Perfect Storm: LeBron James Does Not Miss a Shot, Team USA Cruises by Uruguay, 118-79LeBron James scored a game-high 26 points on 11-11 field goal shooting as Team USA improved to 7-0 with a 118-79 win over Uruguay. James did all of his damage in just 14 minutes and sat out the entire second half. Amare Stoudemire added 19 points and a game-high seven rebounds, while Deron Williams had a game-high six assists. Esteban Batista, the third leading scorer in the FIBA Americas tournament, scored 20 points for Uruguay and for a stretch of time during the first quarter he was the best player on the court for either team.
Team USA deviated from its usual starting lineup and this time it was not because of a whim by Coach Mike Kryzewski--leading scorer Carmelo Anthony bruised his heel in Tuesday's victory against Puerto Rico when he tried to slap the backboard with two hands after a dunk and landed awkwardly. No ill effects were apparent at the time, but he sat out the Uruguay game. Michael Redd took his place in the starting lineup, playing alongside regular starters Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Anthony has usually provided much of the early scoring for Team USA but Team USA is well stocked with capable scorers; Team USA will ultimately rise or fall based on its work at the defensive end of the court.
Early on against Uruguay, Team USA's defense broke down in several areas, including pick and roll plays, three point line defense, inbound plays and basic post defense. Mauricio Aguiar opened the scoring with a three pointer. Team USA's first two field goal attempts were missed three pointers by Redd and Bryant. It is not necessary for Team USA to make three pointers to win but it is very important to shut down the opposing team's three point shooters and Team USA struggled with this in the first few minutes versus Uruguay. Kidd tied the score by making a three pointer but Uruguay recaptured the lead on a three point play by Batista. James brought Team USA to within one by making a jumper but Nicolas Mazzarino's three pointer put Uruguay up 9-5. The 6-0 Mazzarino is shooting .532 from three point range in this tournament and the way that he got open for this shot is reminiscent of how previous Team USA squads failed defensively: Uruguay ran a pick and roll play at the top of the key, with James getting switched onto Mazzarino; James backed off instead of denying the jump shot and Mazzarino fired without hesitation. Team USA soon tied the game after Howard made two free throws and Bryant converted a fast break dunk. An interesting exchange took place a few possessions later: Bryant drove to the hoop and seemed to have an uncontested layup but he instead kicked the ball out to an open Redd, hoping to get the struggling three point specialist going. Redd missed and on Uruguay's next possession Team USA's defense failed in a different way than it had minutes earlier: Howard got completely out of position on a pick and roll play, enabling Batista to cut to the hoop for an easy score.
After Kidd missed a three pointer, Aguiar's layup at the 4:52 mark gave Uruguay its final lead of the night, 14-12. At this point, Uruguay had shot 2-4 from three point range and Batista had scored six points on inside moves. Anyone who says that Team USA struggled in these first few minutes because of the absence of Anthony's scoring simply did not watch the game; Team USA played poor defense on the perimeter and in the paint, which not only enabled Uruguay to score but also prevented Team USA from getting any open court opportunities on offense. This is exactly the type of scenario that I have been talking about when I keep emphasizing that Team USA's biggest problem in recent years has not been the absence of shooters like Redd or Mike Miller but rather defensive breakdowns; the addition of Kidd and Bryant to this Team USA roster has largely resolved those defensive problems, except for a brief stretch in the Mexico game and the first five minutes or so of the Uruguay game. It is not clear if Team USA was a little complacent/overconfident at the start of this game or if there was a little confusion regarding the skill sets of some of Uruguay's players.
Team USA slowly began to figure things out. James answered Aguiar's drive with a three pointer and then Bryant stole the ball on Uruguay's next possession. Bryant pushed the ball up the court and in a fast break situation he had several options, including taking the shot himself, but he again passed to Redd, whose layup gave Team USA its biggest lead yet (19-14); whether or not a player is selfish is not revealed simply by looking at statistics for assists but also by watching how he plays: this was the second time in the early going that Bryant provided Redd with an easy opportunity to score.
A couple possessions later, Mazzarino used a baseline screen to free himself for another three pointer. Bryant was visibly upset after this play, though it was not clear if he was mad at himself for getting screened or frustrated at a teammate for not switching, thus enabling a great shooter to have a wide open look. The next sequence was incredibly bizarre. Bryant drove to the hoop from the right baseline but missed a layup. He got the offensive rebound, gathered himself and then missed a one handed dunk. Bryant rebounded that miss and missed another layup. Uruguay finally got a defensive rebound but Aguiar missed a three pointer. On Team USA's next possession, Bryant converted a three point play to again put Team USA up five, 22-17, with 2:45 remaining.
After Bryant made the free throw, the starters went out and the second unit of Amare Stoudemire, Tayshaun Prince, Mike Miller, Chauncey Billups and Deron Williams entered the game (Tyson Chandler does not often see action until Team USA has a huge lead). That group closed out the quarter with a 9-4 run. Both of Uruguay's baskets were scored in the paint by Batista; on the first one, he drove right around Stoudemire and threw down a dunk. Team USA led 31-21 and Batista had 10 of Uruguay's points. The second unit--though Krzyzewski does not like to use that term--remained in the game until the 6:47 mark of the second quarter and was only able to extend the lead to 37-25. Williams made a layup, Billups hit two free throws and Stoudemire had a putback but Team USA also had some terrible plays. Batista twice scored by executing simple cuts to the hoop and catching the defense completely flatfooted. Stoudemire missed a three pointer--which seemed like a curious shot selection in a game that was still close--and Billups jumped in the air with the ball and came down without shooting or passing, resulting in a traveling violation. After that play, the five starters returned to action with 6:47 left in the period.
Krzyzewski may not like to publicly use the term "second unit" but the on court/off court point differentials of various Team USA players clearly indicate that some groupings are performing a lot better than others. The starters immediately went on an 8-0 run to take a 45-28 lead. James had six of the points, while Bryant made two free throws after getting a steal and driving to the hoop--but the most important thing to understand is that all of those scoring opportunities were created by defense. Whatever the problems were in the first few minutes of the game, Team USA solved them and in the second quarter the starters shut down Uruguay's three point shooters while at the same time controlling the action in the paint; steals and defensive rebounds were then converted into layups, dunks and open three point shots (as opposed to off balance, contested three point shots). Batista took his first rest at the 6:15 mark and that no doubt hurt Uruguay as well. James put on a stunning offensive display in the last 6:47, shooting 7-7 from the field and scoring 16 points--and, except for two three pointers that he made in the half court offense, all of those baskets were fast break layups or dunks that came as a direct result of good team defense. On the last possession of the half, James passed to Stoudemire, who made his second three pointer of the tournament to give Team USA a 66-38 lead as time expired.
The halftime statistics told a very familiar story: defense is the key to Team USA's success. Uruguay shot just 5-18 (.278) from three point range, which means that when Team USA pulled away Uruguay shot 2-13 after starting out 3-5. Notice the pattern? When Team USA's perimeter defense struggled, Uruguay led; Team USA then shut down the three point shooters and it rapidly became a blowout. Yes, Team USA shot 7-16 from three point range (.438) in the first half but they would have still had the lead even if they had shot 0-16 (which is unlikely to ever happen, of course). Team USA shoots three pointers best in transition--in other words, after steals or defensive rebounds--and is not dependent on Redd and Miller to deliver from outside: five players other than those two (Kidd, James, Williams, Stoudemire and Tayshaun Prince) made at least one three pointer against Uruguay; in addition, Anthony is a deadly shooter behind the FIBA three point arc (.542 accuracy in six games) and Bryant (0-2 versus Uruguay) is shooting .478 on three pointers in this tournament. The rebounding battle in the first half was almost even (21-19 in favor of Team USA) but Team USA forced 10 turnovers while committing only four.
Uruguay never got closer than 25 points in the third quarter but did manage to nearly keep pace with Team USA, only getting outscored 29-26. The fourth quarter was a bit ragged and each team had its lowest scoring quarter of the game (23-15 in favor of Team USA). One would like to think that Team USA's second unit could do better against Uruguay if it were necessary but based on Team USA's performances in recent international competitions when Bryant and Kidd were not on the team I would not automatically assume that this is the case. There is a very good reason that certain players are usually on the court when Team USA breaks these games open. Since Anthony did not play, I decided to track Team USA's scoring differential with Kidd on the court and off the court in addition to tracking those numbers for Bryant and Redd. Kidd played 12 minutes--contributing three points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals--and during all of that time Bryant and James were also on the court; Team USA outscored Uruguay 40-26 when Kidd was in the game and led 26-12 when Kidd was on the bench. Redd shared his 12 first half minutes with Kidd.
Although I did not intentionally track James' numbers, it turned out that he and Bryant played all 14 of their minutes together, so they obviously had identical on court/off court statistics: 51-30 Team USA lead when they were in the game, 15-8 Team USA lead when they were on the bench. James had four assists, two steals and no rebounds in addition to his 26 points, while Bryant finished with 13 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Redd was the only starter who played in the second half; Team USA led 30-29 while he was on the court, making his total on court numbers for the game 70-55. He ended up with nine points, two assists, one rebound and two steals, with most of that production happening in the second half. Except for the Mexico game, Team USA has played its best when Bryant was on the court and it has not made much difference whether or not Redd was in the game. Note, too, that Team USA was able to match its tournament-leading scoring average despite the absence of leading scorer Anthony. It is much, much easier for Team USA to replace a player's scoring--even when that player is as gifted as Anthony is--than it is for Team USA to make up for the absence of good defense. James was the scoring star on this night, but he benefited from great Team USA defense that led to open court scoring opportunities (James also contributed to the great defense).
Team USA closes out quarterfinal round play tonight by playing Argentina, the only other undefeated team in the tournament. The winner of that game will get the top seed in the semifinal round. This Argentina squad does not have the services of Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni or Fabricio Oberto but it has been capably led by Luis Scola (who will play for the Houston Rockets this year) and Carlos Delfino (Toronto Raptors). Argentina ranks second to Team USA in scoring (94.1 ppg compared to 117.6 ppg) and three point field goal percentage (.423 compared to .449). Argentina is holding its opponents to 75.9 ppg, with a high game of 92, while Team USA's opponents have averaged 74.9 ppg, with a high game of 100. This is a good dress rehearsal for Team USA for the 2008 Olympics and the key to victory, as always, will be to play good defense. Expect Bryant and Kidd to lead the way in that regard, while any one of several players might score the most points for Team USA.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM