Olympic basketball: Key questions for the Tokyo Games in 2021

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With the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021, OlympicTalk is taking a sport-by-sport look at where things stood before sports were halted and how global circumstances could alter the Olympic picture …

How was Olympic men’s basketball shaping up, six months before the Games?

Eight of the 12 Olympic berths were filled: U.S., Spain, France, Argentina, Australia, Iran, Nigeria and host Japan. The last four were to be decided at four June qualifying tournaments, which have now been postponed to 2021.

USA Basketball, after a flooring seventh-place finish at the 2019 FIBA World Cup (without NBA superstars), named 44 finalists for its 12-man roster in February. Every NBA superstar was included, but it did not necessarily mean every player was making himself available for selection. LeBron James and Anthony Davis were two of the biggest names who, after the finalists announcement, were not yet ready to commit. James will be 36 come the Tokyo Games in 2021, older than any previous U.S. Olympic men’s basketball player.

With the Olympic postponement, USA Basketball could alter that finalist list over the next year. It already had the option to do so. For example, in the last Olympic cycle, Damian Lillard was added to the pool after many withdrew from consideration, but he ultimately also withdrew.

The biggest roster concern for the U.S. and coach Gregg Popovich had to be at center. Neither of the 2016 Olympic centers was named a Tokyo finalist (injured DeMarcus Cousins and healthy DeAndre Jordan). Outside of Davis, none of the NBA’s All-Star centers this season were Americans: Joel Embiid (Cameroon), Rudy Gobert (France), Nikola Jokic (Serbia) and Domantas Sabonis (Lithuania).

How could the Olympic postponement change things?

The biggest variable will be the end date of the 2020-21 NBA season. While the Olympics in 2021 are the same weeks as they were in 2020, it’s unknown what a 2020-21 NBA schedule could look like in these unprecedented times. If the NBA season goes longer, and brushes closer to the Olympic dates, players will obviously have less time to rest. This is key, because the primary reason when healthy players bow out of Olympic consideration is citing a need for rest between NBA seasons.

That said, more key players could be available to the U.S. Kevin Durant, though named as a finalist, was set to miss the rest of the 2019-20 NBA season with a ruptured Achilles, putting his Olympic status in question. Other players who weren’t named finalists were, at the time, recovering from major injuries: Cousins, Blake Griffin and John Wall.

Younger players not named as finalists who could get a longer look include Zion Williamson, the 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick who missed the first three months of last season with a torn meniscus.

2021 Olympic Capsules: Track and Field | Swimming | Gymnastics | Beach Volleyball | Diving

How was Olympic women’s basketball shaping up, six months before the Games?

The entire Olympic field was already set — U.S., Australia, Spain, France, Belgium, Canada, Puerto Rico, Nigeria, Serbia, China, South Korea and host Japan. Nine of the world’s top 10 nations qualified, the lone exception being No. 6 Turkey, which has no Olympic medal history.

The U.S. seeks a seventh straight Olympic title to match the basketball record held by U.S. men’s teams from the first seven Olympic tournaments from 1936-68. The U.S. women have won 46 straight games between the Olympics and FIBA World Cup dating to 2006, though it did lose an exhibition to the University of Oregon in November.

U.S. roster decisions again figured to be difficult. Stalwarts Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi are in for, potentially, their fifth Olympics. Maya Moore (focusing on criminal justice reform) and Candace Parker announced they were out (More on Parker’s situation here). The biggest question, if any, remained who could succeed Bird as a reliable point guard.

How could the Olympic postponement change things?

Sabrina Ionescu. The Oregon superstar and WNBA No. 1 draft pick missed key U.S. women’s national team activities in the fall and winter as they happened during the college season. However, she was as of January the U.S.’ top player in international rankings for 3×3, a new Olympic event. Ionescu said at the 2019 Pan American Games that, if forced to choose between 5×5 and 3×3 at the Olympics, she preferred 3×3, according to the Olympic Channel.

The extra year until the Olympics means that Ionescu could be available for more national team activities next fall and winter, making her more appealing for the traditional Olympic tournament rather than 3×3.

What about the Olympic debut of 3×3 basketball?

Both the U.S. men and women still need to qualify for the Tokyo Games. They were in line to compete at a global qualifier in India in March, but that was postponed.

A potential U.S. Olympic men’s team is extremely unlikely to include an active NBA player. Its roster for the qualifying tournament — a peek into the thinking of a U.S. Olympic selection committee — included three of the four players from the 2019 FIBA World Cup — Robbie Hummel, Canyon Barry and Kareem Maddox, plus Dominique Jones. Hummel, Maddox and Jones are retired from traditional 5×5 basketball, while Barry plays in the NBA’s G League.

A U.S. women’s team could very include WNBA players, given its qualifying roster was made up of WNBA All-Stars Napheesa Collier and Stefanie Dolson and league standouts Allisha Gray and Kelsey Plum.

MORE: NBCSN Olympic Games Week TV, live stream schedule

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Mikaela Shiffrin wins 85th World Cup, can tie overall record Sunday

Mikaela Shiffrin
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Mikaela Shiffrin earned her 85th World Cup win on Saturday and can tie the Alpine skiing World Cup victories record on Sunday.

Shiffrin won the first of back-to-back slaloms in Spindleruv Mlyn, Czech Republic, site of her World Cup debut in 2011 at age 15, for her 11th victory in 22 starts this season.

She prevailed by six tenths of a second over German Lena Duerr combining times from two runs. Then she celebrated with an uncharacteristic shoulder shimmy.

ALPINE SKIING: Full Results | Broadcast Schedule

Shiffrin, having her best season since her record 17-win campaign in 2018-19, is now one victory shy of the Alpine World Cup record held by Swede Ingemar Stenmark, who won 86 times between slalom and giant slalom in the 1970s and ’80s.

Stenmark has held the record since January 1982.

Shiffrin races in another slalom on Sunday in Spindleruv Mlyn, the last women’s race before February’s world championships. World championships races do not count as World Cups. The World Cup season resumes following worlds in late February.

Shiffrin is on her second winning streak this season and has won nine of her last 14 races dating to Dec. 18. Last Tuesday, she won a giant slalom in Kronplatz, Italy, to break her tie with Lindsey Vonn for the women’s Alpine World Cup wins record. On Wednesday, she won another GS In Kronplatz.

She leads the standings for the World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing, by more than 600 points through 27 of 39 scheduled races. At this rate, she could clinch her fifth overall title before March’s World Cup Finals.

She is currently tied with Vonn for the second-most overall titles behind Austrian Annemarie Moser-Pröll, who won five in the 1970s.

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Aryna Sabalenka wins Australian Open for first Grand Slam singles title

Aryna Sabalenka Australian Open 2023
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MELBOURNE, Australia — Aryna Sabalenka won her first Grand Slam title by coming back to beat Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the Australian Open women’s final Saturday.

The 24-year-old Sabalenka, who is from Belarus, was appearing in her first major final.

She improved to 11-0 in 2023, and the only set she has dropped all season was the opener on Saturday against Wimbledon champion Rybakina.

But Sabalenka turned things around with an aggressive style that resulted in 51 winners, 20 more than her opponent. She used 17 aces to overcome seven double-faults. And she managed to break the big-serving Rybakina three times, the last coming for a 4-3 lead in the third set that she never relinquished.

Still, Sabalenka needed to work for the championship while serving in what would be the last game, double-faulting on her initial match point and requiring three more to close things out.

When Rybakina sent a forehand long to cap the final after nearly 2 1/2 hours, Sabalenka dropped to her back on the court and stayed down for a bit, covering her face as her eyes welled with tears.

Sabalenka is a powerful player whose most glowing strength was also her most glaring shortfall: her serve. Long capable of hammering aces, she also had a well-known problem with double-faulting, leading the tour in that category last year with nearly 400, including more than 20 apiece in some matches.

After much prodding from her team, she finally agreed to undergo an overhaul of her serving mechanics last August. That, along with a commitment to trying to stay calm in the most high-pressure moments, is really paying off now.

Sabalenka was 0-3 in Grand Slam semifinals until eliminating Magda Linette in Melbourne. Now Sabalenka has done one better and will rise to No. 2 in the rankings.

As seagulls were squawking loudly while flying overhead at Rod Laver Arena, Rybakina and Sabalenka traded booming serves. Rybakina’s fastest arrived at 121 mph, Sabalenka’s at 119 mph. They traded zooming groundstrokes from the baseline, often untouchable, resulting in winner after winner.

The key statistic, ultimately, was this: Sabalenka accumulated 13 break points, Rybakina seven. And although Sabalenka converted just a trio of them, that was enough, and the constant pressure she managed to apply during Rybakina’s service games had to take a toll.

Sabalenka had been broken just six times in 55 service games through the course of these two weeks, an average of once per match. It took Rybakina fewer than 10 minutes of action and all of two receiving games to get the measure of things and lead 2-1, helped by getting back one serve that arrived at 117 mph (189 kph).

A few games later, Sabalenka returned the favor, also putting her racket on one of Rybakina’s offerings at that same speed. Then, when Sabalenka grooved a down-the-line backhand passing winner to grab her first break and pull even at 4-all, she looked at her coach and fitness coach in the stands, raised a fist and shouted.

In the next game, though, Sabalenka gave that right back, double-faulting twice — including on break point — to give Rybakina a 5-4 edge. This time, Sabalenka again turned toward her entourage, but with a sigh and an eye roll and arms extended, as if to say, “Can you believe it?”

Soon after, Rybakina held at love to own that set.

Sabalenka changed the momentum right from the get-go in the second set. Aggressively attacking, she broke to go up 3-1, held for 4-1 and eventually served it out, fittingly, with an ace — on a second serve, no less.

Sabalenka acknowledged ahead of time that she expected to be nervous. Which makes perfect sense: This was the most important match of her career to date.

And if those jitters were evident ever-so-briefly early — she double-faulted on the evening’s very first point — and appeared to be resurfacing as the end neared, Sabalenka controlled them well enough to finish the job.

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