7.9 rebounds. But Toronto went 7-13 in those games, including 0-6 in the ones prior to Jan. 1.

The final reason for Valanciunas’ regulated playing time is a sense that he’s a little court weary. Remember, besides the long runs he got last spring, he participated in the Las Vegas Summer League, where his 18.0 points and 10.0 rebounds earned him the MVP award. From there, it was on to the EuroBasket Championship in September, helping Lithuania earn the silver medal. He went through his first NBA training camp last month, then started seven preseason games, averaging 8.7 points and 6.4 boards.

Now, Valanciunas knew what he was in for. He talked in camp of being up for the workload. He has been able to maintain his bulked-up form and strength.

But several Raptors insiders will tell you that, frankly, he is a little gassed right now. Certainly too much for the pace of small ball or keeping up with bigs who routinely get out in transition.

“There’s going to come a time,” Casey said, without apparent worry, “where he’s going to be able to do that.”

That and much more, if the plan proves out.

No Looking Back For Raptors’ Lowry


VIDEO: NBA TV Canada takes a deeper look at Raptors guard Kyle Lowry

ATLANTA – Kyle Lowry doesn’t believe in looking back or wasting his time on what could have or should have been. The Toronto Raptors’ point guard has been through too much to fret about the past.

He’s focused on one thing and one thing only these days — leading the Raptors to a playoff bid and quenching the thirst of a devoted fan base that has suffered far too long without postseason hoops. It helps that Lowry, a player that Raptors coach Dwane Casey referred to as the “key to his team,” finally feels like he’s found a home.

In Memphis he was a fiery reserve but never handed the keys to the operation. And in Houston, where he started 109 games in three and half seasons, he was still trying to find his way in the league with an organization that was in flux.

“It’s not about what happened then,” Lowry said Friday morning before the Raptors faced the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, League Pass). “I think I was absolutely in a great situation, the right situation in Houston. I got into that situation, unfortunately, with an injury to Aaron Brooks. But I think it was a great situation for me. And I feel like I’m in the same kind of place now. This is an opportunity league. To be effective, to flourish and do well, it has to be the right fit.”

And that’s exactly what Lowry believes he has with the Raptors’ current group. With he, Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan as headliners and the supporting cast filled out with Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, Terrence Ross, Steve Novak, Quincy Acy and others, Lowry insists the Raptors’ depth and balance is as good as ever.

“I think the playoffs is much more of a realistic goal for us this year,” said Lowry, a seven-year NBA veteran. “Last year we got off to such a bad start that it set us back and we were never really able to recover from that. But we’ve added some toughness this year with Hansbrough and we’ve added a shooter in Novak. We’ve had a full training camp with Rudy and DeMar. Jonas is year older and the core guys have been together and playing next to each other for four of five months. We’re all feeling better about things now and I think we have a chance to do some things that people don’t expect us to do.”

Casey is counting on Lowry to continue doing what he’s been doing all along in Toronto: serve as the Raptors’ on-and off-court leader. Casey recognizes a distinct difference in the Lowry we all see now and the one he was from afar years ago.

“Everybody thinks they are the player they’re going to be from the first month they are in the league, and that’s just not the case,” Casey said. “I think Kyle has learned some really valuable lessons over the years from his previous experiences in Memphis and Houston. He has grown into who he is as a player. He has really matured in so many ways. He’s slowed his game down and sees things in ways he probably did not early on in his career. He’s not that same, run-up-a-wall type of player he was. He’s much more cerebral now and understands the game more. He’s the key to our team.”

Lowry, 27, is also a player that Casey trusts implicitly. Lowry’s poise and leadership is definitely a commodity on the floor in today’s NBA.

“Bottom line is this is the perfect system for him,” Casey said. “He’s our quarterback and he has the freedom to run different plays and direct based on what he sees on the court. He can identify the matchups and go wherever he needs to go with the ball on that end of the floor. When he doesn’t do that he’ll defer to me and we’ll get together during time outs and evaluate what’s going on in dead ball situations and things like that and make our adjustments. But he’s doing an excellent job on the floor being a quarterback and understanding who needs touches and when they need them. He’s doing a heck of a job defensively and hawking the ball the way he has. But yes, the system fits him tremendously.”

It fits Lowry better than it has in the past, whether he wants to take a look back or not. And that’s exactly what the Raptors need.

Three More Earn World Cup Berths

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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – Three more teams earned berths to the 2014 World Cup of Basketball on Thursday. Slovenia, Croatia and Lithuania will be making the trip to Spain next August thanks to big wins at Eurobasket.

Slovenia had to recover quickly from Wednesday night’s disappointing loss to France, playing Serbia just 16 hours later. But they pushed the pace early and got off to a hot start, scoring 30 points in the first quarter. It was the second straight day that Serbia got smoked in the opening 10 minutes. They were able to recover a little better than they did against Spain on Wednesday, but they shot a brutal 2-for-18 from 3-point range and never really made things interesting.

It was Zoran Dragic who led the way for Slovenia with 23 points and nine rebounds, with brother Goran finishing with 15 points and five assists. The win puts the Eurobasket hosts in the WCOB field (see below) and they will play the winner of Ukraine-Italy in the sixth place game on Saturday.

In Thursday’s first quarterfinal, Croatia used a 19-1 run in the second quarter to build a double-digit lead against Ukraine, who could never cut that lead down to less than eight. Bojan Bogdanovic had a relatively quiet afternoon, but Krunoslav Simon picked up the slack, scoring 23 points on just 10 shots from the field. Croatia’s 84-72 win was their eighth straight (after losing their opener to Spain) and put them in the semifinals, with Ukraine being sent to the loser’s bracket, where it will have win one of the next two games to qualify for the WCOB.

The nightcap was the best matchup of the quarterfinals, and it sure looked like it through three quarters. But Italy went scoreless over the first 5:57 of the fourth as Lithuania built a 14-point lead. They held on for a four-point win that sends them to the semifinals against Croatia and makes them the 18th team to qualify for the WCOB. It was a balanced attack for Lithuania, who played small with only one big man on the floor, leaving Jonas Valanciunas on the bench for all but 10:51. Marco Belinelli led Italy with 22 points.

So here’s where we stand with three more days of action left in Slovenia. Early on Friday (8:30 a.m. ET), Italy will play Ukraine for another spot in the WCOB. The winner of that game will play Slovenia on Saturday for sixth place, while the loser will play Serbia for the seventh place and the final WCOB berth.

Also on Friday, we’ll have the two semifinals, both on NBA TV: Croatia-Lithuania (11:45 a.m. ET) and France-Spain (3 p.m. ET). Both are great matchups between teams playing some of their best basketball. The final will be on Sunday.

2014 World Cup of Basketball field

No. Team Qualified
1 Spain Host
2 USA 2012 Olympic champion
3 Iran FIBA Asia champion
4 Philippines FIBA Asia 2nd place
5 Korea FIBA Asia 3rd place
6 Australia FIBA Oceania champion
7 New Zealand FIBA Oceania 2nd place
8 Angola FIBA Africa champion
9 Egypt FIBA Africa 2nd place
10 Senegal FIBA Africa 3rd place
11 Mexico FIBA Americas champion
12 Puerto Rico FIBA Americas second place
13 Argentina FIBA Americas third place
14 Dominican Republic FIBA Americas fourth place
15 France Eurobasket semifinalist
16 Croatia Eurobasket semifinalist
17 Lithuania Eurobasket semifinalist
18 Slovenia Eurobasket 5th/6th place
19 Ukraine/Italy winner Eurobasket 5th/6th place
20 Serbia or Ukraine/Italy loser Eurobasket 7th place
21 Wildcard
22 Wildcard
23 Wildcard
24 Wildcard

16 NBA Players Still Going At EuroBasket

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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – With training camps set to open in less than two weeks, most NBA players are getting back to their places of business and working out with their teammates.

Several guys, however, are in Slovenia, representing their countries at EuroBasket. Sixteen teams have gone home and eight remain, playing for national pride and seven spots in next year’s World Cup of Basketball. EuroBasket has been the best basketball of the summer and the single-elimination action starts Wednesday.

Here’s the quarterfinal schedule:
Serbia (E1) vs. Spain (F4), Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. ET (NBA TV)
Slovenia (F2) vs. France (E3), Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET (NBA TV)
Croatia (F1) vs. Ukraine (E4), Thursday, 11:45 a.m. ET
Lithuania (E2) vs. Italy (F3), Thursday, 3 p.m. ET

And here are the 16 NBA players still playing, with some notes on how they’ve done so far…

Nicolas Batum (Blazers) – France
His stats: 28.1 MPG, 11.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, .463 FG%, 7-for-31 3PT
The buzz: Batum has been filling the box score (as he’s known to do). He had 19 points, 10 boards, six assists, a steal and a block in last Friday’s win over Latvia. But he’s had some rough shooting nights from beyond the arc.

Marco Belinelli (Spurs) – Italy
His stats: 31.6 MPG, 14.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, .369 FG%, 11-for-34 3PT
The buzz: Belinelli is Italy’s primary ball-handler, a different role than he’s played in the NBA. He’s had some big games, but will be facing one of the tournament’s toughest defenses in the quarterfinals on Thursday.

Jose Calderon (Mavs) – Spain
His stats: 23.4 MPG, 9.4 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, .458 FG%, 18-for-37 3PT
The buzz: Sharing the backcourt with Ricky Rubio, Calderon has been playing a lot of two guard for Spain. But that’s OK, because every team needs a secondary ball-handler and he’s also a great shooter. He has a 24/8 assist/turnover ratio and has hit three or more 3-pointers in four of Spain’s eight games.

Victor Claver (Blazers) – Spain
His stats: 17.9 MPG, 4.9 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 0.9 APG, .412 FG%, 5-for-15 3PT
The buzz: Claver is a terrific rebounder starting at power forward and doing the dirty work for Spain. He’s averaging almost 11 boards per 36 minutes at Eurobasket and had 11 in just 24 minutes before fouling out against Greece. He has drained a few threes, but probably spends a little too much time hanging out on the perimeter.

Luigi Datome (Pistons) – Italy
His stats: 29.9 MPG, 14.0 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.3 APG, .488 FG%, 15-for-36 3PT
The buzz: The Pistons’ rookie has had a couple of big games and sent Monday’s thriller against Spain to overtime with a driving layup at the buzzer. He can shoot and will be a decent role player in the league, but will need to play off Detroit’s playmakers. He’s not very mobile or skilled off the dribble.

Nando De Colo (Spurs) – France
His stats: 20.3 MPG, 8.8 PPG, 1.9 RPG, 0.9 APG, .413 FG%, 11-for-26 3PT
The buzz: Coming off the bench for France, De Colo shot well early in the tournament, but has cooled off of late.

Boris Diaw (Spurs) – France
His stats: 28.1 MPG, 10.1 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 3.4 APG, .508 FG%, 3-for-12 3PT
The buzz: Tony Parker is the star in France, but it’s Diaw’s passing from the high post that can really make the French offense click. Though Parker has the ball in his hands more, Diaw has almost as many dimes.

Goran Dragic (Suns) – Slovenia
His stats: 23.3 MPG, 15.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 4.4 APG, .392 FG%, 8-for-32 3PT
The buzz: Dragic is a terror on the break and has had some big games for the tournament’s hosts, including 28 points in a win over Greece on Saturday. The shooting numbers look ugly, because he missed his first 11 threes of the tournament. His matchup against Parker could be the best of the quarterfinals.

Marc Gasol (Grizzlies) – Spain
His stats: 29.5 MPG, 13.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 1.8 APG, .521 FG%, 3-for-6 3PT
The buzz: Though Gasol had 32 points and 10 boards in Monday’s overtime loss to Italy, his offensive numbers don’t make it clear that he’s one of the two best players in the tournament. But he’s anchored Eurobasket’s No. 1 defense, which has allowed 16.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the tourney average.

Mickael Gelabale (Wolves) – France
His stats: 25.5 MPG, 7.9 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, .449 FG%, 8-for-23 3PT
The buzz: Like De Colo, Gelable shot well early on (7-for-15 from 3-point range in the first round), but has since cooled off (1-for-8) in Round 2. He’s in France’s starting lineup for his defense, but can provide some scoring off the ball.

Viacheslav Kravtsov (Suns) – Ukraine
His stats: 17.9 MPG, 6.6 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 0.8 APG, 1.4 BPG, .436 FG%
The buzz: Ukraine’s only NBA player is its fifth leading scorer. Kravtsov is a big body who needs more polish in the post.

Donatas Motiejunas (Rockets) – Lithuania
His stats: 11.6 MPG, 5.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 0.3 APG, .486 FG%, 4-for-12 3PT
The buzz: Lithuania is deep up front and Motiejunas was barely playing  earlier in the tournament (he picked up three fouls in eight minutes against Bosnia). But he totaled 23 points in 39 minutes in Lithuania’s last two games, helping them secure a spot in the quarters.

Nemanja Nedovic (Warriors) – Serbia
His stats: 26.0 MPG, 9.0 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, .368 FG%, 11-for-38 3PT
The buzz: With the absence of Hang Time favorite Milos Teodosic, Nedovic – the No. 30 pick in the 2013 Draft – has been starting at point guard for Serbia. He’s solid and can shoot off the dribble, but he doesn’t have the quickness to be much of a threat on the pick-and-roll. But he doesn’t need to be a real floor general with a team like Serbia, that moves the ball pretty well.

Tony Parker (Spurs) – France
His stats: 27.9 MPG, 17.3 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 3.9 APG, .532 FG%, 7-for-26 3PT
The buzz: The best offensive player in the tournament is leading the No. 1 offense. Parker has been a terror on the pick-and-roll (no surprise there), but his pull-up jumper has been a little shaky. France has a lot of work to get through Slovenia on Wednesday, but a semifinal matchup against Spain could be the game of the tournament.

Ricky Rubio (Wolves) – Spain
His stats: 21.4 MPG, 8.3 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.0 APG, .446 FG%, 3-for-7 3PT
The buzz: Against defenses that are packing the paint (there’s no defensive three-second rule in FIBA), Rubio isn’t as dynamic a playmaker as he is in the league. He’s done a decent job of making opponents pay for going under the screen, stepping up and knocking down the mid-range jumper. But shooting is probably why Calderon has played more minutes.

Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors) – Lithuania
His stats: 17.4 MPG, 7.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 0.0 APG, 1.0 BPG, .697 FG%
The buzz: Continuing his excellent play from Summer League, Valanciunas has made 23 of his 33 shots and is averaging 16.3 points and 12.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. But Lithuania is deep up front, so his playing time has been somewhat limited. He had a double-double in just 13 minutes against Belgium on last Friday. We’ll see if he gets more minutes in the elimination rounds.