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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Team USA Beats Venezuela 112-69 in FIBA Americas Tournament Opener

Team USA never trailed en route to a 112-69 victory over Venezuela in the first game of the FIBA Americas tournament. Team USA started Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. Anthony and Michael Redd led seven players in double figures with 17 points each, Howard had a game-high eight rebounds and Bryant contributed 14 points on 5-8 field goal shooting, five rebounds and a game-high five assists in just 16 minutes.

Venezuela won the opening tip but matters quickly went downhill for them after that, largely because of the outstanding pressure defense applied by Bryant and Kidd. Bryant, who tied James with a game-high three steals and also had numerous deflections, hounded Venezuela's Greivis Vasquez up and down the court; Vasquez finished with 12 points on 3-11 field goal shooting and he committed a game-high four turnovers. Bill Walton, commenting on the game for ESPN Classic, said of Bryant, "He has clearly been the hardest working player in training camp." When Bryant left the game at the 6:30 mark with two fouls, Team USA led 9-0. He sat out the remainder of the first period and Team USA was up 21-8 after the first 10 minutes.

Bryant returned to action at the start of the second quarter and immediately made his presence felt, getting a steal and passing ahead to James for a fast break layup. A couple possessions later, Bryant scored on a sensational reverse layup off of an inbounds play, putting Team USA up 27-10. Over the next few possessions, Bryant drove to the hoop and fed Anthony for a dunk, threw a lob to Howard for another dunk, dished to Anthony for a three pointer and sailed in for a two handed dunk made possible by a gorgeous behind the back pass from James. Bryant topped all of that off with a three pointer and Team USA led 39-16. By the time Bryant picked up his third foul at the 3:58 mark and sat for the rest of the half, Team USA had a 44-19 lead. At halftime, the score was 54-34.

In the 9:32 that Bryant played in the first half, Team USA outscored Venezuela 32-11; in the 11:28 that Bryant sat out, Venezuela outscored Team USA 23-22--and that is a statistic you can be sure will not show up in the articles by "experts" who think that the big issues for Team USA are whether or not Bryant can get along with his teammates and how well Michael Redd and Mike Miller shoot from three point range (we'll get to that story shortly). When Bryant was on the court, Team USA's defense was superb, which predictably led to easy fast break scoring opportunities; in some stretches, the defense followed by ball movement capped off by a dunk looked like the way that the one and only Dream Team played in 1992. Kidd had a lot to do with this too, even though his FIBA statistics never show his true value (he did not attempt a shot and finished with four assists, three rebounds, one steal and one blocked shot). It cannot be emphasized enough that when Bryant was not in the game--which was more than half of the time in the first half--Venezuela outscored Team USA and this Venezuela team is hardly a top FIBA squad. Yes, this is only one game but do not let the final margin of victory fool you--without Bryant, this version of Team USA looked every bit as vulnerable as the other recent editions have. It should be obvious why James told USA Today's David DuPree, "I've always been quoted as saying Kobe Bryant is the best player in our league, and I'll continue to say that. You automatically try to feast off of that. Why wouldn't you? Why wouldn't you want to copy the best player in the world to better your game?" As the saying goes, game recognizes game; players, coaches and NBA insiders understand that Bryant is the best player in the NBA, which is why it is so amusing--and, at the same time, sad--to listen to some "experts" and bloggers who try to pretend otherwise.

The second half began just like the first half did, with Bryant and Kidd spearheading Team USA's great pressure defense, leading to numerous transition hoops. Bryant opened the scoring with a turnaround jumper to extend the lead to 56-34 and by the 3:10 mark Team USA led 79-45. "Kobe Bryant is driving the train," Walton said during the 25-11 run, which pushed Team USA's score while Bryant was in the game to 57-22. Bryant checked out for the final time at that point and midway through the fourth quarter he was already icing down his knees. Obviously, the remainder of the game was, in Marv Albert's lexicon, "extensive gar-bage time" but it is interesting to note that Team USA's sluggishness sans Bryant continued. Team USA only outscored Venezuela 20-18 in the fourth quarter; that, combined with a mini-run to close out the third quarter, left Team USA with a 55-47 advantage during the 24 minutes that Bryant was not on the court. As Walton noted, it is important for the reserves to develop some continuity while they are in the game. This tournament continues virtually non-stop between now and the gold medal game on September 2, so it is important that everyone on the roster is able to contribute when called upon. Miller, Redd, Deron Williams and Tyson Chandler received a lot of the fourth quarter minutes. None of them looked particularly sharp, although Redd padded his statistics late in the game with a drive and two three pointers. Prior to that, he had a lackluster shooting game, which someone who simply reads the boxscore will not realize; Redd shot 7-12 from the field overall and hopefully will be able to carry his strong finish over into the rest of the tournament. Miller looked terrible throughout the game, shooting 4-11 from the field, including 2-8 from three point range. He shot an airball on an open three point attempt and fouled out in just 17 minutes. To top things off, he appeared to injure his leg on his final play of the game when he committed an offensive foul and landed awkwardly.

Team USA shot .547 from the field and .385 from three point range. If Team USA has a shooting weakness it is not on three pointers but rather on free throws, where Team USA shot 20-29 (.690); Team USA also did not shoot well from the free throw line in the 2006 FIBA World Championships. Part of this has to do with who attempts the free throws. Howard shot 4-7 but the mystifying case is Anthony, who also shot 4-7. Anthony shot very well from the field in the 2006 FIBA World Championships but only made .630 of his free throws, well off of his career NBA rate of .798. Maybe the "experts" who are so convinced that Redd and Miller will be the difference--as opposed to Bryant and Kidd--can figure out a way to convince FIBA to allow Redd or Miller to shoot Anthony and Howard's free throws for them. Of course, Redd and Miller are unlikely to earn many free throw attempts on their own (they shot 0-0 from the free throw line in 37 combined minutes).

In any case, notwithstanding the shaky free throw shooting, offense has not been a problem for Team USA in recent FIBA competitions, contrary to popular belief, and it will not be a problem this time around, whether or not Redd and Miller shoot well from beyond the arc. Anthony, Bryant and James will carry the bulk of the scoring load and Howard (12 points, 4-5 shooting) and Amare Stoudemire (16 points, 4-4 shooting) will pick up the rest of the slack. The main concern for Team USA will continue to be defense. Team USA forced 19 turnovers, most of them while Bryant was on the court, and held Venezuela to .338 shooting--but Venezuela shot .381 from three point range. The verdict after one game is that Team USA's defense is very good when Bryant is on the court but average at best otherwise--the projected 40 minute score with Bryant would have been 142.5-55, while without him it would have been 91.7-78, which is a little too close for comfort against a less than elite team. Note, also, how better defense leads to fast break opportunities that pump up the offensive numbers as well.

As the tournament goes on, it will be interesting to monitor Team USA's defensive performance and to keep track of the scoring margin when Bryant is on the court versus when he is out of the game--and if you want to follow those stories your best bet is to come here because those themes are unlikely to be discussed anywhere else.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 AM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Thursday, August 23, 2007 10:12:00 AM, Anonymous jn said...

I had the opportunity to watch Venezuela live a couple weeks ago, and they are a third rate team. They hustle and they play hard and all that jazz, no offense meant, but their physical, athletic and technical limitations were conspicuous. I don't think they are the kind of opposition that help measure up a team.

 
At Thursday, August 23, 2007 11:45:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

Any theme involving Bryant will always be discussed here.
I am no where near excited about watching this team like the 92 team.

 
At Thursday, August 23, 2007 3:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

JN:

I noted more than once in the post that Venezuela is not an elite team. That is why it should be somewhat disturbing to anyone who roots for Team USA that Venezuela could stay competitive for long stretches of time when Bryant was not on the court.

 
At Thursday, August 23, 2007 3:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

The action of the game determines which themes/stories will be emphasized. Anyone who watched both this game and previous Team USA games noticed that the defensive intensity this time around was much greater--right from the start Bryant and Kidd were playing strong pressure defense and this disrupted Venezuela's offense.

 

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