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Team USA Gets a Wake-Up Call

U.S. national basketball team players (L-R) Lamar Odom, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose take a break while warming up at Madrid

Source: Yardbarker.com

Team USA got a message Saturday night in Madrid. Winning the World Championships in Turkey will take a lot more than just out-talenting a slew of competitors.

Prior to Saturday, Team USA hadn’t had many problems in their contests against international opponents, easily disposing of China and France in two exhibitions last weekend in New York City. It was a different story a week later, though, as Lithuania gave the Americans a run for their money in the first half.

Without the Olympian superstars like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and the rest, this year’s national team is overwhelmingly devoid of players with notable international experience, and that shined through on Saturday.

Team USA was not expecting Lithuania’s physicality, as players repeatedly took beatings as they drove the lane, which forced them to settle for jumpshots that did not fall in the first half. It was the first time that the lack of depth up front for the U.S. was truly an issue, as the Lithuanian bigs bruised and battered the Team USA guards.

But it wasn’t just an insufficient interior presence that caused problems. The team appeared to lack chemistry, often turning the ball over unnecessarily and making bad decisions. Furthermore, there were environmental problems. The floor seemed oddly slippery, causing problems for the quick USA guards. In addition, the rim seemed less generous than Ebenezer Scrooge at Christmas time — at least in the first half.

In the second half, Team USA swept Lithuania under the rug, in part thanks to a 17-0 run but more because the coach of Lithuania wanted to save its offensive plays and sets for the games that are going to count.

Even though Team USA didn’t lose, the struggles in the first half were an important milestone in the development of this team. For a bunch of players who haven’t played together that long, this helps to reduce the overconfidence that was evident among the younger players.

Now they know they can’t take any plays off, can’t take bad risks, and can’t be flashy lest they miss dunks like Rudy Gay. Lithuania is hardly the best team the U.S. will face in this tournament, with Spain and Greece as very formidable opponents. But at least Team USA knows it is no longer bulletproof. It’ll take a lot more hard work and a lot more concentration and effort to come out on top in Turkey in a couple weeks.

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Eric Gordon and Team USA

I’m currently in New York City covering USA Basketball for Clippers.com as the team prepares for the World Championships next month. Here’s an article I wrote about today’s scrimmage against China. You can find it here:

In preparation for Sunday’s Global Community Cup game against France, Team USA took to the floor of Madison Square Garden Saturday afternoon in a friendly scrimmage against China, one of the cup’s two other participating countries. The teams played four 10-minute quarters, but the score reset for each of the periods.

Over the course of the afternoon, USA largely dominated play, winning each of the first three quarters by scores of 20-11, 27-15, and 35-8. In the contentious fourth quarter, China struck back, narrowly edging out Team USA 17-16. Danny Granger paced the team with 22 points, while Yi Jianlian led the Chinese with 13 points.

For Eric Gordon, things got off to a slow start. After Coach Mike Krzyzewski elected to sit him for the entire first period, Gordon came out on the floor to play the first five minutes of the second. He hit one of his three 3-point attempts in the quarter and picked up a steal as well for a respectable first half.

In the third quarter, though, Gordon really turned up his game, racking up 8 points (of his 15 total) on two long-range makes and a pair of free throws. Gordon also stood out on the defensive end, nagging ball handlers and poking the orange away on a few occasions.

“We had a good rhythm as a team. When you have good rhythm as a team, everybody starts hitting shots. I know I got going, hitting a lot of threes, and it was good for me, but as a team we were rolling pretty good,” Gordon said after the game.

In the fourth quarter, Krzyzewski relied on Gordon down the stretch, playing Gordon for the final five-and-a-half minutes of the game, in which he added four more points — two of which came on an impressive breakaway dunk. “Eric been playing very well.” Krzyzewski said. “He hasn’t had one bad day.”

Krzyzewski’s satisfaction with Gordon’s abilities manifested itself at the end of the final period. With Team USA down one point with about 1.5 seconds to play, Krzyzewski drew up a side out of bounds play off the timeout designed to get either Granger or Gordon — the team’s two highest scorers for the contest — the final look. As the play developed, Gordon turned out to be the one open. He fired up a three off Rudy Gay’s inbound pass from the left wing as time expired, but, unfortunately it fell short off the front rim.

“It was a good look,” Gordon said. “The ball was so slick. It was on target but I just couldn’t get it far enough, but it was a good shot.”

Granger echoed Gordon’s feelings: “I think he got a good look. We played it right. One of us was going to be open. He was, and he got a good shot off. It just so happened he missed it.”

With one game left to play Sunday against France, Gordon must continue to excel in order to secure a spot on the final roster. Krzyzewski suggested that he would cut the team to 13 or 14 players for further competition before making the final cut down to 12 by August 26.

In reference to his process for making the final selections, Krzyzewski said, “It’s about combinations. It’s not about evaluating one guy or another guy. It’s trying to figure out how they all fit together and these guys have put us in the position where they’re all playing hard, they’re all unselfish, and hopefully we can come up with the right group to give us the best chance to win.”

Granger sung Gordon’s praises, pointing out that the Clippers guard’s skill set fits the team well in international play.

“Whenever you have a guard like Eric who’s strong, can shoot it, in international competition, that’s deadly because they’re afraid of our quickness,” he said. “We have guys like Derrick Rose and [Rajon] Rondo and [Russell] Westbrook, for that matter, who are really really quick, so they pack it in. And the way you attack that is with shooters,” he continued.

Gordon himself said he was confident he would take the team, but “whoever they choose, they choose. All I try to do is hit 3-pointers and make shots and play really good defense.”

Gordon’s last chance to show off those abilities before the next cut will be tomorrow at 1 PM eastern against France.

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LeBron James Thanks Cleveland Fans

July 09, 2010 - Miami, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - epa02243341 LeBron James (L) joins with Miami Heat Dwayne Wade (C) for a laugh as Chris Bosh tries out his Spanish while they greet fans during NBA basketball team Miami Heat

Source: Yardbarker.com

In his first public appearance since announcing his intention to play with the Miami Heat, LeBron James rode at a bike-a-thon in his hometown of Akron — and thanked his fans in Cleveland for their seven years of support.

“To the city of Cleveland, my fans in Cleveland, my fans in northeast Ohio,” James said. “I want to say thank you for the last seven years and the years that continue to go in the future.

“So I want to thank the city of Cleveland, also northeast Ohio, for all the great years that I’ve had,” he continued.

A lot has been made of the nature of James’ relationship with the city of Cleveland, and the conflict was only exacerbated last week when LeBron took out an advertisement in an Akron newspaper that thanked fans of his hometown but made no mention of Cleveland.

While it is said that something that comes late is better than something that never comes at all, the belated status of James’ gratitude seems to show that it’s something he was reluctant to proclaim — and that others encouraged him to do it.

Now that his thanks are on the table, though, the fans of Cleveland aren’t necessarily satisfied. In fact, most of them were more likely expecting something in the apologetic range from their former King, but it seems very unlikely that will ever happen.

I’ve made no secret of my support for James’ right to make the decision he did and that he owes nothing to a city that he was really only contractually committed to.

However, when fans start burning your jerseys and pronouncing death threats, maybe it is just best for you to swallow your pride and throw the dogs a bone. Maybe James could just say he’s remorseful (even if he’s not) and make a hefty donation to the city in some way.

That way, the only storyline when the Heat come to the Quicken Loans Arena will be the beatdown that they put on the Cavaliers and not that James is being rushed to the hospital after being hit with a bullet.

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Utah Jazz Situated to Contend

It wasn’t exactly party time in Salt Lake City, Utah, when the Jazz let all-star power forward Carlos Boozer defect to the Chicago Bulls during this summer’s free agency. After all, it looked like the team was finally putting into play a long-deferred scheme to avoid the luxury tax while suffering some collateral damage on the court. Even Deron Williams, who quietly voiced his displeasure with the organization after Ronnie Brewer was dealt during the season, seemed visually displeased. It was a admission of defeat after a playoff series loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in May.

Keeping all that in mind, would it surprise you to read that the Jazz are actually a better team after these moves? Because they most certainly are. Despite expectations that the team would roll over and not reload for the rapidly approaching 2010-2011 season, GM Kevin O’Connor went out and made two key moves to position the Jazz in a position to succeed into June next year. He traded for Minnesota’s bruising center Al Jefferson and signed vicious guard Raja Bell.

And these two moves couldn’t have been more perfect. Revisiting the Lakers-Jazz series, what were Utah’s two primary problems in dealing with the eventual champions? They were (1) a lack of height and toughness down low and (2) the absence of a stopper for Kobe Bryant.

Jefferson, the centerpiece of the Kevin Garnett trade, is an instant upgrade over Boozer. First of all, he has two valuable inches on his predecessor, making him much more fit to contend with the likes of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum in the post. He’s also just as potent a scorer and rebounder; with Williams at the point, he’s almost a shoo-in to put up a 20-and-10 season next year if he stays healthy. While he’s not the greatest defender, he’s no worse than Boozer, who just didn’t have the physical traits to excel on that end.

But Jefferson’s addition is more than just a plus replacement for Boozer. Instead, he enables coach Jerry Sloan to do a lot more mixing and matching with his frontcourt. While in the past he was mostly limited from playing his two most potent offensive forces (Boozer and Paul Millsap) in the post simultaneously lest he be absolutely dismantled down low, he can now play Jefferson and Millsap at the same time and not risk such a terrible fate. While Andrei Kirilenko will probably start at the 4 alongside Jefferson, Millsap and the recovering Mehmet Okur is quite an offensive spark in the second unit.

Against the Lakers last year, Kobe drew attention from two defenders primarily, C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews, who encouraged a pick-your-poison scenario with the Black Mamba. If the shorter, weaker Miles was on him, Bryant would undress him in the post and make easy turnaround jumpers. If Sloan put the stronger Matthews out there, Kobe would beat him on the perimeter and finish easily in the lane against middling post defenders. With Bell, though, the Jazz don’t have that problem. An aggressive and mean defender, Bell had his share of conflicts with Kobe while he was a member of the Phoenix Suns. His hard-nosed style of play, long arms, and quick feet all make him a great candidate for guarding Bryant and don’t allow him to take advantage of any particular weakness.

In addition, Bell gives the team an off-the-ball shooter that is hasn’t had in the past. With him in the corner or on the wing, D-Will has another viable option on offense other than feeding a big man, penetrating the lane, or running the pick and roll. Bell will be a dangerous spot-up shooter who will add a much-needed dimension to the offense.

While Bell came at virtually no cost, Minnesota GM David Kahn finagled two future first-round picks out of Utah for Jefferson’s service, sensing their desperation. Does Jefferson’s talent outweigh the damage done to the future of the organization? Well, not really. They still have the solid building blocks locked up in Williams and Jefferson, and when Kirilenko’s massive $17 million expiring contract comes off the books next summer, they’ll have space to work with to add other role players. The draft doesn’t figure to be a main source of talent in the coming years for the Jazz.

So it may have been a week of agony for Utah, but they bounced back. Maybe it’s time that Sloan can come away with his first NBA championship or coach of the year award. Jefferson and Bell certainly don’t hurt.

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LeBron to Announce Decision Thursday

Free agent LeBron James will put an end to speculation as to where he’ll play next season Thursday, the first day that players can officially sign with teams, on a 9 PM eastern special on ESPN.

LeBron James will announce the team with which he will sign during a one-hour special on ESPN Thursday night, ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard has learned through independent sources.

ESPN would only confirm that active discussions for the special are ongoing. But sources tell Broussard that representatives for James contacted the network, proposing that James makes his announcement during a 9 p.m. ET special.

Those sources said that James’ representatives requested they be allowed to sell sponsorship for the one-hour special, with the proceeds going to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and that ESPN agreed to the proposal but had not been told what James has decided.

While I doubt there’s any substance to it, his decision to publicize his choice in this way suggests he might be leaving Cleveland. It seems like he’d want a quieter, more direct approach if he were re-signing. But no one really knows.

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NBA Today: June 28

  • The New Jersey Nets release Keyon Dooling to save about $3.3 million in cap space for the summer. They now have just over $27 million in cap room.
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NBA Today: June 18

  • The Los Angeles Lakers are your 2010 NBA Champions for the 16th time in their storied history.
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NBA Today: May 28

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NBA Today: May 26

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NBA Today: May 25

  • Would Lenny Wilkens, the second-winningest coach all-time, consider a return to the NBA?
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