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Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mario Elie Interview Reprinted at Legends of Basketball

Legends of Basketball, the official website of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA), has reprinted my two part interview with Mario Elie. Here are the links:

Mario Elie Interview, Part I

Mario Elie Interview, Part II

posted by David Friedman @ 10:25 PM

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Team USA Dominates Senegal 103-58

Team USA rolled to a 103-58 victory over Senegal, finishing 5-0 in Group D of the FIBA World Championships. Chris Bosh led Team USA with 20 points and 10 rebounds, by far his best performance in the tournament. LeBron James scored 17 points in 18 minutes and Carmelo Anthony had 12 points--all of them coming on three pointers--in 14 minutes. Joe Johnson (11 points) was the only other U.S. double figure scorer. Maleye N'Doye topped Senegal with 25 points.

Since Team USA had already clinched first place in Group D--and because Senegal had a "perfect" 0-4 record coming into this contest--Coach Mike Krzyzewski elected to have leading scorer Dwyane Wade sit out the game to rest for the next round and he went with a starting lineup of Brad Miller, Antawn Jamison, LeBron James, Joe Johnson and Kirk Hinrich. Team USA again got off to a slow start, trailing 4-0 nearly two minutes into the game. Johnson hit two free throws at the 7:43 mark to cut the lead to 6-2. The U.S. missed its first seven field goal attempts, a streak ended by James' fast break dunk with 6:54 remaining. On the next possession James made a nice feed to Jamison, whose layup tied the game at 6.

For the next few minutes the teams traded baskets. James' follow up jam gave the U.S. its first lead at 12-10 but Makhtar N'Diaye countered with a three pointer to put Senegal ahead 13-12. Apparently, that was the wakeup call for Team USA, because the U.S. then went on a 21-2 run to put the game out of reach. The U.S. led 26-13 after the first quarter, 58-24 at halftime and 81-40 at the end of the third quarter. Team USA outscored Senegal in each quarter, scoring at least 22 points in each period while holding Senegal to between 11 and 18 points.

The slow start against such a markedly inferior opponent was a bit odd, but after the midway point of the first quarter Team USA played a very solid game, resisting the temptation to go for too many highlight reel plays and never allowing Senegal to sustain any runs. Team USA's next game will be against Australia, the fourth place finisher in Group C. Australia's leading scorer is C.J. Bruton, followed closely by a name that is very familiar to NBA fans--Andrew Bogut. Australia beat Brazil and Qatar and lost to Greece, Lithuania and Turkey. They are fifth in three point field goal percentage, while Team USA ranks 22nd out of 24 teams in defensive three point field goal percentage.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:26 PM

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Team USA Overcomes Nine Point Halftime Deficit, Beats Italy 94-85

Team USA trailed by nine at halftime and by 12 just seconds into the third quarter but rallied to defeat Italy and clinch a first place finish in Group D of the FIBA World Championships. Carmelo Anthony scored 35 points, a record for a U.S. player in a FIBA World Championship game, surpassing Kenny Anderson's 34 points against Puerto Rico in 1990. Anthony shot 13-18 from the field and 5-7 from three point range; without his 29 second half points Team USA may very well have lost this game. Marco Belinelli led Italy with 25 points, followed by Stefano Mancinelli (12 points on 6-6 field goal shooting) and Fabio DiBella (12 points on 5-6 field goal shooting). Italy outrebounded Team USA 31-26.

Dwyane Wade (26 points, 10-13 shooting from the field) and Elton Brand (16 points) were the only other U.S. players to score in double figures. In fact, only six U.S. players scored at all and two--Chris Bosh and Brad Miller--did not play a single minute as Coach Mike Krzyzewski was forced to alter his substitution patterns and ride the hot hands of Anthony, Wade and Brand. LeBron James had all eight of his points in the first quarter and finished with as many turnovers as field goals made (three).

Italy jumped on Team USA from the start of the game, taking a quick 5-0 lead. This was the second consecutive sluggish beginning for the starting lineup of Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Shane Battier, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. James scored the first six U.S. points but Team USA trailed 8-6 at that point and then 15-10 before a 7-0 run put the U.S. ahead. Wade sparked Team USA when he entered the game midway through the quarter and Team USA led 25-19 after Elton Brand dunked just before the buzzer off of a nice feed from Paul.

A scary moment happened early in the second quarter when Howard jumped to block a shot by Mason Rocca, tripped over Rocca's shoulder and tumbled to the floor, hitting his back with full force. He stayed on the ground for a few moments and had to leave the game. He was able to laugh about his mishap while he sat on the bench but, although he did return to action later in the quarter, he only played a total of 10 minutes and finished with no points and one rebound. Team USA did not score until Anthony's two free throws at the 6:29 mark gave the U.S. a 27-25 lead. Italy went ahead 29-28 after Mancinelli's nifty lefty hook shot and Team USA did not score from the field until Brand's jump shot with 4:03 remaining cut the margin to 31-30. Italy closed the half with a 14-6 run to take a 45-36 lead. Team USA shot 2-13 from the field in the second quarter. With few Italian turnovers to feed Team USA's transition game, it became clear that Team USA's half court offense leaves a lot to be desired. Italy's dribble penetration shredded Team USA's defense and led to 18-31 shooting from the field, including 5-13 from three point range. Team USA shot only 11-28 from the field.

Belinelli opened the second half by throwing down a two handed fast break dunk and converting a free throw to give Italy a 48-36 lead. With Team USA in serious danger of losing its first game, Coach Krzyzewski started Wade and Brand in place of Battier and Howard and did not substitute as freely as he did in the previous games. This is a very necessary adjustment, because 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. Wade provided a huge lift early in the third quarter, scoring eight points in the first three minutes and playing a big part in Team USA's ability to push the ball up the court after steals and defensive rebounds. Wade also got into a couple minor scraps with some of the Italian players. ESPN2's Fran Fraschilla commented, "It's almost as if Team USA is offended that Italy is playing hard." I was disappointed that after the game some of the U.S. players expressed surprise at how difficult a game this turned out to be. Italy won the silver medal in the 2004 Olympics and beat Team USA in an exhibition game that year. Granted, the rosters of both teams are different this time around, but the U.S. players should be more knowledgeable about the other teams in the field and have more respect for their ability. The toughest tests are still to come and an effort like this one will very likely lead to a loss against teams like Argentina or Spain.

Wade put Team USA ahead 53-52 with a fast break dunk at the 5:51 mark after a LeBron James outlet pass. ESPN2's Jim Durham used his patented "stuck on automatic" reference for the first time in this tournament when Anthony poured in basket after basket in the third quarter. Anthony hit a three pointer at the buzzer to put Team USA ahead 71-64. He had 19 points in the quarter and Wade added 11. Virtually all of their points came either in the transition game or off of one-on-one moves and the rest of Team USA only scored five points in the period.

Mancinelli stole a lazy Paul entry pass and converted a fast break layup to pull Italy to within 71-66 at the start of the fourth quarter. Italy stayed close for most of the period until Paul penetrated and dished off to Brand for a dunk and an 83-72 lead. The teams basically traded baskets after that and the final score does not truly reflect how much Team USA struggled for long stretches during the game.

While the victory was hardly impressive, it was significant. Team USA clinched first place in Group D, earning an extra day off and avoiding having to face Argentina and Spain until the medal round. After tomorrow's game with 0-4 Senegal to close out Group D play, Team USA's first game in the round of 16 will be against the fourth place finisher in Group C, which will be Australia, Brazil or Lithuania. Those teams are hardly pushovers--Brazil played very well against Team USA in their recent exhibition game--but it is much better for Team USA to play one of those teams than to face Argentina or Spain, both of whom are undefeated and are winning their games by greater margins that Team USA is. Team USA must hope that this game with Italy and the upcoming games in the next round will provide sufficient preparation to deal with the elite FIBA teams that they will have to beat to win a medal.

posted by David Friedman @ 11:49 PM

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Team USA Clinches Berth in Round of 16 With 114-95 Win Over Slovenia

Team USA overcame what Carmelo Anthony described as a "sluggish" start to post a 114-95 win over Slovenia and thus earn a berth in the round of 16 at the FIBA World Championships. The top four finishers in each six team preliminary group advance to the next round. The only question now is what seed Team USA will earn. Team USA's next game will be against Italy, the only other Group D squad with a 3-0 record.

Slovenia led 21-16 with 2:45 remaining in the first quarter but Team USA forced several turnovers and went on a 14-6 run to go ahead 30-27 by the end of the period. Keeping track of the exact score again proved to be an adventure; ESPN2's graphic going into the commercial break after the first quarter said that the score was 30-28 but when the second quarter began ESPN2 changed the score to 30-27 without explanation.

Even more inexplicable than that was the sight of the slow-footed Slovenian team trying to play an uptempo game against Team USA, leading to numerous Slovenian turnovers that were converted into U.S. transition baskets. A beautiful lob to Dwyane Wade after a back screen by Chris Bosh put the U.S. up 64-46 late in the second quarter and Team USA led 66-49 at halftime. Slovenia committed 16 first half turnovers. Team USA pushed the margin to 91-70 by the end of the third quarter and started the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run in the first 1:23. After that, Team USA became a little lackadaisical and Slovenia managed to get within 105-94 at the 2:28 mark. Wade's putback with 2:03 remaining made the score 107-94 and squashed any notion that Slovenia might use a flurry of three pointers to come all the way back. Wade led Team USA with 20 points and four steals. LeBron James (19), Elton Brand (16) and Carmelo Anthony (14) also scored in double figures. Sani Becirovic, a 6-5 guard, led Slovenia with 18 points, while Primoz Brezec had 15 points and 12 rebounds.

Wade is Team USA's scoring leader so far (19.7 ppg), followed by Anthony (17.0 ppg) and James (15.0 ppg). Wade is fourth in scoring overall, trailing China's Yao Ming (26.7 ppg) and the Puerto Rican backcourt duo of Carlos Arroyo (25.7 ppg) and Elias Ayuso (20.3 ppg). Dwight Howard is Team USA's top rebounder (6.7 rpg), while Chris Paul has the most assists (8.7 apg) and steals (3.5 spg). Paul ranks first in the tournament in assists per game and assist to turnover ratio (26 assists against only three turnovers) and is tied for second in steals.

Team USA ranks first in scoring offense (115.3 ppg) by a wide margin but is 22nd out of 24 teams in scoring defense (95.0 ppg). As Hubie Brown would surely mention, the most telling statistic regarding team defense is point differential and the U.S. is third in that category (20.3) behind Argentina (29.0) and Spain (27.0), who not coincidentally are considered two of the top contenders to win the gold medal. The story is similar when you look at field goal percentages--the U.S. is shooting the ball well, but so are their opponents. Ominously, Team USA ranks dead last in defensive three point field goal percentage (.468). France (.246), Argentina (.246) and Spain (.286) are the three best teams at guarding the three point line. While Steven A. Smith and others have bemoaned the supposed lack of shooters on the U.S. team, that has not been a problem either during the exhibition tour or the prelminary games--fueled by a robust transition game, Team USA ranks first in field goal percentage (.526) and is even shooting an adequate .373 on three pointers (10th best). However, as I wrote on August 7, "The ease of making that FIBA three is why so many international teams shoot it so much and why it is of paramount importance that Team USA actively and aggressively defends against the motion offenses and multiple screens that those teams use to create open threes. The U.S. can win either by making a lot of threes or very few--but if the U.S. opponents are draining a lot of threes and shooting a good percentage that will be a recipe for trouble." The U.S. will have to do a better job of defending the three point line to beat teams like Argentina, Spain and France; the only alternative will be to force an incredible amount of turnovers, but it will be much more difficult to do that against those teams than it has been versus what ESPN2's Fran Fraschilla calls the "non-conference" portion of the schedule.

posted by David Friedman @ 3:51 AM

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Monday, August 21, 2006

Team USA Routs China 121-90

Team USA beat China 121-90 in the second game of the preliminary round of the FIBA World Championships. Shane Battier scored the first five U.S. points, hitting a three pointer from the left baseline and a driving layup, and the U.S. never trailed. America led 21-8 at the 4:54 mark of the first quarter; Carmelo Anthony already had seven points by that time. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski then replaced the starting lineup of Anthony, Battier, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul with Dwyane Wade, Kirk Hinrich, Joe Johnson, Antawn Jamison and Elton Brand and the U.S. kept rolling along, pushing the margin to 32-17 by the end of the first quarter.

A positive note for China--and the Houston Rockets--is that Yao Ming seems to be completely recovered from his broken foot. He had 21 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out, displaying an assortment of low post moves and his usual good free throw shooting touch (11-13). China's team includes nine players who are younger than 25. Foremost amongst that group is 6-11 Jianlian Yi, who had 13 points and seven rebounds. ESPN2 analyst Fran Fraschilla said that the 18 year old Yi could be a lottery pick if he declares for the NBA Draft in a few years. He also noted that because of the Chinese team's inexperience that they basically had no chance to beat the U.S. team and that the Chinese coaching staff was using this game as an opportunity to work on some things for the future. Fraschilla contended that this explained why China almost exclusively used man to man defense instead of zone defense, which is the better strategy against the U.S. team but runs counter to the system that the Chinese coaching staff is installing.

Team USA led 63-38 at halftime. Dwyane Wade had 15 points and Chris Paul scored 11. Fraschilla likened the contest to a college team playing a game from its non-conference schedule. All the U.S. has to do to advance to the next round is finish at least fourth out of the six teams in Group D, but ESPN2's Jim Durham pointed out that after Group D play the World Championships are "one and done," so the pressure will greatly increase next week. The U.S. must still tighten up its defense against dribble penetration and against the three point shot. China opened the second half with a 10-0 run, capped by a deft Yao Ming pass to a cutting Wang Shipeng on the baseline. On the previous play, someone on the U.S. bench shouted out "Watch the double screen," but it was to no avail as Shipeng popped open and buried a three pointer. The U.S. did not score in the third quarter until Carmelo Anthony's baseline drive at the 6:48 mark. While Team USA had a safe margin in this game, scoring droughts of over three minutes combined with bad defense at the three point line and against cutters will not get the job done against the better teams in this tournament. In this game, the U.S. simply had too much firepower and China never threatened again. Wade led eight U.S. double-figure scorers with 26 points, while Anthony and Howard had 16 points each.

Following the score in this game was even more of an adventure than in the Puerto Rico game. Durham reported that a Carmelo Anthony basket was wiped away, only to then say a few minutes later that the two points did in fact count. With a little over five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Krzyzewski could be heard loudly complaining that the score was not right and that Team USA should have one more point. Eventually, the scorekeepers agreed and changed the score; I rewound the game tape and could not find the discrepancy that Krzyzewski was talking about. He said something about a U.S. player making both free throws and only being credited with one, but unless he was referring to something much earlier in the game that either did not happen or it was not reflected on the score that ESPN2 displayed. While all of this was going on, Fraschilla said, "Welcome to international basketball" and suggested that these kinds of things are bound to occur because of the language barrier, to which Durham immediately quipped, "What does that have to do with math?"

Another interesting scoreboard situation happened when ESPN2 went to a commercial break during a timeout with 4:36 remaining in the fourth quarter and the U.S. ahead 109-76. When ESPN2 returned, the timeout was apparently still going on, but the clock showed 4:31 and the score was now 111-77. I guess it's possible that in five seconds the U.S. scored, fouled China and China made one free throw before one of the teams called another timeout, but neither Durham nor Fraschilla mentioned that any action had happened during the commercial break, nor did they allude to the score and clock situation changing. The impressionistic scoring and timekeeping doesn't matter in a 30 point blowout, but it makes one wonder what might happen if the U.S. is involved in a close game. I cannot tell if ESPN2 is keeping score separately, as I suspected while watching the Puerto Rico game, or if they have some way of knowing what is being displayed on the scoreboard in Japan (which is never shown during the television broadcast); so I'm not sure if it is FIBA, ESPN2 or both who are having trouble keeping track of the score.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:01 AM

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