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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Team USA Starts Sluggishly, Rallies to Beat Puerto Rico 111-100

Team 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

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Bruce Bowen is Cut From the World Championship Roster

Bruce Bowen has been cut from Team USA's roster for the upcoming FIBA World Championships. He is still a member of the 24 man unit from which Team USA's active roster for international play will be selected until 2008, just like Kobe Bryant, Amare Stoudemire and the other players who are not able to participate in the World Championships for various reasons.

I don't have a real problem with Bowen not being on the active roster. He played the fewest minutes of the players who made it to the final 15 and cutting him was the logical move. However, in light of Team USA's supposed shift from constructing a roster composed purely of All-Stars to one that also has role players, this is an interesting situation. If Bowen cannot make the active roster at a time when high profile stars like Bryant and Stoudemire are unavailable then what are the realistic chances that he will play in the Olympics or any other international event? In effect, it seems like he will basically be a practice player who gets to play in some exhibitions. Right now Bowen and the coaching staff place a positive spin on this, but I wonder if Bowen--and other roster players who are in the same situation--will continue to feel so warmly about this if it becomes clear that they have little or no chance to actually play for the USA in events that count.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:37 AM

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CJA Posts Link to Basketball, Chess and Boxing

ChessJournalism.org, the official website of Chess Journalists of America, has posted a link to my Basketball, Chess and Boxing post and a separate link to the main page of 20SecondTimeout.

The CJA website contains a lot of useful and interesting information for anyone who is interested in learning more about chess and/or journalism.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:01 AM

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Mario Elie Compares Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan

In Part I of my interview with Mario Elie, the Golden State Warriors assistant coach talked about his long road to the NBA and his famous "Kiss of Death" shot. After Elie helped Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets win two championships he won a third title playing alongside Tim Duncan and David Robinson. What was it like playing with some of the greatest big men in the history of the game? Elie offers his perspective in Part II of my interview with him.

Friedman: "What was it like to be teammates with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler? It’s one thing to see them as opponents, but you got to know them in the locker room and also be on the court with them."

Elie: "Two amazing individuals. 'Dream' was very private, a very religious guy, but the times that I was around him he was a comedian, just a great guy, a fierce competitor and probably the best player I had the pleasure of playing with. I played with a lot of great players but he was number one. He made my game better—having two or three guys on him all night enabled me to get open shots. He was putting so much pressure on the defense. He would say, 'Mario, don’t worry about getting beat. I will be there to have your back.' That meant so much. Being a defensive guy, I would pressure guys and sometimes they would get by me, but the 'Dream' was always back there to have my back. Clyde Drexler and I are great friends; we still keep in touch. I was skeptical of the trade at first because I felt that we won a championship with Otis Thorpe and I was a little disappointed that the Rockets traded him. Clyde didn’t complain, came in and made us all believers. When 'Dream' got hurt, Clyde went on an amazing roll and carried us on his back. I said, 'Hey, this guy means business.' So it was a great relationship."

Friedman: "People forget that that was an unusual trade on the surface, even though Drexler would of course be considered a better player than Otis Thorpe. When you look at positions, you are trading your power forward for a shooting guard and then putting Robert Horry, who at that time was a skinny perimeter player, at power forward. On the surface it looked like a strange plan, but, whoever came up with that idea, it turned out brilliantly."

Elie: "It did turn out brilliantly. Also, you had Chucky Brown playing some 4 for us. We felt that Hakeem was so dominant in the middle that whoever you put beside him really didn’t matter. He and Clyde played together (in college) and you just saw that Hakeem felt like a kid again when they brought in Clyde. Both of them were so happy to be reunited. You saw the chemistry between those two. I remember a game against Utah when each of them had 40 points. That was an amazing feat to see, these two Top 50 players who I got the chance to play with performing at that level. It was great to see that."

Friedman: "You mentioned that Olajuwon is the greatest player you played with. You also played with the Spurs and Tim Duncan and David Robinson, who was obviously up there in years at that point in time but still a good player. What are your memories of playing with them? Since you do feel that Olajuwon is the greatest player you played with, compare his game to Duncan’s. Some people see a little similarity between their games. What do you think of that?"

Elie: "I love Tim. I think he may be the second best player I played with but 'Dream,' just his performance in pressure situations—when David Robinson got the '95 MVP, 'Dream' told me, 'Mario, he’s borrowing my trophy.' When I heard that I said, 'Somebody’s in trouble tonight.' That guy put on a performance—under that pressure against the MVP and we have no home court advantage—and 'Dream' just dominated that position. It reminded me of when Jordan dominated Clyde when they were comparing the two guards. They were comparing two centers and 'Dream' just totally—I don’t want to say embarrassed—but he really embarrassed him, he dominated him—(series averages of) 35 (points), 13 (rebounds), 5 assists, 4 blocks. Those are amazing numbers for a center."

Friedman: "When you were teammates with David Robinson did you ever talk about that?"

Elie: "Never talked about it. Avery Johnson is one of my best friends to this day and he’s the one who helped get me to San Antonio. I felt that they just needed some toughness. I took a lot of heat early in that year—I went on national TV and really challenged Dave and Tim about being soft. I took a lot of heat in the San Antonio and national media about that, 'Who is this guy Mario Elie, just a basic player, telling these two superstars what to do?' At the end of the year (it became clear that) I was right. I was man enough to step up to those two guys and tell them that they had to play tougher. What it got was the Spurs' first championship and people coming up to me after the season saying, 'Mario, you did the right thing. You took the heat all year, but you were right to challenge those two guys.' I’m glad I did it. Every time I go to San Antonio people still remember me and still love me down there. It was a great two years there."

Friedman: "Is the difference between Olajuwon and Duncan the athleticism? They both have great footwork but Olajuwon was a soccer goalie, so he had great athleticism and the way that he would get steals added another dimension that Duncan perhaps does not have."

Elie: "Exactly. I just think that 'Dream' was more athletic, had a better game on the box and was a better shot blocker. Tim is a great defender. He gets his arms up and he blocks a couple shots, but 'Dream' was an amazing shot blocker. Like you said, he had great hands. He was always hitting the ball away from guys."

Friedman: "He would steal the ball from guards."

Elie: "Exactly. He would pick guys’ pockets. He had a great feel for the game and is just an amazing individual."

Friedman: "Duncan blocks shots but it seems to me that when you compare him to other players that he is not a great leaper, not athletic compared to NBA players. How is he able to block so many shots?"

Elie: "Timing. Tim is a very intelligent player. He and Hakeem both have very high basketball IQs. Tim is a very smart individual and he understands how to play defense. Popovich, to me, is one of the best defensive coaches in the NBA right now and he puts his bigs in the right position to make blocks like that. If I got beat, you had two seven footers to get by. First you had David and if David didn’t get you, then Tim would or if Tim didn’t get you then David would. Pop did a good job of having us funnel penetration to those big guys and then they would get a lot of blocks."

Friedman: "It amazes me that Duncan always blocks more shots than Garnett, who seems to be so much more athletic."

Elie: "Yeah. Garnett to me is more of a scorer type, a scorer and a great rebounder, but Tim to me is an all-around great player. He plays defense, he rebounds, he can go down to the post; if he gets doubled he is going to make the right decision. It’s good to watch those two go at it. Garnett gets so up to play against Tim. I remember talking to Sam Mitchell, who said to Garnett that if he wanted to get to the top that he had to go through the other 21 in San Antonio."

Friedman: "Their personalities are so different."

Elie: "Exactly."

Friedman: "Garnett is in your face and fiery and Duncan is just laid back."

Elie: "Garnett is screaming and cussing at Tim and what does Tim do? Just smile, look at him and laugh. That’s what I love about Tim. Nothing fazes him. Tim doesn’t get fazed by anything. His mental toughness—that’s one thing that I liked about both Hakeem and Tim. They play through pain, play through injury, and don’t make any excuses."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:00 AM

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Team USA Concludes Exhibition Tour With 116-63 Win Over Korea

Team USA completed a 5-0 exhibition tour by defeating host Korea 116-63. LeBron James led the U.S. in scoring with 23 points and added six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Dwayne Wade (16), Elton Brand (16) and Carmelo Anthony (13) also scored in double figures. Anthony led the U.S. in scoring overall during the five games, averaging 16.8 ppg. James (15.8) and Wade (12.2) were the only other U.S. players to average more than 10 ppg, but Antawn Jamison and Joe Johnson came very close (9.6 ppg each).

This win does not tell us a lot about Team USA. As Coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward, "Obviously we knew we were going to win. The talent differential was in our favor by far." It will be interesting to see how this team responds when faced with tougher opposition. Also, as Bill Walton pointed out during the ESPN broadcast, teams have not been playing much zone defense against Team USA during the exhibition tour. Will the U.S. be able to execute offensively against zone defenses during the World Championships?

During my appearance today on BetUs.ComRadio, host Matthew Ross asked me if five exhibition games were too much for the U.S. I told him that, if anything, it might be too few. Keep in mind that the other countries in the World Championships have national teams that have played together for years under FIBA rules, while the U.S. team consists of players who have not played together (except for All-Star Games). It takes time for a team to jell and even more time to adjust to the different FIBA rules (shorter three point line, one less foul before disqualification, liberalized goal tending, trapezoid lane, etc.). I like the new U.S. approach of insisting on three year commitments from each player and I am confident that this will eventually result in gold medals for the U.S. in international play. Team USA's recent results in the Olympics and World Championships prove that winning these events will not be a cakewalk.

The only bad news so far for Team USA is that neither Amare Stoudemire not Gilbert Arenas will be healthy enough to play in the World Championships. Stoudemire returned home to continue rehabilitating his knee, while Arenas suffered a groin injury during practice on Monday. Coach Krzyzewski still must make one cut to get the roster down to 12 players before the World Championships begin. There are a total of 24 players on the Team USA roster for the 2006-08 period, but only 12 of them may be activated for a given event. This time around, injuries and prior commitments have eliminated several players from consideration.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:13 PM

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Team USA Rolls to a 111-88 Win Versus Lithuania

Carmelo Anthony, showing no ill effects from the hyperextended knee that he suffered in the previous game, led the U.S. with 19 points in a 111-88 exhibition game win versus Lithuania. Anthony had 9 of the first 19 U.S. points, helping the team jump out to a 29-11 first quarter lead. Seven U.S. players scored in double figures. Coach Mike Krzyzewski stayed true to his plan to give various players an opportunity to start; this time, the U.S. opened with Carmelo Anthony, Shane Battier, Elton Brand, Kirk Hinrich and Dwyane Wade.

The U.S forced 18 turnovers and held Lithuania to 5-17 three point shooting (.294). Ksistof Lavrinovic led Lithuania with 26 points. NBA veterans Darius Songaila (9 points) and Linas Kleiza (8 points) are also on the team, but Indiana Pacer Sarunas Jasikevicius, who has hurt the U.S. in the past with his three point shooting, is not playing for the Lithuanian squad this summer. Top players Silius Strombergas and Ramonas Siskauskas are also not with the team, so this was not the same Lithuanian unit that has been a strong medal contender in past years.

Anthony is only tied for fourth on the team in minutes played--in part because of the time he missed with the injury--but he is the squad's scoring leader at 17.8 ppg. The other players averaging at least 10 ppg on the exhibition tour are LeBron James (14.0 ppg), Dwyane Wade (11.0 ppg), Antawn Jamison (10.3 ppg) and Joe Johnson (10.3 ppg). Dwight Howard is the top rebounder by far, leading a balanced effort on the boards with 5.8 rpg. Wade (4.5 apg) and Chris Paul (4.3 apg) are the runaway assists leaders.

While the U.S. has outscored the opposition 108.5 ppg to 79.0 ppg, they are enjoying only a slight 33.0 to 31.8 rpg advantage on the glass. The U.S. is shooting better from the field (.512 to .424) and the three point arc (.405 to .310) than their opponents, who do have the edge from the free throw line in attempts, makes and percentage (.790 to .748). The U.S. has more steals, more blocked shots and far fewer turnovers than their opponents.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:24 PM

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