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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Team USA Overcomes Nine Point Halftime Deficit, Beats Italy 94-85

Team USA trailed by nine at halftime and by 12 just seconds into the third quarter but rallied to defeat Italy and clinch a first place finish in Group D of the FIBA World Championships. Carmelo Anthony scored 35 points, a record for a U.S. player in a FIBA World Championship game, surpassing Kenny Anderson's 34 points against Puerto Rico in 1990. Anthony shot 13-18 from the field and 5-7 from three point range; without his 29 second half points Team USA may very well have lost this game. Marco Belinelli led Italy with 25 points, followed by Stefano Mancinelli (12 points on 6-6 field goal shooting) and Fabio DiBella (12 points on 5-6 field goal shooting). Italy outrebounded Team USA 31-26.

Dwyane Wade (26 points, 10-13 shooting from the field) and Elton Brand (16 points) were the only other U.S. players to score in double figures. In fact, only six U.S. players scored at all and two--Chris Bosh and Brad Miller--did not play a single minute as Coach Mike Krzyzewski was forced to alter his substitution patterns and ride the hot hands of Anthony, Wade and Brand. LeBron James had all eight of his points in the first quarter and finished with as many turnovers as field goals made (three).

Italy jumped on Team USA from the start of the game, taking a quick 5-0 lead. This was the second consecutive sluggish beginning for the starting lineup of Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Shane Battier, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. James scored the first six U.S. points but Team USA trailed 8-6 at that point and then 15-10 before a 7-0 run put the U.S. ahead. Wade sparked Team USA when he entered the game midway through the quarter and Team USA led 25-19 after Elton Brand dunked just before the buzzer off of a nice feed from Paul.

A scary moment happened early in the second quarter when Howard jumped to block a shot by Mason Rocca, tripped over Rocca's shoulder and tumbled to the floor, hitting his back with full force. He stayed on the ground for a few moments and had to leave the game. He was able to laugh about his mishap while he sat on the bench but, although he did return to action later in the quarter, he only played a total of 10 minutes and finished with no points and one rebound. Team USA did not score until Anthony's two free throws at the 6:29 mark gave the U.S. a 27-25 lead. Italy went ahead 29-28 after Mancinelli's nifty lefty hook shot and Team USA did not score from the field until Brand's jump shot with 4:03 remaining cut the margin to 31-30. Italy closed the half with a 14-6 run to take a 45-36 lead. Team USA shot 2-13 from the field in the second quarter. With few Italian turnovers to feed Team USA's transition game, it became clear that Team USA's half court offense leaves a lot to be desired. Italy's dribble penetration shredded Team USA's defense and led to 18-31 shooting from the field, including 5-13 from three point range. Team USA shot only 11-28 from the field.

Belinelli opened the second half by throwing down a two handed fast break dunk and converting a free throw to give Italy a 48-36 lead. With Team USA in serious danger of losing its first game, Coach Krzyzewski started Wade and Brand in place of Battier and Howard and did not substitute as freely as he did in the previous games. This is a very necessary adjustment, because the FIBA World Championships are not the NBA All-Star Game; the most important thing is winning the game, not making sure that everyone gets a chance to play. If someone is not productive in a given game or does not match up well with the players on the court then he should sit on the bench. Wade provided a huge lift early in the third quarter, scoring eight points in the first three minutes and playing a big part in Team USA's ability to push the ball up the court after steals and defensive rebounds. Wade also got into a couple minor scraps with some of the Italian players. ESPN2's Fran Fraschilla commented, "It's almost as if Team USA is offended that Italy is playing hard." I was disappointed that after the game some of the U.S. players expressed surprise at how difficult a game this turned out to be. Italy won the silver medal in the 2004 Olympics and beat Team USA in an exhibition game that year. Granted, the rosters of both teams are different this time around, but the U.S. players should be more knowledgeable about the other teams in the field and have more respect for their ability. The toughest tests are still to come and an effort like this one will very likely lead to a loss against teams like Argentina or Spain.

Wade put Team USA ahead 53-52 with a fast break dunk at the 5:51 mark after a LeBron James outlet pass. ESPN2's Jim Durham used his patented "stuck on automatic" reference for the first time in this tournament when Anthony poured in basket after basket in the third quarter. Anthony hit a three pointer at the buzzer to put Team USA ahead 71-64. He had 19 points in the quarter and Wade added 11. Virtually all of their points came either in the transition game or off of one-on-one moves and the rest of Team USA only scored five points in the period.

Mancinelli stole a lazy Paul entry pass and converted a fast break layup to pull Italy to within 71-66 at the start of the fourth quarter. Italy stayed close for most of the period until Paul penetrated and dished off to Brand for a dunk and an 83-72 lead. The teams basically traded baskets after that and the final score does not truly reflect how much Team USA struggled for long stretches during the game.

While the victory was hardly impressive, it was significant. Team USA clinched first place in Group D, earning an extra day off and avoiding having to face Argentina and Spain until the medal round. After tomorrow's game with 0-4 Senegal to close out Group D play, Team USA's first game in the round of 16 will be against the fourth place finisher in Group C, which will be Australia, Brazil or Lithuania. Those teams are hardly pushovers--Brazil played very well against Team USA in their recent exhibition game--but it is much better for Team USA to play one of those teams than to face Argentina or Spain, both of whom are undefeated and are winning their games by greater margins that Team USA is. Team USA must hope that this game with Italy and the upcoming games in the next round will provide sufficient preparation to deal with the elite FIBA teams that they will have to beat to win a medal.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:49 PM

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