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'It's about effort': Team USA proves there's more than one way to win

'It's about effort': Team USA proves there's more than one way to win

For more than six and a half minutes in the second quarter of Friday night’s exhibition game against Venezuela, the United States men’s national team looked lost.

The prohibitive favorite in the Rio Olympics missed 13 consecutive shots, committed two turnovers and was called for a shot clock violation, an almost unimaginable infraction considering the level of talent across the board on the floor.

The offense remained stagnant much of the night, a rare occurrence for a team that had looked unstoppable in averaging 108 points in their first three contests. But in their 80-45 thumping of Venezuela, Mike Krzyzewski’s group proved it has more ways to win a game than simply outshooting its opponent.

A combination of tenacious rebounding and determined defense allowed the Americans to move to 4-0 in exhibition play in their second-to-last tune-up before next month’s Olympic Games, where they’ll attempt to three-peat as gold medal winners.

“Two of the consistent parts of the game we did great with tonight, and that is you can play really good defense and you can rebound every night,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “Because it’s about effort. And our guys have given that effort.”

Playing without their top player, Nets point guard Greivis Vasquez, Venezuela hung around in the first quarter thanks in part to Team USA’s cold shooting. They even took a 12-10 lead on back-to-back triples from John Cox, who finished with a team-high 14 points. The Americans opened the game 3-for-10 before finishing the quarter on a 12-2 run. Kyrie Irving was the lone starter to shoot better than 50 percent (4-for-7); the other four starters combined to shoot just 8-for-31 (25.8 percent).

And yet during their dry spell in the second quarter, which included five scattered free throws, Team USA was able to increase its lead from 13 to 14 with stifling defense and stellar rebounding; in that same span Venezuela committed two turnovers and missed nine of 11 field goal attempts, with only one offensive rebound to show for it.

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“We played great defense. We didn’t score but they didn’t score,” said Kevin Durant, who finished 3-for-9 with nine points. “That’s the name of the game for us. If we don’t score we can’t let the other team score. It’s simple.”

Venezuela shot just 24 percent from the field and committed 18 turnovers. Cox, the cousin of Kobe Bryant, said the Americans' ability to switch at each position made each possession difficult.

"They’re so good because they can switch everything because of their length and athleticism. So I don’t think there’s another team in the Olympics that can do that," he said. "It’s difficult to take advantage on offense, and they’re talented and they’re going to be tough to beat because they switch down the line. Even their bigs can move their feet with our guards and other guards, so they’ll be a tough matchup. And that’s why they’re special."

The Americans were also helped in the defensive struggle by superb rebounding across the board. DeMarcus Cousins finished with a team-high 13 rebounds, Carmelo Anthony added nine of his own and Jimmy Butler, playing in front of a home Chicago crowd, snatched eight boards. Team USA won the battle of the boards, 54-29, outperforming the +21 rebounding advantage they had amassed in their first three games.

“You get 54 rebounds and we’re playing defense right to the very end, and that’s what I’m looking for,” Krzyzewski said. “The fact that the ball was not going in and they were playing very good defense against us does not stop us from giving a really quality effort, especially on the board and the defensive end.”

Team USA flipped the switch in the second half, with the bench unit beginning the third quarter on a 12-4 run that pushed the lead to 26 points. The Americans then made 10 of 12 shots in the final stanza posting 24 points on an array of outside shots – Klay Thompson connected on a pair of triples – and highlight reel dunks from DeAndre Jordan and DeMar DeRozan.

Team USA finished the contest shooting 43 percent from the field, nearly seven percentage points worse than their team average entering the contest. Their four made 3-pointers, three of which came from Thompson, were a far cry from the 39 they connected on in their first three games.

But their ability to shoot out of character for 40 minutes – the 80 points were tied for the second fewest for an Olympic team under Coach K – and still win handily was a positive sign for Krzyzewski.

Eight of Team USA’s 13 players averaged 20 or more point per game last season – Paul George rested with a sore calf. And its two returning players from the 2012 team, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, have five NBA scoring titles to their name. They’ve also got four players who have won NBA titles while playing for historically good offenses (Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Thompson for Golden State; Kyrie Irving for Cleveland).

[SHOP: Buy a Jimmy Butler Team USA shirt]

“We’re gonna knock shots down. We’ve got the best players in the world, the best shooters in the world, best penetrators in the world,” Durant said. “Shots don’t really matter to us. We played great defense and I think that’s what we’ve been doing the whole trip.”

There’s little doubt they’ll find their shooting touch in time for their opening round game on Aug. 6 against China. Krzyzewski even hinted at the team needing to find more comfort and rhythm using the international basketball, though he was quick to denounce that as an excuse for the poor shooting. 

After breezing through three exhibition games, winning by 37, 49 and 50 points, the Americans were forced to work in a different fashion for their victory Friday night. The final margin, 35, wasn’t indicative of the effort Team USA needed to show in order to pull away. They did show that effort, and it’s something that will serve them well moving forward when the games count.

“To be quite frank I’m very pleased about tonight,” Krzyzewski said, “because you don’t just want to hit 17 threes and not work hard.

"We had to work real hard tonight and we won.”

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is “tired of people talking sh*t about my defense” and working towards becoming an NBA All-Star

Zach LaVine is fed up with being underestimated and he’s going to do something about it. The Bulls guard has been having a strong pre-season so far but is looking to improve his skills as a two-way player.

“I’m just tired of people talking shit about my defense,” LaVine said. “I’ve always been a good on-ball defender. But there’s no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that on the defensive end.”

“I’m taking more pride in it,” he continued. “I’m pretty sure it’ll show. I’ll make sure of that.”

If you think LaVine sounds confident, he has good reason to be. Last season LaVine was one of only ten players to average at least 23 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, making him stand out as an elite player in the company of MVPs and All-Stars. LaVine’s personal triumphs, however, were overshadowed by the Bulls abysmal 22-60 record last season.

So far, this preseason LaVine has been looking better on defense, averaging 1.3 steals per game through three preseason games. Any improvements on defense will greatly help LaVine’s All-Star case.

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3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

3 takeaways from the Bulls' win over a limited Raptors squad in Toronto

The Bulls recorded their first win of the preseason with Sunday night’s 105-91 win over the Raptors. Here are three takeaways:

We got a peek at Jim Boylen's regular-season rotation

We had a clue that Boylen was going to go with Tomas Satoransky as his starter after he chose to sit him with the starters in the Bulls third preseason game against the Indiana Pacers. Sunday confirmed this idea. Boylen stated before the game that he would be starting to roll out his regular season rotations, and we saw "Sato" start next to the regular Bulls starting group of Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and the returning Wendell Carter Jr.

On top of seeing the starting group, we got to see Thaddeus Young in his probable role as the sixth man, coming in for Carter to provide the Bulls with more of a small look where Markkanen acts as the center.

Markkanen was particularly effective on the glass against the smaller Raptors frontline sans Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Lauri collected a double-double, finishing with 15 points and 13 rebounds, including four offensive rebounds. 

Giving an even greater effort on the glass will push Markkanen closer to All-Star status and it is not out of the question as we have seen him raise his rebounding average every season. Games like Sunday night's show that all of the muscle Markkanen added this offseason is going to pay dividends in the 2019-20 NBA regular season and beyond, which will allow the Bulls to play smaller more often to get dynamic scorers like Coby White on the floor.

White came in as a substitute for Porter, giving the Bulls another small-ball lineup in which LaVine acts as the small forward next to him and Satoransky.

Satoransky was great, finishing with 12 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 turnovers in 21 minutes. Sato pushed the pace but also could sense the right time to pull the ball back out and run a play in the halfcourt.

In general, the Bulls trotted out more three-guard lineups in this game, and the size of big guards like Satoransky and Kris Dunn help the Bulls blur the lines between wing and guard, mitigating some of the risks involved with not having a traditional wing on the floor.

On the flip side, the perimeter skills of a big man like Young allow the Bulls to play bigger lineups in which Young plays small forward next to two big men. In Sunday night's win over the Raptors, Young finished the game second on the Bulls in rebounds (7) and assists (3), while being in the right spot more times than not on D. 

With stretch-five Luke Kornet (2-of-7 from 3-point line vs Raptors), the gritty, playmaking Ryan Arcidiacono (3 assists, no turnovers), and rookie Daniel Gafford rounding out the rest of the new Bulls' Bench Mob," Boylen will have the ability to play many different ways, affording us a fair chance to see what he is made of as an NBA head coach. He is already passing his first test of showing that he is open to change, with the Bulls shooting 49 3-pointers on Sunday night, keeping their promise of being more aggressive from deep.

The Zach LaVine All-Star push starts now 

Overall, Zach LaVine has not been shy about already being at an All-Star level of play, you just have to ask him.

LaVine came into Sunday night's game sixth in the league in preseason scoring, averaging 22.0 points per game through two contests, and he kept up that scoring onslaught in a big way. He finished Sunday's win over the Raptors with 26 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals in just 24 minutes of action. He finished the night with four turnovers as well, and while you would like to see the assist-to-turnover ratio improve, high turnover totals are just the name of the game for high-usage stars.

Besides, Boylen and Co. likely would rather see LaVine collect some turnovers trying to make the extra pass—something the Bulls have committed to hard this preseason—rather than trying to iso and make a play for himself.

Notably, the LaVine-Markkanen pick-and-roll that figures to be a staple of the Bulls offense for a long time again made an appearance in this game, looking crisp at moments as defenses struggle with scrambling to Markkanen at the 3-point line or worrying more about LaVine's oftentimes dominant drives to the rim.

While it is encouraging to see LaVine score effortlessly, that is not a new development for Bulls fans. The true mark of improvement for LaVine will be his defense and playmaking, both of which looked good on Sunday night.

LaVine racked up two steals and showed an improved awareness and aggressiveness when prowling the passing lanes. What makes defense so huge for LaVine, besides the fact that his effort-level sets the tone for the team, is that he so often turns opponent turnovers into points in transition for Chicago.

The Bulls had 14 fastbreak points and 17 points off of turnovers in their win over the Raptors, with LaVine's efforts playing a large hand in the win. 

Coby White continues to score in bunches 

It has been stated many times how Coby White was more of a shooting guard in high school and only transitioned into being more a lead guard at North Carolina. And those natural scoring instincts have shown up time and time again in the NBA preseason, especially in transition. 

If you get White going towards the rim with a head of steam in transition, he will make it to the basket before the 24-second shot clock hits the 19-second mark, a remarkable display of his blazing speed.

Of course, everything is to be taken with a grain of salt in the NBA preseason, as we are often seeing White (and others) face off against a team's backups or even worse, players that won't even make an NBA roster. But what White has done well should play in the regular season, too. He scored 18 points on 37.5% shooting from the field, including hitting 4 of his 12 attempts from 3-point range. White was 2-2 from the free throw line and finished with one assist and no turnovers. 

It looks like it will be a while before we see Coby White look like an NBA-level floor general but he is already playing like an uber-confident, spark plug shooting guard.

The Bulls can utilize White's scoring in the regular season knowing that even if his court vision isn't where they want it to be, his shoot-first mentality and propensity to keep the ball moving should result in lower turnover totals than your usual score-first point guard.