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Friday, September 01, 2006

Greece Shreds Team USA's Defense, Wins 101-95

Greece dissected Team USA's pick and roll defense to post a 101-95 victory in the semifinals of the FIBA World Championship. Vasileios Spanoulis led Greece with 22 points, including six free throws after he was fouled while attempting three point shots. Mihalis Kakiouzis added 15 points and Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who is nicknamed "Baby Shaq" but much more closely resembles Robert "Tractor" Traylor, scored 14 points on 6-7 shooting from the field. He scored some of his hoops from point blank range after pick and roll plays and the 300-plus pounder also beat Team USA down the court several times to score on fast break layups.

Carmelo Anthony had a game-high 27 points, Dwyane Wade had 19 and LeBron James contributed 17--including 10 in the fourth quarter--but Team USA's problem was not on the offensive end. Sure, Team USA did not help its cause by shooting 9-28 from three point range or an even more brutal 20-34 from the free throw line but look at the final score again: Team USA scored 95 points in a 40 minute game and that should be more than enough to win. What killed Team USA was Greece's 8-18 three point shooting and Greece's 35-56 field goal shooting overall. Greece outscored Team USA 32-24 in the decisive third quarter, shooting a sizzling 14-18 from the field. Team USA was not able to rattle Greece's ball handlers to force turnovers, nor did Team USA have any answers for Greece's top of the key pick and roll play. Greece got whatever it wanted from that play: open three pointers, wide open cutters for layups or mismatches in the post when the U.S. switched and failed to double team quickly enough. Greece has no players on its roster who are currently in the NBA--Spanoulis will play for the Houston Rockets this season--but don't for a second think that their players are unskilled. Also, don't forget the aforementioned fouls on Spanoulis--one by James, one by Kirk Hinrich; after all, those points provided the final margin of victory. Team USA made other mental errors as well; Wade shot too soon as the third quarter ended, enabling Greece to get a rebound and score on a fast break at the buzzer. Also, this may sound like sacrilege considering all the points that he scored and the big shots that he made, but Carmelo Anthony gives up a lot at the other end of the court. Yes, he gets steals, but he also gets out of position often, leaving his man open, which leads to an eventual breakdown of the defense.

Team USA actually got off to a good start, a rarity in this tournament, and led 20-14 at the end of the first quarter. Around that point, ESPN2's Fran Fraschilla lauded Team USA's good defense but, while Team USA did force a shot clock violation and certainly was playing hard, that kind of score meant that the game was being played at Greece's pace. Team USA took its biggest lead, 33-21, after a Joe Johnson three pointer early in the second quarter and, according to an Associated Press report, LeBron James told his teammates on the bench, "They don't know what to do."

Greece then went on a 24-8 run to close out the half; remarkably, after they took a 39-38 lead on Schortsanitis' layup at the 1:48 mark they never trailed again. Greece repeatedly beat Team USA down the court and seemed to score as many points in transition as Team USA did. Greece outplayed Team USA both in uptempo situations and in the halfcourt. Greece led by as many as 14 points in the second half and, although I hate the cliche that I am about to write in this case it is true: the game was not as close as the final score indicates. Greece controlled the action for the entire second half and Team USA never could even get close enough to make it a one possession game. James scored on a two handed dunk with seconds remaining, Team USA had to foul and two Kakiouzis free throws closed out the scoring.

I can't say that Greece's win is shocking. Even after Team USA's 40 point win over Australia I was not convinced that Team USA could beat the top FIBA teams, which is why I wrote the following passage in my post about that game:
"Although Team USA won handily, in the opening minutes of the game Australia repeatedly burned Team USA with dribble penetration and by draining open three pointers. If Team USA plays that poorly against Argentina or Spain then they will be down by ten points or more very quickly. Maybe it seems strange to critique Team USA after such a decisive win but the simple fact is that teams like Italy, Slovenia and Australia have revealed the chinks in Team USA's armor: Team USA struggles to defend against the three point shot, can be attacked with dribble penetration and is much better at scoring in transition than in a half court offense. Those three teams do not have enough depth to take advantage of these things for an entire 40 minute game but they have provided a blueprint for beating Team USA that can be applied by teams that have more depth and experience."

For all the talk about how well this team has come together and how poorly the 2004 version of Team USA supposedly played in the Athens Olympics under Larry Brown, Mike Krzyzewski's squad will have to win one more game just to equal the 2004 team's bronze medal performance--and that will hardly be an easy task, since Team USA will face the loser of the Argentina-Spain semifinal matchup and both of those teams are undefeated so far.

Don't get me wrong--I don't consider this team to be a failure, but neither was the 2004 team a failure. The United States simply cannot throw a team together in three weeks, no matter how talented and well coached it might be, and expect to beat national teams that have played together for years under FIBA rules. The current version of Team USA, with some key personnel additions--most notably Kobe Bryant--certainly can win an Olympic gold medal in 2008 if they have enough practice time together as a unit. First though, Team USA must qualify for the Olympics with a good performance in the Tournament of the Americas in Venezuela next summer.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:08 AM



At Sunday, September 03, 2006 10:05:00 PM, Blogger JF said...

this loss is a much bigger story than the mainstream media has made it.

This discredits the US style of ball -- which lacks sound fundamentals. I dont know that I understand your point about the team needing to gell -- pick & roll defense shd not be all that complicated. We're not talking about chess here, or audibles and reading NFL defenses.

The lack of pure shooters -- which I mentioned in a post -- is huge. The problem isnt the lack of gelling -- it's the lack of role players. You can't have a team full of scorers. These arent shut-down defenders. Kobe will help on D, but he is just another scorer.

You'd be better off taking the Pistons or the Heat, and just having them play, because they have role players and rebounders. I dont see how a team full of scorers, like the US, can ever be dominant in international play -- esp. when those scorers lack pure shooting skills.

Bring back Bowen on D, and find a way to get Rip or Ray Allen, or some other marksmen into it. Otherwise, the NBA is being vastly discredited.

At Monday, September 04, 2006 3:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I agree that the FIBA World Championships have not received the coverage that they deserve, at least in the United States. ESPN wouldn't even spring for two plane tickets to send Jim Durham and Fran Fraschilla over there.

I am a frequent critic of overdribbling and poor fundamentals in general but that is not really the issue here: the FIBA game is completely different from the NBA game: trapezoid lane, different ball, shorter three point line, no defensive three seconds, no restricted area for charge/block calls, different amount of timeouts allotted, shorter game, fewer fouls until disqualification, etc. If you gave Spain three weeks to train under NBA rules and put them into the NBA as an expansion team, they would do a lot worse than the equivalent of winning the bronze medal.

As Fran Fraschilla mentioned during the broadcasts, pick and roll plays create indecision among the defenders. A team must have a philosophy of how to defend the pick and roll and different methods are needed depending on the strengths of the opponents. Team USA just started practicing together last month, which is not enough time to install these philosophies--or even long enough to learn the names of the opposing players.

I agree that roles should be more clearly defined on this team and would have liked to seen Bowen on the roster in place of one of the seldom used big men.

I'm not saying that having good shooters wouldn't help, but if you look at the games that Team USA has lost in FIBA competition in the past four years, the big problems are happening on the defensive end. Team USA allows too much dribble penetration, which breaks down the defense and leads either to layups or wide open three pointers. Team USA was the number one scoring team in the FIBA World Championships this year, so I don't agree that adding more shooters is the number one priority--and while everyone lauds Carmelo Anthony's performance, I think that he gives up almost as much at the other end as he scores. He is a wondrously gifted offensive player, but he was also in the middle of a lot of the defensive breakdowns. I'd love to watch some tapes of Team USA's games with an unbiased scout or coach and see what he thinks of Anthony's defense.

As mentioned above, I agree with you about Bowen. I would have no problem adding Rip and/or Ray Allen, but they still would need to work on pick and roll defense. Look at how Spain took Greece right out of their sets in the gold medal game. If Team USA had taken Greece seriously--and had enough practice time--they could have done the same thing. Team USA is a work in progress and, as I mentioned in my post, I believe that Team USA will win Olympic gold in 2008.

The funny thing about sending the Heat, Pistons or some other top NBA team is that nearly a fourth of the NBA players are from overseas. Can you imagine the Spurs without Ginobili and Parker? The Heat don't have any key international players but the Pistons have Delfino (and used to have Darko...).

I would not say that the NBA is being discredited but its approach to putting together teams for FIBA competition surely could be tweaked and I think that the current plan of having a 24 player pool for a three year period is a big improvement. We are at the beginning of that process, so let's give it some time to see what happens.

At Tuesday, September 05, 2006 12:53:00 PM, Blogger JF said...

"Team USA did not help its cause by shooting 9-28 from three point range or an even more brutal 20-34 from the free throw line"

how come you are less alarmed than i am about the shooting? the free throw differential alone could've won the game...

It seems that with the lack of pure shooters, and the lack of Bowen at the worlds, this team is just a marketing team -- a collection of individual stars that has no attention to roles.

Almost all of the stars are very young (Wade, Bron, Melo), which probably hurts chemistry, right? All want to get shots...

How can they win gold in '08, when they're full of scorers and mediocre defenders? Are we to believe that Melo is going to learn to play D before '08?

you still predict the US will win gold in '08, but how confident are you of that now? And are you less confident of it before the worlds?

how does the loss at worlds (to a team that wasnt even the eventual champion) reflect on Coach K?

who will be the leader of this team, on court? I'd have to say Kobe now, b/c of defense and age -- but how's he going to share the ball with the other scorers?

At least Kobe has a good jump shot & free throw shooting, though -- will he be the only hope if the US is going to contend in '08?

sorry for asking so many questions, but I'm absolutely alarmed by (a) the result of the greece game and (b) the lack of media attention to it (I guess it would hurt the NBA's marketing, and that of Duke bball...)

At Tuesday, September 05, 2006 2:47:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


No need to apologize for asking interesting questions.

I am not alarmed by the shooting because, as I have mentioned previously, Team USA was the top scoring team in the FIBA World Championships by a wide margin. Team USA is not losing to FIBA teams because of a lack of offense. Read my post about the Argentina game; Team USA put up basically the same offensive numbers as in the game with Greece but won by 15 because they played better defense.

Good teams find a way to win even when they are not shooting well. The Jordan-Pippen Bulls won some playoff games when they shot poorly by crashing the offensive glass and clamping down on defense. I am thinking in particular of a game versus the Indiana Pacers, possibly game seven in '98. I don't have the stats in front of me, but the Bulls had a horrible shooting performance but got something like 20 offensive rebounds. Defense and rebounding are constants that should be there every night but even great shooters can have a bad shooting performance. In a one and done format like the FIBA World Championships (or the Olympics or even the NCAA Tournament) you cannot rely on always shooting well. Go back and look at the games that Team USA has lost in FIBA play the last four years and every single one is because of bad pick and roll defense and/or not defending the three point line well. A lot of these other teams rely heavily on the three point shot, so it is more important for Team USA to defend the three point line well than it is to shoot well from there; Team USA can score in other ways besides making three pointers.

I didn't get the sense that chemistry was a big problem on this particular team in terms of guys wanting to get their own shots. These guys seem to get along well but they haven't played together as a team long enough to play good team defense consistently against the best teams.

I still think that this team will win the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics because I believe that by keeping the same roster together they will develop into a better defensive team. Anthony may not become a great defender but he is certainly a good enough athlete to be an adequate one. I'd like to see the U.S. play less of a gambling style at that end of the court.

My confidence level about Team USA winning the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics is the same as it was before this tournament. Team USA performed about as well as I expected--one of the top teams, but not head and shoulders above the elite teams--and if they continue to make strides they are certainly capable of winning the gold medal. It will not, however, be a slam dunk --pardon the pun.

I don't think that this loss tells us too much about Coach K. This team was thrown together in three weeks just like Larry Brown's team was and produced a bronze medal just like his did. If we don't win a gold in the Olympics, that will reflect badly on Coach K, in my opinion. Two years is sufficient time for this team to move up from bronze to gold.

Certainly, the addition of Kobe Bryant will help in terms of shooting, defense and his intensity. Remember, Michael Jordan was not the leading scorer on the original Dream Team and I would not be surprised if Kobe took a Jordan-type role, scoring 13-15 ppg with a good shooting percentage while distributing the ball and playing good defense.

I'm not sure why the FIBA World Championships have not received more coverage. I guess part of it is that this is an event that historically has not been followed that closely in the USA. Spain's players cried tears of joy when they won and it is obvious that this event was not that important to American players or fans. That, too, is part of the reason that we did not win. This team will be very heavily scrutinized during the Tournament of the Americas (the qualifier for the Olympics) and the Olympics themselves.


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