USA Basketball Team Built For Success

The final roster for the 2012 USA Olympic basketball team was announced on July 7th, and the decision from chairman Jerry Colangelo added James Harden, Andre Igoudala, and Blake Griffin to the mainstays of the international roster.

The trio got the call over the likes of Rudy Gay, Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, who were also competing for the right to round out the USA roster this summer in London.

Though invaluable to their teams in NBA play, Harden, Iguodala, and Griffin will be relegated to supporting roles at the Games. Still, their inclusion demonstrates the direction Mike Krzyzewski will take this team once this team begins their familiar role as international favorites.

While the selections of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams could be seen as no-brainers, USA will also round out their team with the likes of Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Tyson Chandler, perhaps providing a glimpse into the style of play the team will employ in London.

The roster selections certainly indicate the value Team USA has placed upon experience and versatility, as only Harden and Griffin will be making their debut for their country in an Olympics or World Championship.

A number of players also have the ability to defend and play multiple positions, a strategy used to combat the lack of frontcourt depth in light of the absence of USA mainstays Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh.

The inclusion of only one true center (Chandler) indicates that Krzyzewski may play a smaller lineup in key moments during the Games, relying on athleticism and quickness rather than a size advantage. This will allow the Americans to closely mirror the lineups of their opponent, most of whom will not be led by a dominant big man.

With the likes of James, Durant, and Anthony on the wings and Paul at the point, Team USA will certainly hope to use their athleticism to get baskets in transition. But Plan B will depend on a halfcourt set in which almost any player can create their own shot, and Paul will inevitably be key with his ability to break defenses down off the dribble.

Although there are concerns that his drive-and-kick game will be less effective without the NBA’s stringent hand-checking rules, Paul should be able to get wherever he wants on the court and exhibit spectacular court vision against less than NBA-caliber defenders.

The team also lacks a three-point shooting specialist to stretch the floor and create space to operate, a role that may be filled by Bryant on this star-studded team. It’s one he’s unfamiliar with, however, as Bryant is used to dominating the ball as the alpha-dog for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Either way, the USA shouldn’t have trouble scoring in London with their wealth of offensive talent and pedigree. Instead their main challenge will likely be handling the familiarity and continuity their challengers bring to the table.

This will likely give them the most trouble defensively, as the international game is predicated more on motion offense rather than pick and roll play, which dominates the NBA game. It will be a challenge for the American stars to remain aware of the challenge this presents, especially in the form of back cuts and hustle plays that have fallen out of favor in the NBA.

Irrevocably the favorite in any level of international basketball competition, all eyes will be on Team USA this summer in London. Let’s hope their eyes are more fixated on the opponent than their own hype machine.

It’s the only thing that can stop them.

Idea Of A “Big Three” Still Brings Excitement

Paul Pierce was tired. At the ripe age of 29, Pierce had wasted yet another season of his prime on a Boston Celtics team that had endured one of the worst basketball seasons in their storied history, finishing a paltry 24-58 and dead last in the Atlantic Division.

The five-time all-star small forward had missed significant time that season with a bum foot, as the lack of help surrounding Pierce contributed mightily to the team’s miserable year. Negative attitudes between Celtics players, Pierce included, and members of the organization’s front office only enhanced the team’s unstable situation, as each day brought increased tension to the storied franchise.

In truth, a winning brand of basketball couldn’t have seemed further away for the Celtics.

As the Celtics’ 2006-2007 season sputtered to an end, Pierce seemed doomed to spend the remainder of his glory days as a star carrying his squad to mediocrity at best. But what happened next would change the recent fortunes of the shamrock-yielding franchise and the landscape of the entire NBA for years to come.

On June 28, 2007, the same day the 2007 NBA Draft took place in New York City, Celtics’ President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge acquired sharp-shooting all-star guard Ray Allen from the Seattle Supersonics, immediately transforming his team into a playoff contender.

A month later, on July 31, Ainge pulled another rabbit out of the hat when he plucked perennial all-star power forward and 2003-2004 Most Valuable Player Kevin Garnett from the Minnesota Timberwolves for nearly nothing in return.

Without warning, Ainge had transformed the Celtics from a perennial Eastern Conference bottom-feeder into an immediate title contender, setting up a record season that would garnish him Executive of the Year honors.

The 2007-2008 season also saw Garnett win the Defensive Player of the Year award, while the Celtics posted the biggest turnaround from one season to the next in NBA history, improving their record a full 42 games from the 2006-2007 season.

With a 66-16 regular season record, good for best in the league, the Celtics would grind their way through the playoffs with home-court advantage in each round, something that proved beneficial for the surprisingly road-deficient Celtics.

After defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the NBA Finals, the Celtics’ could raise another championship banner as their league-leading 17th was perhaps the most improbable of all considering the massive disappointments they’d endured the previous season. Pierce was named the 2008 NBA Finals MVP, a total vindication for the Hall-of-Fame-bound forward that completed a journey which seemed so lost just a season before.

With those three superstars intact, the Celtics’ core had enough reason to fall victim to the cliché and unoriginal moniker “The Big Three.”

As NBA analysts began to thrive on the epithet, increasingly referring not to the individual star power of the Celtics but rather the “Big Three” as a solitary being, teams around the league began deliberating their own methods of how they could acquire this ingenious recipe for immediate success.

First, it was the Los Angeles Lakers, whose three-pronged star power came to fruition in February of 2007 when they hijacked All-Star forward Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in return for a handful of misfit, over-the-hill Laker pieces and relatively meaningless draft rights.

In addition to superstar guard Kobe Bryant and up-and-coming big man Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol’s entrance to the Lakers was cause for yet another stratospheric leap for a previously unimpressive team.

Though the Lakers’ own “Big Three” couldn’t handle the Celtics’ original version in the Finals that season, they would go on to win the next two championships, another example of the suddenly realistic possibility of “Big Threes” across the league leading to immediate success.

LeBron James and Chris Bosh teamed up with Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat following the 2009-2010 NBA season as the third such model of the “Big Three” frenzy that had swept across the league, igniting some teams that didn’t even have the recipe to fit the moniker to begin using it anyway.

Indeed, teams like the New York Knicks, with Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler/Jeremy Lin, began believing in their own almost-but-not-really “Big Three” potential, despite barely making the playoffs in 2012 before getting eliminated in five games by the soon-to-be-champion Miami Heat.

Still, as the off-season creeps nearer to training camp, another realistic “Big Three” possibility sits on the horizon.

Less than a month following the Heats’ first championship together, rumors of grandiose, albeit realistic, possibilities surround the Brooklyn Nets in their hunt for their own immediate success.

With superstar point guard Deron Williams and top-five center Brook Lopez manning the Nets’ franchise, disgruntled superstar big man Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic has indicated that he wants to be traded now, perhaps to the Nets.

Back when the NBA landscape circled primarily around logical trades and evened-out star power, it would have been crazy to think of three top NBA players playing for the same team. It would have been absurd to think that franchise players have as much, if not more, power within the organization than management themselves.

But the “Big Three” extravaganza has only built steam since its 2007 Celtics’ inception, with more players than ever before realizing that they can force their way to a team of their choice when playing opportunities open up for them, refusing to give into the boring, conventional trade and free agent situations that have permeated star diffusion in this league since the NBA’s beginning.

One big three has since spawned multiple. As an avid NBA fan, I’m no longer tired.

Durant May Be The Best Closer In NBA

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers were outscored 9-0 late in the game.

LeBron James takes a lot of, well, Heat for not finishing ballgames. And a lot of it is warranted, the way he tends to disappear and almost takes himself out of plays when it comes to clutch time.

Kobe Bryant, however, is known as “the best closer in the game” by many.

But not on Wednesday.

The Lakers butchered a seven-point lead with two minutes to go, with Bryant having a hand in a majority of those miscues down the stretch of a 77-75 loss at Oklahoma City.

Here’s how the play-by-play looked down the stretch, and it didn’t look good for Bryant:

3:20: Bryant misses 24-footer.
3:16 Bryant foul on Westbrook.
1:59 James Harden drives past Bryant for layup, LA leads 75-70.
1:47 Bryant turnover, Durant steal and dunk, LA leads 75-72.
1:39 Steve Blake pass goes off Bryant’s hand.
1:00 Harden blocks a Bryant field-goal attempt.
0:56 Harden scores again past Bryant, LA leads 75-74.
0:36 Bryant misses 3-point attempt.
0:34 Durant runner, OKC takes the lead 76-75.

Former L.A. Times columnist and ESPN writer J.A. Adande summed it up best with his tweet afterward: Based on the last 2 nights, the answer to Kobe vs. Lebron? is “none of the above.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Maybe the best player of the postseason is Kevin Durant, who led the Thunder on a 9-0 run to end the game. He’s definitely starting to make the MVP voters reconsider their votes cast last month.

As for the Lakers, this all but wraps it up for their season (with back-to-back games Friday and Saturday, it’s going to be tough to take Games 3 and 4 in L.A.). And when Bryant can’t close out a game, you know the Lakers are in trouble. And when his teammates are throwing up their arms in disgust, as Andrew Bynum did late in the game on multiple occasions, it’s clear the team is dysfunctional and has too many issues to be overcoming what is clearly the best young team in the league.

Where do they go from here? That’s anybody’s guess, but if Bryant is starting to lose his touch — on top of all of the other issues the Lakers are having — you know the franchise is in trouble.

World Peace Helps Lakers Advance

While the Lakers “bigs” got all the credit from ESPN and the major media outlets Saturday for stepping up in a 96-87 victory over the Denver Nuggets in Game 7, it’s clear defense was the difference.

Specifically Ron Artest, or Metta World Peace, who completely shut down whoever he was guarding Saturday in his return from a seven-game suspension.

World Peace also did plenty of damage at the offense end, scoring 15 points and hitting four big threes in the Laker victory.

Steve Blake, who struggled at the defensive end, made up for his lack of D with a playoff career-high 19 points.

Kobe Bryant played a more passive role, getting his teammates involved with 17 points and eight assists.

Pau Gasol also came to play at both ends, fishing with 23 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. But after the game, he gave the credit to the return of World Peace at the Staples Center.

“(Metta) had a great impact,” Gasol told TNT afterward. “Metta does a great job. He just gets into guys. He forces things. He makes things happen for us on the defensive end.”

While Denver’s guards blew past Blake and the Lakers front line for much of the night (Ty Lawson scored 24 points, Arron Afflalo had 15), typical go-to’s such as Danilo Gallinari and Andre Miller struggled against World Peace. Gallinari was 1-9 from the floor, finishing with three points and four turnovers. Miller was 1-10, finishing with three points and five turnovers.

Arguably the difference in the series for Denver, Miller’s only field goal came against, you guessed it, the Lakers “bigs.” The 6-foot-2 Miller upfaked Gasol and then scored over the slacking, 7-foot Bynum to cut the the Lakers lead to 78-77 with 6:51 to go … a play ESPN.com’s headline writers obviously missed.

“It’s defense, defense,” World Peace said. “It’s the little things you can’t really see. … It’s about the intangibles that I bring to the table.”

Especially when it comes to the NBA playoffs, and a team with aging super stars that don’t have the defensive presence they once had.

A year ago, Tyson Chandler converted Dallas from a soft, aging team of offensive-minded veterans, into a scrappy, gritty defensive squad that suffocated LeBron James and the Miami Heat to win their first NBA title.

This year, with Chandler gone (he still won the Defensive Player of the Year award), the Mavs are already gone from the playoffs.

Same thing for the Lakers. With Metta World Peace, the Lakers have a chip on their shoulder and play a suffocating defense that translates into team basketball at the offensive end as well.

Without him, the Lakers get pushed to seven games by a Denver Nuggets team that’s void of a superstar.

Luckily for the Lakers, they get World Peace back just in time for their showdown with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Artest’s old friend James Harden. And while Harden – who suffered a concussion courtesy an Artest elbow the last time these two teams played – will certainly be looking for some revenge, you know the Thunder will be thinking twice about taking it right at World Peace this time around.

It’ll be interesting to see how Mike Brown sets the matchups heading into the second round, but it appears he’s finally starting to realize just how important World Peace is to the Lakers’ success.

“Obviously, we all played well, but I’d be remissed if I did not talk about Metta,” Brown said in the postgame press conference. “He was huge tonight. … His presence helped out a lot. I didn’t realize Miller and Gallinari were a combined 2-19. That is our team defense, but Metta had a lot to do with that.

“I mean, he made plays tonight that won’t show up in the stat sheet that were absolutely, freaking amazing for us defensively.”

Why Cuban Went Silent In The NBA Finals

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After the Dallas Mavericks had just beaten the Miami Heat in Game 6 to capture their first NBA title in franchise history, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was asked why he was uncharacteristically quiet throughout the series.

“It doesn’t matter now,” Cuban scoffed, walking away from the microphone to celebrate with his team.

And Cuban was right, the Mavericks had avenged their 2006 Finals loss to the Heat, and – thanks in part to Cuban biting his tongue, for once – the NBA can continue moving right along without anyone brining up officiating scandals of years past.

But if you want the story behind why Cuban was silent during the series, look no further than Page 82 of former NBA official Tim Donaghy’s book “Personal Foul,” where the disgraced referee wrote candidly about the 2006 Finals where Dallas played “five against eight” and had “an uphill battle” against three biased referees.

Few outside of Dallas (certainly not ABC/ESPN, which has lucrative TV deal with the NBA) brought up the free-throw discrepancy and questionable officiating from five years ago, but the boxscores tell the tale as the Heat went to the line 207 times as opposed to Dallas’ 155 free-throw attempts in the 2006 Finals.

Which begs the question, did dirty officiating cost the Mavericks an opportunity to win their first NBA title five years ago?

I know, it’s conspiracy talk, but it’s a story that needs to be raised … if anything to measure where the NBA’s officiating stands today.

While the disgraced Donaghy did not officiate in the 2006 Finals, he admitted on the Galloway & Company Show in Dec. 2009 that he regularly bet on Mavericks games because of the league’s distaste for Cuban.

And in Game 5, Donaghy said that distaste helped put the  Heat on the free-throw line 49 times (they made a Finals-record 32 free throws) in 2006. In his book, Donaghy said, “the referees handed Miami a tremendous advantage by awarding the Heat 49 free throws during the contest, compared to just 25 for Dallas.” The Heat won Game 5 in Dallas, 101-100, thanks to a pair of Dwyane Wade free throws with 1.9 seconds left to send the series back to Miami.

“In the NBA, it’s tough enough for one team’s five players to beat another team’s five,” Donaghy noted in the book. “But when it’s five against eight, and three of the eight are referees, forget about it – you’ve got no shot.”

OK, we’re getting back into conspiracy theories and book sales here, so why would we believe a guy like Donaghy when it comes to what happened behind the scenes in the first meeting between the Mavericks and Heat? Well, I look at Donaghy like I look at Jose Canseco. Yeah, he’s a scumbag, who did some shady stuff during his time in the league, but he’s also become the whistle blower who shed light on the dark side of professional sports. Just like Canseco did with performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, where he’s been correct with a lot of his allegations after the fact. And with the FBI carefully going over many of Donaghy’s allegations since, and no legal action being taken by the NBA against Donaghy and his book, why shouldn’t we believe him?

For those of us who followed the NBA closesly five years ago, we remember just how bad the officiating was.

ESPN columnist Bill Simmons, a Celtics fan who had no rooting interest in the 2006 NBA Finals, went as far as to say “Wade and Miami received some Vince McMahon-level assistance in Games 3 and 4 of the 2006 Finals.”

He even wrote an angry column about the “officiating crisis” that prompted Cuban to post the link on his blog with the note: “I never have to say a word again.”

After Dallas fell apart in the 2006 Finals, Cuban was so upset by the officiating he nearly sold the franchise. So yeah, the officiating had an impact on the Mavericks both during the 2006 Finals and well after it.

Luckily for Dallas fans, Cuban didn’t sell or blow up the team and kept cornerstones like Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry on his roster. And luckily for the Mavericks, Cuban kept quiet during this year’s Finals and didn’t let his mouth get in the way of a stellar run by his players.

Because while few in the media pointed it out this time around, there were still connections to that 2006 officiating crew in this series. Joe Crawford, for example, officiated in both the 2006 and 2011 series, but you wouldn’t have known it by ABC/ESPN’s coverage of the Finals.

In fact, nobody brought up the officiating or followed up with Cuban about why he was mum about being silent during these playoffs, which leaves us to speculate or believe a guy like Donaghy – who is either the biggest liar the game has seen or the only one who’s telling the honest truth about NBA officiating in the past.

“I would absolutely confirm that there is obviously relationships that have taken place in the NBA, and there’s negative relationships, and they involve Mark Cuban,” Donaghy told ESPN Radio just a year and a half ago. “I think that when you see this, and he goes up two games to none in the (2006) series, I think the league office, and the way they train their referees to favor teams that are down in playoff series, obviously had a major part in the training and programming those referees to put the Miami Heat in an advantage if they fell in that hole.”

This time around, Cuban and the Mavericks quietly buried the Heat in that hole before Wade, LeBron James or even the officials could dig themselves out … and they’re NBA champions because of it.

Like Cuban said, “It doesn’t matter now.”

James Continues To Wilt In The Fourth

When LeBron James torched the Detroit Pistons for 48 points in Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals, hitting 29 of Cleveland’s final 30 points, many called “King James” the best closer in the NBA.

But since that spectacular playoff run, which ended with an abrupt Finals sweep by the San Antonio Spurs, James has struggled in closing out playoff games.

At least that’s the perception, but is that perception unjust? Well, the numbers don’t lie, particularly in these playoffs.

On Thursday, for example, James tallied a triple double but again struggled to make an impact in the fourth quarter, finishing with just two points as the Dallas Mavericks pulled out a 112-103 victory over the Miami Heat and took a 3-2 series lead in the NBA Finals.

James, who did finish with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, scored his two fourth-quarter points on a meaningless layup with 29 seconds left. For the series, James now has just 11 fourth-quarter points, mostly while being hounded by the Mavericks’ Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson.

The fourth-quarter struggles have been so significant, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra even admits they’ll need to address the situation over the next couple of days.

“There’s obviously going to be some priorities in terms of closing out games,” he said. “… We haven’t been able to do it consistently enough in this series.”

That might be the understatement of the season.

Heck, as it stands right now, the Boston Bruins have scored more in the past two games of the Stanley Cup Finals than James has in the fourth quarter of the Finals.

“The King” could have put the fourth-quarter woes to rest Thursday but blew two crucial shots down the stretch. He missed an 18-foot jumper with 2:55 to go and the score tied at 100. He followed with a missed 3-pointer after the Mavs took a lead 102-100 lead with 1:50 left.

Then, to top it off, Jason Terry stepped back and drained a back-breaking trey in James’ face with 33.3 left to seal it. The under-sized “Jet” has now outscored James 16-2 in the fourth quarter of this series, but James wouldn’t admit he’s been outplayed down the stretch in the Finals.

“I don’t believe so,” James said when asked if he was pressing to close out games in this series. “I know I’m not. We as a team we played good enough to win, again. We put ourself in position to win down the stretch. Guys made plays. They just made a few more than we did. That’s what it came down to.”

While much has been made of James’ fourth-quarter play, what really comes into question is his play in the “clutch” – or the final five minutes of games where the scoring margin is within five points.

During those scenarios in the 2011 playoffs, James’ shooting percentage is down to 40% (from 46% over the rest of the game), while his three-point percentage is down to 33% (from 35%).

During the regular season, those numbers were also down: 44% from the field in the clutch (as opposed to 51%) and a dismal 24% from three-point range (compared to 33%).

It’s a far cry from LeBron’s first go-around in the Finals, scoring double digits in the fourth quarter of two of the four games. In that 2007 Finals against the Spurs, James scored 39 fourth-quarter points, increasing his fourth-quarter production as the series wore one (6 points in Game 1, 8 in Game 2, 12 in Game 3 and 13 in Game 4). Even in “clutch” situations, James improved his point production (0-3-6-8 points).

So how do LeBron and the Heat turn their clutch problems around this time around, and avoid being upset in the NBA Finals?

Well, it appears it’s time they turn to Dwyane Wade, just like they did in 2006 when he emerged from Shaquille O’Neal’s shadow to win the Finals MVP and his first NBA title.

Otherwise, it might just be Dirk Nowitzki who is labeled the next best “closer” in the game.