Kobe Bryant Shuts Down Leandro Barbosa, Team USA Routs Brazil 113-76Remember when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen took turns completely shutting down Croatia's Toni Kukoc in the 1992 Olympics? If you forgot what that looked like, Kobe Bryant provided a reasonable facsimile on Sunday, holding Leandro Barbosa to four points on 1-7 field goal shooting--and the lone make came when Bryant was not in the game--as Team USA defeated Brazil 113-76 to finish 4-0 in Group B play. Barbosa entered the game as the leading scorer in the FIBA Americas tournament but Bryant has consistently asked for and received the toughest defensive assignments for Team USA and Sunday was no exception. Bryant also had his best scoring performance so far, contributing 20 points on 6-9 shooting; Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James tied for game-high honors with 21 points each and Anthony added a game-high 10 rebounds. Kidd, James and Deron Williams each had a game-high five assists.
Throughout this tournament I have been emphasizing three themes: (1) Defense is more important to Team USA's success than outside shooting; (2) Kobe Bryant has had the biggest impact on Team USA's defense (though Kidd has also had a very positive effect); (3) Team USA was plagued by slow starts in the 2006 FIBA World Championships but has gotten off to good starts in this event. I have been comparing Team USA's scoring differential with Bryant on the court to its scoring differential when he is out of the game to indicate how much impact he has had but I thought that for this game--which matched Team USA against what was supposed to be its toughest opponent yet--it would be interesting to track not only Bryant's plus/minus numbers but also those of Anthony and Michael Redd, the team's leading scorers.
Thanks to the late conclusion of the WNBA playoff game, ESPN2 joined the game with the score already 8-0 in Team USA's favor. As a brief aside, I must say that I have been thoroughly disappointed with the television coverage of this event; the game is almost treated as a side show while the announcers talk about whatever random thoughts pop into their heads--little effort is made to break down either team's strategies, players who commit fouls are frequently not identified (making it difficult to know who is in foul trouble) and player substitutions are often not noted (making it tough to track precise on court/off court data--thank you TIVO for saving the day). ESPN2 never bothered to show or tell how exactly Team USA got its quick lead (but Bill Walton continued his personal mission to explain how every country in South America got its name). Team USA was up 12-6 when Bryant made a play that typified the type of energy and effort he has brought on a nightly basis; he pressured Barbosa from the top of the key, chasing him to midcourt and eventually forcing a backcourt violation. When the ball was loose--and before the backcourt violation had been called--Bryant dove on the floor to try to steal the ball, leading the crowd to start chanting, "Kobe, Kobe." When the two-time defending NBA scoring champion plays that kind of defense, it has an immense effect on his own team, the opposing team and even the fans.
Bryant and Anthony have started every game, so their point differentials obviously are identical until one or the other sits out. Anthony took a breather with 5:02 remaining in the first quarter. He had already scored nine points and Walton and play by play announcer John Saunders raved throughout the game about how well Anthony's game is suited for FIBA play--but half of any basketball game occurs at the defensive end of the court and despite Anthony's scoring, Team USA only led 14-10 at this point. Bryant had Barbosa locked down but Team USA's interior defense had some lapses in the early going. Bryant stayed in for about one more minute and the score was 19-12 when Redd checked in for him. Bryant returned nearly three minutes later with Team USA leading 25-17 and Brazil ended the quarter with a 4-2 run, getting one of its baskets when Tayshaun Prince collapsed to the court with a sprained ankle. So, after a quick start, Team USA faded a bit down the stretch in the first quarter. The scoring differentials at this point were as follows: 21-16 with Bryant on, 6-5 with him off the court; 14-10 with Anthony on, 13-11 with him off the court; 6-9 with Redd on the court, 21-12 with him off the court. As already noted, there were times when some of these players were on the court at the same time, a subject we will further examine a bit later.
Things got very interesting in the second quarter. Anthony was on the court, while Bryant and Redd both were off the court. James opened the quarter by scoring on a nice post move but Brazil countered when Tiago Splitter drove right by Anthony for a layup. Anthony tried to answer with a jumper but he missed and on the next possession Team USA's defense broke down, allowing an Alex Garcia dunk. James then missed a turnaround jumper and Barbosa beat Chauncey Billups down court for a layup that brought Brazil to within two points, 29-27. James made a three pointer, Team USA got a stop and then Anthony put back his own miss to make the score 34-27. Walton nearly lost his mind at this point, pausing from his explanations of arcane trivia about South America to declare, "Carmelo Anthony is establishing himself as the premier player on this team, along with Jason Kidd." Those words were barely out of his mouth when Splitter again blew by Anthony for an easy layup, pulling Brazil back to within five, 34-29. At that time, Team USA's score with its "premier player" on the court was an underwhelming 21-18. Soon after this, Bryant returned to action and he and Anthony were in the game together for a little over a minute as Team USA outscored Brazil 5-3, with Bryant (3) and Anthony (2) scoring all of the points. James then checked in for Anthony and about a minute later Redd entered the fray as well. Redd soon hit a three on a feed from Bryant and not long after that James missed a rushed three pointer that Barbosa rebounded. Bryant stripped the ball from Barbosa and saved the ball from going out of bounds; a Redd drive on that extra possession made the score 52-36 Team USA and when Bryant checked out after hitting two free throws with 27 seconds left the score was 54-36. James' buzzer beating three pointer made the halftime score 57-38. James had 15 first half points, Anthony added 13 and Bryant had 10--but check out Anthony, Bryant and Redd's on court/off court numbers: Team USA led 41-23 with Bryant on the court but just 16-15 with him off the court; Team USA led 26-21 with Anthony on the court and 31-17 with him off the court; Team USA led 21-14 with Redd on the court and 36-24 with him off the court. Keep in mind that Anthony and Redd both shared some time with Bryant during big Team USA runs. Anyone who wants to understand why this version of Team USA is better than the last several editions will have to look a lot deeper than just glancing at who is leading the team in scoring. Brazil did not score a single field goal in the last 6:08 of the second quarter, which corresponds almost exactly with when Bryant was on the court. Brazil had no three point game (2-7 shooting from behind the arc) and Barbosa was 1-4 from the field for three points. It is interesting to note that Brazil outrebounded Team USA 17-16 in the first half; combine that little statistical nugget with the 57 points that Team USA scored and it becomes more and more apparent that in FIBA play Team USA is not having problems scoring and its success is not dependent on rebounding or three point shooting--shutting down the guard play and three point shooting of the opposing team are the two items of paramount importance. Walton offered this curious halftime comment: "Both teams are shooting well over 50 percent," an odd thing to say when Brazil shot 13-28 (.464) in the first half. Will someone please bring back Steve Jones so that he can retrieve Walton from outer space?
Anthony and Bryant were both in the game at the start of the third quarter, while Redd was on the bench. Nene's three point play cut the lead to 57-41 but then Team USA's suffocating defense took over, leading to numerous open court opportunities. Bryant nailed back to back three pointers, Kidd threw a lob to Anthony and James followed that with a steal and layup that became a three point play after he was fouled. Consecutive three pointers by James and Anthony made the score 74-41 and ended matters from a competitive standpoint. This was such an impressive display that it actually knocked some sense into Walton, who stopped chattering about miscellanea long enough to say that Team USA's game clinching run had been fueled by defense, adding, "Kobe Bryant has been the initiator of that defense...When you are able to put the clamps on the other team's best player (Barbosa) to the point where he basically just wants to throw in the towel and go to the bench to get this over with, then the rest of the (Brazilian) team crumbled because there is no leadership, no spark, no spirit and, worst of all, no hope." Later in the game, for some inexplicable reason, Walton felt it necessary to say that Bryant spent most of last season getting "torched" by the NBA's best shooting guards, apparently not understanding that the complete inability of the rest of the Lakers' roster to play any defense might have had something to do with opposing players being able to convert pick and roll opportunities after Bryant had been successfully screened and was thus no longer involved in the play; the league's head coaches--who are more concerned with basketball than they are with the etymology of "Venezuela" or the policies of Hugo Chavez, both of which fascinated Walton in an earlier telecast--figured this out and voted Bryant to the All-Defensive First Team; I'd be willing to bet that Bryant would get Barbosa's vote now, too.
Bryant went to the bench at the 5:19 mark of the third quarter with Team USA leading 76-43. Surprisingly, despite the sizable margin he actually returned to the game a few minutes later and Team USA made a 7-0 run to go up 96-47 before he left the game for good. Redd played the entire fourth quarter, which consisted of the "extensive gar-bage time" that has characterized the concluding portion of each of Team USA's games so far. One should not put too much stock in what happened in that final period with the game well in hand but it should not be ignored that Brazil outscored Team USA 29-17; that made Redd's final on court differential 51-45, while his off court differential was 62-31. He ended up with 16 points on 6-10 shooting. Redd is a nice player to have around but, even if he leads this team in scoring by collecting garbage time points, he is nowhere close to being the best player on the team or even an essential player. The only time during the game that Team USA did very well while he was on the court was when Bryant was also in the game--you may recall that Bryant passed to Redd for a wide open three pointer and even Walton observed that Redd was not very effective during the portions of the game when he was attempting shots other than wide open, spot up three pointers. Those shots, of course, are the product of good defense leading to open court opportunities and Team USA plays its best defense when Bryant is in the game.
Bryant's final on court differential was 67-30, while his off court differential was 46-46. Anthony had a 59-27 on court differential and a 54-49 off court differential. These numbers indicate a couple things: (1) Team USA built its lead when Bryant was on the floor, whether or not Anthony and/or Redd were also playing; (2) Team USA did well when Anthony was on the court but closer analysis shows that Team USA's best moments with Anthony in the game corresponded to when Bryant was also in the game shutting down Barbosa, which is why Team USA also had a slightly positive differential even when Anthony was on the bench.
Anthony is a wonderfully versatile scorer and Redd is a terrific spot up shooter. They are both valuable players to Team USA and it is a joy to watch them perform well--but Anthony was on previous teams that failed to bring home gold and Redd's individual numbers do not have a significant impact on Team USA's scoring differential. The reason that this version of Team USA is better than the last several ones is that Kobe Bryant has brought the team's defense to a higher level. Jason Kidd also deserves credit for adding to the team's defensive mindset and for setting a tone of unselfishness at both ends of the court. It should be a lot of fun watching this version of Team USA win the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:19 AM