Team USA Starts Sluggishly, Rallies to Beat Puerto Rico 111-100Team USA defeated Puerto Rico 111-100 in the first game of the preliminary round of the FIBA World Championships. Don't expect this tournament to be a cakewalk: Puerto Rico is far from being the best team that the U.S. will face but they took an early 12-7 lead and still were ahead 36-32 well into the second quarter. Carlos Arroyo led all first half scorers with 15 points as he and the other Puerto Rico guards repeatedly used dribble penetration to break down the U.S. defense. At the other end of the court, Puerto Rico frustrated the U.S. by using a zone defense. Team USA did not do a good job of attacking the zone, instead settling for three pointers or taking wild, low percentage shots. As ESPN2 analyst Fran Fraschilla observed, FIBA uses a 24 second clock, so there is less time to methodically attack the zone than there is in college basketball; while the NBA got rid of the illegal defense rule, you still cannot play a pure zone in the NBA because a defender cannot be in the paint for more than three seconds unless he is within arm's length of an offensive player--so the three-two zone that Puerto Rico employed is something that the Team USA players have not seen since their college (or high school) days.
The two saving graces for Team USA are their superior depth and athleticism. The U.S. had nine steals in the first half, which created numerous transition scoring opportunities and enabled the U.S. to shoot 68% from the field. Unfortunately, the U.S. only led 57-51 at the break because when the U.S. did not force turnovers they did a poor job of defending against dribble penetration by the guards and against screen and roll plays, allowing Puerto Rico to shoot 54% from the field. The U.S. made a 12-2 run early in the second half to push the lead to 69-53, taking advantage of mismatches on the block with Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade and also converting two LeBron James fast break layups and a Chris Paul three pointer. The U.S. lead swelled to as much as 20 in the fourth quarter before a late Puerto Rico run nearly cut the margin in half.
The Puerto Rico team is on such a shoestring budget that they had to save money by not arriving in Japan until Wednesday, later than any of the other squads got to Japan. Speaking of not arriving in Japan, ESPN2's Jim Durham and Fran Fraschilla broadcast the game live and direct from ESPN's studios in Bristol, Connecticut. Watching the ESPN score graphic mysteriously add and subtract points without the ball going through the hoop made me wonder if the ESPN stats crew was watching the game from a sports bar while playing Pop a Shot. Suffice it to say that scoring this game at home was a bit confusing--and, yes, you can insert a Keith Olbermann line here about anyone who was spending Friday night/Saturday morning scoring a basketball game at home.
I guess that Monday Night Football package set back the Worldwide Leader in Sports more than we realized. Durham and Fraschilla neither pretended to be in Japan nor did they clearly state that most television viewers in the Continental United States are actually physically closer to the event than they are. Despite watching the game on television like the rest of us, Fraschilla made some interesting comments during the telecast. He repeatedly questioned if three weeks is long enough preparation time for the U.S. team to get on the same page defensively. The screen and roll defense was not good and the defense against dribble penetration left much to be desired. The U.S. hustled, played hard and forced a lot of turnovers but a lot of the same shortcomings that plagued recent U.S. teams also showed up in this game. I've always felt that the Larry Brown-coached 2004 U.S. Olympic team that lost its first game to Puerto Rico got a bum rap. That team did the best it could but simply did not have enough preparation time to play the FIBA game against teams that have played FIBA basketball together for years. The current Team USA has the benefit of seeing everything that went wrong in 2002 and 2004, is going into the FIBA World Championships with the right attitude and still did not have an easy time of it--and things will only get tougher throughout this event.
Fraschilla noted that most of the Team USA players are either first or second on their NBA teams in scoring and wondered if the three weeks of training is sufficient for such players to adjust to being role players and not being the focus of the offense. No one is questioning the selflessness of these players but it is an adjustment to go from shooting the ball 20 times a game to shooting it five or six. In the NBA, a LeBron James or Dwyane Wade can start out 0-5 and finish the game 13-20, but that kind of volume shooting approach will not work in this event.
Franschilla also made a point that I mentioned in a post two weeks ago after the U.S. beat Puerto Rico 114-69 in Las Vegas in their first exhibition game: USA Basketball should have made sure that all of the officials for Team USA's exhibition games came from FIBA. FIBA referees officiate the game differently than NBA referees do. That does not mean that FIBA refs are bad or that they are cheating; they are, shall we say, a bit idiosyncratic. If you watched today's U.S.-Puerto Rico game, you know what I mean. For instance, a Kirk Hinrich jump shot apparently gave the U.S. a 19-15 lead in the first quarter but the officials waved off the basket and awarded two free throws to Arroyo. This mysterious technical foul enabled Puerto Rico to tie the game. Of course, Durham and Fraschilla had no way to know what was happening from thousands of miles away. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski seemed puzzled as well; early in the second quarter Durham explained that the U.S. had been cited for having six players on the court. Since this happened in the middle of game action, I find it hard to believe that an extra U.S. player just walked on the court while Hinrich was shooting. Anyway, Team USA's practice games should have been played under conditions that resemble real FIBA basketball as much as possible, particularly given the short amount of preparation time that the U.S. had going into this tournament--and real FIBA basketball includes wacky officiating, like the second half play when a Puerto Rican player drove to the hoop, made a shot, was fouled and was awarded two free throws after the basket was waved off. Eventually the official figured out that if he called the foul in the act of shooting that he should score the goal and award one free throw. Fraschilla wryly called this "inductive reasoning" (I'm just quoting what he said because it's a good line; any logicians out there who quarrel with Fraschilla's usage of the phrase should direct their comments to him c/o ESPN).
I don't mean to sound like I am raining on Team USA's parade. Quite the contrary, in fact. Overall this was a decent win against an experienced international team that beat the U.S. in the 2004 Olympics. All I am saying is that the road only gets harder from here and that people should not only understand that but also cut some slack to the 2004 team--I mean, Lamar Odom was getting intravenous fluids so that he could play and Allen Iverson was a standup guy on and off the court (save for one missed practice--and only one) but that team was simply doomed to not win the gold because it did not have enough preparation time; it is not right to suggest that those players did not care or were not trying. This current team may win gold in the FIBA World Championships but, even if it doesn't, this is part of a multi-year plan to reestablish the U.S. as a power in FIBA basketball and should be understood in that light. I believe that Team USA's current growing pains will be a springboard to winning the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:23 AM