Posts Tagged ‘Serge Ibaka’

Brazil puts itself in good position with big win over Serbia


VIDEO: FIBA: Day Five Wrap

GRANADA, SPAIN – There will be no easy games on the A-B side of the 16-team bracket at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Outside of Spain and the United States, there are probably nine second-tier teams in this tournament, and six of those nine will be in Madrid starting Saturday.

Throw in Spain and there’s basically one opponent (fourth place in Group B) you might choose to face on that side of the bracket. And Spain will likely get that opponent. So there are bound to be three very good matchups in the round of 16. Good news for fans, bad news for a bunch of teams hoping for a medal.

Brazil (3-1) is one of those teams. And while it can’t avoid two other second-tier squads in the round of 16 and quarterfinals, it did the next best thing: likely avoiding Spain until the semis with what will probably be a second-place finish in Group A.

The Brazilians still have one game to play (vs. Egypt on Thursday), but look good for second after beating France on Saturday and picking up another huge win, 81-73, over Serbia (2-2) on Wednesday.

It was a game of wild swings. Brazil’s offense looked better than it had in a long time in the first half, scoring 48 points on just 33 possessions. A turnaround jumper by Leandro Barbosa gave Brazil a 16-point lead at the half.

As good as the Brazil offense was in the first 20 minutes, Serbia’s was better in the next 10. It turned that 16-point deficit into a four-point lead with an incredible 32-12 third quarter. Serbia then led by as many as seven early in the fourth.

But Brazil wasn’t done. Sparked by a couple of huge Marquinhos Vieira 3s, they went on a 12-0 run to go back up five. Serbia couldn’t get anything done offensively as Tiago Splitter drew two straight charges on Miroslav Raduljica, who also went 1-for-4 from the free-throw line down the stretch.

Former Hornet Vieira (known as Marcus Vinicius when he was in the NBA) hit one more big 3 and finished with a game-high 21 points, having shot 6-for-9 from beyond the arc.

Though they have Marcelo Huertas and Leandro Barbosa in the backcourt to go with three NBA bigs, Brazil can struggle offensively if they’re not hitting 3s. The 6-9 Vieira hit two on his team’s first three possessions of the game and the floodgates opened from there.

“We need him,” Huertas said afterward, “as much as we need Leandro’s speed or for our bigs to dominate in the post. For us, when the guy has a day like he had today, we know if we set a good screen or find him open in the corner, that ball is going in.

“The guy is tall. It’s very hard to contest a shooter like him.”

Brazil got here with a wildcard invitation, having gone 0-4 at last year’s FIBA Americas tournament. But they were an obvious pick, with the ability to put a much better team on the floor than they did in 2013 and having played well at the 2010 World Championship and 2012 Olympics.

Both of those years, they lost narrow decisions to Argentina in the first knockout round (round of 16 in ’10, quarterfinals in ’12). They’d love to avenge those losses this year, and they clearly have their eyes on a medal. Wednesday’s win was a big step toward that, because you can’t medal if you lose to Spain or USA before the semifinals.

“For us, it’s big,” Huertas said. “We want to go as far as we can in this competition. We really feel we have a team that can compete at the highest level.”

More notes from Brazil 81, Serbia 73…

  • After an ugly start to Monday’s game against Spain, Brazil coach Ruben Magnano changed his lineup, starting Anderson Varejao instead of Nene. The move worked, with Brazil jumping out to a 14-4 lead.
  • Suns draft pick Bogdan Bogdanovic hit a gutty, step-back 3 during Serbia’s big third-quarter run, but was rather quiet otherwise, scoring eight points on 2-for-7 shooting.
  • Barbosa is 31, but still has some game left. He’s averaged 11.5 points and has shot 6-for-13 from 3-point range through four games. Against Spain on Monday, he was the only Brazilian player who could get anything done offensively. Barbosa and Shaun Livingston should be an interesting back-up backcourt with the Warriors.
  • Unless it can beat Spain on Thursday, Serbia is looking at a fourth-place finish in Group A and a round-of-16 matchup with the winner of Thursday’s Argentina-Greece game on Sunday. Raduljica downplayed the significance of his team’s two losses to France and Brazil. “It didn’t affect us, because we don’t calculate are we going to win or lose. Of course, we want to win every game. It’s just how we go out on the court, do our best, and try to win.”

Other games of note…

Group A: Spain 88, France 64

Spain (4-0) passed test No. 2, which was slightly tougher than Monday’s game against Brazil. France (2-2) withstood a quick start from the hosts to come back and tie the game late in the first quarter. But a buzzer-beating three from Juan Carlos Navarro gave Spain the lead for good.

Despite a flurry of third-quarter turnovers and fouls by their opponent, Spain didn’t really open the game up until early in the fourth. Their second-half energy wasn’t as good as it was against Brazil or in the first half.

Pau Gasol (15 points, four rebounds, two blocks) didn’t dominate as much as he did against Brazil, but brother Marc (17 points, six rebounds, three steals) and Serge Ibaka (10 points, eight rebounds, two blocks) picked up the slack.

  • Spain has four NBA bigs on its roster, but only uses three in its regular rotation, with Victor Claver at the end of the bench. So Marc Gasol played the first 14:35 of the game. In fact, the whole Spanish starting lineup played the entire first quarter.
  • Nicolas Batum couldn’t really take advantage of a mismatch with the smaller Navarro. Batum scored 11 points on 5-for-15 shooting.
  • 2013 draft pick Joffrey Lauvergne got a good test, starting against the Gasol brothers. He mostly held his own, but Pau’s size, in particular, gave him trouble. He shot 3-for-9, struggling to finish in the paint.
  • Lauvergne said Wednesday that the Nuggets offered him a contract this summer, but it wasn’t enough for him to come over. He signed a more lucrative two-year deal with Khimki, with a buyout option next year. Denver still retains his rights.
  • Lauvergne is really too small to play the five, but that’s where France needs him with their veteran centers missing the World Cup. (Rudy Gobert backs him up.) If he’s going to play the four in the NBA, he’ll need to be able to shoot. He took a couple of threes on Wednesday and his form looked OK, but both were off the mark.
  • Evan Fournier wasn’t in the France rotation, but finally showed a little offense, scoring nine points on 4-for-7 shooting in garbage time.

Group B: Puerto Rico 77, Philippines 73

Another close game, another heartbreaker and elimination for the Philippines (0-4), who led by as many as 14 in the second quarter and by three, with the ball, with 2:30 left in the fourth. They committed a couple of bad turnovers in the final two minutes and J.J. Barea came up huge for Puerto Rico (1-3), who stayed alive with the win.

Barea pulled up for three to tie the game with 2:10 left. He then converted a tough drive with just under a minute to go to give the boricuas the lead. He finished with 30 points on 8-for-15 shooting, getting to the line 12 times and still asking for a foul call whenever he didn’t.

Andray Blatche had 25 points and 14 rebounds for the Philippines, which will have one more shot at a win against Senegal on Thursday.

More Day 5 notes

  • Mexico’s loss to Australia makes it even more likely that they will finish fourth in Group D and be USA’s opponent in the round of 16 on Saturday.
  • Slovenia (4-0) trailed by three early in the fourth quarter and didn’t play Goran Dragic at all in the final period, but managed to remain unbeaten with a 93-87 win over Angola.
  • Gorgui Dieng finally had an off night, shooting just 4-for-12 as Senegal got hammered by Argentina.
  • Donatas Motiejunas recovered well from not playing the entire second half against Australia on Tuesday. He had 18 points, seven rebounds and five assists in Lithuania’s win over Korea.
  • Greece remained unbeaten in Group B with a 76-65 win over Croatia. Incoming Rockets rookie Kostas Papanikolaou had his best game of the tournament, scoring 14 points on 7-for-10 shooting.

Big games on tap for Thursday

There’s still a lot to be determined on the final day of pool play.

  • Senegal can clinch a surprise trip to the knockout rounds, but needs to hold off the pesky Philippines team (8 a.m. ET).
  • The winner of Finland-New Zealand (9 a.m. ET) will have a chance to squeak in out of Group C with a decisive point differential.
  • Lithuania (3-1) and Slovenia (4-0) have both clinched spots in the knockout rounds, but their game (3:30 p.m. ET) will be for first place in Group D and a chance to avoid the U.S. until the semifinals.
  • Argentina (3-1) and Greece (4-0) are in the same exact situation on the other half of the bracket. The winner of their game (4 p.m. ET) will take first place in Group B and avoid Spain until the semis.
  • Spain gets its last test of group play against Serbia (4 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

Cousins adjusting to international game

BILBAO, SPAIN — The nuances of the international game and the NBA are vastly different, particularly for big men like DeMarcus Cousins.

The way he operates for the Sacramento Kings, as a dominant low-post scorer who serves as the No. 1 offensive option for his team, doesn’t apply here in the FIBA World Cup. Cousins is basically the third big man, behind starters Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried. And he’s being asked to play both ends and play much faster than he’s used to.

Give Cousins credit for acknowledging the work in progress that he is right now. It can’t be easy for a player of his caliber to make these sort of adjustments on the fly. There’s a pride factor involved as well or a player used to dominating opposing big men in the NBA, but now facing a completely different player in some of these international big men who stretch the floor beyond the 3-point line.

“It’s been different, something I’m not really used to,” Cousins said. “It’s definitely taking some time. I’m busting my butt trying to get into the flow of things and get used to this style of play.

Davis and Faried look like naturals, but they aren’t being asked to do anything than different from what they do for their NBA teams. They’re used to running the floor and excelling in transition. Davis has extensive experience with the National Team, having already been through high level competition at the London Olympics in 2012.

Other NBA big men in the tournament like Pau and Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka of Spain, Omer Asik of Turkey and several others, were raised on this style. They can make adjustments naturally, having had to do so for years.

The tempo and style here, however, is quicker than Cousins is accustomed to.

“The speed of it, the way we’re playing,” Cousins said of the biggest difference. “It’s a lot that comes in to it. Like I said, I’m busting my butt trying to getting into the flow of things. All I can do is keep working.”

Spain to get tested in next three games


VIDEO: Mike Fratello talks about the depth of international competition

GRANADA, SPAIN – As the U.S. National Team was getting a scare from Turkey in Bilbao, Spain was rolling to its second easy win, a 91-54 victory over Egypt, at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup.

After sitting out Saturday’s win over Iran with tightness in his right hamstring, Serge Ibaka came off the bench and looked fantastic, scoring 18 points and grabbing eight rebounds in just 18 minutes and thrilling the home crowd with three athletic dunks in the third quarter.

Spain is big, talented and deep, bringing two NBA starters – Ibaka and Jose Calderon – off its bench. The hosts have size, athleticism and shooting. And while the U.S. is missing several of its best players, Spain is at full strength.

That’s why they’re the World Cup co-favorites with the U.S, which has now won 38 straight games in international competition. The two teams that met in the gold medal games of the 2008 and 2012 Olympics are seemingly on a path to meet in the gold medal game in Madrid on Sept. 14. But there’s a lot of basketball to be played between now and then, and anything can happen once the World Cup reaches the 16-team, single-elimination tournament on Sept. 6.

Now it may be Spain’s time to get tested. After rolling through Iran and Egypt, the hosts will now see just how tough Group A really is. They’re set to face Brazil, France and Serbia in the next four days.

Along with Spain and the U.S., there are five other teams who have yet to lose. Brazil is one of them, having outlasted France on Saturday and blown past Iran after a slow start Sunday. They have a frontline – Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao – that can compete with any team, one of the best point guards in the tournament (Marcelo Huertas), and the craftiness of Leandro Barbosa. So Monday’s game (4 p.m. ET) will be one of the most important of group play.

France and Serbia, Spain’s opponents on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, played a fantastic game on Sunday, and are also dangerous. So we’ll likely have a better gauge of where Spain stands than where the U.S. stands before the knockout rounds begin.

Spain is also likely to face a tougher road to the final. Not only are the teams in their group on their half of the bracket, but so are Argentina and two of the other undefeated teams so far: Croatia and Greece.

“We want to win every game,” Pau Gasol said Sunday night. “We want to get better as we go along. We know it’s not win-or-go-home at this point, but I think the next three games are three good tests for us to improve and move on to the eighth-finals.”

Plenty to watch at World Cup


VIDEO: Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis talk about the upcoming FIBA World Cup

GRANADA, SPAIN – The FIBA Basketball World Cup is the best hoops you can get outside of the NBA season. Yes, it’s better than the Olympics.

There are twice as many teams, allowing for more depth from Europe and the Americas. And there’s an extra round of single-elimination, tournament play, giving us 15 win-or-go-home games once pool play is completed.

No, the NBA’s top two players aren’t here. But there are 46 guys currently on NBA rosters, a high for any international tournament. And because Kevin Durant and LeBron James aren’t representing the United States, and because there is so much depth among the second tier of teams, the competition for medals will be captivating.

Along with the U.S., Spain is the co-favorite. As the hosts they will enjoy a home-court advantage, which helped propel Turkey to the final game four years ago. But they also have a ton of talent and experience, both in the NBA and in making the U.S. sweat for a gold medal. The reason U.S. has four centers on its roster is because Spain has Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka.

Beyond the top two, the competition to reach the semifinals could be wide open. Pool play will help sort things out somewhat, but as many as 10 other teams could have dreams of making the semifinals and playing for a medal.

Most of those teams will be on Spain’s half of the 16-team bracket after pool play is completed. In Group A play in Granada, the hosts will face Brazil, with its three NBA big men and terrific point guard, France, the 2013 European champion with five NBA players on is roster, and Serbia, who knocked out Spain in the quarterfinals of this tournament four years ago.

When pool play is completed, the top four teams from Group A (Granada) will match up with the top four from Group B (Sevilla) on the Madrid side of the bracket. Group B features Argentina, Croatia, Greece and Puerto Rico.

The U.S. has an easier path to the final. In Group C pool play in Bilbao, its toughest opponent will likely be Turkey, which has fallen hard since the 2010 World Cup, or the Dominican Republic, which the Americans blew out in New York last week.

Group D (Gran Canaria) features two tougher teams – Australia and Lithuania – which the U.S. will likely face on the Barcelona side of the bracket.

The USA’s history in this event (formerly called the World Championship) is not great. Prior to 2010, it had only won 1954, 1986 and 1994. Yugoslavia, which continued to exist as a basketball team after it dissolved as a nation, won five World Championships.

But Mike Krzyzewski has compiled a 43-1 record and a 36-game winning streak in his nine-year tenure as the USA head coach. He won this tournament four years ago with a roster of 12 guys who had never played a senior-level international game. And the world has yet to experience the defensive of new assistant Tom Thibodeau first hand.

The U.S. won its four exhibition games by an average of 29 points, but could still use improvement, especially on offense. Pool play, beginning with Saturday’s game against Finland (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) will allow them to work some things out, but it’s doubtful that anything can prepare them for a potential gold-medal game against Spain in Madrid.

Before we can think about that, there is a ton of high-quality basketball to be played and plenty of reasons to watch.

There are key players on NBA contenders — Derrick Rose and Anderson Varejao — looking to get back into basketball shape after injury-riddled seasons.

There is the last stand of Argentina’s golden generation and their beautiful brand of basketball, represented by Andres Nocioni, Pablo Prigioni and Luis Scola.

There’s the continued growth of Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Senegal’s Gorgui Dieng, and Lithuania’s Jonas Valanciunas

There are six incoming rookies, including Australia’s Dante Exum (Jazz), Greece’s Kostas Papanikolaou (Rockets) and the Croatian pair of Bojan Bogdanovic (Nets) and Damjan Rudez (Pacers), to watch and figure out how they might contribute to their new teams.

There are 2014 draftees like Croatia’s Dario Saric (Sixers) and Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic (Suns), who might eventually be NBA contributors. And there are a few potential prospects, like the Ukraine’s Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (who will play at Kansas next season), to keep an eye out for.

There’s the curiosity of how veteran Euroleague floor generals like Marcelo Huertas (Brazil) and Milos Teodosic (Serbia) would fit in the NBA.

There’s the Dragic brothers racing up the floor at every opportunity for Slovenia. There’s Andray Blatche playing point-center for the Philippines. And there’s the flair of real point guards like Carlos Arroyo and Ricky Rubio.

Seventy-six games over 17 days. If you can’t wait the upcoming NBA season, with Kevin Love joining LeBron in Cleveland, the Spurs trying for their first repeat, and Rose back in a Bulls uniform, the FIBA World Cup should hold you off for a while.

World Cup stacked with NBA players


VIDEO: USA tops Puerto Rico in exhibition

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – LeBron James was always taking the summer off from competitive basketball. Kevin Love decided to do the same just before the U.S. National Team opened training camp in Las Vegas last month. But there are still reasons for Cavs fans to watch the FIBA World Cup, which begins Saturday in Spain.

The Cavs are one of two teams that will have four players taking part in the World Cup. Kyrie Irving, of course, will start (at least some games) at point guard for the United States. He’ll face new teammate Erik Murphy, playing for Finland, in the USA’s first pool-play game.

Murphy, who was acquired in a trade from Utah last month, may not necessarily be on the Cavs’ opening-night roster. Only $100,000 of his $816,000 contract is guaranteed, the Cavs are already over the 15-man roster limit, and they’ve yet to sign Shawn Marion.

Irving has already faced Brazil’s Anderson Varejao in an exhibition game. And he could go head-to-head with his Cleveland back-up — Australia’s Matthew Dellavedova — in the knockout round.

The Rockets are the other NBA team that will have four players at the World Cup. James Harden, the Dominican Republic’s Francisco Garcia, Lithuania’s Donatas Motiejunas and Greece’s Kostas Papanikolaou will all represent the Rockets in Spain.

Papanikolaou is one of five incoming rookies at the tournament. The others are the Bulls’ Cameron Bairstow (Australia), the Nets’ Bojan Bogdanovic (Croatia), the Jazz’s Dante Exum (Australia), and the Pacers’ Damjan Rudez (Croatia).

Croatia’s Bogdanovic is not to be confused with Serbia’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was selected in this year’s Draft by the Suns and will play at least two years in Turkey before coming to the NBA. The Serbian Bogdanovic is one of six guys taken in the last two drafts who has yet to come over.

The others are Alex Abrines (OKC, Spain), Arselan Kazemi (PHI, Iran), Joffrey Lauvergne (DEN, France), Raul Neto (UTA, Brazil) and Dario Saric (PHI, Croatia). (more…)

Morning shootaround — Aug. 23



VIDEO: GameTime: USA Basketball final roster

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Team USA thinks big | Rose looks fine | Birthday boy Kobe takes on the years

No. 1: Size matters to Team USA — While many eyes were on the status of Bulls guard Derrick Rose as Team USA moves closer to the start of the FIBA World Cup next week in Spain, the surprise coming out of Friday night’s final cuts was the inclusion of four big men on the final roster. Our John Schuhmann says that USA coach Mike Krzyzewski and managing director Jerry Colangelo made the decision to go with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee and that will put some pressure on Kyrie Irving, as the only full-time point guard, to hold up and perform as Team USA goes for the gold and a guaranteed berth in the 2016 Olympics:

So the U.S. will have just one full-time point guard — Irving — on the roster, with (Steph) Curry starting at shooting guard and Rose unlikely to play every game. That could be some extra burden on the Cavs’ All-Star, but the USA’s best talent is still in the backcourt and the staff clearly wanted extra depth up front, with Cousins, Drummond and Plumlee backing up Davis, who could see some time at power forward.

The need for three back-up centers is a bit puzzling, especially since Davis will likely rank first or second on the team in minutes played. Two of three back-ups will certainly have limited roles.

But the U.S. may have its sights set on the frontline of Spain, which features Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka. The hosts are the clear favorites to reach the gold medal game from the other side of the bracket, though they’ll have a tougher road than the Americans.

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No. 2: Rose plays, survives final cut for World Cup — The whispers and the questions were out there ever since Derrick Rose sat out Wednesday’s warmup game against the Dominican Republic due to “general soreness.” Would he be able to withstand the grueling World Cup schedule? Would he be able to be a team leader for Team USA in Spain? Those questions were answered when Rose played 13 minutes Friday night against Puerto Rico and was named to the 12-man final roster. Chris Strauss of USA Today says that Rose’s presence is welcome in the Team USA locker room:

“Derrick brings something that we don’t have as far as being able to push the ball so fast and get into the paint, and (he’s) so athletic,” USA guard James Harden said. “He made a couple cross-court passes for open threes. He looked phenomenal.”

“I feel very confident about Derrick. I think Derrick feels very confident,” (Mike) Krzyzewski said. “I thought he played great tonight. These guys want to play with him. It’s part of getting back is to be around a group of peers. These guys are his peers who want you to be really good. You’re already really good but if James Harden wants (Curry) to be really good and (Curry) wants Derrick Rose to be really good and Kyrie, it’s a different thing. That’s what we’ve seen over the years and that’s where the brotherhood develops. It’s one of the cool things about what’s happened over the past nine years (of USA Basketball).”

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No. 3: “Old man” Kobe faces his biggest challenge – Never mind just blowing out the candles on his birthday cake. As he turns 36 Saturday, Kobe Bryant has to confront the stronger winds that surround his comeback from a torn Achilles’ tendon and fractured knee. Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times checks with in different members of the Lakers organization and other NBA figures for a look at what to expect from the Black Mamba when training camp opens in just over five weeks:

“Quite honestly, I think we’re going to see a better Kobe Bryant than we’ve seen in the last couple of years because he’s had time to rest and rehabilitate,” said Dr. Alan Beyer, executive director of the Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine.

Beyer said Bryant is not at an increased risk to reinjure the areas that sidelined him last season but acknowledged he is more susceptible to injuries associated with advanced basketball age.

Working in Bryant’s favor is an almost maniacal devotion to staying in shape and perfecting every aspect of his game. Coach Byron Scott said he had to tell Bryant to cool it when Bryant talked about wanting to play pickup games nearly two months before the start of training camp.

“I was like, ‘Slow down a little bit, Kobe,’ ” Scott said.

There could be a more awkward conversation in the days ahead. Scott said he had a target number of minutes per game in mind for Bryant — though he would not disclose it publicly and has not discussed it with his best player — intended to keep him fresh for what Scott hopes is a playoff push late in the season.

It could be a hard sell for a player notoriously stubborn about his playing time. Bryant averaged nearly 46 minutes a game in the six games preceding his Achilles’ injury in April 2013 and was on pace to play all 48 minutes against Golden State when his left foot buckled late in the fourth quarter, all in the name of helping the Lakers reach the playoffs.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Before the Timberwolves closed the deal with the Cavs to send Kevin Love to Cleveland, the Suns tried to beat the buzzer with an offer of Eric Bledsoe… Everything is different now for Heat rookie Shabazz Napier, getting used to a new league, new team, even a new basketball … It’s not your average day at the beach for Paul Pierce as he gets into shape for his first season as a Wizard.

Summer Dreaming: D Player of the Year

Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka led the NBA in total blocks in 2013-14. (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka led the NBA in total blocks in 2013-14. (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

There are so many different ways to fully embrace the dog days of summer. One is to fire up the grill and start cooking. Another is to keep that blender full of ice.

Here, we’re talking basketball. The season openers are still more than two months away, but it’s never too early to look ahead. So here are my Summer Dreaming choices for 2014-15 Defensive Player of the Year.

Send me your picks.

Serge Ibaka, Thunder — If you don’t think he’s a game-changer, then you weren’t paying attention last spring when the Serge Protector missed the first two games of the Western Conference finals and the Spurs were able to run a virtual lay-up line through the heart of the OKC defense. When Ibaka returned from a calf injury, all of a sudden it wasn’t so easy for Tony Parker and his friends to get to the basket and the series was quickly tied up 2-2. Ibaka protects the rim, contests jumpers and puts the bite into the Thunder. He’s continuing to blossom as an offensive force, but it’s his defense that is the glue of the Thunder. He led the league in total blocks for the fourth straight time last season and has been voted to the All-Defensive first team three years in a row. It’s finally his turn to get the big hardware.

Anthony Davis, Pelicans — Was it really fair to bring him into the league carrying comparisons to the legendary Bill Russell? Well, maybe if you watch the highlight video from last season. With coach Monty Williams taking the shackles off his playing time, A.D. showed many of the skills that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft. For all that he was able to do with the ball around the basket, it was the defensive plays that dropped your jaw to the floor. He guarded the paint. He cut off baseline drives. Davis seemed to swoop in from out of nowhere to reject even 3-point attempts from the corner. No place on the court was safe from the ballhawking shot-blocker. Now with rim-protecting center Omer Asik at his back, Davis might really cut loose challenging shots. That’s just scary.

Dwight Howard, Rockets – He practically owned this award, winning it three straight times from 2009-2011 in Orlando, but that was before everything went south with the Magic and he had to overcome back problems and questions about commitment to the game. Howard arrived for his first season in Houston fit and ready to re-establish himself. By the end of 2013-14 there were no more questions about his health and desire to get back to the old form. Howard’s 2.83 blocks per game led the league as he returned to being a stopper anyplace around the basket. He’s got 10 years of NBA experience but is still just 28. There’s no reason that the Rockets can’t count on him to be the defensive anchor in their push to be true contenders in the Western Conference.

Joakim Noah, Bulls — Defense can’t always be measured by numbers and quantified with stats. As the 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year, Noah blocked just 1.4 shots per game. But he had a nose to go after every shot at the rim, was firm in guarding the pick-and-roll and with his sheer energy and physical force was as disruptive as a twister to any opposing offense. He’s hungry, he’s relentless, he’s challenging the ball anywhere on the court, he’s the epitome of the attitude that coach Tom Thibodeau wants and is at the heart of the Bulls defense that ranked No. 2 in the league last season. You can’t ever ignore Noah. He simply won’t let you.

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers – The Clippers’ big man got special attention from the boss in coach Doc Rivers’ first season in L.A. and it paid off tremendously. Rivers expected more from Jordan, demanded more … and usually got it. Jordan’s sixth NBA season produced dramatic improvement as he accepted responsibility to be a core performer. He finished second in the NBA in blocked shots per game (2.54) and third in rebounding (12.5). One of the main reasons that point guard Chris Paul can spend so much time jumping passing lanes looking for steals and the Clippers can be so aggressive on the perimeter is because they know they’ve got Jordan watching their backs with those long, lethal arms.

Top shooting performances of 2013-14

Some nights that basket just seems as big as the ocean and it looks as easy as dropping the ball in from the beach. Other times, it’s just about sheer power from the big guys who have their way on the inside.

Last season produced some of each to make up this look at the top individual shooting performances of 2013-14. To be eligible for this list, players needed to shoot at least 90 percent from the field on at least 11 field goal attempts:

8. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
Dec. 28, 2013 vs. New Orleans Pelicans — 24 points, 10-for-11 FG (90.9 percent), 18 rebounds

For the first couple of months last season, Howard was trying to prove that he was over his back problems while re-establishing himself as the premier center in the game. This was another statement with an overpowering low-post game that produced six dunks, three little jump hooks and a layup in a 107-98 victory. He seemed intent on showing his physicality and committed a handful of offensive fouls to pile up eight turnovers.


VIDEO: Dwight Howard pounds on the Pelicans for 24 points and 18 rebounds

7. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
February 21, 2014 vs. Atlanta Hawks — 22 points, 10-for-11 FG (90.9 percent), 11 rebounds, three steals

If the frontline combination of Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith had played so well from the start, it’s likely coach Mo Cheeks wouldn’t have been fired and Joe Dumars might still be Detroit’s GM. It was the third time in the season that the trio of big men all had double-doubles in the same game. It was a demonstration of sheer power, not a shooting clinic by Drummond. Six of his 10 buckets were dunks and he went 0-for-8 from the free throw line. (more…)

His own man, KD will make own decision

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Take a look at Kevin Durant and Team USA as they practice

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Here’s what we’ve learned about Kevin Durant through his first seven seasons in the league: He’s his own man, capable of independent thought and making intelligent, well-reasoned decisions.

He chose to sign a five-year extension in 2010 without demanding an option for an early out. To ensure maximum appeal as a corporate pitchman, he strategically didn’t tattoo areas of his body visible when in uniform. A few years ago a stunned public discovered that Durant’s uniform-covered torso resembles Allen Iverson.

He is the league’s reigning MVP coming off a grueling season in which he logged a league-high 3,121 regular-season minutes followed by a postseason-high 814 minutes (even though his Oklahoma City Thunder lost in six games in the Western Conference finals), yet he remained committed to Team USA, currently holding camp in Las Vegas. Remember, this squad will compete in the upcoming world championships in Spain (recast as the FIBA World Cup). This is not an Olympic year or even an Olympic-qualifying year. Durant doesn’t have to be here. He chose to be here.

And he’s a big story in Vegas. Everybody wants to know if, inspired by LeBron James‘ homecoming, he’ll leave the Thunder for his long-suffering hometown Washington Wizards in 2016 when he becomes a free agent.

In the NBA it’s never too early to spin theoretical free-agent story lines. Mostly because NBA front offices are actively planning for the Durant sweepstakes. Teams have to align contracts today to ensure available salary cap in two summers just to be in the chase. The NBA is a star-driven league and Durant (with potential 2015 free agent Kevin Love likely headed to Cleveland in a trade) is the next available fast track to contention.

And yes, the up-and-coming Wizards are preparing. Who wouldn’t love to add Durant to the promising backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal? Washington’s books are in line for summer ’16, and you might have heard they hired a new player development assistant, David Adkins. Adkins? He was an assistant at Durant’s alma mater Montrose Christian in Maryland, and is said to be close to Durant. The plot thickens.

Fine, but any insinuation that Northeast Ohio’s re-embracing of LeBron tugged Durant’s heartstrings toward D.C. is a reach. The Cavs drafted the locally loved Akron phenom out of high school. He elevated the hometown NBA franchise to a Finals appearance in 2007 and three years later stomped on the hearts of his faithful with the incredibly insensitive “Decision.” Four Finals runs and two championships with the Miami Heat later, LeBron, all grown up, decided it was time to mend fences. Great story.

It’s not Durant’s story. Durant did tell reporters Tuesday that he grew up taking the train to Georgetown games, although he left home to play college ball 1,300 miles away at Texas. He was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007 and the next season moved with the franchise to Oklahoma City, a close-knit town he’s professed his love for countless times, and as recently as his MVP speech for the ages.

The Thunder are perennial contenders. Durant holds close relationships with coach Scott Brooks, as well as teammates Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka and many others in the organization. Most of all, Durant willingly immersed himself in the community. When he won the MVP, the city declared him “OKC’s MVP.” The governor and state representatives attended the ceremony.

If he were to leave OKC, it’s not a stretch to suggest that community will be more devastated than D.C. will be elated. With Durant, 25, in a Thunder uniform, the championship window is open-ended.

But hey, a lot can happen in two years. The Thunder could win a championship. Or two. Or maybe they don’t and Durant’s patience runs thin, after all he’ll be nine years in by the summer of ’16. Maybe the Durant-Westbrook relationship sours. Maybe Brooks gets fired. Maybe Durant ultimately decides he wants to play for a billionaire owner more responsive to spending when the moment calls.

So maybe Durant does go home, even though the number of stars who have gone home pales to those who never do when given the chance. We’ve seen Durant don Washington NFL gear and — not sure if anybody’s pointed this out — he’s got a Washington Nationals logo tattooed above his belly button. Durant does love his D.C. sports.

So maybe he does go home. Or perhaps, as was speculated when Durant hired Jay-Z to represent him, he goes to the Knicks or Nets. They’ll all be in line (yep, even the Nets will be flush with cap space by then).

Yes, the script that has Durant riding a white horse into Washington, where the Wizards/Bullets haven’t won a title since a decade before Durant was born, is real. It could happen. Durant could also play 20 seasons in OKC.

“I’m going to do what’s best for me,” Durant told reporters in Vegas. “It’s hard to talk about that right now when I’ve got two years left in Oklahoma City. I’m just going to focus on that. I’m not going to make a decision based on what anybody else does.”

Durant might as well memorize those lines. He’ll need to cue them up over and over during these next two years.

But what we’ve learned of him over the last seven years is Kevin Durant is his own man.

OKC shopping should start with Carter

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com

The aging Vince Carter still has enough in his tank to put a contender over.

The aging Vince Carter has enough in his tank to give a title contender a significant boost.

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – As the free agency clock ticks down, the spotlight is shining brightest on Miami’s Big Three, on Carmelo Anthony‘s decision and on the Lakers’ wishful pursuit of a superstar (or two).

And then there’s that little ole team on the Oklahoma prairie that no one’s talking about. The one with the league MVP, the All-Star point guard and the game’s fiercest shot blocker. The one that’s played in three Western Conference finals in the last four years and if not for key injuries in these last two postseasons might have built upon its lone NBA Finals appearance in 2012.

The one that’s missing one final piece.

Oklahoma City Thunder enter free agency, not as big spenders and not needing much, but with a silver bullet in-hand (the full mid-level exception worth $5.3 million) and a specific target: A hired gun.

Signing a veteran knock-down 3-point shooter is crucial for this franchise on the doorstep. A Big Three of sorts that specializes in the long ball is set to hit the open market at the stroke of midnight: Vince Carter, Mike Miller and Mo Williams.

The 37-year-old Carter arguably stands as the most intriguing of the three, a reformed skywalker as he beats back Father Time and now a dead-eye 3-point shooter who has been called the league’s best bargain and most underpaid player during his three seasons with Dallas.

Carter, who has hit 40 percent of his 3s in the last two seasons with Dallas, and averaged 11.9 ppg last season, has stated his desire to remain with the Mavs, and Dallas wants him back. But Carter will also be pursued by a handful of contenders and teams on the verge of contending. A league source indicated that Oklahoma City, Miami, Toronto and Portland will give Dallas competition for Carter’s services.

Any one of those three free agents would be a boon to the Thunder’s second unit and each could play a key role spacing the floor and splashing open 3s while on the floor with league MVP Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, who was headed to a fourth consecutive All-Star berth until another knee surgery forced him out just after Christmas.

The Thunder’s core — Durant, Westbrook and Serge Ibaka — is obviously set and they rely heavily on drafting and player development to fill key roles. Reggie Jackson has emerged as a terrific reserve point guard. Shooting guard Jeremy Lamb could potentially move into the starting lineup next season. The Kendrick Perkins problem was lessened last season with the emergence of 7-foot rookie center Steven Adams.

However, the 3-point shooting issue remains. Thabo Sefolosha lost his touch from the deep all season and specifically in the postseason. The Thunder’s defensive-minded starter the last five seasons is now a free agent, and will likely move on. Veteran small forward Caron Butler, an early March addition, shot poorly in the postseason and he, too, will likely be headed elsewhere. Jackson, although an improving 3-point shooter, was still just 33.9 percent last season. And Lamb, at 35.6 percent, struggled in the season’s second half and lost his job to Butler.

OKC does believe it could find in-house help from second-year stretch-4 Grant Jerrett, a 2013 second-round draft pick, who shot 36.4 percent from deep for the Thunder’s D-League affiliate in Tulsa, Okla. But the 6-foot-10 project out of Arizona didn’t play a minute for the big club once he was signed in April.

The 6-foot-8 Miller almost signed with OKC last summer after Miami used the amnesty clause to set him free, but he ultimately returned to Memphis, which finished last in the league in 3-point attempts per game. So he might relish a chance to play with two superstars in an offense that will guarantee him more looks.

Williams, who opted out of his final year in Portland at $2.8 million, is a terrific shooter and can switch between the 1 and 2. He lacks the size of the other two, but was a big part of the Portland’s surge last season.

Other free-agent candidates include Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, P.J. Tucker, Josh McRoberts and C.J. Miles.

Here’s a look at my top three:

 

Vince Carter 

Age: 37 (Jan. 26)

2013-14 salary: $3.18 million

2013-14 stats: 81 games; 24.4 mpg; 11.9 ppg; 3.5 rpg; 2.6 apg; 40.7 FG%; 39.4 3FG%

Pros: Has adjusted his game with his age to become a knock-down 3-point shooter — and he can still get to the rim more often than expected; a solid locker-room leader for a young team that probably grew up watching him in dunk contests; and Mavs coach Rick Carlisle has consistently lauded his defensive effort.

Cons: He’s prone to forcing too many contested jumpers; at some point the body is going to give out and Carter, although extremely well-conditioned, does turn 38 during the season.

 

Mike Miller

Age: 34 (Feb. 19)

2013-14 salary: $884,293 million (owed $12.8 million by Heat for 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons)

2013-14 stats: 82 games; 20.8 mpg; 7.1 ppg; 2.5 rpg; 1.6 apg; 48.1 FG%; 45.9 3FG%

Pros: Still a deadly 3-point shooter as Thunder fans can attest during the first round as they gasped in fear every time he lined up from the top of the arc; Just being on the floor would space it better than with any combination OKC put on the court last season.

Cons: He’s been susceptible to back issues, but he stayed healthy last season and played in all 82 games while still logging 20 minutes a game. He’s risky, but as just a threat to make 3s, is worth it.

 

Mo Williams

Age: 31 (Dec. 19)

2013-14 salary: $2.8 million

2013-14 stats: 74 games; 24.8 mpg; 9.7 ppg; 2.1 rpg; 4.3 apg; 41.7 FG%; 36.9 3FG%

Pros: He’s acknowledged he’s on the back portion of his career, so he knows his rightful place is coming off the bench and sparking a team with instant offense — exactly what the Thunder needs; can play the 1 and 2, and is a good passer.

Cons: His size could be a detriment since the Thunder are likely to let the 6-foot-5 Sefolosha walk in free agency and already have the 6-foot-3 Jackson likely coming off the bench. If Lamb proves he’s not ready to be a starter, OKC could prefer a two-guard with more size.