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Dunc’d On: USA 101-71 Slovenia

Nate Duncan looks at Team USA’s blowout exhibition victory over Slovenia and examines the trends heading into the World Cup.

Nate Duncan

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All of the US exhibitions have been very encouraging so far, with nothing resembling a close call. Slovenia is a solid offensive team that can really bomb from the outside or get to the basket with Goran Dragic and his brother Zoran. The Slovenes recently dealt Lithuania, the projected U.S. opponent in the semifinals, its first loss of the exhibition season.* But the US defense was again outstanding, as it has been throughout the exhibition tour with the exception of a shaky first half against Puerto Rico. Slovenia managed only 71 points on 85 possessions (83.5 points per 100 possessions).

*Most other countries have been playing many more exhibition games than the US.

The US was outstanding in all facets defensively, forcing turnovers on 23.5 percent of possessions, holding Slovenia to 9-of-27 from three and 36.6 percent shooting overall. This team looks as if it will be far superior on that end to its 2012 counterpart. That team played a lot of shoddy defenders and had almost no rim-protection, but simply outscored people with one-way players like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love seeing a lot of minutes in the frontcourt.

The offense against Slovenia was a bit more of a slog, especially in the first half when it managed only 46 points on 42 possessions. Part of the problem was missed free throws, but more concerning was the fact the US took a mere three shots from downtown, missing them all. That was due in part to foul trouble from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, and without those two players the shooting can become a problem. Without either of those players in the game, opponents would be wise to try out some zone. Nevertheless, the offense exploded in the second half, resulting in a respectable 118 points/100 for the game. But without a true stretch four and great athletes or shooters on the wing, the video game numbers put up by the 2012 team (which often took half its shots from downtown) will not be in the offing this time around.

–The biggest reason the US has been so good defensively is Anthony Davis, a player unlike any who got regular minutes on the 2012 team. He was unbelievable again on Tuesday, with a line of 18 points, 11 rebounds, four steals, four blocks and zero fouls in a mere 18 minutes. Any action involving Davis continues to be death for the offense, like here when he shut down three separate actions before blocking a step back jumper by a guard.

AD Hedge Block
Coach K rotated Davis in and out repeatedly in the first half to keep him fresh rather than slavishly playing him only with the first unit. He will need to play as many minutes as possible in the knockout rounds with the backup centers still looking iffy.

Davis’ on-court defensive numbers were relatively poor last year for the Pelicans, but given his talent it seems very unlikely that will continue this year. His defensive skills have certainly translated into great team-wide numbers defensively on this squad.

The Chicago native should be the best defensive power forward in basketball next year. He will be joined by a top-five center in Omer Asik and a very good point guard in Jrue Holiday. If the Pelicans are not a top-10 defense next year, Monty Williams is going to have some explaining to do.

–Tuesday’s US starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kenneth Faried and Davis has been absolutely outstanding so far, and no starter had a plus/minus lower than 27 against Slovenia. Unfortunately, that means the bench was pretty bad. The two key players without replacements on the second unit are Curry and Davis, who both provide skills that cannot be duplicated on this team.

–Irving had a bounce-back game defensively after getting torched against Puerto Rico. I wrote last week that Derrick Rose should be the starter, but Irving made his case with a team-high +42.

–Rose really struggled. Outside of an initial jag pressuring the ball upon entry in the first quarter, he did little. He missed two layups, had three turnovers and was repeatedly blown by defensively to his right from the left wing. It appeared to be a miscommunication, because he acted like he was icing the pick and roll but there wasn’t a pick to force the ballhandler away from. As a result, the big man was not in position to help him and he allowed multiple straightline drives like this one:

Rose Blow By Left

Most disturbingly, Rose did not push the ball hard in transition at all. That is one of his best skills and in his limiting minutes he should be running it down the opposition’s throats at every opportunity.

–Faried has taken up Carmelo Anthony’s delightful Team USA tradition of snagging offensive rebounds on free throws. Anthony was oddly unstoppable in this role in 2008 and 2012, and Faried grabbed two against the Slovenes.

–The backup center position looks no better than it did a few days ago. DeMarcus Cousins was a team-worst -10, a rather difficult feat in a game his team won by 30. His defensive shortcomings are well-known, but he has been strangely poor offensively. In particular, the Kings center has struggled to use his body to finish inside, often resorting to wild double pumps instead of powering up. Team USA has not played any NBA-quality big men the last two games, but Cousins has not really proved able to finish the chances set up for him. This effort is typical.

Cousins missed layup

Perhaps Cousins’ knee is still bothering him, but if he cannot even bring adequate finishing at the basket or on his postups, the US really needs to find another alternative.

–I often harp on the difference in athleticism between European basketball and the NBA. Even average or worse NBA athletes have more strength and athleticism than their European counterparts. This Curry drive is a great example.

Curry Muscle
In the NBA, he would not be able to knock his defender backward and a help defender would likely block his shot as he leaned into his primary defender. Here, Steph blows by his man, muscles him out of the way and there is no help defense to be found.

–Faried illustrates the danger of cobbling together a team simply based on who is the best NBA player, or even exclusively based on skills demonstrated in the NBA. On paper, Faried doesn’t make a ton of sense as a subpar NBA defender who can’t shoot. Indeed, few would have projected he would make this team. But once he got in the practices, he looked great and has carried that over into the games.

Of course, coaches are not infallible and NBA season-length sample sizes mean a lot, but the tryouts and practices provide an unrivaled window into a player’s fit with his teammates or whether he is in-form during the summer, which some players are not.

–A US offensive bugaboo in the first half was a failure to quickly move the ball. Rudy Gay frustrates many with his ball-stopping in the NBA, and he was guilty of it a few times as well against Slovenia.

Gay missed pass
Harden is wide open a pass away in the corner, but Gay instead elects to drive into traffic and give the defense time to rotate.

–I have complained about the way Team USA uses “floppy” sets, and they have largely gone away from them. However, that does not mean downscreen action should be abandoned. The US does a great job here setting a quick screen for Curry for him to drain a jumper early in the clock.

Curry early clock
The key is getting into it quickly instead of taking 10 seconds to get everyone set before the action begins.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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