Posts Tagged ‘Serge Ibaka’

Blogtable: International next up

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Next great international player | Kawhi and the Spurs | Pick a champ



VIDEO: Inside Stuff rides along with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (April 2014)

> Not counting Andrew Wiggins (too easy), who’s the next foreign-born player you see making an important impact on the league?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: If Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to be the sponge for this game and league that he has been so far, the Bucks’ “Greek Freak” could do for the No. 15 spot in the draft what Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have done for Nos. 28 and 57 spots, respectively. I’m not sure that indulging or dinking around too long with Antetokounmpo as a “point guard” is the quickest way for him to have his impact, however. Jason Kidd and his staff need to focus on getting him to max out his All-Star potential as a pure wing.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Don’t know how you’re qualifying “making an impact.” Serge Ibaka certainly hasn’t maxed out his game and will probably have to step up big in Kevin Durant’s absence to keep the Thunder around top of the West. If you’re looking for a very young player, I’ll put my chips on Joel Embiid.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.comThis season: Nikola Mirotic with the Bulls. Nik Stauskas would be a consideration as well, but Mirotic gets the edge because he can become part of the rotation for a title contender. Next season, and with a bigger impact than either of the 2014-15 choices: Joel Embiid and Dante Exum. Both were in the 2014 draft and both are a season away, Embiid because of injury and Exum because he needs the experience of 2014-15 in Utah.

Joel Embiid (Brian Babineau /NBAE)

Joel Embiid (Brian Babineau /NBAE)

Shaun Powell, NBA.comDante Exum might not even be the best young foreign-born player on his own team at the moment; Rudy Gobert could put up decent numbers this year for the Jazz. But, really now: Exum is very young, gifted and intriguing. In time, this Aussie import could grow in leaps and bounds, like a kanga … wait, I can’t believe I was going to write that.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: In a few years, the combination of Joel Embiid (Cameroon) and Dario Saric (Croatia) will have Sixers fans forgetting these two abysmal seasons and have everyone else realizing that the Sam Hinkie‘s plan and patience has paid off. Hinkie didn’t go into the 2014 Draft looking to take two guys that wouldn’t play this season, but Embiid’s injury and Saric’s contract in Turkey allowed the Sixers GM to get two really talented players at picks where they wouldn’t have been available if they were going to be ready for the start of the season. A healthy Embiid will be an anchor on both ends of the floor, and Saric is a big forward with guard skills.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comGiannis Antetokounmpo is my pick. I know he’s a bit under the radar in Milwaukee and I know the Bucks are still working to figure out where he fits best. But there is so much talent and potential to work with where the “Greek Freak” is concerned, the options are limitless. He’s a game changer waiting to happen, provided the Bucks find the right niche for him as he continues to mature physically and in his understanding of how he can be effective in the NBA. Playing alongside another potential young star like Jabari Parker gives the Bucks an opportunity to take their player development to another level.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: Joel Embiid would have gone No. 1 last spring if not for his injury. So long as he stays healthy – a capital IF, when you look at the recent histories of Embiid and other potential stars of his size – he’ll have a chance to be not only the best international star, but to also rank among the NBA’s top 10 overall based on his size, athleticism, skills and fiery disposition.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: One guy I was excited to see in the preseason was Chicago’s Nikola Mirotic. He’s certainly arrived in the States with the requisite accolades — he was the Spanish League MVP and Spanish Cup MVP, and was twice named Euroleague Rising Star. When we saw him play during the Hang Time Road Trip, he was bigger than I anticipated, and he also seemed a bit hesitant. The hesitancy will abate with time, and being able to play behind Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah is a dream for a young post player, not only from a learning standpoint but also because it gives Mirotic the luxury of playing against second-team rotations players. Best of all? Mirotic is still just 23 years old. He hasn’t come close to prime yet. I’m looking forward to seeing it happen.

Davide Chinellato, NBA.com Italy: What about Joel Embiid? Yes, he’s probably going to sit out the entire 2014-15 season, but I think he has the talent to become the next big thing. This big man has been playing basketball only for 4 years, and he has turned from a Mr. None to a 3rd overall pick. His potential is huge, could turn him into a dominant center. I’m looking forward to see him playing

Guillermo Garcia, NBA.com Mexico: I believe that Nikola Mirotic for the Chicago Bulls, because that is a very complete player who adds many options to the offensive end.

Five questions for OKC after Durant’s surgery


VIDEO: Coach Scott Brooks describes how the loss of Durant impacts the Thunder

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kevin Durant had surgery on his fractured right foot on Thursday, the team announced. He will be evaluated in six weeks. By then, the Oklahoma City Thunder will be 16 games into a most unusual season.

Durant’s injury obviously will have wide-ranging effects, from whom coach Scott Brooks will start at small forward, which could determine who then starts at the vacant shooting guard spot, to which players with previously limited roles are in line for significantly more playing time.

Durant last season averaged 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists and led the Thunder in 3-point shooting percentage. He won the MVP. So there’s plenty of making-up to do.

Here’s five questions the Thunder face with their regular-season opener 13 days away:

1. Who will replace Durant in the starting lineup?

Perry Jones and Jeremy Lamb are the two main candidates. Lamb, the 6-foot-5 wing, is also a candidate to start at shooting guard, although Brooks seems feel most comfortable with the second-year, defensive-minded shooting guard Andre Roberson. Roberson has started all three preseason games, and if he maintains the starting spot — which he manned last season when Russell Westbrook was out and Reggie Jackson took over point guard — that would allow Lamb to start at small forward. Jones is a 6-11 forward and a rare Thunder first-round pick who has yet to earn much beyond spot work in his first two seasons. His shooting range is improving and he’s athletic, but he’d have to prove he can guard NBA wings. The bigger issue with Jones here is he’s not much of an offensive threat, or at least we can’t claim that he is or could be because we just haven’t seen much of him. Without Durant and with Roberson at shooting guard, the Thunder will desperately need scoring threats around Westbrook. That would seem to give the edge to Lamb, an inconsistent shooter to be sure, but a player the Thunder hopes can become a valued slasher and 3-point shooter. His long, lanky frame can also be beneficial on the defensive end.

2. Since OKC needs scoring threats in the starting lineup, what does that mean at center?

Brooks is an extremely loyal coach and he loves to stick with his guys through thick and thin. That is obviously the case with center Kendrick Perkins. For everything you might think Kendrick can’t do — or no longer does well — Brooks will give you two things he loves about him. But Perkins’ starting days should be coming to an end. Even before Durant’s injury, Brooks claimed the starting position was up for grabs. Well, second-year center Steven Adams is grabbing it. He’s been excellent through three preseason games, averaging 18.7 points and 6.0 rebounds in 23.7 minutes. Those are numbers Perkins couldn’t touch even during his heyday in Boston. Not that Stevens could sustain such lofty production, but he continues to show he has great hands to catch-and-finish, he’s developed a nice rapport with Westbrook and he’s not afraid of physical play. Perkins has been out since the start of training camp with a quad injury, which makes only more sense for him to come off the bench as he rounds back into shape. Get ready Thunder fans who’ve been clamoring for Perkins to sit, Adams is making it possible for you to get your wish.

3. How will this affect Russell Westbrook?

Twitter is full of smarty-pants suggesting that Durant’s absence is the point guard’s green light to jack up 40 shot a night. Maybe in his dreams, Westbrook sees himself running circles through defenses like stationary pylons, dunking at the rim, slapping his imaginary guns into his imaginary holster after splashing endless 3s and draining his trademark high-rising free-throw jumper at will as teammates stand and golf-clap his virtuosity. Back in reality, Westbrook just might surprise the masses who doubt he can be a team player. But that’s been the goal even before Durant’s injury. The Thunder, like most teams, want to move the ball, get more players involved, be more, well, Spurs-like. At the start of training camp, Westbrook addressed the topic and even said: “There should be something that you see new from us.” Maybe it was just talk, but Westbrook seems sincere when he talks about getting everybody involved. Maybe Tuesday’s preseason win against Memphis, the first game without Durant, was a preview. Westbrook played 26 minutes and scored 14 points with 12 assists. He took just 10 shots and OKC scored 117 points in a 10-point win. If this is the model for how Westbrook will approach the season, the Thunder could well be a better team when Durant returns.

4. What about Reggie Jackson? He says he badly wants to start. What does this do for that cause?

Not much. Brooks has already declared Westbrook as the best point guard in the NBA, so he’s probably not going to then move Westbrook to shooting guard to allow Jackson to start at the point. As for Jackson starting at shooting guard, it makes OKC small in the backcourt and Jackson’s playmaking and scoring punch is too valuable off the bench. But surely Jackson sees the bigger picture. He’s eligible for an extension at the end of the month, which might not happen (and it’s probably beneficial for his value not to sign an extension), and would make him a restricted free agent next summer. Even coming off the bench, Jackson is going to play starters minutes and finish games. Without Durant he instantly becomes a top scoring option, so he could set himself up for a big scoring season, which will only inflate his value next summer. If Jackson decides to mope about not starting over a less accomplished player such as Roberson or Jones, or even Lamb, the Thunder will have trouble. But Jackson has never shown to be that type of player.

5. Is there a wild card on the Thunder roster?

His name is Anthony Morrow. As Brooks mentioned at the start of training camp, the team actually has a player with a higher 3-point percentage than Durant. The Thunder could have used him last season, but better late than never. Morrow has never been able to stick with any one team during his career, but the Thunder offers a unique situation where he really can solely focus on shooting 3s (and mix in a little defense). With Durant out, defenses will focus on Westbrook and power forward Serge Ibaka, who has become one of the best mid-range, pick-and-pop shooters in the league, and if Morrow can knock down 3s at his career rate of 42.8 percent, he could certainly see more minutes than his career average of 23.7, at least until Durant returns. Through three preseason games, Morrow is averaging 16.7 points and is 8-for-14 from beyond the arc. He’s also managed to get to the free-throw line, making all 14 of his attempts. Morrow’s accuracy could be the single most effective weapon in replacing Durant’s scoring.

Ball movement high on Westbrook’s list

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at the Thunder’s media day

OKLAHOMA CITY – Visions of Pau Gasol, back to the basket, effortlessly tossing passes to cutters and slashers and 3-point shooters as if directing a choreographed ballet certainly danced through the minds of the Thunder, whose ambitions to increase ball movement in their potent, but heavily star-driven offense seem to have only intensified.

“Well, yeah, we had obviously a chance,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said Monday of OKC’s summer dalliance with Gasol, a terrific low-post passer who chose to leave the Lakers for the Chicago Bulls. “One thing I look at is I love the team I have. I wished him the best. I had a great meeting with him. But it’s not something I even think about now.”

Brooks does love his team, and he’ll never miss an opportunity to let everybody know it. In fact on Monday he announced, without provocation, that Russell Westbrook is the best point guard in the game.

And Westbrook promptly agreed.

“I feel like I’m the best player on the floor every time I step on the floor. That’s just my mindset,” Westbrook said during an exceedingly short and curt media session, perhaps the most telling sign that he’s back to 100 percent from the knee injury that robbed him of the 2013 playoffs and half of last season. “It’s not just this year, not just last year. It’s just how I think when I get on the basketball floor.”

If that’s the case then the Thunder’s desire to move the ball around more, to involve more players not named Westbrook, Kevin Durant or pick-and-pop maestro Serge Ibaka should not be the excruciating exercise it has been, particularly during out-of-timeout or late-game situations when execution is paramount.

But this is also a tricky area because Brooks must also allow his two supremely gifted stars to exploit their own unique skills to create for themselves and score. An over-reliance, however, can lead to over-dribbling, teammates standing around and ultimately either Westbrook or Durant forcing low-percentage attempts late in the shot clock. Memphis, a quality defensive team, has flustered Durant and the Thunder in each of the last two postseasons, winning in five games in 2013 without Westbrook, and forcing a seven-game series last year.

When Westbrook was sidelined during the 2013 playoffs, he watched the games from the suite level and said it helped him see the game differently. He vowed to return a smarter player. He missed half of the regular season and then was sensational in the postseason, averaging 26.7 ppg, 8.1 apg and 7.3 rpg. But he also attempted nearly 21 shots a game and made only 42 percent overall and 28 percent from beyond the arc.

This summer the Thunder added 3-point specialist Anthony Morrow, the type of consistently lethal perimeter shooter they’ve lacked, and emerging second-year center Steven Adams has shown the ability to catch-and-finish in the paint. Westbrook said moving the ball isn’t just more talk, even suggesting we will take notice.

“I think that’s key. Moving the ball is definitely a big part of our improvement as a team,” Westbrook said. “It’s something that we made a conscious effort to be able to go into this year trying to do. There should be something that you see new from us.”

The Thunder have incrementally increased their assist totals over the last three years. In 2011-12, they ranked last in the league in assist ratio (14.7), the number of assists a team averages per 100 possessions. That also happened to the be the lone season OKC advanced to the NBA Finals. That season it also had Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, another rare player capable of getting to the rim almost at will.

The trade of Harden to Houston just prior to the 2012-13 season naturally forced changes that seemed unnatural for a team that had grown together the previous three seasons. In 2012-13, OKC ranked 23rd (16.7) and last year they ranked 15th, although their assist ratio didn’t change (Westbrook’s absence obviously also has to be figured into that). For reference, the Spurs led the league at 19.2 assists per 100 possessions.

“We know what it takes to win games. We know what it takes to get to the top, but we don’t know what it feels like to win a championship,” Westbrook said. “There’s steps we have to make as a unit, and I’m pretty sure we’re going to make those.”

A dozen stories to open training camps

Little has changed with the ageless Spurs since the confetti rained down on the champs, but much is now different with the rest of the NBA. So as the first handful of training camps open this week, here are a dozen storylines that will require immediate attention:

LeBron rocks, Cleveland rolls

LeBron James, 2007 (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Is it really as simple as putting the giant sign of LeBron James back up in downtown Cleveland and turning the clock back to the days of the Cavs as contenders for them to win it all? With Kyrie Irving‘s continued growth, his performance at the FIBA World Cup fresh in our minds, with the arrival of Kevin Love to be the third leg of the stool, it only seems a matter of time before the Cavs are on the main stage in June. Let’s remember that Irving and Love have never even been to the playoffs, let alone made a deep run. But let’s also remember that this is the Eastern Conference and that means the door is open.

Kobe vs. The World

Let’s face it. Nobody — not LeBron, not Carmelo Anthony, not Kevin Durant, not anybody — will have every step he takes on the court scrutinized and analyzed more than Kobe Bryant as he battles the calendar and what would seem to be common sense as he tries to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and a knee fracture at age 36. He’ll be determined, defiant, maybe even destructive to his own well-being. More than anything, you have to hope he can stay healthy all the way through the long grind of the season, if for no other reason than to see how he drives and browbeats a ragtag collection of post-Pau Gasol era Lakers in a quixotic quest.

Big Man in the Big Easy

They’ve changed owners, changed their team name and solidified the face of the franchise for the first time since New Orleans was last in the playoffs. Now it’s time to see if Anthony Davis can build on his big dog experience with Team USA in the World Cup and put some bite into the Pelicans. Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds and made his first All-Star Game appearance last season. But based on the way he played in Spain, that might have only been scratching the surface. There are some ready to jump Davis over reigning MVP Durant as the next “best player in the game.” He’ll get up front support this season from Omer Asik, and if Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans can stay healthy, this could be the beginning of a whole new era.

Stuck on the launch pad

Until LeBron went back home to Cleveland, it was hard to top the last two offseason jackpots hit by the Rockets — landing James Harden and Dwight Howard. But that streak hit a wall when the Rockets went all-in to bring Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh to Houston. It was a bold and grand gamble that required trading away Omer Asik (to the Pelicans) and Jeremy Lin (to the Lakers) to create salary cap space. It also led to allowing Chandler Parsons to become a free agent and sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Now with neither prize free agent, the Rockets are a team that won 54 games a year ago, lost in the first round of the playoffs and have the depth of a one-night pickup at a singles bar. How much can they get from Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan? What does Jason Terry have left? How much of the weight can Harden and Howard realistically carry?

(more…)

International scene in transition


VIDEO: Gold Medal Postgame: Coach Krzyzewski

MADRID – Serbia had looked really good in its previous three games, beating 5-0 Greece by 18, walloping 5-1 Brazil by 28, and putting up 90 points against a France defense that had just shut down Spain at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

But you don’t really know how good you are until you play against the best. And when Serbia faced the U.S. for the first time since the former was part of the larger Yugoslavia, it got crushed, 129-92, in Sunday’s gold medal game.

Serbia has a lot of young talent and a very good coach. It should be one of the best national teams in Europe for years to come. Though it won silver at 2009 Eurobasket and finished fourth at the 2010 World Championship, this run at the World Cup could be the start of something even bigger.

“This is a very, very big success for our country,” Miroslav Raduljica said. “We put a good, healthy foundation for something in the future.”

But the gap between one of the best national teams in Europe and the best national team in the world seems to be pretty wide, especially when you consider that LeBron James and Kevin Durant weren’t representing the U.S. this summer. The Americans have come a long way since the 2002 World Championship, having won four straight gold medals with a stable and sustainable system under USA managing director Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

So does any other nation have any hope of knocking off the Americans any time soon?

“I think we can lose our next game,” Krzyzewski said after extending the USA’s winning streak to 63 games (45 FIBA and FIBA Americas games, 18 exhibition games) on Sunday. “That’s the way we prepare, because we know how good everyone is. So I don’t see a gap. I just see good basketball, and then we’ve been able to win.”

For the USA’s opponents, it helps to know what you’re up against. And Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic said Sunday that his team was at a disadvantage having never faced the speed, athleticism and talent of the best players in the world. Now, it has that experience.

“Each time we play against a team like that,” Djordjevic said, “we are growing up as a team. And we need this more often, because we have to understand how we have to bring up our level of athleticism, our level of defense, our level of passing, to achieve the level these USA players have. So this was a great, great night for us. A great game. We can learn a lot from this game.”

The U.S. is always going to have the talent. But a lot of other national teams, especially those from Europe that play together almost every year, have the edge when it comes to chemistry. And each time they play the Americans, they gain reps against the best. So, the next time we see this matchup, Serbia will be more prepared.

Here are a few more ramifications of what went down over the last 16 days in Spain.

A summer off

Along with the gold medal comes automatic qualification for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. So, for the fourth straight time (2009, 2011, 2013, 2015), the U.S. won’t need to send a team to the FIBA Americas tournament in the year between the Olympics and World Cup.

If they had lost on Sunday, they would have needed to qualify for the Olympics through the Americas. And it would have been interesting to see what kind of team Colangelo and Krzyzewski put together next summer in a tournament that has far less appeal than this one. But they won’t have to worry about that.

Things are going to change after 2016, however. And an Olympic gold in Rio will not earn instant qualification for the 32-team, 2019 World Cup. Instead, in a format change that was announced last year, there will be 16 teams from the Americas competing for seven spots in the World Cup via a qualification similar to that of the soccer World Cup, with some games taking place during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 NBA seasons. That, of course, will bring up even more questions about who will play for the U.S. and other nations with key players in the NBA. (more…)

Summer Dreaming: First-time All-Stars

The regular season will only be a few weeks old when the ballots will go out for the 2015 NBA All-Star Game. Most of the voters won’t even have to think about the first handful of names they’ll fill in:

LeBron James. Carmelo Anthony. Kevin Durant. Kobe Bryant.

Everybody wants to see the marquee stars. Nothing at all wrong with that.

But with only 24 roster spots in a league with 450 players, a few deserving players get overlooked. Sometimes for an entire career. It happened over 17 seasons, 1,199 games and 19,202 points for one of our all-time favorites, Eddie Johnson.

So in honor of Eddie, here in the Summer Dreaming headquarters, we’re going to pour a frosty drink and raise a toast to the players most deserving to make their All-Star debuts at New York in February:


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard’s top 10 plays of 2013-14

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs – Go figure. He’s got the Bill Russell Trophy for being named MVP of the NBA Finals sitting on his mantle, yet Leonard has not yet been named to an All-Star team in three years in the league. Of course, a big part of that is the cap that coach Gregg Popovich puts on the minutes of all of the Spurs. That doesn’t allow for those eye-popping stats that get the attention of voters. But you’d think the coaches would recognize all the things he does at both ends of the floor and add him as a reserve.


VIDEO: DeMarcus Cousins puts up 29 points, nine boards and six steals on Suns

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings – Let’s just admit it. The 2014 All-Star Game was played in New Orleans and that was what got the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis the Western Conference substitute nod over Cousins. You don’t have to dive into advanced metrics. Just know that Cousins outscored Davis 22.7 to 20.8, out rebounded him 11.7 to 10 and ranked third in the league in double-doubles with 53. Of course, Boogie hasn’t gotten the respect because he hasn’t always had his head in the game, or been the best of teammates. But if he just goes back to work, it will be time to end the Kings All-Star drought that goes back to Peja Stojakovic and Brad Miller in 2004.


VIDEO: Mike Conley has grown into a solid leader for the Grizzlies

Mike Conley, Grizzlies — He’s been flying beneath the radar for far too long, playing at an All-Star level for at least the past two seasons. The No. 4 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft has steadily grown from a tentative young player into a solid quarterback that can run the show, get to the hoop and hit 3-pointers at a respectable rate. The trouble is a numbers game. For one, he plays in the Western Conference, which is teeming with top flight point guards — Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard. For another, his rep takes a backseat to the 1-2 front court punch of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. It’s about time Conley got some love.


VIDEO: Al Jefferson spends time with Dennis Scott

Al Jefferson, Hornets — If only the voters who gave Jefferson’s spot on the Eastern Conference team last season to Roy Hibbert could have known that the Pacers center was preparing to do a swan dive down the stretch. Much credit to first year coach Steve Clifford for giving the former Bobcats an identity and to Kemba Walker for delivering, as usual. But it was Big Al who set himself up in the middle in Charlotte and went to work, toiling and scoring and rebounding the way he has for 10 seasons. He averaged a double-double (21.8 points, 10.8 rebounds). Sometimes the guys who carry their lunch buckets to work every day should be invited to the banquet and given a chance to sit at the head table.


VIDEO: ‘The Serge Protector’ turns away eight shots against the Pelicans

Serge Ibaka, Thunder — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. It’s almost like they’re a single entity, because you rarely hear one name mentioned without the other. Meanwhile there’s that jumping jack just out of the spotlight who is deserving of All-Star billing, giving the Thunder the “Big Three” punch to be a top title contender year in and year out. Until the Thunder break through and win a championship, it’s not likely that fan voters or the coaches are going to give Ibaka much respect. They should. The Spurs did in Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference finals. He’s led the league in blocks twice, is a three time All-Defensive First Team member, dunks like he’s mad at the rim and, oh, there’s also that jumper.


VIDEO: DeAndre Jordan’s top 10 plays of 2013-14

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers — It’s funny how your numbers and value to the team can go up when you simply get more minutes. Coach Doc Rivers came to town and got in Jordan’s ear and his head and demanded more. The former part-time highlight reel star delivered with a solid 35 minutes a game. Maybe the All-Star voters and the coaches still questioned whether he could keep it up at the midway point of last season. He did, leading the league in rebounds (13.6), finishing third in blocked shot (2.48) and eighth in double-doubles (42). Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are the engines in the Clippers’ machine, but it’s Jordan delivering consistently as a defensive stopper that can fuel a rise to a championship.

France shocks Spain, giving Team USA clearer path to gold


VIDEO: FIBA: Day 2, Quarterfinals Wrap

MADRID – The dream of a Spain-USA final at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup is dead.

France ended it Wednesday with a stunning, 65-52 defeat of the Spain in the quarterfinals, playing a near perfect game to keep the hosts from even playing for a medal.

The USA’s chances to win its fourth straight international gold increased dramatically with Spain’s ouster. The Americans still have to get through Lithuania in the semifinals on Thursday and the winner of Serbia-France in the gold medal game on Sunday.

After a 2-3 performance in Group A, Serbia has played fantastically in the knockout rounds, beating 5-0 Greece and 5-1 Brazil by a total of 46 points to reach the semis. And if France continues to play the defense that it played on Wednesday, it can beat anybody.

But Spain was obviously the biggest threat to the USA’s winning streak, now at 43 games after Tuesday quarterfinal win over Slovenia. In fact, Spain looked like the World Cup favorites, with a full roster and a raucous home crowd behind them. Group A was the toughest pool in the tournament, as evidenced by its 4-0 record against Group B in the round of 16, and the hosts rolled through it, beating Brazil, France and Serbia by an average of 19.7 points.

On the other half of the bracket, Australia made a clear effort to avoid the U.S. until the semifinals and better its chance for a medal with who and how they played in their final pool-play contest. France had the opportunity to do the same with Spain, but played its final Group A game to win.

“We know, being third, we could cross with Spain in the quarterfinals,” France coach Vincent Collet said after his team’s win over Iran last week. “That’s basketball.”

Australia played to lose and then lost to Turkey in the round of 16. France played to win and pulled off the biggest upset that we’ve seen in a long time in international basketball. They simply outplayed Spain on both ends of the floor.

“For Spain, it was not that easy to play against us a second time,” Collet said afterward. “I think the big spread (24 points) of the first game was something important for us, because it was more motivation. We used it. We showed the players how bad we looked during the first game sometimes.”

The French players said they came in with a nothing-to-lose attitude and felt that all the pressure would be on Spain if the game was close down the stretch.

“It’s tough sometimes for a team to play at home,” Boris Diaw, who led France with 15 points, said. “I think we had the motivation to win and they had the motivation to not lose.”

But the pressure wouldn’t have been on the hosts’ shoulders down the stretch had France not played terrific defense. It started in transition, with France holding Spain to two measly fast break points.

In the half court, the Spanish guards mostly got nowhere on pick-and-rolls, as the French bigs hedged and then recovered quickly to their man. France’s rotations were sharp, keeping Spain from getting clean looks at the basket. As a result the hosts shot a brutal 2-for-22 from 3-point range.

Inside, the Spanish frontline of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka was neutralized by Diaw and France’s pair of young centers, Joffrey Lauvergne and Rudy Gobert, who both played the games of their lives.

Pau Gasol scored a game-high 17 points, but didn’t dominate like he had in earlier games. His brother and Ibaka both shot 1-for-7.

Lauvergne played the Gasols strong in the post, forcing them into tough shots away from the basket, and grabbed 10 rebounds in less than 17 minutes of action. Gobert outrebounded the Gasol brothers, 13-12, himself.

Gobert, the 22-year-old who played in just 45 games as a rookie for the Utah Jazz last season, has had a limited role on this team, backing up the smaller Lauvergne at center. But at 7-1 with a 9-foot-7 standing reach and a lot of bounce, he has a world of potential. He played a tourney-high 23 minutes on Wednesday and was, for the first time, on the floor down the stretch of a close game.

“He has a real desire to do good,” Collet said. “I think the dunk early in the game tonight gave him special energy and, for sure, he did an incredible job.”

Gobert had a strong Summer League. But this was a much bigger stage. He started to realize some of that potential on Wednesday, taking on the challenge of defending Pau Gasol and holding his own. He came up with one incredible block of an Ibaka tip-in and later swatted Gasol at the rim.

“He was incredible on defense,” France point guard Antoine Diot added. “When he plays like this, with his head, he’s fantastic.”

“For myself, I always knew I could help the team win,” Gobert said. “All my teammates played great offensively and I just had to guard Pau, because Pau is one of the best players in the world. If you stop him, they’re not the same team.”

Indeed, Spain played awful, and not just on offense. While France’s defense was near perfect, Spain’s guards got beat back-door countless times, leading to layups, open shots and offensive rebounds for France.

“We weren’t well prepared for this game,” Juan Carlos Navarro said.

Spain had looked determined to win this tournament on its home soil and to avenge gold-medal-game defeats to the U.S. in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Both Gasols showed up in Granada for pool play in terrific shape, while Navarro looked sharper than he did for FC Barcelona last season. Spain was a juggernaut through its first six games, jumping out ahead early and bullying its opponents into submission.

But when it was forced to play from behind and feel the pressure of a nation of fans on its shoulders, the team crumbled under all that weight. After trailing by seven at the half, Spain forced turnovers on France’s first four possessions of the third quarter and took a one-point lead into the fourth. But France answered with a 7-0 run and put the building on high alert.

“We kind of knew if we stay close,” Nicolas Batum said,  “at the end of the game, they’re going to doubt, because they can’t lose that game.”

They did lose that game. There will be no USA-Spain final, because the hosts failed to do their part.

“It was a painful loss, disappointing,” Pau Gasol said. “This team had such high expectations. We had played an incredible tournament up to this point. It just wasn’t our night.”

Familiar matchups in Madrid quarters


VIDEO: FIBA: Round of 16, Day 2 Wrap

MADRID – The only teams possibly keeping Spain out of the gold medal game at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup are teams that Spain beat last week in Granada.

All four teams that advanced from Group A beat the four teams that advanced from Group B in the round of 16 on Saturday and Sunday. So the two Madrid quarterfinals on Wednesday will each be rematches of games that were played exactly a week earlier.

In the first game (12 p.m. ET), Serbia (3-3) and Brazil (5-1) will play a rematch of what was the wildest game in Granada, in which Brazil led by 16 at the half and Serbia led by seven in the fourth quarter, and Brazil won by eight.

All tournament long, Brazil has looked like the third best team in tournament. In fact, they ranked third in both offensive and defensive efficiency (behind USA and Spain in both categories) through the round of 16. Their three NBA bigs aren’t big scorers, but they’re the fulcrum of an offense that has recorded an effective field goal percentage of 66.7 percent over its last three games.

Serbia has had a below-average defense in this tournament, but played its best game on Sunday, holding previously unbeaten Greece to just 30 points in the second half and getting a break-out performance from Phoenix Suns draft pick Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Brazil has made it clear that it’s out for a medal, and a victory on Wednesday would put it in position to win one. But if there was a sleeping giant in group play, it was Serbia, which features both young talent like Bogdanovic and a group of veterans who have enjoyed a lot of success on this level. So there may not be a more interesting quarterfinal than this one.

“This team,” Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic said after his team’s win over Greece on Sunday, “can compete against anybody.”

France was able to compete with Spain for most of the first half last Wednesday. But a 12-2 Spanish run spanning the second and third quarters put the game out of reach.

France lacks Tony Parker, but won’t lack confidence when it faces Spain again in the quarterfinals (4 p.m. ET), having beat Spain in this event four years ago and in the Eurobasket semifinals last summer.

France has had a top-five defense in this tournament and may have a matchup it can exploit on the other end of the floor.

Spain starts 6-foot-4 Juan Carlos Navarro at the two, where he was guarding either 6-foot-8 Nicolas Batum or 6-foot-7 Mickael Gelabale. France didn’t do much to take advantage of that matchup in Granada, but Batum hinted this week that they may have been holding some things back in anticipation of a rematch in the knockout rounds.

“I don’t think we wanted to show what we can do,” Batum said Monday, “because we kind of knew we were going to meet them [again].”

But as much of an advantage that matchup might be for France, the European champs simply can’t match up with Spain’s frontline of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Joffrey Lauvergne has raised his stock in this tournament, but he’s still young, small (for a center), and inexperienced.

So France will have to play a near perfect game to have a shot of knocking out the tournament favorites.

“We need to [play defense] for 40 minutes and don’t turn the ball over,” Batum said, “because we’re going to be dead if we do that.”

Anything can happen in 40 minutes, and Spain still has two more games to play before it gets the matchup it wants, the U.S. for the gold in Madrid on Sunday.

Round of 16 features four big games


VIDEO: FIBA: Day Six Wrap

MADRID – It’s fine to assume that the United States and Spain will face off in the gold medal game of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup on Sept. 14. But it wouldn’t be wise to wait until then to pay attention to the action in Barcelona and Madrid, because there’s plenty of good basketball to be played between the 16 remaining teams.

The knockout rounds get started with eight games on Saturday and Sunday, and there will be at least four good teams packing their bags before the weekend is done. It’s win-or-go-home time, there are still 47 active NBA players in the tournament, and the games are only 40 minutes long. Anything can happen, including an upset of one of the two favorites.

Don’t be looking for that this weekend, though. Appropriately, USA and Spain play two of the worst teams remaining. But there are four games – three in Madrid and one in Barcelona – that could go either way. And for NBA fans, there are more reasons than that to watch.

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

USA (5-0) vs. Mexico (2-3)

Barcelona – Saturday, 10 a.m. ET, ESPN2

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Things won’t get interesting for the U.S. until at least the semifinals. But there are still things to work on before then. The defense could be tighter, the half-court offense could definitely be sharper, and Derrick Rose needs more court time to start finishing plays better.

This will be free agent Gustavo Ayon‘s last (and best) chance to audition for NBA teams. Mexico also has Nets back-up point guard Jorge Gutierrez and was one of the best offensive rebounding teams in group play, grabbing 37 percent of available offensive boards.

Croatia (3-2) vs. France (3-2)

Madrid – Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, NBA TV

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This game features a couple of fascinating matchups between French vets and Croatian young guns. On the wing, we’ll see the Blazers’ Nicolas Batum vs. incoming Nets rookie Bojan Bogdanovic, who has been the tournament’s sixth leading scorer at 20.0 points per game. And at the four, we’ll have the Spurs’ Boris Diaw vs. Sixers draft pick Dario Saric, one of the most intriguing young talents we’ve seen in Europe in a long time.

A more important matchup could be between two NBA draft picks at center. France’s Joffrey Lauvergne (rights held by Denver) will be outsized by Croatia’s Ante Tomic (Utah), but could use his quickness to make things tough on the seven footer.

Croatia has been inconsistent, but has a ton of talent, including incoming Pacers rookie Damjan Rudez. France is the safer pick here and beat Croatia without Diaw a month ago, but Croatia might have the higher ceiling on a good night.

Slovenia (4-1) vs. Dominican Republic (2-3)

Barcelona – Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, NBA TV

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Slovenia had the No. 1 offense in group play, even though it continued to be rather conservative with Goran Dragic‘s minutes. He had a ridiculous effective field goal percentage of 69.6 percent in his team’s five games, but is just the tournament’s 10th leading scorer.

The Dominican Republic features Francisco Garcia (20.2 points per game), some solid role players, and a decent defense. It got through via a tiebreaker and didn’t have any quality wins in Group C, but if Garcia and fellow gunner James Feldeine get hot, this could get interesting, because Slovenia hasn’t proven it can get stops.

Spain (5-0) vs. Senegal (2-3)

Madrid – Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, NBA TV

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Spain’s point differential wasn’t as big as USA’s, but it had more impressive wins in Group A, beating Brazil, France and Serbia (all medal contenders) by an average of 19.7 points. The hosts have been a more cohesive unit with more depth.

Their success starts with their huge frontline, featuring Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, who will play all of the team’s meaningful minutes at the four and five (sorry, Victor Claver fans). But their guards have done a fine job of providing ball pressure and pushing the ball in transition, where this team is a highlight machine.

Senegal, with the Wolves’ Gorgui Dieng leading the way, was one of the feel-good stories of group play. But that story comes to an end Saturday night in Madrid.

Lithuania (4-1) vs. New Zealand (2-3)

Barcelona – Sunday, 10 a.m. ET, NBA TV

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Despite losing point guard Mantas Kalnietis in its last exhibition game, Lithuania has been one of the best teams in the tournament. It avoided the U.S. until the semis with Thursday’s big win over Slovenia and, therefore, should be considered the team most likely to play for the bronze medal.

Donatas Motiejunas and Jonas Valanciunas are the names NBA fans know, but this is a deep and experienced roster that likes to grind it out at a slow pace.

That slow pace could help New Zealand hang around for a while. But this team lacks the talent and size to match up with a European power.

Greece (5-0) vs. Serbia (2-3)

Madrid – Sunday, 12 p.m. ET, NBA TV

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You might remember the infamous bench-clearing brawl, featuring Nenad Krstic throwing a chair at Giannis Bourousis, that these two teams had in a 2010 “friendly” game. And therefore, you might be curious to see what happens when they meet again.

Extracurriculars aside, this should be one of the best games of the weekend. Serbia is obviously the best team with a losing record, having lost to France by a point and having held a seven-point lead over Brazil in the fourth quarter. Giannis Antetokounmpo is reason enough to tune in to see Greece, but this team’s talent goes well beyond his long arms and strides. It went undefeated in Group B for a reason.

Turkey (3-2) vs. Australia (3-2)

Barcelona – Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBA TV

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This is where Australia wanted to be, seemingly throwing away Thursday’s game vs. Angola in order to avoid the U.S. until the semifinals. Doing that though, they put themselves in the best game of the Barcelona side of the bracket.

Neither Aron Baynes (who’s still a restricted free agent) nor Joe Ingles (who might get an NBA contract before Baynes does) played against Angola, but have been Australia’s best players. Jazz rookie Dante Exum has had a limited role behind the Cavs’ Matthew Dellavedova.

Turkey has had, by far, the biggest free throw attempt differential (plus-71) in the tournament, in part because opponents hack Omer Asik whenever he gets the ball near the basket. But their zone defense also keeps opponents out of the paint and off the line.

Australia ranked last in group-play 3-point attempts, but made 52 percent of the ones they took. That shooting vs. Turkey’s zone could determine who plays Lithuania on Tuesday.

Brazil (4-1) vs. Argentina (3-2)

Madrid – Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBA TV

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FIBA knows how to save the best for last. These two teams ranked third and seventh in pace-adjusted point differential in group play.

If this matchup looks familiar, it’s because these two teams faced each other in this same round in the 2010 World Championship, in the final of the 2011 FIBA Americas tournament, and in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics. Each time, Argentina won by five points or less. The 2010 game, in particular, was an early-round classic.

So Brazil is out for a little revenge, and has arguably been the third best team thus far, picking up quality wins over France and Serbia. Argentina, of course, has #FIBAScola.

If you’ve only watched Luis Scola play in the NBA, then you’ve been missing out. The Scola that plays for his national team is a scoring machine. Brazil’s NBA trio of Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao will try to slow him down on Sunday.

Brazil’s own offense, fueled by a crafty backcourt of Marcelo Huertas and Leandro Barbosa, has picked up of late. It’s a shame that, for the third straight major international tournament, one of these two teams won’t make it past the first knockout round.

The Manimal bursts onto world stage

Kenneth Faried shot better than 79 percent in the first round of the FIBA World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Kenneth Faried shot better than 79 percent in the first round of the FIBA World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

BILBAO, Spain — Kenneth Faried sticks out in a crowd.

On a couch in the U.S. National Team’s hotel lobby on an off day, Faried dominates the scene, his dreadlocks scattered over his broad shoulders, the ideal accessory for a man whose profile is rising with every outing in the FIBA World Cup.

It’s been the same way on the court for the Denver Nuggets star, who has been the most dominant force on any team heading into the single-elimination round of the tournament. The most unlikely breakout star on a team few expected him to make, Faried has been a revelation for those unfamiliar with his relentless game.

Faried silenced his critics through the five-game pool play portion of this competition with consistent fury and a motor that lives up to every letter of his gold medal, social-media infused (#unleashthemanimal) mission on his first trip with the National Team.

This notion that an old-school power forward (not a “stretch-4″) could dominate in this fashion is reminiscent of another physical force of nature who invaded Spain years ago with the USA logo plastered across his chest. While any NBA comparison between Faried and Dream Teamer, Hall of Famer and TNT’s very own Charles Barkley end there, the proof that Faried’s trademark game made it through customs without issue has been on display since the day the National Team convened for training camp.

“Overall, from the start of training camp, he’s been the biggest and best surprise and has turned out to be a very, very important player for us,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his starting power forward, who at one point last week was shooting a jaw-dropping 80 percent. “He’s made that happen. We never call a play for him.”

A social media superstar is born

Faried makes his own plays. He steals an inbounds pass, spins and dunks all in a single burst, leaving coaches, teammates and especially opponents in awe of a man whose energy never seems to wane.

“These first five games didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I know what Kenneth can do,” U.S. guard James Harden said. “Energy and hustle works no matter where you are, overseas, NBA, college. No matter who it is and no matter what sport. He’s done a tremendous job here in showing everybody what he can do. He’s setting screens, rebounding, offensive rebounder and scoring. He’s doing everything that we’ve asked him to do and more. He’s definitely a huge part of our team.”

Not bad for a guy who was considered a longshot, by some, to be here.

With reigning KIA NBA MVP Kevin Durant dropping out at the last-minute, just days after an injury forced Paul George out of the mix (and Kevin Love withdrawing before him), the U.S. was in need of not only a starter at power forward, but also a catalyst. Faried stepped into both roles with his usual zeal.

Silencing critics and gaining fans? That’s fine with Faried.

“I don’t know. If I am, then thank you to all my followers,” Faried said. “If I’m not, then it don’t worry me none. I just came out here to play basketball and do the sport I love to do each and every day.”

Harden, Derrick Rose and Steph Curry all have experience in the program and have won gold medals. Any one of them could still be needed to play a bigger leadership role before this tournament is over.

On to Barcelona

In the meantime, the U.S. has found a dynamic pair  of pacesetters in Faried and Anthony Davis. They are still working their way up the big man food chain in the NBA. But here in Spain, they are the unquestioned leaders of the pack.

Davis showed signs and potential when he earned a gold medal in the London Olympics in 2012. Seeing him do the things he’s doing now shouldn’t be a surprise. But no one in Bilbao saw Faried coming, including New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams, an assistant on the National Team staff who also happens to work with the big men.

“I think he’s surprised everybody, just because you can’t scout energy,” Williams said. “It’s the one thing you can’t quantify, how hard a guy plays and what his heart is made of. He’s played the same way since the first day of training camp. And he’s used to playing that way. Everybody has had to adjust to him. He hasn’t made any adjustments because that’s how he is all the time.”

The world now awaits in Barcelona, where the U.S. takes on Mexico Saturday (10 a.m. ET, ESPN2) in the round of 16 single-elimination portion of the competition.

Faried said he’s playing the only way he knows how, all-out at all times. He’s proud of the “Manimal” nickname. He earned it with years of tireless work, the stuff the world is seeing now on this grand stage., the same stuff that’s made him a force in Denver.

“I don’t think he’s playing any different now than he plays in the NBA,” Williams said. “Sometimes this [international] game slows down a bit. But he doesn’t. And that helps us. But that’s his game. He plays hard every possession.”

It’s easy to tag Faried a hustle guy, an energy guy and not necessarily recognize the skill level involved in operating that way full-time. Williams knows better, though, having to deal with Faried on a regular basis in the Western Conference.

“Back in the day playing hard was expected,” Williams said. “Now it’s a skill. So guys who play at that level they stand out. With all of the attention on shooting 3s and stretch this and stretch that, the analytics, I don’t know how you analyze energy, toughness and heart. That’s what Kenneth brings every night.”