Gregg Popovich defended Team USA and hit out at a "ridiculous" lack of respect for other nations at the FIBA World Cup after the reigning champions ended their campaign with an 87-74 victory over Poland.

A significantly weakened US squad - missing a host of star names but still packed with NBA experience - saw their title defence ended by France at the quarter-final stage earlier this week, before also losing to Serbia.

That meant Saturday's triumph at Beijing's Wukesong Sport Arena, in which Donovan Mitchell starred with 16 points and 10 assists, was only enough to secure seventh place for the country that won gold at each of the last two World Cups.

Popovich nevertheless said he was proud of his players' efforts as he firmly rejected some of the criticism that has come the USA's way.

"Some people want to play the blame game, there's no blame to be placed anywhere," the veteran head coach was quoted as saying by ESPN. "They want to play the shame game, like we should be ashamed because we didn't win a gold medal?

"That's a ridiculous attitude. It's immature, it's arrogant, and it shows that whoever thinks that doesn't respect all the other teams in the world and doesn't respect that these guys did the best they could.

"Their effort was fantastic. You give people credit for what they did, and that's it. But it's not a blame and shame game, that's ridiculous."

Mitchell was one of five players to put up a double-figure points tally in the USA's final game, along with Joe Harris (14), Khris Middleton (13), Derrick White (12) and Harrison Barnes (10). Middleton also contributed six rebounds and half a dozen assists.

Poland, playing their first World Cup since 1967, were paced by Mateusz Ponitka (18 points), Adam Waczynski (17) and A.J. Slaughter (15).

The outcome was decided early with Team USA scoring the game's first 10 points and stretching their lead to 14 by the end of the first quarter.

They led 47-30 at half-time, aided by Poland's inability to hit from three-point range. The underdogs missed their first 13 shots from behind the arc before finally getting one to fall with a minute and 28 seconds to play before the interval.

Poland did rally in the second half, getting as close as seven points with four minutes and seven seconds left in the third quarter, but the Americans responded with a 9-2 run and ran out comfortable winners.

Serbia secured fifth spot with a 90-81 victory over Czech Republic later in the day, Bogdan Bogdanovic the star of the show with 31 points.

Gregg Popovich defended Team USA and hit out at a "ridiculous" lack of respect for other nations at the FIBA World Cup after the reigning champions ended their campaign with an 87-74 victory over Poland.

A significantly weakened US squad - missing a host of star names but still packed with NBA experience - saw their title defence ended by France at the quarter-final stage earlier this week, before also losing to Serbia.

That meant Saturday's triumph at Beijing's Wukesong Sport Arena, in which Donovan Mitchell starred with 16 points and 10 assists, was only enough to secure seventh place for the country that won gold at each of the last two World Cups.

Popovich nevertheless said he was proud of his players' efforts as he firmly rejected some of the criticism that has come the USA's way.

"Some people want to play the blame game, there's no blame to be placed anywhere," the veteran head coach was quoted as saying by ESPN. "They want to play the shame game, like we should be ashamed because we didn't win a gold medal?

"That's a ridiculous attitude. It's immature, it's arrogant, and it shows that whoever thinks that doesn't respect all the other teams in the world and doesn't respect that these guys did the best they could.

"Their effort was fantastic. You give people credit for what they did, and that's it. But it's not a blame and shame game, that's ridiculous."

Mitchell was one of five players to put up a double-figure points tally in the USA's final game, along with Joe Harris (14), Khris Middleton (13), Derrick White (12) and Harrison Barnes (10). Middleton also contributed six rebounds and half a dozen assists.

Poland, playing their first World Cup since 1967, were paced by Mateusz Ponitka (18 points), Adam Waczynski (17) and A.J. Slaughter (15).

The outcome was decided early with Team USA scoring the game's first 10 points and stretching their lead to 14 by the end of the first quarter.

They led 47-30 at half-time, aided by Poland's inability to hit from three-point range. The underdogs missed their first 13 shots from behind the arc before finally getting one to fall with a minute and 28 seconds to play before the interval.

Poland did rally in the second half, getting as close as seven points with four minutes and seven seconds left in the third quarter, but the Americans responded with a 9-2 run and ran out comfortable winners.

Team USA still pose a threat at the FIBA World Cup even if Kemba Walker rather than LeBron James is their star man, says former Germany star Demond Greene.

Defending champions the United States, who have five titles to their name, have seen several world superstars such as James pull out of contention for the tournament that starts on Saturday.

But Greene, who played at two World Cups, famously blocking Dwyane Wade in 2006, acknowledges players such as Walker and Khris Middleton could still have a huge impact on the finals.

"It's not their 'A-team'. I would not even say it's their 'B-team'," Greene told Omnisport. "It's a mix between 'B' and 'C-team'. Despite this, they are still dangerous."

Greene added: "You must never underestimate them. [The players] are still playing in the NBA.

"They've got players who average 20 points per game like Kemba Walker. They are All-Stars and leaders in their teams which proves that they are high quality players.

"The problem is that we are spoiled from the previous years, when players like James Harden, Kevin Durant or LeBron James played.

"Now you have players like Khris Middleton, who many won't even know. You have to be a basketball expert to know Khris Middleton, maybe even Kemba Walker.

"That's the problem, that many look at who's not in the team, rather than who is."

Greece are another potential contender due to the presence of Middleton's Milwaukee Bucks team-mate and reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Greene believes they can be successful but says the team's big European stars must get used to playing second fiddle to Antetokounmpo, who will dominate the narrative.

"The important thing is that all players understand their role," Greene said. "The years in which Giannis didn't play, all the players had another role.

"He is the top star on and off the court. When there are press conferences, there are going to be 50 cameras around him and the other players will get what is left. You have to handle this.

"They have to understand that even if they play a totally different role in Europe and are top stars here, like Nick Calathes at Panathinaikos. He is a team leader there and also still for Greece. He may even be the heart of the team.

"They all have to cope with that. If this works out, then they can get very, very far with Giannis as their power machine.

"But it all has to work out internally and they will have to let him walk in front and let him be the leader with Calathes at his side.

"Then they can be a very dangerous side, especially in defense. Offensively, they are not that strong, but in terms of defense, they can really hurt other teams."

Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez wished their MVP-winning Milwaukee Bucks team-mate Giannis Antetokounmpo the best with Greece at the FIBA World Cup, just not against the United States.

Middleton and Lopez watched as Antetokounmpo dominated in the NBA last season after he averaged 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists while helping the Bucks clinch in the number one seed and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Bucks pair heaped praise on Antetokounmpo, even if they are set to be his rivals at the upcoming World Cup in China.

"There are just so many possessions, so many dunks, but the vision, the unselfishness that he has, it's just so impressive for a superstar of his talent," Lopez told reporters on Wednesday. "And his work ethic is just what amazes me the most, it’s really second to none."

"Every night he steps on that court, you know he's going to give it his all," Middleton added. "You know he's due for one of those big plays."

Middleton and Lopez will not be Antetokounmpo's team-mates at the World Cup, which gets underway in China on August 31.

Antetokounmpo will lead Greece, who have been drawn in Group F alongside New Zealand, Brazil and Montenegro.

Reigning champions Team USA, meanwhile, will face Turkey, Czech Republic and Japan in Group E.

"We've spent hours in practice against each other and it will definitely be fun to get it in a real game," Middleton said. "That's my team-mate, my brother and wish him the best but hopefully not too good against us."

There is no guarantee Middleton will get a chance to match up with Antetokounmpo, but it is not out of the realm of possibility, either.

If both teams finish in the top two of their pools, they could get a chance to face off down the line.

It is something Lopez said USA are not planning for yet but admitted it would be a difficult task on defense, just like it was for every NBA team this past season.

"It would be a total team job," Lopez said. "All five guys have to be on the same page all doing our job."

The balance of power continues to shift in the NBA, as Kawhi Leonard's decision to join the Los Angeles Clippers makes the league a lot more interesting.

At the beginning of 2018-19, many seemed to believe the road to the NBA Finals ran through the Boston Celtics. Then the Milwaukee Bucks posted the best record in the league just a year removed from finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference. 

But it was the Toronto Raptors who dethroned the
Golden State Warriors in the end, and now they will have a new look without their superstar. Plenty of other teams are hungry for glory and now is the perfect time to strike.

Here are three teams that could now take over the Eastern Conference:

 

Milwaukee Bucks

The Eastern Conference is now wide open, but the Bucks are ahead of the pack. After all, they retained two All-Stars — one being reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Milwaukee underwent a serious transformation under Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer last season. Antetokounmpo has put up historically strong numbers in the paint, but the Bucks were also among the league leaders in three-point attempts.

Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez will likely be constants, but it remains to be seen how the chemistry will be after losing Malcolm Brogdon.

Milwaukee simply have the centrepiece every other team wish they had in Antetokounmpo, so there is no reason to count them out just yet.

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers may have lost an All-Star-calibre player in Jimmy Butler this offseason, but they will be just fine.

Philadelphia were one circus buzzer-beater away from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals last season and are bringing back plenty of talent in 2019-20. The 76ers flipped Butler to the Miami Heat in exchange for Josh Richardson and lured Al Horford away from the Celtics, giving them what might be the best defensive line-up in basketball.

Small Ball? Philadelphia have never heard of it, as the shortest wingspan on their current roster is 6-10. 

The 76ers' starting group will likely feature Richardson, Tobias Harris, Ben Simmons, Al Horford and Joel Embiid. And then there is second-year guard Zhaire Smith, who was voted the most athletic player in the 2018 NBA Draft by his peers but missed most of last season due to an unfortunate allergic reaction.

Philadelphia have size, playmaking, strong defense and four players that could get legitimate All-Star consideration in the coming season. Embiid's questionable health could be a facto but getting a versatile big like Horford that can fill in if he goes down will definitely keep the 76ers in contender conversations.

Brooklyn Nets

Even if Kevin Durant cannot play until 2020, the Nets should be better this season. They lost D'Angelo Russell to the Warriors, but Kyrie Irving can be a considerable upgrade if the pieces come together just right.

Both Russell and Irving are high-usage guards, but Irving is more efficient and poses the kind of threat that makes every player on the opposing team watch him when the ball is in his hands. 

Brooklyn added veterans in DeAndre Jordan and Garrett Temple that should pair nicely with returning pieces like Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris, who was one of the most prolific three-point shooters in 2018-19 — converting 47.4 per cent from beyond the arc.

But the wild card is Caris LeVert, who arguably was the Nets' best player before a leg injury sidelined him last November. The 24-year-old guard was establishing himself as Brooklyn's go-to guy and now he has had a whole offseason to recover after showing flashes of his potential in the 2018-19 playoffs.

Adding Durant to a group like this could prove to be lethal and would certainly make the Nets a force to be reckoned with.

Khris Middleton hailed "beast" Brook Lopez after he inspired the Milwaukee Bucks' fightback against the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Lopez scored 13 of his 29 points in the final quarter as the Bucks rallied to draw first blood at Fiserv Forum on Wednesday.

The Raptors led by seven points at the end of the third quarter and Middleton saluted Lopez for stepping up under pressure after the center played a huge part in a 108-100 victory.

"He was huge, he was a beast." said forward Middleton.

"Inside the paint, he made some big plays for us. And in the defense he covers up so many of our mistakes. He was huge, without him we definitely would not have got the win."

Eric Bledsoe expects the Raptors to produce a positive response to going behind in the series when the two sides do battle in Game 2 on Saturday.

"We definitely know they are going to come back with a strong game plan, we've just got to adapt and take it a game at a time," said Bledsoe.

Giannis Antetokounmpo believes the manner of the Bucks' victory will stand them in good stead for the remaider of the series.

The forward said: "I think we need games like this, because not every game is going to be a blowout," Antetokounmpo said. "Not every game is going to be easy. And I think this game definitely made us better."

Giannis Antetokounmpo praised the Milwaukee Bucks' response against the Boston Celtics after the Eastern Conference top seeds "got our a** whooped in Game 1".

The Bucks levelled their NBA semi-final series with the Celtics thanks to Tuesday's comprehensive 123-102 victory in Milwaukee, having dropped the opener 112-90.

Questions were asked of Antetokounmpo and the Bucks after the 'Greek Freak' was limited to seven-of-21 shooting for 22 points in Game 1.

However, Antetokounmpo showcased his MVP credentials with 29 points and 10 rebounds in Game 2 – going seven for 16 and 13 of 18 from the foul line.

"We got our a** whooped in Game 1," Antetokounmpo told NBA TNT. "So, we had to come out here and get Game 2.

"It's tough when a team comes into your home and get the two first games, so we knew that.

"We had that in the back of our minds. So, we came out, we played hard, we moved the ball, trusted one another and that’s why we got a win."

Game 3 is in Boston on Friday and Antetokounmpo added: "We have to pick it up from where we left this game.

"We know each game is going to get harder but we have to trust one another. Play the basketball we can play and everything will take care of itself."

Bucks team-mate Khris Middleton finished with 28 points, nailing seven of Milwaukee's 20 three-pointers.

"It's just one game. That's the thing we told ourselves after Game 1," Middleton told reporters afterwards.

"At the end of the day we only lost one game. It's the same situation, no matter how many points we scored – we won one game.

"We have to move onto the next one and prepare for that. It's going to be tough to win on the road in the playoffs but we've been there before with the Detroit series.

"We know what to do. We just have to go there and give it our all. Be sharp, pay attention to the game plan and try to get the win."

Khris Middleton says the Milwaukee Bucks are "itching for the playoffs" and motivated by taking their game to another level rather than clinching the number one seed.

The Eastern Conference leaders improved to 53-18 with a 115-101 victory over the struggling Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday.

Middleton top-scored for the Bucks with 30 points and later stated that his side are hungry to ensure they hit new heights. 

"The guys are itching for the playoffs, but we just have to stay day-to-day and do the things that have gotten us into this position," the small forward said.

"Keep working hard and keep wanting to get better, as an individual and as a group."

The Bucks have a nice cushion over the second-placed Toronto Raptors (50-21) but Middleton says securing top spot is not the priority.

"We haven't talk about that at all," he added.

"What we knew when we clinched the playoff spot is we need to focus on the right now.

"I think the boys are doing a good job of finding ways to get better heading into the playoffs rather than waiting for the playoffs or find ways or do certain things."

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