TrueHoop: Andrei Kirilenko

The all-Olympics team

August, 13, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
In North America, international basketball is often regarded as a novelty act -- a sideshow with funny rules, bizarre dimensions and lots of guys who look like rockers. Teams run sprawling offensive schemes that often look like something out of an instructional video. Won't someone just explode off a pick already?!

But the 2012 Olympics, which ended Sunday, proved again that international competition is thriving. For two weeks, a world of players and teams with diverse skills battled for global prestige, and they did it in style. There's a reason that millionaires love playing for their countries. It's an inordinately rewarding way to express your identity as a basketball player in the context of something much larger than yourself.

Here's our all-London team:

First team

Pau Gasol, Spain
What makes Spain so much fun to watch? It's Gasol's team, something we rarely witness in the NBA. When La Roja suit up, they're led by Gasol in the high post. His vision guides the guards to open spots, and his fluent read of the game creates opportunities.

When the Spanish fell behind big against Russia in the semifinals, Gasol changed course after halftime, getting quick touches before shuttling the ball across the court to his shooters. He posted, passed out, then reposted. This movement was precisely what the Spaniards needed against Russia's tight defense, and that adjustment had to come from Gasol. Jose Calderon hit the big shots, but Gasol facilitated them with his instincts and feel.

In the gold-medal game, Gasol's 24 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists gave Spain a shot at the improbable. For the tournament, Gasol put up an average line of 19.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.

LeBron James, United States
For James, who had cemented himself as the most dominant player in the world during his 2011-12 NBA championship run, the gold medal was probably more of a statement than an achievement. He deferred to teammates during the early stages of group play, then again when the celebration started at North Greenwich Arena on Sunday. In between, he was the Americans' safety valve.

His line in London wasn't gaudy -- 13.3 points per game on 60.3 percent shooting from the field, 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists -- but when the 3-pointers weren't falling for the red, white and blue and opposing defenses began to gather confidence, Team USA could turn to James. In those instances, he would drive and dish, dive off the weak side where Chris Paul or Deron Williams could hit him on the move, or simply blow by helpless defenders with a single dribble and a burst to the basket, as he did with four fouls in a tight gold-medal game against Spain. All the while, James acted as the team's de facto center when Tyson Chandler was off the floor, defending the biggest guys in the most crucial moments.

Manu Ginobili, Argentina
Back when he was still known as Emanuel Ginobili to the rest of the world and before he ever suited up in black and silver, Manu led an Argentine national team that handed a mortifying defeat to the Americans in 2002 at the FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis. Two years later, Ginobili dropped 29 points on the Americans in the Olympic semifinal round en route to a gold medal for the Argentines.

As much as the hire of Mike Krzyzewski, those losses to Argentina inspired American NBA stars to renew their commitment to international competition. Argentina didn't medal in London, but a 35-year-old Ginobili continued his mastery of the world stage. In eight games, Ginobili averaged 19.4 points (third among all players), 5.4 rebounds (more than any other guard in Olympic play) and 4.1 assists. He led a tiny, somewhat depleted team that had grown old in the tooth to the brink of the podium. Ginobili is unlikely to suit up in Rio de Janeiro, and world basketball will be poorer for it.

Kevin Durant, United States
Every team needs a microwave, a guy whose penchant for unconscious shooting in uncanny spurts can single-handedly put an opponent away. Durant was repeatedly that sniper for the Americans over the eight games in London. In both games against Argentina -- first in group play, then in the semifinals -- Durant's barrage of 3-balls in the third quarter put tense, chippy games out of reach. There were no lapses in defenses by the Argentines nor any clever schemes drawn up by the American bench. Durant's combination of remarkable size and a quick trigger was simply incapable of being defended.

Back in Las Vegas after a friendly against the Dominican Republic, Durant flashed a bright smile when asked how much easier those 18 inches or so made the international 3-point shot, and his proficiency in London was all the evidence in the world. Durant went 34-for-65 from beyond the arc in the eight games and averaged 19.5 points per game, second only to Patty Mills.

Andrei Kirilenko, Russia
There isn't a more effective, intuitive player at cutting off the ball to make a play than Kirilenko. Time and again in London, just when you thought the Russian offense grounded to a halt, there was Kirilenko dashing into the lane for a catch and an easy 2. Kirilenko was equally crafty on the other side of the ball. The Russians repeatedly switched up their defense over the two weeks of competition, and Kirilenko was one of the primary reasons that coach David Blatt's defense was so flexible. Kirilenko was the tournament's best weakside defender.

He ranked third in blocks and steals, sixth in scoring and eighth in rebounding. Although he wasn't accurate from the outside, he still tallied a field goal percentage of 54 percent, a testimony to his shot selection and general smarts. Few projected the Russians to stand on the podium on Sunday night, but Kirilenko's contributions elevated them.

Second team

Patty Mills, Australia
Mills drilled the shot of the Olympics when he flared to the top of the circle with his team trailing by two to the undefeated Russians. With 1.8 seconds left, Mills caught a pass from Joe Ingles, then launched the shot against two closing defenders. The ball fell through, one of several big shots Mills drilled for the Boomers, a team that probably had less pure talent on the floor than any other that survived group play. Mills was the only Olympian who averaged greater than 20 points per game (21.5) and was the spark Australia needed against more sophisticated schemes and explosive squads.

Luis Scola, Argentina
Talk about a guy with a tough assignment. Here's 6-foot-8, 32-year-old Scola essentially functioning as Argentina's big man against topflight opponents. Every game, he had to fight for position against defenses keying in on him below the foul line, but he repeatedly won those one-on-one battles. We saw it in the semifinal, when Scola was confronted early by Tyson Chandler one-on-one. Scola shrugged, went middle and elevated with a hook over the 7-footer. When the ball was high, he sneaked behind unsuspecting defenders to set up underneath the basket, where teammates always seemed to find him. Overall, Scola was tremendous, putting up 18 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

Joe Ingles, Australia
A national team without a lot of raw athleticism or transcendent talent crashed the quarterfinals with wiliness and savvy, and the Australian big man brought that consistently for Australia. That game-winning pass to Mills was just a taste of Ingles' heady play. He also routinely checked guys who could've flattened him in just about any other context. When the Boomers threw improvisational double-teams at unsuspecting offenses, Ingles was usually the guy applying pressure, then scampering back to his original assignment. The Aussie forward finished the Olympics with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game and was a paragon of consistency.


Carmelo Anthony, United States
For a while, Anthony was scoring a point per minute for the Americans. He'd check in, set up on the right side, wait for cross-court passes against a loaded defense, then fire away. He went downright insane in the historic 156-73 drubbing of Nigeria during group play, going off for 37 points on 10-for-12 3-point shooting in a mere 14 minutes of court time. That explosion was one of the most unprecedented, self-contained scoring exhibitions we'll ever see in organized basketball. Anthony also produced in two skittish games for the Americans -- the close call against Lithuania and the semifinal versus Argentina.

Marcelinho Huertas, Brazil
Are the shooting numbers great? Not really. But the electrifying point guard put a depleted, underperforming group of Brazilian veterans on his back into the quarterfinals. When he got there, Huertas drained a slew of 3-pointers from well behind the line, a barrage that punched the Argentines in the mouth in the first half. Huertas is a master of controlling space and tempo, an old-school point guard with a few new-school tricks. He was the second-leading assist man in London at six dimes per game, behind only Argentina's Pablo Prigioni, and averaged 11.3 points per game for a Brazilian team that outperformed expectations despite getting very little from its big men.

Honorable mentions: Carlos Delfino, Argentina; Kevin Love, United States; Alexey Shved, Russia; Yi Jianlian, China; Joel Freeland, Great Britain; Leandro Barbosa, Brazil; Chris Paul, United States; Nicolas Batum, France; Marc Gasol, Spain; Boris Diaw, France.

Olympic quarterfinals big-game performers

August, 8, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Welcome to the knockout phase of the Olympic basketball event.

The NBA game affords teams a two-week chess match in each playoff round, during which a team can slip up, adjust, then eventually figure it out. That's not the case in London, where one stink bomb can send home the most talented teams and individual performers licking their wounds.

On Wednesday, the elimination tournament got under way, with standout performances from some likely -- and unlikely -- competitors.

United States 119, Australia 86

LeBron James, United States
The line speaks for itself: 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists, zero turnovers. But as impressive as the numbers are, the dramatic sequences are the real treat. Just one example from the second half: James chased down Patty Mills in transition, neutralizing the shot as he's done so many times. Chaos reigned for an instant, then James made the open-floor assist to Kevin Love on the ensuing break. Olympic play with elite teammates suits James well. We rarely saw him in isolation on Wednesday. Instead, James kept one eye on the ball and the other fixed on the defense. When a teammate such as Carmelo Anthony got the ball at the elbow, James zipped across the baseline, diverting the defense's attention, creating space for all five Americans.

Deron Williams, United States
Williams has the speed to attack and the strength to absorb almost any kind of contact. The Nets guard propelled the Americans in the first half, during which they never found a flow but were still able to manufacture a considerable lead. In a larger sense, Williams functioned as a security blanket for Team USA, a player they could rely on to maximize possessions. He scored 18 points, seven of which came at the stripe, and another six materialized after he found real estate to spot up behind the arc.

Kobe Bryant, United States
Bryant’s visit to London hasn’t come without its trials. Has Coach K been resting him, or does Bryant’s latter-day, back-'em-down game not conform to the rhythms of Team USA? Challenges require adjustments and at some point in the second half, Bryant decided he’d be a 3-point specialist. It was a Whitman’s Sampler of treats -- pull-up jumpers in transition, catch-and-shoot, ball-faking grenades. He finished 6-for-10 from beyond the arc for 20 points -- all of them in the second half.

Joe Ingles, Australia
Patty Mills led the Boomers in scoring, but Ingles was their most valuable player with 19 points (6-for-8 from the field) and eight rebounds. The 6-foot-8 forward showed off his one-on-one game and a nice toolshed of skills. He put a scare into the Americans with a step-back 3-pointer to cap Australia’s 11-0 run to start the second half. It's not all stretch, either. Ingles sprints the floor and he makes sneaky back cuts off the ball. At times, he found himself with unenviable task of guarding James and, occasionally, Kevin Durant one-on-one. He dug in, swallowed hard, but never backed away from the assignment.

Argentina 82, Brazil 77

Manu Ginobili, Argentina
Split, show, go, absorb, contort, finish -- repeat. Ginobili has been applying this formula for years, and Argentina’s 82-77 win over Brazil on Wednesday was merely his latest exhibition. It wasn’t all showmanship for Manu. He willingly mixed it up with the big guys beneath the glass, snagging eight rebounds to accompany his 16 points. Ginobili strategically chose his spots. Seeing that teammates Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino had their shots going early, Ginobili worked off the ball to create even more space for the forwards to find space for those jumpers. Overall, Wednesday was just another savvy performance from a player who has set the standard for international competition.

Luis Scola, Argentina
Scola had one of the tougher matchups of the quarterfinals in Tiago Splitter, but managed to find just enough space to launch that patented face-up jumper. Scola isn't the quickest guy on the floor, but he was always willing to move along the baseline and to the top of the key to find that spot. When Brazil’s defense forced him into an extended isolation possession in the first half, Scola went to work and ultimately drained a hook over Splitter. Quickness will ignite spurts at this level, but there's no substitute for skills. Scola's team-high 17 points was an apt demonstration of that.

Marcelinho Huertas, Brazil
The Brazilian point guard couldn't buy a shot from long range during group play, but he was unconscionable in the first quarter, launching off-balanced bombs off his right foot. That wasn't all. Huertas also demonstrated some textbook pure-point moments. In the open court, Huertas hit Splitter when the big man had the good sense to sprint to the rim in transition. Once Argentina began to body up on him 25 feet from the basket, Huertas evolved into a creator. Splitter returned that earlier favor when Huertas made a smart basket dive down the gut of the lane to catch the ball on the move from his big man. Observing Huertas match up against Pablo Prigioni was like watching a couple of samurais with their swords drawn, waiting for the other to make the first move. Down the stretch, Leandro Barbosa would assume the role of fearless sniper for Brazil, which almost managed to forge an upset but ultimately fell short.

Andres Nocioni, Argentina
To emphasize how nasty Nocioni was to play against, a veteran NBA starter said that the Argentine's irritating style once had the notoriously mellow Josh Childress ready to fight him. Nocioni's feistiness was critical for Argentina, especially with the Brazilians fighting back in the fourth quarter. Nocioni was his usual, detail-oriented self. As insurance, he followed a teammate's breakaway opportunity, and ultimately got paid with a putback when the layup wouldn't go down. A couple of minutes later, Nocioni had Brazil's Alex Garcia hearing footsteps on the break and, go figure, Brazil failed to convert. On offense, Nocioni never held the ball for long, but always advanced it to a guy with a pretty good look. During an important possession at about the 3-minute mark, Nocioni cleverly deked Guilherme Giovannoni with hesitation to create a driving lane, then muscled up the shot at the rim against Nene. He contested rebounds under both baskets to preserve possessions for his team. The all-purpose pest finished with 12 points (5-for-7 from the field), six rebounds and at least a dozen shoves, bumps and dirty tricks that helped his team.

Carlos Delfino also deserves consideration at this spot. His 14 first-half points paced the Argentinians as Delfino used Ray Allen-like misdirection along the baseline to flare out to the perimeter for clean looks.

Spain 66, France 59

Pau Gasol, Spain
The Spaniards won this game on the glass and at the stripe. Looking at the former area, the elder Gasol was the key. In only 23 minutes, Gasol gobbled up 11 boards (that’s 19 rebounds per 40 minutes if you’re scoring at home) to go with 14 points.

Although he wasn’t dominant, Gasol made himself a true triple threat. He’s never lacked for passing and shooting, but on Wednesday he wasn’t bashful about putting the ball on the floor or pressuring France in the post. When double-teams arrived, Gasol found shooters like Juan Carlos Navarro for open 3-pointers. But Pau’s most graceful play of the contest came when he delivered a gentle touch pass to his brother Marc, who finished on the move with a layup that gave Spain a five-point lead with 45.3 seconds remaining.

Boris Diaw, France
France’s offense was supposed to be fueled by Tony Parker’s speed; instead, it was guided by Diaw’s vision. When he operates as a point forward, the French offense hums with elegance. Diaw did some damage from long range, but it was even more affirming to see him bounce a pass in traffic underneath to a young guy like Kevin Seraphin, who needs to establish his confidence. Later, Diaw fired a skip pass to Nicolas Batum that resulted in a badly needed 3-pointer as France's offense was grinding to a standstill. And how about that drive, then up-and-under, switching hands to finish strong with his left? Later in the third quarter, Diaw impressed with a runner through the teeth of the Spanish defense. Diaw finished with game-highs in points (15), assists (5) and 3-pointers (3-of-6), and led his team in rebounds (8). A noble performance in a disappointing loss.

Marc Gasol, Spain
The younger Gasol put his signature on Spain’s win with his defense. He presided as the gatekeeper of the baseline, constantly shutting down penetration from the corners. He gave up nothing in the post against a French team that couldn’t generate anything inside. Offensively, Gasol did nothing fancy with the ball except what must have been his most satisfying moment: Big bro pinned two French defenders to allow Marc to float out to the top of the arc for a big 3-pointer, a silky-smooth shot that gave Spain a 41-37 lead in the third quarter.

Russia 83, Lithuania 74

Andrei Kirilenko, Russia
The veteran continues to make his case as the most complete player in London. The stat line suggests as much (19 points, 13 boards, 3 assists, 3 steals and 3 blocks), but Kirilenko's overall impact in Russia's 83-74 win over Lithuania far transcends the numbers. AK is one of the stealthiest big guys around, not only defensively but also in the confines of Russia's offense. His checklist spans from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok.

Not a one-on-one player? Baloney. Did you see that left-handed dribble drive in the second quarter? Too unassertive to thrive in the post? Not a chance, as he repeatedly looked for an advantage on the block. He found teammates from the top of the floor as Russia's high-low facilitator and thrived in the open court as well. Kirilenko initiated so many pretty sequences, but the most impressive came in the second quarter, when he swooped in to collect an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, kicked the ball out for the reset, then, realizing the right block was completely unoccupied, pounced to the open space, where he received a prompt pass for an easy dunk.

Kirilenko’s coup de grace came on a weakside basket cut inside of two minutes. Viktor Khryapa found Kirilenko, who went up strong for the and-1, which ultimately iced the game for Russia. Vintage Kirilenko and a portrait of intuition.

Timofey Mozgov, Russia
He knew where to be on the court at all times, whether it was following misses with tip-ins or just ducking in from the weak side for easy looks. The big man also can run the floor and converted a big bucket on the break in the third quarter to give the Russians a nine-point lead -- their largest at the time. Mozgov also showed signs of being an effective dive man, working with Alexey Shved on a number of slick slip screens. As size becomes increasingly important during the medal round, Mozgov will come in awfully handy for the Russians if he can display the opportunism he showed Wednesday.

Darius Songaila, Lithuania
Time and again when they needed a basket, the Lithuanians would go to the Sarunas Jasikevicius pick-and-roll for nourishment. Songaila timed his rolls perfectly and scored 10 big points in the second quarter en route to a 15-point outing. The Russians never really found an answer for Songaila on the move and ended up hacking him repeatedly to prevent those shots at close range. As a result, Songaila made a living at the line, sinking all seven of his attempts at the stripe. On the other side of the ball, Songaila played with his usual level of impunity, rushing the ball and groping for position.

Viktor Khryapa, Russia
Loved the game Khryapa put together on Wednesday. Known primarily as an energy guy with quick defensive feet and a bit of a streak shooter, Khryapa functioned as a primary playmaker offensively for Russia. He was the key assist man (including a deft pass on that climactic Kirilenko traditional 3-point play late), and drained a couple of huge bombs from beyond the arc when the game tightened. Want to see Khryapa in isolation? He showed off his handle and finish in the second quarter when he spun off Martynas Pocius on the right side, then powered his way to the hoop.

The top 10 of Olympics group play

August, 7, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Monday was the final round of group play, with eight teams advancing to the knockout phase. There were a fair number of virtuoso performances, spirited underdogs and some individual surprises, but those who have excelled at Olympics past, by and large, added to their international legacies.

Here a

re 10 standouts of the group play (in no particular order):

Manu Ginobili, Argentina
Possibly the greatest competitor in international play in a generation, Ginobili is likely playing in his final Olympics. He has set the standard for pros who want to leave their imprint on the state of global basketball, and he has suffered no falloff whatsoever in his 2012 Olympic production: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 29 minutes per game -- and perfect at the line in 27 attempts. Ginobili has accomplished this despite losing one-third of a step, but the seams are still there, even if the burst isn’t. Ginobili knows the defenders and is still one of the game's best navigators with the ball in his hands.

Pau Gasol, Spain
He has snatched those 25 or so minutes he spends on the floor for Spain and made them his personal exhibition. It’s difficult to tell if Gasol is being guided by the desire to answer those who question his fortitude November through June, or if he truly feels more comfortable in that Espana jersey. Whatever the case, Gasol has eagerly moved to the post, but has still experienced a ton of success as a face-up jump shooter. He hasn’t been flawless. A couple of brain-freezes late contributed to a loss against Russia, but those blemishes aside, Gasol has been as reliable as anyone in a series of games that hasn’t been a cakewalk for Spain.

Andrei Kirilenko, Russia
Another guy whose happiness quotient seems to tick up when sporting a national uniform. Kirilenko is still one of the best pressure defenders in the game for a player his size. Offensively, Kirilenko has been able to operate in areas of the game where he’s strongest -- making back cuts, facilitating plays that move the Russians closer to a clean shot, and generally putting himself in a position to score (drawing plenty of fouls along the way). When Kirilenko is engaged and playing with confidence, he’s a joy to watch.

Carmelo Anthony, United States
Nobody is more potent when the game is easy. During group play, overwhelmed defenders matched up against Anthony are standing opposite him thinking, “Not only do I have to defend this guy’s size, but also his guile, and deceptive quickness, too?” Anthony’s 37 points in 14 minutes against Nigeria was the buzziest event of group play. He was denied the opportunity to tie a bow around his group-stage performance after he took a nasty shot to the groin by Argentine point guard Facundo Campazzo, but still finished the five games as a “198 shooter," when you add up field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and percentage from beyond the arc.

Luis Scola, Argentina
If Ginobili is the heart of the Argentine team, then Scola is the nervous system, the organ that allows the body to do its thing. It's nothing we haven't seen before. Luis is popping, skying hooks, diving to the rim and finishing. If he can't find the space he needs, he'll cleverly draw a foul.

Scola's performance against Lithuania, when he went off for 32 points and sprinkled in some pretty basketball plays, stands out as one of the best offensive displays of group play.

Nicolas Batum, France
The lanky forward has had a big offseason, inking a four-year contract north of $40 million with the Portland Trail Blazers Portland after being the chew toy in a tug-of-war between Portland and the Minnesota Timberwolves. After he sputtered in France's opening loss to Team USA, Batum has emerged as one of the more effective transition wings in the tournament. The defense has been decent, if unexceptional, but Batum has slithered his way to a number of rebounds in traffic. There won't be a more interesting player to watch during the quarterfinals and beyond, because for all that production (16.8 points per game on 60.4 percent shooting), our overall evaluation of Batum will be his capacity to take control of the game on at least one side of the ball.

LeBron James, United States
James has exerted his will when inspired, even if he's choosing his spots sparingly -- the third quarter against Argentina the latest and most notable example. With Team USA and Argentina separated by a one-point margin at the half, James came out of intermission and put up seven points in three possessions over a minute and a half. The first bucket was a turnaround J after posting Andres Nocioni. James followed with a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound that made its way to him in the left corner. Then, he scooped in a shot at close range after carving out space near the baseline.

Alexey Shved, Russia
Can we throw out the game against Spain for a second and examine what's working about the 23-year-old's game? And can you imagine a few minutes of Ricky Rubio and Shved as a backcourt tandem? The creativity and quickness with the ball are evident, but we also like Shved's change of speeds, his propensity to see where his teammates are situated on the floor, and how their big bodies can help him find a quick path to the rim. As much as anyone in the field, Shved's ability to control pace will contribute largely to his team's success in the knockout phase.

Patty Mills, Australia
The Boomers have been a resourceful, ad-hoc team. They engage in guerrilla warfare, running multiple defenders at big scorers and finding useful ways to deploy their big front line. But the constant for Australia has been Patty Mills in open space. Mills has been a little trigger-happy (only 13-for-39 from beyond the arc), but his cold-blooded buzzer-beater at the top of the circle torched the undefeated Russians. Mills’ 20.6 points per game leads all Olympians.

Joel Freeland, Great Britain
The big Brit has been a gritty irritant on both ends, doing his best Nick Collison imitation. Freeland fights front to low post, and has also shown flashes of a nice left shoulder game. He was a horse down the stretch in the heartbreaker against Spain, and his big frame is deceptively mobile, one reason he has nabbed 10.6 rebounds per 40 minutes.

Honorable mentions: Kevin Durant, United States; Kevin Love, United States; Linas Kleiza, Lithuania; Timofey Mozgov, Russia; Salah Mejri, Tunisia; Carlos Delfino, Argentina; Vitaliy Fridzon, Russia; Anderson Varejao, Brazil; Joe Ingles, Australia; Marcelinho Huertas, Brazil.

Tuesday Bullets

October, 4, 2011
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Are the Jazz really underdogs?

April, 30, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Deron Williams
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
Deron Williams: Too good to be an underdog?

SALT LAKE CITY -- When the Utah Jazz greet the media at their practice facility in Salt Lake City, each player (and the head coach) stakes out a familiar spot in the gym where he addresses the scrum. Andrei Kirilenko, Kyle Korver and Wesley Matthews take questions in the middle of the court. Carlos Boozer fields questions along the far baseline beneath the basket. The peripatetic C.J. Miles roams freely, while Jerry Sloan stands stoically in front of the plastic purple bleachers. Once the camera crews from local affiliates are gathered, there will be a moment of deferential silence as the reporters make sure Sloan is ready, at which point he blurts out, "Whattaya got?"

Where can you find Deron Williams? The Jazz point guard is in the far corner of the gym, slouched on a training table leaning back against the wall. That's his spot, away from the busy flow of the gym. Williams had a reputation of being truculent with the media during his first couple of seasons, but now in his fifth year, he accepts the spotlight with a fairly polite tolerance, though he's still a somewhat reluctant participant. More than anything, he's still -- legs stretched out in front of him, head tilted back, a dozen voice recorders in his face. As he's peppered with questions, Williams barely moves from that position.

On the court, it's an entirely different story. Williams never stops moving. He's not hyperkinetic like Steve Nash or Chris Paul. It's a more orderly velocity, a good kind of reactive. Williams rarely lets the defense dictate where he's going, but he uses every piece of information to make snap decisions with an impressive change of speed. Where are the other nine guys on the floor? What does the system demand of my talents at this instant? Can I counter-program and get to the hole off the dribble?

The answer to each of these questions usually produces a foray into the paint, where the Jazz are getting anything they want against Denver thanks to Williams' orchestration of the offense. Williams is averaging 28.2 points and 11.6 assists in the series with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 28.19. He's the first player in NBA history to have five consecutive 20-point, 10-assist games within a single postseason series. Williams is both statistically and operatively the best player on the floor in this series, which prompts the question:

Despite the absence of Kirilenko and Mehmet Okur and the presence of an undrafted rookie and a project big man in the starting lineup, can a team with a supernova like Williams controlling the action truly be called an underdog?

When Okur went down, conventional wisdom deemed the Jazz a long shot, present company included. Even the Jazz's success in taking a 3-1 games lead headed back to Denver was framed as a triumph of discipline over combustion, the achievement of a cohesive team over a disparate collection of talent. After all, the Nuggets extended the Lakers to six games in a grueling conference finals last season, earning the mantel of the team most capable of dethroning the Lakers if the champs were to falter. Denver features Carmelo Anthony, one of the preeminent shot creators in the game. The Jazz? High I.Q. players, but no competition for the Nuggets' athletes.

Now that we've been living with this series for the better part of two weeks, the matchup has a different quality to it, in large part because of Williams' influence. Anthony has undoubtedly produced over the five games, but Williams has dominated. The execution of the Utah system held in such high regard isn't merely a product of whiteboard magic -- it's a direct result of Williams' leadership and court vision.

"He's as good as it gets,'' Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups said at shootaround prior to Game 5 in Denver. "He can do everything. He really doesn't have any weaknesses. I think that's the ultimate compliment that you can pay to a player is to say that he doesn't have any weaknesses, and I think he's reached that point now.''

Williams doesn't merely ignite an effective transition or choreograph the Jazz's motion offense, he's also become a knockdown shooter from long distance, hitting at a 54.2 percent rate in the series from beyond the arc. He's also Utah's second-best option behind Carlos Boozer in the post, where he can score and wreak havoc with brilliant kickouts. In this series, he's doing stellar work off the ball and on the defensive end. But Williams' defining quality might be, more than any point guard in the league, his unwillingness to waste a possession.

Singling out Williams shouldn't discount the synchronicity carried out by each of the Jazz players in Sloan's offensive scheme, but the old construct of this series as a battle between a system and an individual talent is no longer relevant. The Jazz have their individual performer in Williams. They also have Boozer, the best big man in the series (something that was true before Nene went down with a sprained left knee), and reserve Paul Millsap, whose 24.08 PER ranks him 10th in the postseason among players who have logged more than 15 minutes per game.

Denver notched a much-needed victory at the Pepsi Center on Wednesday night, a feat it accomplished by moving the basketball and running a coherent offense for the first time this postseason. But in reassessing this series headed into Game 6 -- a possible clincher for Utah on its home court -- it's time to bury the idea that the Nuggets have considerably more talent than the Jazz. Denver might have a decisive edge in athleticism (less so now that Nene is out), but Williams' repertoire of skills should give us pause about the long odds originally assigned to Utah after Game 1.

It might spoil the storybook narrative, but we're now learning that Deron Williams is simply too good to be an underdog.

Wednesday Mini-Bullets

April, 28, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Now Playing: C.J. Miles

April, 27, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
C.J. Miles
Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE/Getty Images
C.J. Miles is starting to figure things out -- and the timing couldn't be better for Utah.

DENVER -- On November 1, 2006, all was well in C.J. Miles' world. He had split his rookie season between the big club in Salt Lake City and Albuquerque of the D-League. Now, in his second year, he was making his first career start on opening night against Houston. Miles came out on fire, scoring 12 points in Utah's 35-point first quarter. "I was in a zone. I was in a focus. My mind was set that I was going to play hard and play well. Now I've just got to keep it up," Miles told the Deseret News after the game.

For Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan, though, Miles' first-quarter exploits only underscored how the 19 year old failed to sustain his intensity for 48 minutes. Sloan is notoriously tough on younger players and his critique of Miles after the game was especially pointed.

"When he came out in the second half, he didn't have any energy. You can say, 'Well, he's young.' But if he's going to be a man, he's got to step up again tomorrow and get after it and get in better shape so that he can finish it up," Sloan said.

A couple of nights later, after a comeback win for the Jazz over Phoenix in which Miles shot only 1-for-5 and played some iffy defense, Sloan was downright rough.

"He came out kind of soft," Sloan told the Deseret News. "I mean, I don't care if he's 19 or 30. If he's going to be on the floor in the NBA, he's got to be able to step up and get after it. We can't put diapers on him one night, and a jockstrap the next night. It's just the way it is."

Miles knew it wasn't a marquee performance. On repeated occasions, he was taken out of plays by Suns' big man Kurt Thomas and got completely lost on a few of Phoenix's high pick-and-rolls. Still, the comments stung.

"It was tough for me," Miles said. "You know Coach Sloan’s reputation coming in, so you expect it a little bit. I was extremely young. I was 18 when I got here. There was a lot I had to learn."

The learning process for a guy like Miles at Utah is twofold. First, there's the NBA game -- in particular, the exacting nature of Jerry Sloan's offensive and defensive schemes.

The second lesson might be even more difficult: Miles had to arrive at the realization that, for the first time in his life, he wasn't the best player on the floor. Not even close.

At Skyline High School in Dallas, Miles was a star. The southpaw had signed to play for Rick Barnes at the University of Texas. Kansas, North Carolina and Georgia Tech had also come calling, which was no surprise when you examine Miles' prep résumé: 23/10/5 as a senior at Skyline. McDonald's All-American, Dallas Morning News' Player of the Year.

The praise was so resounding that Miles decided to skip college altogether and enter the 2005 Draft. He slipped to the second round, where Utah plucked him with the 34th overall pick -- not exactly the way he envisioned draft day unfolding.

"It hit me hard at the beginning," Miles said. "At one point I thought maybe I shouldn’t have went [into the draft].But then I was kind of like, ‘Forget about it. You’re here now. There’s nothing you can really do about it.’"

For a few years, Miles was of marginal use to the Jazz. He had trouble maintaining his endurance and attention on the defensive end, and continued to struggle with the demands of an offense in which every player on the floor is required to perform every offensive function.

"I never had to set a screen in high school, because I was the one getting the ball," Miles said with a grin. "As a young guy coming in, you want to run, you want to go, especially athletic guys who can get up and down the floor."

You can see why this might conflict with Sloan, right? It wasn't as if Miles acted out. By every account, he was a diligent student of the offense. He studied Andrei Kirilenko's defensive tendencies, Derek Fisher's professionalism and the way the Jazz move in sync on both ends of the floor. But in high school, Miles was never asked to do the things that supporting wing players need to do in the NBA. When Miles made defensive plays, it was because he was bigger, longer -- and just better -- than the other kid. Nobody called those stops at Skyline. They were just there for the taking.

"In high school, when you’re the biggest, fastest most athletic guy on the court, you basically just float around, try to gamble for steals and block shots," Miles said. "You never really had to guard anybody. And I was the tallest person on my team, so it wasn’t like I was guarding guards. Then I got here and everybody was my size. The most talented guys were at my position."

Think about this for a second: For 18 years, basketball was played under a very uniform set of conditions for Miles, the first of which was "I'm better than everyone." That isn't an expression of arrogance or glibness. There simply weren't more than a half dozen kids in the Dallas area who could compete with Miles. For him, getting to that point required countless hours, but the actual floor time in high school? That was easy. There was you, the ball and the hoop. There were no back picks to set, or Tracy McGradys to defend, or Kurt Thomases to dodge.

And there certainly wasn't a Jerry Sloan -- a coach who demands precision if you want minutes in his system. An inability to master the fine points of that system can earn you a public lashing.

"We had conversations where we’ve sat down in his office after practice or before practice and talked about some of the things we’re trying to do to help me move forward and he would do everything he could to help me," Miles said of Sloan. "When he’s not saying anything, that’s when you should be worried.”

Six weeks after Miles exploded in the first quarter of the win over Houston on opening night, he was placed on the inactive list.

"It drove me nuts," Miles said. "It wasn’t about not being ‘the guy.' It was about not even being on the floor. I was sitting behind itching, with a suit on -- and I hate wearing suits -- watching guys play. I just tried to soak up as much as I could."

A few days after New Years 2007, Miles was sent down to the D-League for a second time -- an assignment he now considers a blessing. Call it the royal jelly, oxygen, or just burn, but playing time is the most vital component for a young player’s development. At Boise with the Idaho Stampede, Miles made quick work of the competition: A Player Efficiency Rating of 20, a true shooting percentage of 62.9 percent and an offensive/defensive rating of 116/102. For the first time since his senior year at Skyline, Miles was once again the very best player on the floor.

"I think it was great," Miles said of his time in the D-League. "You’ve been sitting up here and you haven’t really gotten much playing time. So to go down there and play 28-30 minutes in a real game -- there’s nothing like game experience. You can practice as hard as you want, but there’s nothing like game experience.”

The story from there is by no means a linear path to success. By many metrics, Miles has compiled a disappointing five-year career. His shooting improved enough in his third season to be the show starter for Utah in 2008-09, but there was still an incomplete quality to Miles' game. Maybe the contrast to Kirilenko at the small forward was too distinct, but until very recently Miles continued to be a liability for the Jazz on the defensive end -- particularly as a help defender on the wing. Neither of Utah's two most productive lineups in 2008-09 included Miles, with the most striking feature being defense, where the Jazz were far more effective with either Kirilenko or Kyle Korver at the 3. This season has been a mixed bag. After starting every one of his 72 games in 2008-09, Miles has mostly come off the bench this season, stepping into the lineup if Kirilenko was unavailable. Miles' defense improved this season, though his advanced offensive stats were eerily similar to his 2008-09 output.

When Kirilenko strained his calf prior to Utah's first round meeting with Denver, Miles was put on the spot. The Jazz just happened to draw one of the two Western Conference playoff teams that features a dominant small forward as the focal point of its offense. The Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony is an assignment for Kirilenko or the quasi-retired Matt Harpring. Denver acting head coach Adrian Dantley even said as much both before and after Anthony exploded for 42 points in the Nuggets' Game 1 victory.

Anthony had a less efficient outing in Game 2 against a far more physical Miles, hitting only 9 of 25 shot from the field en route to 32 points. More notable, however, was Miles' performance on the offensive end. Know what Miles looked like? The quintessential starting wing in Jerry Sloan's flex offense. There were the pretty interior passes on the move to Kyrylo Fesenko and Carlos Boozer on cuts -- two of his six assists. There were the two crucial layups off smart basket dives along the baseline in the game's final four minutes with the Jazz trailing by three points. Miles says that those weren't plays he would've instinctively made two years ago.

“It’s a matter of growing, being on the floor, getting playing time and maturing as a player," Miles said. "You see things and you see them quicker, then you begin to see them before they happen. You see how they trap Deron off the pick-and-roll, and my standing here [on the wing] is not helping. So what do I need to do the next possession? I saw guys turning heads toward Deron, so I cut to where Deron can see me, and I was able to make the play a couple times in a row.”

Apart from his rebounding and 3-point shooting -- he's a lowly 5-for-21 from beyond the arc in the series -- Miles has been an important piece for the Jazz in their four games against Denver. He hit eight shots from the floor on Sunday night as part of a 21-point effort, including three huge buckets in the opening two minutes of the second half. Though Miles isn't stopping Anthony -- few can -- he's doing his part as the fulcrum of a defensive scheme that's denying Denver consistent ball movement. He now understands that the best way to keep Anthony even remotely off-balanced is to show the scorer a variety of looks.

"I try to play him different ways the whole game," Miles said. "He made fade-aways, step-backs, and all those moves [in Game 1], so I've been trying to make everything a second move, not just one move and to the basket, or one move and a shot. I tried to make him spin off me and not get into too much of a rhythm."

If Denver is able to extend the series with a win on Wednesday night, speculation will begin to surface about Kirilenko's ability to achieve his stated goal of coming back for a Game 6 in Salt Lake City on Friday. When Kirilenko was asked about his timetable a week ago, the subtext was that if the Jazz could desperately hang with Denver for five games, then Kirilenko could provide both an emotional and defensive lift for the Jazz to write a storybook ending to the series. Kirilenko would still be a welcome sight for the Jazz if they're forced to a Game 6, but thanks in part to C.J. Miles, Kirilenko's return is now more of a luxury than a necessity for Utah.

Don't count out the Utah Jazz

April, 20, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
Utah Jazz
Doug Pensinger/NBAE/Getty Images
Game 2 was a huge pick-me-up for the guys from Salt Lake.

DENVER -- A beleaguered Utah Jazz team entered Game 2 in Denver with a litany of worries. In Game 1, they lost their starting center, Mehmet Okur, for the season with a torn left achilles tendon. That void thrust the very green Kyrylo Fesenko into the starting lineup for Monday night’s Game 2. Meanwhile, the Jazz were already without their best defender, Andrei Kirilenko, whose absence put excessive pressure on his understudies, C.J. Miles and Wesley Matthews. Carmelo Anthony torched the young tandem for 42 points in Game 1, and arrived on Monday night hungry for more.

Undermanned on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor, the Jazz had only one saving grace -- their lethal screen-and-roll combination of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. The pair orchestrated a clinic on Monday night, baffling the Nuggets’ defense with their two-man waltz, with Deron Williams as the lead. Williams finished with 33 points and 14 assists, vaulting the Jazz to an improbable and frenetic 114-111 win over the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center, tying the series at one game apiece.

"This is a big win for us," Williams said. "Nobody was really giving us a shot. We just wanted to come out here and put that to rest. We feel like we still have a great team that can compete and we're really proud of how we played and battled tonight."

Williams had a series of offensive imperatives on Monday night, and he succeeded at every one of them. First, he attacked Denver off the dribble every chance he got, looking for either a seam to the basket, or contact against a collapsing Nugget defender. Williams made his way to the stripe for 18 attempts, draining 16. Second, Williams engaged Boozer -- and occasionally Paul Millsap -- with their patented pick-and-roll. Finally, if Williams was unable to find a path to the rim or his post option was covered, he empowered weak side threats like Kyle Korver and C.J. Miles by executing the Jazz’s offensive system to perfection. Korver scored 13 points, while Miles had another solid offensive performance with 17 points.

"[Williams] set the tone from the beginning," Boozer said. "He came out aggressive, got to the basket, hit shots -- jumper after jumper -- then got to the free throw line ... It made the job easier on the rest of us because he was playing so well offensively."

Williams’ most exquisite play came out of a timeout with 1:43 remaining in the game and the Jazz trailing 106-105. At the top of the circle, Williams broke down Chauncey Billups off the bounce. When the Nuggets’ wing defenders collapsed on him in the paint, Williams threw a dart to Korver in the right corner, where the sharpshooter drained a 3-pointer to put Utah on top 108-106, a lead that they would never relinquish.

"I was kind of open a lot in the fourth quarter," Korver said. "Never wide open, but kind of open and I kept telling myself, 'Be ready.'"

Utah was open a lot in the first half. The Jazz shot a blistering 73.3 percent in the first quarter, and 67.7 percent overall before halftime. In addition to Williams' proficiency from the outside, Boozer killed Denver both rolling to the basket and by flashing to the top of the circle, where he drained a series of high-arching shots during a 17-3 Utah run to close the first half. Boozer scored 20 points on the night.

Leading 63-51 at intermission, the Jazz had to sustain a furious 14-0 rally by the Nuggets in the third quarter. The Nuggets combined a sequence of strong stands on the defensive end and aggressive ball pressure to fuel their comeback. The Jazz gave the Nuggets a hand by putting them in the penalty at the 9:18 mark of the period.

"We know who they are," Jazz head coach Jerry Sloan said when asked about Denver's rally. "It's not a secret. They're a terrific team -- and they can score. They can really score easily."

Both Denver and Utah are notoriously foul-prone and that held true Monday night, as the teams combined for 91 free throw attempts. In total, there were 73 successful free throws converted to 71 made shots from the floor.

Utah regained control of the game for a stretch at the end of the third quarter behind three Korver jumpers and three pairs of free throws, but would have to withstand another run by Denver in the fourth quarter. A turnover and a blocked shot on consecutive Utah possessions ignited the Nuggets' break in the opening minutes of the period. Billups lobbed a pass on the break over the Utah transition defense to Nene for an easy slam. Then Smith collected his block of Williams' layup attempt and found Billups downcourt for a spot-up 3-pointer to give Denver its first lead of the second half at 92-91.

The game's final nine minutes were a back-and-forth affair. Each team pounded the ball inside as the interior defenses disintegrated on both ends. Utah spread the wealth as Williams compiled five assists over the final stretch, while Denver put the ball into Anthony's hands and let him attack the Jazz inside. In the run-up to Monday night’s game, Utah vowed to match Denver’s prolific offense with a more rugged brand of physicality. Anthony, in particular, was able to roam around the floor relatively untouched in Game 1. Utah’s defenders clearly adjusted their strategy on Anthony. As advertised, Miles and Matthews bodied up on him, invading Anthony's space by playing right on his hip.

"They tried to force me more to go to the basket," Anthony said. "They tried to jam me a little bit."

That strategy can be seen if you examine Anthony's shot chart. He finished the night with 32 points, but he converted only 9 of his 25 attempts from the field – every one of those nine in the immediate basket area. Like Williams, Anthony took advantage of a tightly-officiated contest, earning 15 free throw attempts of his own. For Jazz's part, they were relatively satisfied. Utah appreciates that stopping Anthony from scoring is an impossibility. The goal for Miles and Matthews coming into Monday night's game was to frustrate Anthony and take him out of his comfort zone. Mission accomplished on both counts.

"They did great" Boozer said of Miles and Matthews. "They set the tone by being a little more physical with [Anthony] when he crossed over half court."

The Nuggets were whistled for 37 fouls -- a new record for a Jazz playoff opponent. Throughout the game, Denver was demonstratively upset with the officiating, though the free throw disparity favored Utah by only a 47-44 margin. The Nuggets' frustration was palpable and the excess emotion might have been detrimental to their cause.

"We talked about trying to get under their skin a little bit," Williams said. "We wanted to be physical with them from the start of the game, make guys have to work a little harder for their points. I think we did a good job of that tonight."

Denver will have a hard time erasing the memory of the game's closing minutes, when they led the Jazz by three points inside of three minutes. In addition to a missed Billups free throw with 53 second left, there were two offensive fouls -- one each by Billups and Anthony -- along with two additional miscues by Anthony. The first occurred when he brought the ball low on a drive to the basket, ultimately getting stripped and turning it over to Utah. The second mistake came with 25 seconds left with the Nuggets trailing by a single point. Anthony decided to pressure Miles aggressively in the backcourt, and picked up his sixth foul in the process.

"We'll take all those," Williams said of Denver's blunders.

The Jazz's resilience stems from the confidence that if they implement their program with intelligence and poise, they can succeed, even with key personnel in street clothes. Utah's belief in that system is a primary reason why the Jazz have tallied only one losing season in Sloan's 22-year tenure. Even with Okur and Kirilenko sidelined, Utah's offensive schemes hummed with a familiar precision on Monday night. If anything, the injuries seemed to strengthen the Jazz's resolve.

"Their team is a wounded team," Billups said. "They came out and took care of business."

Cornered and bloodied, the Jazz mimicked the Trail Blazers and wrested home court advantage from an ostensibly superior opponent with more firepower. The wounded animal bit back.

Friday Bullets

February, 19, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Matching up with the 2010 All-Stars

February, 11, 2010
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Lisa Blumenfeld/NBAE via Getty Images
Could a team with this tandem give the All-Star squads a game?

The All-Star Game is a collection of the best basketball talent in the world, but it rarely produces anything resembling the best basketball. Counter-intuitive as that might seem, the reasons for this annual letdown are fairly obvious. Chauncey Billups recited some of them following the lackluster 2007 All-Star Game, everything from fear of injury to exhaustion from the weekend's festivities.

Could there be other factors that keep this collection of talent from playing beautiful, or even watchable, basketball? In a highly functional basketball unit, do certain players need to defer to other players, something that's difficult to demand of the world's premier scorers? Are teams loaded with this kind of firepower vulnerable to the pitfalls that might have doomed USA Basketball in 2002, 2004 and 2006?

These questions got us thinking: Is it possible to assemble a roster of non-All-Stars that could challenge the teams taking the floor in Dallas on Sunday?

We asked the bloggers in the TrueHoop Network to participate in our high-grade parlor game.

In sculpting our roster, we came up with a few basic questions. What kind of players would you look for? Do you tap the best of the remainders who were left off the rosters (snubs like Josh Smith and Nene)? Knowing you're outgunned, is it better to adopt the principles of guerrilla warfare and engage in a less traditional brand of combat? To that end, are there specific skill sets you should look for?

A few criteria and common themes emerged:

Defense and Rebounding

  • Bret LaGree of Hoopinion: "Defense and rebounding would ... be vital, both to limit the efficiency of the All-Stars and to rebound as many missed shots as possible. If the non-All-Stars give the best offensive players in the world many second shots, it's hopeless."
  • D.J. Foster of ClipperBlog: "I want them to grab every defensive rebound, I want them to get tons of turnovers..."
  • Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm envisions a team whose tactical goal is "DEATH FROM HYPER-LONG-ATHLETIC DEFENDERS FROM ABOVE."

Is it realistic to believe that there are defensive stoppers who can contain the most prolific scorers in the game? Probably not, which means we should look for a very specific brand of defender.

  • Rahat Huq of Red94: "In a game like this, you don't necessarily want guys who are great individual defenders. No one is going to shut down those all-stars in combination ... You need the best help defenders in the game. These guys can't be left alone on an island."'
We asked David Thorpe to chime in. He told us that, in thinking about defense, it's ill-advised to worry about "'who's going to guard THAT guy,' because defense in the modern NBA is a five-player gig, so that's the wrong question." With the right coach and coverages, anyone with enough athleticism and commitment can play good team defense.

On Offense
Our team won't have the capacity to create shots the way the All-Stars can, so they better be efficient, says Matt Moore. "You're creating a team that takes shots at the rim and at the arc. Most at the rim. Very much so at the rim." When the Houston Rockets are clicking on the offensive end, they do this proficiently without a single player who approaches All-Star status.

"Intangibles" are abstract, unsatisfying and impossible to measure, but there's no denying that our players need to embody certain qualities to knock off the big boys.

  • Henry Abbott: "If you look at the best lineups in the NBA, they almost all include role players (like Anderson Varejao). But when picking the best teams, it's very hard for coaches, GMs or anybody else to pick a role player over a multi-talented star. So they take the star. Anyone read Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers"? After 10,000 hours people are candidates to become masters at something. I'm thinking you want people who have their 10,000 hours in doing boring things that lead to wins, like playing D. Stars don't have more hours in their days. They have to spend a lot of time on other stuff."
  • Rahat Huq: "You want players who 'impact winning,' which entails deflections, making quick rotations, pushing pace effectively, never making mistakes -- all the things that impact the outcome in the aggregate. The only way to beat an all-star team is through some sort of synergism. You'll have to play a virtually flawless game."

Toppling the All-Star teams is an uphill battle, but not impossible. Here's the group we've recruited to get it done:


Jason Kidd (PG)
If mastery comes from 10,000 hours of practice, then Kidd is the wily veteran to run point for our squad. Darius Soriano of Forum Blue & Gold: "I'd want a point guard who could push the ball and make the right decisions on both the break and in the half court."

Andre Iguodala (SG)
Defense? Rebounding? The ability to finish at the rim? It's all right here. Iggy's outside shot presents a bit of a concern, and makes him an imperfect selection. The sum of the parts, though, gives our team too many important ingredients to pass over.

Andrei Kirilenko (SF)
There was a groundswell of support for Kirilenko, whose ability to make plays from anywhere, cover multiple positions, protect the rim and provide help defense, make him a classic insurgent against a team of All-Stars.

Josh Smith (PF)
Ryan Schwan of Hornets247 likes Smith and Kirilenko as a forward tandem. "Kirilenko and Smith will cover each other and everyone else on the floor with quick-footed athletic defense."

Lamar Odom (C)
Not a traditional center by any stretch, but a trio of Odom, Kirilenko and Smith just might be skilled, long, springy and athletic enough to defend an elite front line. Spencer Ryan Hall of Salt City Hoops is as enamored with the playmaking potential of the Odom-Kirilenko combo as I am. "Give me Odom at the 5 just to watch him and Kirilenko together." Thorpe adds that the defensive strategy of Kirilenko-Smith-Odom would be "to press and trap baseline and corner catches and generally make it a scramble game. Blitzing ball screens will be effective too."


Kyle Lowry (G)
Henry Abbott makes the strong case for the efficient Lowry off the bench, where he's excelled for Houston. "[He] fights like a dog and gets to the line like crazy, while also making his team's defense better."

Jamal Crawford (G)
Thus far, we don't have any pure shooters. As Zach Harper of Cowbell Kingdom points out, Crawford has his flaws, but is worth signing up. "I'm not sold on him completely here but if he's hot, it doesn't matter who is guarding him." Just ask the Boston Celtics. Anthony Morrow finishes a close second for the role of sharpshooter off the bench.

Manu Ginobili (G)
"Manu Ginobili HAS beaten All-Star teams, in international competition," writes Henry. He gives the squad one guard who can truly probe the defense in the half court.

Tyreke Evans (G)
We don't care how you classify him positionally. We just know he can score on any perimeter player in the league when he's disciplined and keeps the ball moving in the half court.

Hedo Turkoglu (F)
Critics will knock his defense, but he did just fine on Orlando's shutdown squad last season. In a talent pool that's bereft of big wings, Turkoglu is a good choice for his flexibility as a pick-and-roll practitioner. Imagine what he and the guy just below could do as a tandem in the second unit to that effect.

Nene (F/C)
Jeremy Wagner of Roundball Mining Company describes his assets this way: "A big man who can score on the block, face up and hit the 15 footer or drive and is a very good passer. Plus he has as good of a chance to defend both Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard as anyone." If Nene is unavailable, we like the indefatigable Carl Landry.

Anderson Varejao (F/C)
We don't need him to score, we just want him to annoy the hell out of max-contract superstars. When that pest makes his team's defense inordinately better, crashes the glass and collects the garbage, we'll find the minutes. Joakim Noah was a strong contender for this 12th man slot.

Gregg Popovich (Coach)
"You don't deserve anything. You just go play. You start thinking about what you deserve and what you don't deserve and it just makes you soft. You just go play the game." -- Gregg Popovich, May 2006.

The counter argument
Leave it to M. Haubs of The Painted Are to be the hard-bitten realist. For him, this is a fun, but ultimately futile, exercise. The talent on the All-Star rosters is just too much to contend with, no matter how much synergy our team can muster and no matter how much precision it can deploy. He also challenges the premise that the USA Basketball teams that struggled in the early part of last decade failed because they were overstaffed with scorers:

I have to say that as much as people wanted to blame Team USA's underachievement from 2002-06 on lack of shooting or role players or some mystical qualities, the dirty little secret about the ultimate redemption in 2008 was talent - they brought a roster filled with All-NBA players, which they had not really done since 1996. The teams that Manu beat in '02 and '04 were not really All-Star teams -- those teams had too many role players, not too few.

I'm really not trying to be the poop in the punch bowl here, but I will take CP3, Kobe, Melo, Dirk and Timmy, with Nash, D-Will, Durant, and Pau off the bench, and you can try to beat me with your collection of role players. And please, by all means, try to press and speed up the tempo; I have Chris Paul and Steve Nash.

In reality, I would suggest that you lobby hard to play the game under FIBA rules, with unlimited zone defense to clog the lane and a shorter three-point line for a better puncher's chance, and I'd recommend that a college coach like Coach K be forced to be the game coach for the All-Stars.

We've given you our roster, please tell us yours.

And then there were 12. Eurobasket 2009 begins its second phase and The Painted Area has it all sorted out for you:

Pau Gasol
Can Pau Gasol lift Spain out of its first-round funk? 
(Photo by Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images)

Thursday was an off day so teams could transition from the opening round to the qualifying round (second round). Starting Friday in the Polish cities of Bydogoszcz & Lodz, teams play three games in their group with a day off between games. The top four teams from each group qualify for the quarters starting on Sept. 17th.

Israel, Latvia, Britain, & Bulgaria have been eliminated leaving 12 teams divided into two groups (Group E & F). Group E appears to be a little weaker, while Group F is packed with quality teams. You will have two pretty good teams not make the quarters out of Group F, while you will see a quarterfinal slot awarded to one of the three weaker qualifying round entries (Germ, Russ, Macedonia) in Group E. No off days in Group F.

Group E: (Playing in Bydogoszcz)
1) Greece (2-0)
2) France (2-0)
3) Croatia (1-1)
4) Germany (1-1)
5) Macedonia (0-2)
6) Russia (0-2)

Should have no trouble moving onto the quarterfinals. Greece's change from a methodical defensive-minded brand of basketball to a more free-wheeling offensive team looks successful, so far. Greece's offense has looked exacting with constant movement and spacing. Greece has outscored their opponents by a combined 66 points and lead the tourney with 58 percent from the floor. The Croatia game where they won by 8 points, wasn't not quite as close as the score should indicate.
schedule: Fri., vs. Germ./Sun., vs. Russ./Tues., vs. France

Though, they went 3-0 in Group B, they weren't all that impressive. Group B was easily the weakest, and Les Bleus only beat Russia & Germany by five pts each. As usual, the half-court offense has gone thru major lulls. And obviously, this team can't hit from outside. Still having trouble shooting -- 14-for-53 (26 percent) behind the arc and 45-for-81 (56 percent) at the free throw line. France is the worst deep-shooting team left in the field. We've beaten this into the ground, but still holds true -- pack the painted area all game vs. France. France counteracted their ragged offense like they always do -- with great defense and rebounding.
schedule: Fri., vs. Mace./Sun., vs. Croat./Tues., vs. Greece

Nice contributions from their big PG combo, Roko Ukic and Zoran Planinic. Both have done a good job getting into the lane to create scoring opportunities. Nikola Vujcic had been the leader of the deep, veteran frontline scoring in double figures in each game. Expect them to secure a spot in the quarters with wins over Russia & Germany. France game is a toss-up.
schedule: Fri., vs. Russ./Sun., vs. France./Tues., vs. Germ

Not surprisingly the Germans have found it difficult to score with no Dirk. No one who is a reliable No. 1 option, and the Germans shot 38 percent from the floor in the opening round. Jan Jagla has brought his usual activity, but when he's your leading scorer you're in trouble. Only reason they're still playing has been the horrible free throw shooting of their Group B opponents. France, Russia and Latvia combined to shoot 65-for-120 (54 percent) from the free throw line vs. Germany. Germany is in better shape for a quarterfinal berth than Russia or Macedonia because they get to carry over a win into the second round. Don't see them beating Greece or Croatia, have a chance vs. Macedonia. A win vs. Macedonia would be huge for their playoff chances.
schedule: Fri., vs. Greece/Sun., vs. Mace./Tues., vs. Croat.

Macedonia has a legit shot at the quarters because they should be favored to beat Germany, and are closely matched with Russia. Wouldn't be shocked if they pushed France. Gotten strong play from their frontline of Jeremiah Massey, Todor Gecevski and Pero Antic. Vrbica Stefanov has also been his usual steady floor genera selfl.
schedule: Fri., vs. France./Sun., vs. Germ./Tues., vs. Russ.

Offense has not been quite as putrid as I thought it would. Kelly McCarty's athleticism has been a nice addition on both ends of the floor after the loss of Andrei Kirilenko and Viktor Khryapa. Gotten solid play from their PG combo of Sergey Bykov and Anton Ponkrashov. Will be tough to get victories against Greece and Croatia. Really can't afford a loss to Macedonia.
schedule: Fri., vs. Croat./Sun., vs. Greece/Tues., vs. Mace.

GROUP F: (Playing in Lodz)
1) Turkey (2-0)
2) Slovenia (1-1)
3) Serbia (1-1)
4) Spain (1-1)
5) Poland (1-1)
6) Lithuania (0-2)

Turkey has looked like a totally different team than the one that stunk up the '07 Euro. The Turkish offense that couldn't get out of its own way two years ago, has been smoking this year. Most importantly, they are converting shots around Hedo Turkoglu. Turkey has a point differential of +54 and is shooting 54 percent overall, 42 percent from 3. Their NBA pair of forwards have not disappointed. Hedo and Ersan Ilyasova have shown their mismatch ability creating offensive opportunities all over the floor. Ilyasova has led the Turks with 17 points per game on 58 percent & seven rebounds per game, while Hedo has added 13 points per game. Hedo has teamed with Kerem Tunceri and Ender Arslan to bring some type of order to their PG position. The PG play has left a lot to be desired the last few years, but nothing to complain about this year. Arslan has been hitting runners off ball screens & burying his open shots (8-for-11 on 3-pointers.).
schedule: Sat., vs. Spain./Mon., vs. Serb./Wed., vs. Slov.

Were some questions how all their talent would mesh, and so far, so good. Looked sharp vs. Serbia, and pushed Spain to OT with Matjaz Smodis only playing five minutes. The strong defense from their '07 run seems to have transferred over. No surprise the offense has looked crisp with the collection of shooters this team can put on the floor at once. Slovenia is shooting 51 percent overall, 36 percent from deep. PG Jaka Lavovic (14 points per game) has led the way buried jumpers off of screens -- Jaka is 9-for-19 from 3-pointers. Boci Nachbar has been ballin' as well with 12 points per game on 54 percent and 5.7 rebounds per game. Erazem Lorbek has been a nice option on the blocks with his sharp footwork -- 13 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game. Phoenix Sun Goran Dragic has been a defensive pest once again--gave Rubio & Spain issues -- and even adding a little scoring to the mix with 11 points per game. They can take it up a notch if Smodis can go heavier minutes in the next round. Supposedly, his back is feeling better.
schedule: Sat., vs. Lith./Mon., vs. Pol./Wed., vs. Tu

Have gotten nice contributions up and down their deep, young roster. 10 players average at least 14 mins/game. Stunned Spain with an impressive defensive effort. Nenad Krstic (12 points per game & four rebounds per game) has been a solid option on the blocks and protecting the rim. Guards Milenko Tepic and Milos Teodosic have run the offense efficiently and stayed away from forcing the action. Need to get their shooting back on track after a poor display in the first round -- 24 percent from 3.
schedule: Sat., vs. Pol./Mon., vs. Turk./Wed., vs. Lith.

Not sure what's going on with this team. Serbia totally whupped them, Britain gave them a huge scare, and Slovenia roared back to push them to OT. Maybe they're too many players to keep happy with playing time. Maybe it's the coaching change (Spain's third change in as many years). Maybe they're disinterested. Whatever the reason, it's hard to figure because this team rarely, if ever, goes-through-the-motions. Should get props for controlling Slovenia for most of the game, but questions resurfaced when they let Slovenia comeback in the fourth to force OT. Expect them to get in a groove in the next round. But I thought they would destroy Britain, but that didn't happen.
schedule: Sat., vs. Turk./Mon., vs. Lith./Wed., vs. Pol.

Our sleeper pick has performed admirably in front of the home crowd. The frontline has been killing it. Marcin Gortat has been an interior force and also turned himself into an offensive juggernaut the last week. Gortat is averaging 17 points per game (fifth-best) on 67 percent (fourth-best) and 11 rebounds per game (second-best). We highlighted some of Gortat's newfound offensive skills. PF Maciej Lampe has been an inside-out terror scoring 18 points (third-best) & grabbing seven rebounds per game. Gortat and Lampe are leading the tourney in blocks as well. The offense has functioned very well shooting 50 percent from the floor and 38 percent from 3-point. land. Don't have an easy road to the quarters with Serbia, Slovenia and Spain on the upcoming schedule.
schedule: Sat., vs. Serb./Mon., vs. Slov./Wed., vs. Spain

We knew there would be struggles without their two legendary playmakers, Saras Jasikevicius and Ramunas Siskauskas. The shot selection has been spotty, which is a rarity with the normal precision offense we expect from this national team. Their patchwork backcourt has been predictably lackluster. Deep frontline has been solid, but they could play better as well. Burly big Marijonas Petravicius (16 points per game on 71 percent shooting) has been a nice interior presence drawing fouls, finishing around the basket, and pushing people around. Linas Kleiza has been a little uneven and can't find his deep touch (0-for-7 on 3s) The normally sweet-shooting Lithuanians have been off from deep -- 32 percent from 3. Lithuania's quarterfinal chances are dicey with a 0-2 record and having to face brutal gauntlet of the top three of Group C.
schedule: Sat., vs. Slov./Mon., vs. Spain./Wed., vs. Serb.

Ross Siler of the Salt Lake Tribune talked to salary cap expert Larry Coon last week about ways the Jazz can kiss goodbye to the contract of the disgruntled forward. Here's what he found:

For starters, the Jazz can't just release Andrei Kirilenko. If they do, they're on the hook for the $63 million he's owed. As part of the contract, Kirilenko also is required to play for the Jazz. He has to show up for training camp, otherwise he'll be suspended without pay and fined.

Kirilenko also can't just decide he's done with the Jazz and is going to play in Russia this season. NBA teams and FIBA countries honor each other's contracts. That's why the Jazz had to negotiate a contract buyout with Kyrylo Fesenko's Ukrainian club.

(A great line I heard Thursday from someone with the Jazz was that Kirilenko would have to go to Iran or Malaysia if he wanted to sign with a team while still under contract in Utah. In fact, I'm sure there are people who would like to send Andrei to Tehran right now.)

If Kirilenko's serious about walking away from the $63 million he's owed, the Jazz could negotiate a contract buyout for an amount all the way down to zero dollars. That's what happened with Derek Fisher earlier this summer.

Kirilenko would be free to sign with another club and probably would lose $40 million at least when everything was said and done. They could negotiate a buyout for more money but the question is if Larry Miller wants to cut a check for someone NOT to play for his team.

But the Jazz would gain a large measure of salary-cap flexibility if they reached a reasonable buyout with Kirilenko. Unless the Jazz believe Kirilenko is going to be a $17 million player down the road, it's something they have to investigate.

Siler also reports that Coach Jerry Sloan has to be feeling a bit of heat at the moment, for a number of reasons. Interesting moment for the NBA's longest-tenured coach.

Andrei Kirilenko has apparently asked to be traded; a Russian-language tale that appears to have been written by Kirilenko himself was published yesterday on the website Here it is in the original Russian. And here, with the kind of brilliant comedic timing you could not fabricate, is some of that same story as translated by Google:

For the week to come to the club, but if honest, special joy on this occasion did not have. Last season was disappointing for me and very seriously disappointed. Many thought about it and came to the decision - I want to leave the "Concept". European soccer ended was a peculiar litmus test, and it was all for me to their seats.

Coach Sloan is one of the reasons, but not the only one. Six of the NBA years, I, of course, has enormous experience. It is clear that the NBA-strongest league world. Every game makes you better as a player only because it is a challenge. Call for battle. Such conditions zakalyayut. All these words have been fair to me, except for the last two seasons. I now feel that progressiruyu not as a player. I try, but fails. 5 40NB. Do not give. Do not get support coach and the club. I am convinced that the methods Sloan had a negative impact on me. His main method of motivating players - care guilt. Our wages, our mistakes in the games, our actions outside the track is always cause for criticism. I want to play basketball, I want to enjoy it and not be a robot, piece of Sloan. Therefore, do not see their future in the team, "Utah Jazz."

Take that, you robot piece of Sloan.

Kirilenko (or someone posing as Kirilenko) also writes about how much he loved playing for David Blatt. He contrasts that experience with how much he does not enjoy playing for Sloan.

Ross Siler of the Salt Lake Tribune has enjoyed actual human translation, and wrote an informative story based on it. An excerpt:

Kirilenko also revealed that he talked to Kevin O'Connor, the Jazz's senior vice president of basketball operations, a few weeks ago and asked to be traded. O'Connor said Tuesday that he had spoken with Kirilenko but declined to comment on what was said.

"What you're trying to do is overall look at the success he's had with us,'' O'Connor said. "He has a long-term contract with us and I don't think we would have given him a contract like that if we weren't confident he'd be here."

Kirilenko is required to report for camp by Oct. 1 and O'Connor said, "We explained to him when everybody was supposed to be back and we expect him to be here."

The Jazz would face sizable obstacles in trying to trade Kirilenko, their highest-paid player owed $63 million through the 2010-11 season. They also face untold distractions as they open the season trying to build off a conference finals appearance.

Of his conversation with O'Connor, Kirilenko wrote, "I told him that I don't see myself in the team and want to leave." He added: "I don't want myself and my contract to be a burden for the club. I want the club to continue in its own direction."

But Kirilenko wrote that he hadn't heard back from O'Connor or the organization in a week, which he took as a sign of disrespect.

Plenty of people are not high on Kirilenko. I am not one of them. Back then the Blazers still had Zach Randolph, and it wasn't clear what they were going to do with him, I was keen on the idea that they might swap him for AK-47. Why? Of course, a big part of the reason is because Kirilenko plays hard all over the court, is long like a piece of spaghetti, and has a ton of skill. But mainly because he has an unbelievable knack for getting his hand where the ball is. He can strip you, he can block you, he can pick up the loose ball, he can grab the rebound. He can just get that ball better than most, and players like that are disheartening to play against. He is also willing to work hard to improve his shooting stroke, while being willing to be the team's third or fourth scoring option.

Let me share something with you about Andrei Kirilenko, the professional. Consider this account, from coach Dan Barto, of running Kirilenko's workouts last summer:

I had the pleasure of working with Andrei for a little over six weeks last summer. Upon meeting him he stated his goals for what he wanted to accomplish and why. In no uncertain terms he knew what was going to happen both with the Jazz this past season and with the Russian National Team this summer.

Stating "things (with the Jazz) are going to change for me because our team is going to win by pounding people off ball screens and defending. My opportunities are going to come in transition like always, spot ups and some isolation/mismatch. I will be the fourth option and I have to do what is best for my team."

He talked about his skill improvement and shooting both off of the catch and dribble "a couple years" process where he would probably fail numerous times to successfully implement them, but would eventually master them and increase the length of his career and value.

He stated that the summer of '06 was his first summer of not playing with the national team because he needed to rest. With the playoffs, international play and being an NBA starter, he would play more minutes than anyone in the world from October through next training camp. Also he talked about trying to get his body right since he dealt with so many injuries in the past. With the FIBA qualifiers and Olympics over the next two summers this would be his only chance to do that.

These were not ingenious concepts, but so few players are able to look at the scope of 12 months with such precision, honesty and hunger, let alone 3 years. Over the next six weeks Andrei would teach me so much about the international game, being a "professional" and how many different ways "dawg" could be used in the English language.

Utah fan and TrueHoop reader Doug emails to say:

For all of us Jazz fans who have been thinking it would be best if Kirilenko and the Jazz parted ways,it finally looks like its happening. But now that he has demanded a trade ... we'll get almost nothing for him. I wish the Jazz would have stepped up and gotten something done to get the Matrix; especially if its true that Andrei spoke with Kevin O'Connor privately about this two weeks ago before going public. Regardless whether Marion liked Utah or not, it was a much shorter term contract and would have allowed the Jazz to have a solid 3 during his remaining years.

Here is some Andrei Kirilenko information you have to see to understand.

What happens now? Will the Jazz move him? It takes two to tango, and it's no secret the Jazz are ready to dance. Even the owner has admitted as much. The Tribune's Ross Siler wrote this on his blog back in June:

In case you missed it, Andrei Kirilenko has a contract worth $63 million that makes him difficult, if not impossible, to trade. Larry Miller admitted as much Thursday on the radio. Yet Sloan and Miller have each taken their shots at Kirilenko this week -- a player who most
likely is going to wind up back with the Jazz next season.

Looking for one other team ... We have heard it might be the Suns, right? If they are really concerned that Shawn Marion might walk away for nothing when he can opt out next summer, perhaps they really would consider getting Kirilenko (who is cheaper per season, but has a hefty four years left). Any other ideas about what might work? Get trading.

UPDATE: Here's my proposal: Channing Frye, Jarrett Jack, and Raef LaFrentz for Andrei Kirilenko. In a year, the Jazz would presumably trade LaFrentz to someone looking to get under the cap -- so this would cut their total guaranteed out-of-pocket expenses by about $50 million, while not exactly making them worse. Portland gets a quality big man, and two roster spots to address their need for even more bigs. The downside is that Portland would be giving up super-valuable future cap room. (Cap room, a great city, and buddying up with Greg Oden, and a posse of young stars? That would lure a serious free agent.)

Everyone I know who was there says this tournament was well worth the trip, mainly for a fantastic performance. So many subplots. Jose Calderon can clearly now shoot. Viktor Khryapa is good. (And remember Sergei Monia?) Lithuania, Russia, Spain, and Greece now join Argentina on the growing list of teams who might give even the re-vamped U.S. team trouble in the Olympics next year. A million other stories.

Some of my favorites:

Memo to Utah coach Jerry Sloan: when you give Andrei Kirilenko some room to roam on offense, things go pretty well. That's what the coach of the Russian team, American David Blatt (great coach), did again and again throughout this tournament, and Kirilenko got high-percentage shots out of the deal.

It's amazing to see Andrei Kirilenko so happy, saying this is the best achievement of his basketball life.

Cheers to ESPN's Chris Sheridan, for singling out Russia's starting point guard, American J.R. Holden, for feature treatment last week. Holden ended up hitting the tournament-winning shot.

Now Sheridan has some advice about how Team USA can learn from Spain's shocking loss to Russia in the EuroBasket finals:

Make 20 or 30 copies of the game tape from Sunday night's final, and send them to every single player in the Team USA program and the Team USA pipeline. Include a little note that says: "Guys, take a look at this tape, and keep one thing in mind as you watch it: Crazy, crazy things can happen in international basketball, and giants really do fall. And DO NOT EVER, EVER take any opponent lightly, or you'll end up looking as shellshocked and downcast as Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon and the rest of the Spanish team looked at the end of this one, when they let their entire country down."

I also spoke to chief U.S. scout Tony Ronzone right after the game, and I asked him what advice he would give to the Team USA players if he were to go back to his hotel room and e-mail them about what happened Sunday in Madrid's Palace Arena.

His answer: "Respect, respect, respect, respect, respect, respect."

The Painted Area has in-depth coverage of the whole tournament, and highlights, but wants you to remember that the Finals were hardly the whole story. The semi-finals featured Russia's narrow escape of Lithuania. Here's a sample:

Kirilenko did it all offensively: jumpers, turnaround jumpers, post-ups, and driving lay-ins. His key sequence of the second half came in the third quarter, after Lithuania made a run to tie the game at 52, and they seemed ready to take the momentum away from Russia. But AK47 single-handedly sparked a 8-0 run with a three-pointer, then on the next offensive possession he snaked his way to a falling down lay-in plus the foul. Then on the ensuing defensive possession AK made a gigantic block on a Kleiza dunk attempt, which led into a J.R. Holden bucket to all-of-a-sudden make the game 60-52. Huge sequence for Russia. But that was not it for AK; he added some more big plays in the fourth when Lithuania made a few more mini-runs. Andrei ended the day with 29 points on 10/14 (8/11 fts), eight rebounds (4 off), three steals, and three blocks. Jeezum Frickin' Crow.

And the Painted Area says Spain vs. Greece was the real show-stopper (there are also highlights there):

Maybe as intense and entertaining a game as I've ever seen, certainly in FIBA. Both teams expended every bit of energy they could muster and left everything on the floor. I know I'm getting cliche-y, but don't know better way to describe this game. Spain's natural talent advantage basically pulled them through and helped them hold off the gritty Greeks. With both teams exerting max effort, I can't imagine either team could have played any harder. Have to say I was spent after watching the game.