NBA

Rivers salute for Simmons and Thybulle as Sixers halt losing streak

By Sports Desk April 27, 2021

The Philadelphia 76ers got back to winning ways as Doc Rivers hailed the returning Ben Simmons and his defensive combination with Matisse Thybulle.

After losing four in a row, Philadelphia were more like their old selves in a 121-90 drubbing of the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday.

Simmons missed the string of losses due to what he described as "a viral thing", but he returned with six-of-eight shooting, four assists, three rebounds, three steals and two blocks.

Rivers is convinced Simmons and Thybulle have a big role to play in paving the way for success this season.

"I don't think I've ever had that," Rivers said of the wing defence strength.

"I've had an incredibly great defensive team... but not at those positions. It's pretty awesome to watch. Those two guys, their closing ability on shots is excellent, absolutely remarkable to watch."

Simmons looked as good as new, according to Rivers.

"He had great energy, great pace. It was Ben being Ben," said the coach. "We lose a lot of pace when he's not on the floor, that's for sure."

As for Simmons, the 24-year-old All-Star welcomed his coach's words, saying: "That means a lot. [Thybulle] has got a high IQ on the floor and it's tough for teams to score when there's two guys like that on the floor."

Simmons added: "I'm just glad to be back. I missed being with the fellas. The energy was great tonight."

The Sixers sit second in the Eastern Conference, one game behind the Brooklyn Nets.

"It's going to be on us to take care of business down the stretch," Simmons said. "We've got a lot of games that are going to be all-important at this stage.

"We're looking forward to the challenge and obviously we need to get in the playoffs. I'm glad I'm back now and we have a few games left to really get that first seeding and I think we can do it.

"If everyone's healthy and able to play, I think we're able to get that. Looking forward, we've got to take control and get that first seeding."

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  • Tokyo Olympics Recap: Popovich insists France loss should not come as a surprise Tokyo Olympics Recap: Popovich insists France loss should not come as a surprise

    United States men's basketball coach Gregg Popovich insists his side's defeat to France in their first outing at Tokyo 2020 should not be considered a surprise result.

    Team USA have won gold in the last three Games, but they saw a 25-game winning streak in the tournament come to an end on Sunday against an inspired France side.

    Les Blues, who also beat a much-fancied USA in the World Cup quarter-finals in 2019, are ranked seventh in the FIBA rankings but proved too strong for the world's top team with an 83-76 win at the Saitama Super Arena.

    Despite his side's long unbeaten run in the competition coming to an end, Popovich – taking charge at his first Games – was quick to put the loss into some perspective.

    "People shouldn't be surprised that we lost to the French team or the Australian team or the Spanish team or the Lithuanian team," he told reporters. 

    "It doesn't matter who it is – the gap in talent shrinks every year, as there are more and more great players all over the world. 

    "And you need to give the French team credit for playing well. They were more consistent than we were at both ends of the court. It's as simple as that."

    STARS ALIGN FOR HISTORY-MAKING ZOLOTIC

    Sunday was a positive day on the whole for Team USA – especially compared to Saturday, when they failed to win a medal on the opening day of a Games for the first time since Munich 1972 – as they picked up four gold, two silver and four bronze.

    That haul includes a maiden gold in the women's taekwondo thanks to teenager Anastasija Zolotic, who beat Tatiana Minina of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) in the final of the -57kg weight category event. 

    "My eight-year-old self was running around the schoolyard saying I was going to be Olympic champion but she could never have imagined what this moment is like," Zolotic said. 

    "It's unbelievable. It really hasn't sunk in yet. I can't believe it. I'm in a bit of shock. I'm just trying to wrap my head around it. It feels wonderful. I came here confident and ready to take the gold. The stars were aligned."

    Zolotic's win came on the back of two-time Olympic champion Jade Jones suffering a shock elimination to Refugee Olympic Team member Kimia Alizadeh in the last 16, denying the Team GB athlete a shot of winning a historic third gold.

     

    BILES BOUNCES BACK, CHUSOVITINA WAVES GOODBYE

    A lot of focus has been on Simone Biles heading into the Games, though she had a rare off day as the USA finished behind ROC in the women's gymnastics qualifying.

    Biles, who won four golds and a bronze in Rio, was penalised on both floor and vault but still scored a respectable 14.166 to book a spot in the final.

    While Biles still has time on her side, both in Tokyo and in the long term, the 2020 Games will be the last for Uzbekistan's Oksana Chusovitina, who bowed out on Sunday after a record-setting eighth appearance at the Olympics.

    Chusovitina, at the age of 46, just missed out on qualifying for the vault event and was given a standing ovation by the small number of people inside the arena.

    To put Chusovitina's remarkable run of appearances into perspective, she made her debut at the Games in 1992, some five years before Biles was born.

    "It was really nice. I cried tears of happiness because so many people have supported me for a long time," she said. "I didn't look at the results, but I feel very proud and happy. I'm saying goodbye to sports. It's kind of mixed feelings.

    "I'm alive, I'm happy, I'm here without any injuries, and I can stand on my own."

    KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY

    Japanese pair Uta and Hifumi Abe made Olympic history as they became the first siblings to win gold medals on the same day of a Games in an individual sport, both enjoying success in judo on day two in Tokyo.

    Uta won the women’s 52kg competition, defeating France's Amandine Buchard. A closely contested bout went to a golden score, with Abe crucially claiming ippon to settle the final in her favour.

    The two-time world champion cried tears of joy in the aftermath, admitting: "I don't know, maybe it may not have been appropriate but I couldn't hold myself back."

    Older brother Hifumi made it a family double, overcoming Vazha Margvelashvili of Georgia to triumph in the men's 66kg final.

    "This has turned out to be the greatest day ever," he said. "I don't think we, as brother and sister, could shine any brighter on this stage known as the Tokyo Olympics. I'm so happy."

  • New York Knicks: Cause for optimism at last but Julius Randle reliance a worry New York Knicks: Cause for optimism at last but Julius Randle reliance a worry

    It did not end as they might have hoped, but the 2020-21 NBA season was undoubtedly one to remember for the New York Knicks.

    Playoff basketball returned to Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years, even if a typically passionate crowd could not carry their team beyond the first round. The subsequent show of strength from the Atlanta Hawks – the fifth seeds behind the Knicks – should cast a 4-1 series defeat in a slightly different light, though.

    And New York's progress under Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau, led by Most Improved Player Julius Randle, can only encourage optimism. The 25.1 improvement in win percentage from the previous campaign (31.8 to 56.9) was the largest in the franchise's history.

    But Thibodeau and the front office have work to do this offseason if they are to ensure the Knicks do not fall short when it really matters again next year.

    Time to assess the franchise's situation with the campaign now over...

    Randle raises the level

    Well established as a leading defensive coach in the NBA, it came as little surprise that Thibodeau's influence was most clearly seen on that end of the floor. The Knicks had given up 112.3 points per game in 2019-20, ranking 18th in scoring defense. That improved to a league-best 104.7 last season.

     

    On offense, though, Randle's ascension to All-Star selection and the fringes of the MVP debate made all the difference. The former Kentucky forward joined New York for the 2019-20 season and contributed 19.5 points per game – his total of 1,248 making up a team-high 17.9 per cent of the Knicks' points. Marcus Morris Sr (12.0 per cent) was the next most influential Knick despite leaving for the Los Angeles Clippers after 43 games.

    Pessimism at that stage was understandable. Randle had also scored the most points on his previous teams across the prior two years – the pre-LeBron James Los Angeles Lakers and a New Orleans Pelicans outfit Anthony Davis decided was not worth sticking around for – and neither of those came close to making the playoffs. It was a miserable trend that seemed certain to continue.

    However, Randle was determined not to let that happen and put in the work to improve his game heading into the new season, focusing particularly on his three-point shooting. "Obviously, the big thing was the three," Thibodeau said in May. "It stood out right away during the summer, but you're in the gym where there's no defenders. It looked a lot better coming off his hand, the arc was better, and he looked real comfortable with it." The Knicks' leading scorer went from shooting 27.7 per cent from three the previous year to 41.1.

    Randle's free-throw percentage also improved by nearly eight points to 81.1 per cent. "I thought he would have a good year, but I didn't see this level," his coach added.

    While Randle's increased output (24.1 points per game) saw him supply 22.2 per cent of his team's points – ranking sixth in the league in that sense – and his usage rate rose to 29.3 per cent, he also provoked better performances from his team-mates.

    "That was a big concern, the three-point shooting for our team," said Thibodeau. "Not only for Julius, but that was huge for him and our team. All the other guys put in the extra time as well. Julius set the tone for that. You see him work on it every day. He's in early, he stays late. He comes back at night, and we have a number of guys that do that. If you put the time into it, usually you’ll get a good result."

    No team improved their accuracy from beyond the arc as dramatically as the Knicks, up from 33.7 to 39.2 per cent.

    With increased options around him – including RJ Barrett shooting 44.1 per cent from the field and 40.1 per cent from three in his second year – Randle also had a career-high 6.0 assists per game. Of his 427 assists, 115 were for Barrett and 117 for Reggie Bullock. Considering he was assisted by Barrett on 68 occasions and then a further 55 from Elfrid Payton, Randle was involved in the Knicks' four most common assist-scorer combinations.

    Following a narrow late-season defeat to the Lakers, Davis said of his former Pelicans team-mate: "I think he's an MVP candidate, he for sure should win Most Improved, what he's doing, got this team in the playoffs right now for a team who hadn't been in the playoffs for a while. He's playing his a** off and you can do nothing but respect him."

    Julius just too important?

    Of course, this reliance on Randle is all well and good so long as the former seventh overall pick is delivering. Worryingly, though, a debut postseason series prompted an apparent regression to the mean – or worse.

    Although that three-point practice kept his shooting from dipping below 33.3 per cent from beyond the arc, Randle slumped to an alarming career low from the midrange, a miserable 14.7 per cent. He was also 44.4 per cent at the rim as the Knicks struggled to get points in the paint – Hawks center Clint Capela averaged a double-double for the series, his 13.4 rebounds including 10.4 on the defensive end – and ended up with just 18.0 points per game in 36.0 minutes, even as the usage rate ramped up even further to 31.8 per cent.

    No team can afford for their superstar to go missing in the playoffs. Randle had posted 28, 44 and 40 in three wins over the Hawks in the regular season, but he was swiftly stifled in round one. Meanwhile, Trae Young, revelling in the role of villain in New York, established himself as one of the league's most exciting scorers.

    Young's 29.2 points against the Knicks set the standard for his postseason as a whole, the Hawks beating the Philadelphia 76ers and only losing to the Milwaukee Bucks after their point guard was injured, having repeatedly risen to the occasion. The contrast with Randle was stark.

     

    Randle had entered the playoffs all but certain to be the subject of a hefty contract offer from the Knicks one year out from unrestricted free agency. Now, that deal is not quite so secure, with the team perhaps pondering their options.

    Big spenders or big savers

    As in 2020-21, when Thibodeau and the front office chose not to gamble, the Knicks are set to have the most cap space in the NBA, projected at $51.3million. With money to spend in a big market, New York will – yet again – be the subject of speculation involving the league's top free agents heading into the new season, especially if a Randle deal is delayed.

    This is a somewhat underwhelming free agency class, though, with two notable exceptions. Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul both have player options – the latter an interesting name given the Knicks' issues at point guard.

    Thibodeau finally lost patience with Payton after 13 playoff minutes, one point and one assist, while Frank Ntilikina appeared fleetingly in three games. That meant Derrick Rose starting at the point; although he led the team with 19.4 points per game in the postseason, they lost all three of his starts and badly missed his consistent contributions from the bench. The trio are all on expiring contracts and only Rose is likely to be retained. It is a position that must be reinforced.

    Despite their repeated attempts to strike a blockbuster deal, a move for Paul or similar would represent a step into the unknown. The Knicks are far more familiar with blooding draft picks and will hope Barrett (2019), Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin (both 2020) will be boosted by getting a taste of the playoffs, albeit if the experience was brief.

    Ideally, third-year center Mitchell Robinson would also have had that opportunity. He has the best career field-goal percentage on record among NBA players with 400 or more attempts all-time (70.5) but fractured his right hand in February and his right foot in March.

    A rare watching brief

    The free agency rumour mill might continue to churn, but Knicks fans have this year at least been spared the pain of sitting through another draft lottery.

    While not be able to take Cade Cunningham, just as they were not able to select Zion Williamson in 2019, this time that is due to their own on-court achievements, rather than the luck of the draw. Two first-round picks – 19 and 21 – should still see New York able to bolster their roster.

    Verdict: Evolution

    Why would the Knicks do anything but build on the foundations of a popular, hard-working, fast-improving team? Whether Randle signs or not, whether a player like Paul can be tempted to MSG or otherwise, the bulk of this roster will remain the same. They have enough room under the cap to bring back a number of key pieces regardless of any expensive, eye-catching additional business.

    A new man running point would allow Rose to return to leading the second unit. Another way to add scoring depth might see the arrival of a wing who can compete for minutes with Bullock, whose accuracy from the field, three-point range and the foul line tailed off in the postseason.

    Up the middle, despite the team's struggles against Capela and Co, Robinson remains under a team option and both Nerlens Noel ($6m last year) and Taj Gibson ($1.7m) should be cheap and useful enough to return. In 1,547 regular season minutes, Noel had the third-best block percentage (8.7) and 23rd-best steal percentage (2.3) in the league.

    New York may still be some way off contention, but this must be a patient process. Another playoff campaign should be regarded as a success, particularly if they can be more competitive. That will require tweaks, not a drastic overhaul.

  • Tokyo Olympics: Team USA have winning streak snapped as France cause an upset Tokyo Olympics: Team USA have winning streak snapped as France cause an upset

    The United States saw a 25-game winning streak in men's basketball at the Olympics come to an end as they were beaten by France in their first outing at Tokyo 2020.

    Team USA arrived in Japan looking to strike gold for a fourth straight Games, yet their build-up had been anything but straightforward. Exhibition defeats to Australia and Nigeria raised concerns before travelling, while COVID-19 protocols ruled out Bradley Beal and Kevin Love was replaced at late notice by JaVale McGee.

    Still, a squad including Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Jayson Tatum – as well as Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday from the Milwaukee Bucks, the newly crowned NBA champions – saw the reigning champions listed as favourites.

    France, though, caused an early upset at the start of the tournament. Evan Fournier starred with 28 points to help his team triumph 83-76 at the Saitama Super Arena.

    There were wins for Australia and Italy too on Sunday, as well as a victory for the Czech Republic.

     

    Big names come up short in shock defeat

    Team USA had rounded out their build-up to the Games by beating Spain, yet there will be concerning signs for head coach Gregg Popovich following a flat performance against France.

    They were successful with just 41 per cent of their two-point attempts and landed only 10 of the 32 shots put up from beyond the arc. Despite the shooting issues they still led 45-37 at half-time, only for the game to turn in a third quarter where they mustered a paltry 11 points.

    Durant finished up with 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting, while Lillard had 11. The latter's slip that caused a turnover in the closing seconds when down by four rather summed up a disjointed performance from the entire roster, leading to a first loss at the Olympics since going down to Argentina at Athens 2004.

    Devin Booker, who had helped the Phoenix Suns reach the NBA Finals, landed only one of his six attempts from the field, with Holiday (18 points) finishing as the USA's leading scorer having only joined up with the team on the day of the game.

    Also in Group A, the Czech Republic recorded an 84-78 victory over Iran.

    Ingles impressed, but Nigeria come up short

    Nigeria had defeated both Argentina and the United States ahead of the Games, raising hopes of making an impact in Japan.

    However, able to knock down just 29 per cent of their attempts from deep, they struggled to keep pace with Australia, scoring only 27 points in the entire second half as they went down 84-67.

    Still, Joe Ingles – who had 11 points for Australia – praised the Nigerians for their display, particularly on defense as they forced 21 turnovers. Patty Mills was the leading scorer in the game, finishing with 25.

    "You have to give a lot of credit to Nigeria, with how they played and the style they play," Ingles said. "They are up and in, they are athletic and get up the floor, and they obviously have a great coach [in Mike Brown].

    "I think a lot of people underestimate the team and the country. They are a really good basketball team."

    Meanwhile, Italy opened their Group B campaign with a 92-82 victory over Germany. Simone Fontecchio led the way with 20 points, including landing all five of his three-point attempts.

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