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U.S. men may be weaker, but still strongest in Olympic basketball

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A weakened U.S. basketball team believes it’s still the strongest one in the Olympics.

LeBron James, Stephen Curry and enough stars to fill an All-NBA team passed on playing, leaving the Americans with a roster that falls short against the Dream Team comparisons they always face.

But the U.S. doesn’t need to beat the Dream Team, or to be one. It just has to be the best in Brazil.

“I respect the guys that declined the opportunity, but I think we still have a great team here, a lot of talent,” center DeMarcus Cousins said. “We still have the same goal in mind, winning the gold medal.”

The Americans remain favored to do that, which would give them three in a row. Some things to watch as they try:

THE U.S. ROSTER

While they’re not the Dream Team, the U.S. squad in Rio is still an impressive group of players. The team includes: Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; New York’s Carmelo Anthony; Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving; Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan; Indiana’s Paul George; Dallas’ Harrison Barnes; Chicago’s Jimmy Butler; Sacramento’s Cousins and the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan.

THE FORMAT

Two six-team groups. Each team faces the others in its pool, and the top four teams in each advance to the quarterfinals.

Group A features the U.S., Serbia, France, China, Australia, and Venezuela.

Group B is Spain, Lithuania, Brazil, Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria.

WHICH GROUP IS TOUGHER?

Group A is more top-heavy, with the U.S., Serbia and France finishing 1-2-3 in the Basketball World Cup two years ago. But Group B appears to be deeper, with Spain (No. 2), Lithuania (3), Argentina (4), Brazil (9) and Croatia (12) all among the top dozen ranked teams in the world.

GRAB A SEAT, THIS WILL BE A WHILE

The Olympic basketball tournament runs nearly the entire length of the Games, making the first round of the NBA playoffs seem speedy. Competition begins Aug. 6, the day after the opening ceremony, and the medal games are Aug. 21, the day of the closing ceremony.

ROLLING INTO RIO

The U.S. has won 63 straight games, 45 in FIBA competitions and 18 in exhibition play.

CAPTAIN AMERICA

Anthony will become the first U.S. men’s player to appear in four Olympics, and become the most decorated men’s basketball Olympian ever if the U.S. wins a medal. He has a bronze from 2004 and golds in Beijing and London.

THIRD TIME THE CHARM?

Spain sure hopes this is the year it can break through, after pushing the U.S. deep into the final minutes of the last two gold-medal games. The Americans emerged with a 118-107 victory in 2008 and held on to win 107-100 in London. The Spanish bring back veterans such as Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro for a final shot.

GOODBYE, GOLDEN GENERATION

This certainly seems like the end for Argentina’s greats, who won gold in 2004, bronze in 2008 and narrowly missed another medal when they finished fourth in 2012. Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Andres Nocioni are back, with Scola chosen as Argentina’s flag bearer.

BEST FIRST-ROUND DAY

Group B has some intriguing games on Aug. 13. Spain meets Lithuania in a rematch of the 2015 EuroBasket championship game, and Brazil and Argentina renew a fierce rivalry that’s seen one knock the other out of the last three major international tournaments. Argentina eliminated Brazil in the 2010 world championship and 2012 Olympics, while the Brazilians – coached by Ruben Magnano, who led Argentina to its 2004 gold – ended the Argentinians’ stay in the 2014 Basketball World Cup. Croatia and Nigeria meet in the nightcap.

MEN IN THE MIDDLE

Spain is keeping Marc Gasol on its roster for now and Australia is doing the same with Andrew Bogut, hoping their centers can return from injuries during the NBA season. France has added Utah’s Rudy Gobert to its Rio roster after his recovery from injuries kept him out of the Olympic Qualifying Tournament it won in early July.

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WATCH LIVE: Nathan Chen in U.S. Figure Skating Championships free skate

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Nathan Chen tries to become the first man to win four straight U.S. figure skating titles since 1988, live on NBC Sports on Sunday.

NBC Sports Gold streams live coverage of the men’s free skate for subscribers starting at 2:30 p.m. ET in Greensboro, N.C. NBC joins with TV coverage at 3.

LIVE STREAM: Men’s Free Skate — Gold | NBC | Skate Order

Chen, a 20-year-old Yale sophomore, is undefeated since placing fifth at the PyeongChang Olympics. He can become the seventh man since World War II to win four straight national titles.

Five of the previous six went on to earn Olympic gold, including Dick ButtonScott Hamilton and, most recently, Brian Boitano in 1988.

Chen carries a substantial 13.14-point lead from Saturday’s short program, where he landed two quadruple jumps on one week of full training following a flu bout.

The anticipated drama Sunday comes in the battle for silver and bronze medals and the last two world championships team spots.

Jason BrownAndrew TorgashevVincent Zhou and Tomoki Hiwatashi are separated by 8.78 points. Brown, the 2015 U.S. champion, and Zhou, the 2019 World bronze medalist, are the only men in the field other than Chen with world team experience.

Key Skate Times
5:01 p.m. (ET) — Vincent Zhou
5:18 — Tomoki Hiwatashi
5:26 — Andrew Torgashev
5:35 — Nathan Chen
5:43 — Jason Brown

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NATIONALS: TV Schedule | Full Results

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

Mikaela Shiffrin, with 66th World Cup win, moves one shy of career dream

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Mikaela Shiffrin has said one of her career dreams is to win in every discipline in one season. She is now one victory shy of realizing it.

Shiffrin earned her 66th World Cup victory — and her second in three days — at a super-G in Bansko, Bulgaria, on Sunday.

She prevailed by .29 of a second over Italian Marta Bassino and .70 over Swiss Lara Gut-Behrami. Gut-Behrami, the last skier other than Shiffrin to win a World Cup overall title back in 2016, earned her first podium in exactly one year.

Full results are here.

“Perfect weekend for me,” said Shiffrin, who moved one shy of recently retired Austrian Marcel Hirscher for third place on the World Cup career wins list. “The whole team is excited about the whole weekend, but especially today.”

She is en route to a fourth straight World Cup overall title. And she is a combined victory away from wins in all five disciplines in one season. Only Marc GirardelliPetra KronbergerJanica Kostelic and Tina Maze have done it.

“The thing that I’m most proud of right now is that I know how to win in slalom, [giant slalom], super-G and downhill, which I never expected that would really happen,” she said.

Shiffrin struggled with confidence during a winless stretch in early January, trying not to compare herself to last season, when she won a record 17 times. She still leads the men’s and women’s tours with six victories this season, a little more than halfway through.

“Every race is such a big fight, and I haven’t been the one on top of this fight every time,” she said. “Certainly I’ve been like sometimes the expectations that I have or that other people might have, I’m not quite living up to that. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like I’m failing sometimes, even though this is still just an incredible season.”

There are two combined races left this season for Shiffrin to achieve the dream — Feb. 23 in Switzerland and March 1 in Italy. While combined — mixing a speed run and a technical run — might seem perfect for Shiffrin, she has one victory in four starts in the discipline between the World Cup and Olympics.

And Shiffrin is careful about her race schedule. She is undecided on entering a downhill and super-G next weekend at the 2014 Olympic venue in Russia.

“After this weekend my brain is a little bit dead,” she joked.

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