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Saturday, September 02, 2006

Team USA Beats Argentina 96-81, Wins Bronze Medal

Team USA outscored Argentina 46-32 in the second half, breaking open a close game and seizing the bronze medal in the FIBA World Championships with a 96-81 victory. Dwyane Wade led Team USA with 32 points, including 18 in a fourth quarter explosion that was reminiscent of the kind of play that earned him the 2006 NBA Finals MVP. LeBron James flirted with a triple double (20 points, nine rebounds, seven assists), while Carmelo Anthony (15) and Elton Brand (13) also scored in double figures. Luis Scola led Argentina with 19 points but he fouled out after only playing 21 minutes. Andres Nocioni contributed 18 points and Carlos Delfino had 13, including a spectacular two hand dunk that gave Argentina a 40-34 lead in the second quarter. Manu Ginobili was held to 10 points on 2-9 shooting from the field.

The big question coming into this game was which team would be better equipped to bounce back from the disappointment of not making it to the gold medal game. Fabricio Oberto opened the scoring for Argentina by beating Team USA downcourt for a transition layup, a flashback to the poor defense that plagued Team USA in the semifinals loss to Greece. Wade soon countered with a drive to the hoop but it was the Luis Scola show in the early going, as he scored 12 of Argentina's first 21 points. Argentina took a 12-4 lead before Team USA rallied and cut the deficit to 27-21 by the end of the quarter.

In the first half, Team USA had the same problems defending the pick and roll play that they had against Greece and ESPN2's Fran Fraschilla made a very perceptive comment about this. He mentioned that in the press conference after the loss to Greece, Coach Krzyzewski and the Team USA players referred to the Greek players by their jersey numbers, not by their names. Fraschilla concluded, "I really felt that all through the tournament we didn't respect the non-NBA players in this tournament." Fraschilla and his broadcasting partner Jim Durham added that to defend the pick and roll successfully it is vital to know the opponents' tendencies--who can shoot, who likes to drive (and which way they like to drive) and so forth. The fact that Team USA cannot even identify the Greeks by name underscores the point that I (and others) have made repeatedly: it is not possible to put together a FIBA championship team in three weeks. Can you imagine a team trying to win an NBA championship without even knowing the opposing teams' players by name let or being thoroughly familiar with each of their strengths and weaknesses?

Argentina stretched their second quarter lead to 43-34 after a Walter Hermann three pointer but Oberto went to the bench at the 4:00 mark after picking up his third foul. Argentina only made one field goal during the rest of the second quarter as Team USA closed the half on a 16-6 run. Anthony had a mini mental breakdown near the end of the period. First he fouled Ginobili while he was shooting a three pointer and then he was slapped with a technical foul for screaming at the officials when he grabbed a rebound and felt that he had been fouled. That could have been a big play, because under FIBA rules technical fouls count as personal fouls and five fouls result in disqualification. The technical was Anthony's third foul of the game but he redeemed himself a little bit by hitting a three pointer right before the halftime buzzer to give Team USA their first lead of the game (50-49).

Wade scored on a fastbreak layup to start the third quarter but it would be several more minutes before either team would make another field goal. Instead, the momentum of the game swung in Team USA's favor as Argentina committed five fouls in the first 3:21 of the quarter. Team USA converted only 3 of the resulting 8 free throws but Scola went to the bench with his fourth foul and Team USA was in the bonus for the rest of the period. Ginobili received his third foul just before the end of the first half and he sat out the entire third quarter. Nocioni was tagged with his third foul at the 4:59 mark of the third period and Oberto got his fourth foul 1:26 later, meaning that Argentina's starting frontcourt and their best player (Ginobili) all had at least three fouls with more than 13 minutes left in the game. This is worth mentioning because it not only limited those players' minutes but it also curbed their aggressiveness while they were on the court. Argentina was called for 29 fouls in the game, compared to 17 for Team USA, but Anthony did receive his fourth foul in the third period and Brand eventually fouled out. A Nocioni three pointer cut Team USA's lead to 69-62 at the end of the period.

Team USA went on a 10-4 run to open the fourth quarter and led by at least nine the rest of the way, outscoring Argentina 27-19 in the final stanza. Wade's 18 came from all angles--dunks, jumpers (including two three pointers), free throws and slashing drives. James concluded the scoring with an emphatic dunk, making a free throw to complete the three point play.

Anyone who believes that Team USA lost to Greece because of poor shooting should carefully compare the boxscores of that game with the Argentina game. Team USA shot 33-66 (.500) from the field versus Greece and a virtually identical 37-72 (.514) from the field versus Argentina; they shot 20-34 (.588) on free throws versus Greece and an even worse 15-30 (.500) versus Argentina. Yes, the three point shooting was a little better versus Argentina (7-18; .389) than versus Greece (9-28; .321) but the real difference was at the defensive end: Team USA held Argentina to 34-75 field goal shooting (.453), including 4-21 (.190) from three point range, while Greece shot a blistering 35-56 (.625), including 8-18 (.444) from three point range. Team USA scored 95 points versus Greece and 96 points versus Argentina. Forgive me for belaboring the point, but scoring is not Team USA's problem, nor is shooting; defending against the pick and roll and guarding three point shooters are the two main things that hurt Team USA against elite FIBA teams. Team USA's poor free throw shooting was an aberration--is anyone seriously considering cutting James because he shot 1-4 versus Greece or Anthony because he shot 6-10 and then 1-6 versus Argentina? I don't think that selecting the team based on the NBA's free throw percentage leaders is a recipe for victory. If anything, those guys were trying too hard and missing more often than usual because they were pressing to make up for the defensive lapses that got them behind in the first place.

This was a good effort against a tough Argentina team that has been together for several years and has players who have both NBA and FIBA experience. Wade was in the starting lineup for the first time for Team USA and he played 35 of a possible 40 minutes. It is easy to forget that Coach Krzyzewski and his staff not only had to take a crash course on the other teams in three weeks but that they also had to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the players on their own roster and which combinations of players worked best together. When Fraschilla mentioned this, Durham wryly noted that Wade was the Finals MVP and that it might not be a bad idea to start the five best players. I agree with that and would take it a step further, as I wrote after Team USA's nine point win over Italy: "...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." That is why I was so disappointed to read Gilbert Arenas' comments in the Washington Post on August 30. It had been originally reported that he was left off of the final 12 man roster due to injury but he believes that he was going to be cut regardless and cannot understand why he was not given the freedom to do whatever he wants to do on the court. Among other things, Arenas said "You've got LeBron being LeBron. You've got Carmelo being Carmelo. You've got D-Wade being D-Wade. Why can't I be me? Why do I have to transform? I did that and now you are going to cut me?" Arenas then vowed to try to score 50 points in each of his games next year versus the Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers because he felt that he was slighted by their head coaches--Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan respectively--who are assistants on Krzyzewski's staff. That is precisely the attitude that Team USA does not need. James and Wade are clearly better all around players than Arenas and Anthony is certainly at least as good of a scorer. Chris Paul set a Team USA record for assists in FIBA World Championship play and James also can handle the ball, so what makes Arenas think that he is entitled to guaranteed minutes on this team?

The roster moves/playing time decisions that I did not understand with Team USA are (1) Wade not starting until the last game when the team played markedly better with him on the court; (2) Bruce Bowen being cut when the team desperately needs good perimeter defenders; (3) Brad Miller being on the team because he is supposedly the prototypical FIBA big man, but rarely getting any playing time--if he is that valuable, work him into the rotation, otherwise cut him loose in favor of Bowen or somebody who can help Team USA's defense. It will be interesting to see what the roster looks like next summer when Team USA must have a strong showing in the Tournament of the Americas in order to qualify for the 2008 Olympics. Assuming that Kobe Bryant and Chauncey Billups are available, who will be cut from this year's roster? What if Amare Stoudemire is healthy, too? Arenas has probably talked himself off of the team, but what about Bowen's status?

Coach Larry Brown was blasted when his 2004 version of Team USA won the bronze medal in the Olympics but the new and improved Team USA did no better than equal that finish in the FIBA World Championships, although they did avenge Team USA's loss to Argentina in 2004. While both teams had similar preparation time, the difference is that Brown's team was a one and done outfit, while Krzyzewski and his staff will have the same pool of 24 players to choose from until 2008. I believe that they will use the extra preparation time wisely and that Team USA will win the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics--but if they are still identifying opposing players by jersey number and not by name in the Tournament of the Americas, I reserve the right to change my prediction.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:55 PM

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