Kobe Bryant Nails Game Winning Shot in State Farm USA ChallengeKobe Bryant hit the game winning jump shot as USA Blue beat USA White 105-104 in the spirited and hard fought State Farm USA Basketball Challenge; this was a practice game for Team USA to prepare for the FIBA Americas Championship, the upcoming qualifier tournament for the 2008 Olympics. Bryant finished with 26 points, a game-high six steals and four assists, shooting 10-22 from the field and 4-9 from three point range. He scored USA Blue's final seven points in the last two minutes of the game. After making the go-ahead jumper over Tayshaun Prince with six seconds left, Bryant guarded LeBron James on the game's final play, forcing the Cavaliers' star to miss a runner in the lane as time expired. As great as James is--and he is a fantastic player--Bryant's performance in this game highlighted two reasons that he is still a more complete player than James: Bryant is a much better perimeter shooter (James shot just 1-5 from three point range) and Bryant not only makes big buckets down the stretch but he also accepts the challenge of guarding the best player on the other team in those situations. Bryant has already told the Team USA coaching staff that he is more than willing to guard the best player on each opposing team in the FIBA Americas Championship.
Bryant has never played before for Team USA and his addition to this year's squad is, needless to say, a major upgrade. After Bryant made the shot over Prince, FSN/NBA TV commentator Steve Jones said to play-by-play man Joel Meyers, "When we went to practice yesterday, there was a sense and energy out there from all the players that they knew who the best player on the planet was. He (Bryant) was doing all the talking and now you come to close the game, what's your first option, Joel? What's your only option, Joel? And what is the result? Kobe Bryant with the lead." Bryant has clearly taken a leadership position on the team and his clutch performance down the stretch in this game only serves to reinforce that. USA Blue trailed 94-83 with about five minutes left in the contest when Bryant returned to action after a brief rest; of course, he faces that kind of situation all the time with the L.A. Lakers and the combined 6-19 shooting by his backcourt partners Deron Williams, Kirk Hinrich and J.J. Redick also must have seemed very familiar, though Williams did have a good floor game (13 assists). In addition to his second half heroics, Bryant also closed the first half with a flurry, making three late three pointers to keep USA Blue within striking distance at halftime, cutting a double digit lead to 56-49.
Carmelo Anthony had a game-high 28 points for USA Blue, plus eight rebounds and four assists. Kevin Durant played much better for USA Blue than he did in the Summer League, scoring 22 points on 9-14 shooting while also having five rebounds and four steals. He has been one of the team's better players so far in practice, so maybe he will earn one of the 12 coveted roster spots that these 17 players are competing to get. Not surprisingly, the player who got the fewest minutes was Redick, who scored 2 points on 1-4 shooting in 10 minutes of action. He will obviously be the first player to be cut (although USA Basketball officials like to say that no one is "cut," that all of the 32 participants--including the 15 who could not make it on court at this camp for various reasons--are valuable, even though only 12 can play in a given event).
Jason Kidd has a 28-0 record in the last three FIBA competitions that he played in, spanning two qualifying tournaments plus the 2000 Olympics. He was not on the squads that failed to capture the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Championships but he and Bryant will comprise a super backcourt this time around. Kidd had seven assists and six rebounds for USA White, which led for most of the game. He made his only field goal attempt, a fast break layup that put USA White up 104-103 with less than a minute remaining in the game. Mike Miller led USA White with 22 points, while Dwight Howard added 21 points (9-9 field goal shooting) and nine rebounds. Chris Bosh had a double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) and James contributed 21 points and five assists but led both teams with seven turnovers.
Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski observed the action while sitting courtside with the team's managing director, Jerry Colangelo, but assistant coaches Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan ran the show for USA Blue and USA White respectively. Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Deron Williams and Kirk Hinrich started for USA Blue, while LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Jason Kidd and Mike Miller opened the game for USA White.
Steve Jones mentioned during the telecast that this game featured a lot more intensity than an All-Star Game would because these players are competing not only for personal bragging rights but also for roster spots. While it would have been nice to see Bryant and Kidd on the same team, it is understandable that the coaching staff split them up so that each team would have a guard to spearhead the defense and to pump up his teammates' intensity. It will be a lot of fun for Team USA fans to watch Kidd and Bryant defending against other FIBA teams.
There were plenty of highlight reel worthy plays but perhaps the most exciting one happened in the third quarter, when James made a sensational left-handed block of Bryant's attempted reverse dunk on a fast break. As Jones said after the play, though, someone would have to pay for that--and Bryant lived up to Jones' words.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:10 AM