Team USA Cruises to 117-78 Win Over Puerto RicoTeam USA clinched a berth in the FIBA Americas tournament semifinal round with a 117-78 win over Puerto Rico, a squad that embarrassed Team USA 92-73 in the 2004 Olympics as Carlos Arroyo scored 24 points, proudly "popping" his jersey near the end of the game. Kobe Bryant was not on that version of Team USA and he made sure that there would be no celebrating in Puerto Rico on this night, spearheading a defensive effort that held Puerto Rico to 2-18 shooting from three point range in the first half as Team USA raced to a 59-27 halftime lead. LeBron James led Team USA with 21 points, Carmelo Anthony had 17 and Bryant contributed 14 in addition to his fine defensive work. Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler each had a game-high eight rebounds and Deron Williams had a game-high seven assists.
Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski wisely went back to his original starting lineup of Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. That quintet has consistently gotten off to good starts, which Team USA did not do in the 2006 FIBA World Championships. Puerto Rico struck first with a Carmelo Lee three pointer but soon trailed 13-5. Arroyo's driving layup brought Puerto Rico to within 16-13 but Team USA closed the quarter with an 8-2 run and was never seriously threated again. Bryant scored 11 first quarter points on 5-8 shooting but his greatest impact on this team has been on defense. Puerto Rico shot 8-16 from the three point line and 31-55 overall (.564) versus Team USA in the 2004 Olympics, denying Team USA the opportunity to score in the open court. This time it was a completely different story, as Team USA held Puerto Rico to 1-9 three point shooting in the first quarter while at the same time cutting off easy driving lanes to the hoop. Look no further than the starting backcourt of Bryant and Kidd to understand the reasons for this improvement; neither of these perennial All-Defensive Team members was on the 2004 team.
As I have noted repeatedly, Team USA does not need to shoot well from the three point line to win but it does need to defend the three point line well because many FIBA teams depend on long range bombing to open up the court for drives and post ups. This is illustrated yet again by the fact that Team USA built this nine point lead despite shooting 1-8 from the three point arc in the first quarter. I'd like to see Team USA shoot fewer three pointers but I can understand why it is such a tempting shot: it is more than three feet closer than the NBA three pointer and FIBA's officials call charges much more than they call blocking fouls, so Team USA players may at times be a bit leery of going to the hoop and being called for an offensive foul.
Bryant played all but one minute of the first quarter and he was on the court for the entire second quarter as Team USA's defense reached another level, holding Puerto Rico without a field goal for the first 6:31 and to just 12 points overall. Team USA led 59-27 at halftime while shooting 58% from the field, so offense is clearly not a concern for this team. Team USA's three point shooting picked up dramatically in the second quarter (7-11), but this was hardly the result of adding Michael Redd or Mike Miller to the roster; Redd did not score and Miller made one three pointer, while James had three three pointers and even center Amare Stoudemire took advantage of the short FIBA three point arc to connect from long range. Take every Team USA three pointer off of the scoreboard and Team USA would have still had the lead because of its suffocating defense. The three pointers are a nice bonus and Redd is a solid reserve (though Miller is shooting just .383 from the field in six games) but the reason that this version of Team USA is putting up better numbers than every squad since the 1992 Dream Team is the tremendous defense that it is playing. Arroyo averaged 23.5 ppg in his previous two games against Team USA but he had just five first half points on 2-5 shooting, while his backcourt partner Elias Ayuso had four points on 1-3 shooting (they finished with 12 and 13 points respectively, padding their numbers a bit when the outcome was no longer in doubt). In addition to the aforementioned 2-18 three point shooting, Puerto Rico shot just 24% from the field overall in the first half as Team USA clamped down on the three point shooters without compromising its interior defense. A sequence from late in the quarter exemplifies how good defense fuels the offense: Bryant blocked a shot, Puerto Rico recovered the ball but Bryant slapped the ball to Tyson Chandler, who passed it to Bryant. Bryant dribbled upcourt and then fired a pass to James, who soared in for a spectacular dunk. That made the score 56-25 and Bryant and James exchanged chest bumps after Puerto Rico called a timeout.
The game was for all intents and purposes over before the second half began, which made what happened in the third quarter very intriguing. Generally when Team USA is ahead by a lot the second unit comes in and is basically content to trade baskets but with a full 20 minutes left Team USA put its starting lineup on the court to begin the third quarter. Bryant did what ESPN2's Bill Walton has said that every Team USA player should do: strive for excellence without regard to what the score is. One made basket in a 32 point game might not seem to matter but Bryant seemed determined to make Puerto Rico work for everything. On the opening possession, Ayuso used a screen to get open at the top of the key but Bryant fought through just in time to prevent Ayuso from getting a shot off, so Ayuso pump faked and used an escape dribble to free himself to fire a three pointer. Since Bryant was a second late the fake got him off balance and he fouled Ayuso. After the play, a frustrated Ayuso locked his arm around Bryant's and the two exchanged words. Fouling a jump shooter is a "cardinal sin" but I like the attitude behind this play by Bryant: regardless of the score, don't play half speed and don't concede anything; that is a lot better than the arrogant, lazy approach that the 2004 Olympic team displayed during its lackluster loss to Puerto Rico. Ayuso made all three free throws and after Howard missed two free throws Angelo Reyes buried a three pointer to bring Puerto Rico to within 59-33. Then the teams traded baskets before Bryant hit a three pointer to make the score 64-35 and send a clear message: not only did Puerto Rico have no chance to win, Team USA had no intention of allowing Puerto Rico to close the gap in garbage time. A couple possessions later, Bryant fouled Ayuso again and the Puerto Rican guard split a pair of free throws. Even though Ayuso had earned a couple trips to the free throw line, he was clearly frustrated by Bryant's defensive pressure and when he was unable to free himself from Bryant on the next Puerto Rican possession he simply shoved Bryant to the court with two hands, receiving an offensive foul. On the ensuing Puerto Rico possession, Bryant stole the ball from Ayuso and passed ahead to James for another breathtaking dunk and Team USA led 69-38. By this time, Puerto Rico was completely out of sorts and Angelo Reyes committed an unsportsmanlike foul against Anthony. Thanks to ESPN2's "splendid" camera work--and the fact that Walton and John Saunders had a running dialogue about something else at the time--I cannot tell you exactly what Reyes did. I can say that Anthony missed both free throws and shot just 3-6 from the charity stripe in this game, contributing to Team USA's 11-23 free throw shooting. The Bryant-Ayuso "rivalry" concluded at the 5:16 mark when Bryant was whistled for his fourth foul; Team USA led 73-40 after Ayuso made both free throws and Bryant sat out the remainder of the blowout.
I again tracked Team USA's scoring differential when Bryant, Anthony and Redd were on the court and off the court. The Mexico game was clearly an aberration and the numbers from this game were more in line with what happened in the first four games. Team USA outscored Puerto Rico 71-40 when Bryant was in the game and just 46-38 when he was off the court. Bryant was in the game for almost the entire first half when Team USA broke the game open. Anthony's numbers were 54-36 and 63-42; during the first half he was on the court when Team USA outscored Puerto Rico 40-23 but even when he was out of the game Team USA led 19-4. Redd's numbers in this game were basically superfluous because he hardly played when the game was close and he did the bulk of his scoring in the fourth quarter (he finished with 15 points on 6-14 shooting, including a gruesome 1-8 from behind the arc; one of his third quarter three point attempts from the left wing overshot the rim and caromed off the right side of the backboard); for the record, Team USA outscored Puerto Rico 55-42 when Redd was in the game--including 11-4 during his token first half appearance--and 62-36 when he was on the bench.
The most interesting thing about the fourth quarter of most of these games is how it completely skews the individual statistics. Tyson Chandler had absolutely nothing to do with Team USA winning this game but he tied Stoudemire for game-high honors with eight rebounds; similarly, Williams amassed seven assists largely in a mop up role. He is now second on the team in assists with 27, just two behind Kidd--but Kidd has started most of the games and put up his numbers as Team USA took command, while Williams has mostly played in the fourth quarter. It should also be noted that Kidd has just two turnovers (Williams has seven) and is second on the team in steals with eight (Bryant has nine). Kidd is last on the team in scoring (seven points in six games) and ninth in minutes played but he is one of the most important players on the team. It might sound crazy, but I'd take him over everyone but Bryant. What about Anthony? Anthony is a great scorer but all that scoring did not help Team USA win the gold medal in the 2006 FIBA World Championships--and his defense had a lot to do with Team USA's loss to Greece. Kidd has never lost a game in FIBA play and his defense and playmaking are a lot harder to replace than Anthony's points; Bryant could score more if needed, as could James and several other players, but no one on the roster can do what Kidd does as well as he does it. That said, the entire starting lineup should be commended for how well it plays together collectively--which is a credit to each player--and the reserve players have done their jobs, though they lack the defensive intensity that the first unit has. It was nice to see Tayshaun Prince back on the court and apparently suffering no ill effects from the ankle that he sprained against Brazil (he finished with seven points, six rebounds, three assists and one blocked shot).
posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM