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Friday, August 04, 2006

Team USA Smashes Puerto Rico 114-69

Team USA routed Puerto Rico 114-69 in the State Farm Basketball Challenge, played at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. This was the first exhibition game for the U.S. as the team prepares for the FIBA World Championship. Puerto Rico is ranked 11th in the FIBA rankings, but did hand the United States an embarrassing loss in the 2004 Olympics.

The international game is very different from the NBA game and even the best players require some time to adjust. FIBA basketball consists of four 10 minute quarters, disqualifies players after five fouls (instead of six in the NBA), allows offensive interference/goaltending and utilizes a trapezoid lane and short three point line (20 feet six inches compared to the NBA's 23 feet nine inches). The officiating is also different, which is why I was surprised that two of the three State Farm Basketball Challenge referees came from the NBA. I don't know the logisitics involved, but if it were possible I think that USA Basketball should have arranged to have three FIBA referees call the game.

The U.S. started Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade at guard, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at forward and Chris Bosh at center. Puerto Rico countered with guards Carlos Arroyo and Elias Ayuso, forwards Antonio Latimer and Carmelo Lee and center Daniel Santiago. The U.S. quickly broke out to leads of 6-0 and 9-2, but Puerto Rico fought back and even briefly led. At the end of the first quarter, the score was 29-26 U.S. Anthony had 11 points. The U.S. forced six turnovers but shot only 43% from the field, while Puerto Rico took advantage of excellent dribble penetration to create high percentage shots, connecting on 53% of their attempts.

The U.S. shot 0-6 from the field to begin the second quarter and Puerto Rico took a 33-29 lead. Then the wheels fell off for Puerto Rico, as the U.S. forced numerous turnovers and went on a 19-2 run to close the quarter. By halftime, the Americans led 48-35 and had scored 19 points off of 14 first half turnovers by Puerto Rico.

A 12-0 run to start the third quarter gave the U.S. a 60-35 lead and Puerto Rico never made a serious run the rest of the game. Puerto Rico shot 1-12 from the field in the third quarter as the U.S. really turned up the defense.

Carmelo Anthony led the U.S. with 18 points and Antawn Jamison had 16. Dwyane Wade had 14 points and four assists, while LeBron James contributed 10 points, five assists and four rebounds.

So what does all of this mean? After all, the U.S. soundly defeated Puerto Rico in an exhibition game in 2004 before losing the one that counted in that year's Olympics. I saw three things in this game that I liked for the U.S. One, the defensive energy and intensity were very evident. Shane Battier dove on the floor for a loose ball, Brad Miller flew into the Puerto Rico bench to try to keep a ball in play and the U.S. had many steals and blocks. Two, the U.S. seems to have a better understanding of how to react to the high screen and roll plays that international teams love. Puerto Rico, Argentina and other teams killed the U.S. with those plays in the 2004 Olympics but in this game the U.S. bigs and the U.S. guards were positioned much better and did not give up so many wide open threes. Three, the U.S. used pressure defense and their superior depth to wear down Puerto Rico and create high percentage fast break opportunities. That is how the original, real Dream Team played. The question now is if this U.S. team can continue to do those three things when the games count against the very best international teams. I like the way this team is being coached and the way the players are responding to the coaching.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:19 AM


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At Monday, August 07, 2006 8:39:00 PM, Blogger alternaviews said...

non-sequitor, but I was watching '84 Finals Game 4, Lakers-Celts on ESPN Classic, and I was impressed by how unathletic the players were generally, and by how less dominant Magic & Bird were relative to their teammates -- compared to the stars now, who totally outlclass their teammates in the bigger, more diluted league, with less emphasis on fundamental skills.

Bird's shooting was awful, something like 8 for 25 (though he hit a clutch game winner).

Magic had a horrendous turnover at the end of regulation, in a tie game -- a lazy pass to Worthy that Robert Parish intercepted.

The only one who really impressed me was Worthy -- whose athleticism in that game could compare to modern players. Otherwise, I was underwhelmed.

Don't mean to be an apostate. Maybe there was better defense? But it was below the rim, aside from Worthy. Somehow, Bird and Magic had big rebounds and other stats, but they just didnt seem to be dominant. OF COURSE, I KNOW IT WAS JUST ONE GAME. But still, game 4, NBA finals...not a regular season contest or anything. THougts?

At Monday, August 07, 2006 9:00:00 PM, Blogger alternaviews said...

Kareem was actually pretty good too (in addition to Worthy). It was more Magic & Bird whose play surprised me.

At Monday, August 07, 2006 10:05:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You already brought up the fact that your observations are just based on one game. The '84 Finals were probably Magic's worst performance in a championship setting. You mentioned the weak pass to Worthy. At another point in that series he dribbled out the clock, not realizing that the score was tied. He also missed some key free throws. Magic did lead the Lakers to championships in three of the next four seasons, including the first back to back titles in the NBA since the Russell Celtics, so I don't think we should be too hard on him.

Neither Bird nor Magic ever really dominated based on athleticism. They were versatile and had uncanny court vision. Even in their primes it was noted that other players were more athletic, so it is not surprising that they don't seem athletic compared to current players.

Worthy was indeed ahead of his time and while some might say that he is overrated because he played with Magic and Kareem, I think that if anything he is underrated; he would have been scoring 28-30 ppg in his prime if he had played alongside lesser teammates. His first step was simply unreal.

Kareem looks even better when you consider that he was 37 at that time--and he won the Finals MVP the next year at 38! People have forgotten how great he was.

Bird actually shot a lower percentage in the NBA Finals than many might suspect; if you think '84 was bad, watch the '81 Finals or look at some of the boxscores.

What happens with all great players who achieve legendary status is that we tend to forget that they were not perfect and had their share of bad games; yes, even legends can "choke" sometimes or shoot a bad percentage in a big game. I've made this point regarding Kobe and other current elite players; many are quick to criticize their shot selection or the number of shots they take without realizing that the great players of previous eras also took a lot of shots. Barkley took a staggering number of threes for someone who shot a low percentage from that range and a very high percentage inside.

During the Hall of Fame Game, John Madden talked about comparing the players from the 70s--when he coached--to today. He said that he didn't want to sound like the old guy who says that the game was better in the "good old days" but that he would be comfortable lining up his Raiders (or the Steelers, Dolphins or other great teams of that era) against today's best teams. I have tremendous respect for today's great players but Bird and Magic and their teams would do just fine against them.


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