Team USA Defeats Argentina 91-76, Improves to 8-0Team USA took a 28-13 first quarter lead and coasted to a 91-76 victory over Argentina in the quarterfinal round of the FIBA Americas tournament, earning the number one seed in the semifinal round. A Team USA win over Puerto Rico on Saturday will clinch a berth in the 2008 Olympics, while Argentina can also earn a spot in the Olympics by beating Brazil on Saturday; the two semifinal winners will face each other on Sunday and it certainly looks like that game will be a Team USA-Argentina rematch. Kobe Bryant led Team USA with a game-high 27 points, shooting 10-15 from the field, but just as importantly he had a game-high four steals, spearheading Team USA's defensive effort. At one point, ESPN2's John Saunders exclaimed, "You'd think this is game seven of the NBA Finals, the way Kobe is playing." Dwight Howard contributed a game-high nine rebounds and Jason Kidd added a game-high seven assists.
Carmelo Anthony returned to action after missing one game due to a heel injury, so Team USA was able to deploy its preferred starting lineup of Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. Argentina is the only team to have twice beaten Team USA since 1992, when the United States began sending NBA players to FIBA events--but this is Bryant's first opportunity to play for Team USA and in the first quarter he seemed very eager to let Argentina know that not only did he have nothing to do with those Team USA losses but he also has no intention of allowing Argentina to ring up a win at his expense. Bryant scored 15 of Team USA's 28 first quarter points, shooting 6-8 from the field and singlehandedly outscoring Argentina, which managed just 13 points and shot 1-4 from three point range. The latter two numbers are even more important that Bryant's point production; it is at the defensive end of the court where Bryant's impact has been most keenly felt, though Kidd also deserves credit in this regard. Argentina shooting guard Carlos Delfino, who was acquired by the Toronto Raptors this summer, had been averaging 15.7 ppg in the tournament but he scored just seven points on 2-11 shooting versus Team USA, including 0 points on 0-4 shooting in the first quarter. Bryant was not solely responsible for that, as Team USA does a lot of switching and trapping, but Bryant has set the defensive tone for this team since day one.
Team USA regularly got off to slow starts in the 2006 FIBA World Championships but that has not been a problem for Team USA in the FIBA Americas tournament. Unfortunately, as you can tell by a quick glance at the final score, Argentina played dead even with Team USA after the first quarter. It is important to realize that--although Argentina posted a 7-0 record prior to playing Team USA and enjoys the services not only of Delfino but also of new Houston Rocket Luis Scola--Manu Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto, Andres Nocioni, Walter Hermann and Pepe Sanchez are not playing in the FIBA Americas tournament. In other words, this was essentially Argentina's "B" team. That makes the on court/off court scoring differentials that I have been tracking particularly interesting. Team USA outscored Argentina 63-44 when Bryant was in the game, with most of that margin obviously being built in the first quarter--but when Bryant was off the court, Team USA was outscored 32-28. Team USA outscored Argentina 54-36 when Anthony was in the game and was outscored 40-37 when he was off the court. Bryant and Anthony were on the court at the same time for a substantial portion of their minutes, so perhaps one could debate which player is having more impact--except for the fact that we just saw Team USA put up its normal numbers for an entire game versus Uruguay when Anthony sat out. I suspect that without Bryant, Team USA would have lost this game to Argentina and I am almost certain that without Bryant they would have lost to Argentina's "A" team unless they found a way to play a lot better. Argentina outrebounded Team USA 37-28 and did not lose the turnover battle (both teams committed 21). A major reason for Team USA's victory is good perimeter defense--Argentina shot just 5-21 (.238) from three point range. Another factor that helped Team USA is that Scola, who undressed a host of Team USA defenders with an assortment of nifty moves en route to 20 points on 8-12 field goal shooting, was limited to 18 minutes due to foul trouble. He gave Argentina an early 2-0 lead by driving right around James and later in the first quarter he lost Anthony with an up and under move. Scola also dropped in a jump hook over Tayshaun Prince. Team USA had no answers for him and if Argentina had shot its customary percentage on three pointers this would have been a very close game; keep in mind that in last year's FIBA World Championships, Team USA--playing without Bryant and Kidd--did a very poor job defending against three point shooters.
Remember how the "experts" said before this event that Michael Redd and Mike Miller were supposedly going to solve Team USA's allegedly pressing shooting problems? Look at their numbers from a game when Team USA faced its strongest opponent yet: Redd scored three points on 1-5 field goal shooting (1-4 on three pointers) and Miller shot 0-2 from the field (0-1 on three pointers) and went scoreless. Even more telling is the fact that Redd played just 13 minutes and Miller only played nine minutes. Neither player was on the court when Team USA broke the game open in the first quarter. In fact, Team USA was outscored 28-15 when Redd was in the game and outscored Argentina 76-48 when he was off the court.
Here is the nightmare scenario for Team USA in next year's Olympics: what happens if this team has to play the fully loaded Argentina squad without Bryant (due to foul trouble or injuries)? Does anyone really believe that Redd or Miller can replace Bryant offensively, let alone on defense? If that situation were to happen, Team USA would be able to collectively make up for Bryant's scoring but his defense would be gravely missed. This is why I wrote a post 10 days ago titled "Team USA Needs Bruce Bowen More Than it Needs Michael Redd." Bowen is not a player who has to score to be effective but he is a great defender and he can nail baseline three pointers as well as anyone--and with the way that he plays defense, Team USA would have a lot of open court opportunities when he is in the game, which means either dunks for the team's numerous gifted finishers or those baseline three pointers that Bowen makes all the time for the Spurs. Meanwhile, not including Redd and Miller's bricklaying the rest of Team USA shot 10-24 (.417) from three point range versus Argentina, with Anthony, Bryant, James, Prince and Chauncey Billups each making at least one shot from behind the arc.
Tyson Chandler is essentially useless on this team--he only played three minutes versus Argentina and usually does not get on the court unless Team USA is way ahead--so when the roster is shuffled for the 2008 Olympics, Team USA should add a more versatile big man (hopefully Chris Bosh will be healthy and available) and replace Redd and Miller with guards/wings who are better able to contribute to this team--such as Bowen for defensive purposes and Dwyane Wade for his all around game (Wade missed this tournament due to injury). In Team USA's earlier blowout wins we saw anomalies like Chandler leading the team in rebounds and Deron Williams piling up assists but check out the boxscore from the Argentina game. Guys like Chandler, Williams, Redd and Miller who put up numbers in garbage time saw their minutes and production slashed. Meanwhile, James logged 31 minutes and Anthony played 24. Bryant played 23 minutes and would have played more if not for receiving his second foul early in the second quarter.
Team USA led 49-30 at halftime and Argentina never got closer than 15 points after the first quarter, so the outcome of the game was never in doubt and Team USA deserves credit for a fine overall performance in the tournament to this point. However, the ultimate goal is nothing less than winning a gold medal in the 2008 Olympics and this game against Argentina is a warning signal that Team USA should not get complacent. The composition of the roster does matter, as does who is in the starting lineup, and these matters should not be dealt with in a trivial fashion. I trust that, unless an injury occurs, Coach Mike Krzyzewski will abandon the brief dalliance he had earlier in this tournament with changing the starting lineup.
ESPN2's Bill Walton delivered his best line of the tournament after James was whistled for a very questionable charging call. With more than a hint of sarcasm, he declared, "My new website has been getting a lot of hits--ILoveTheRefs.org."
While Bryant had a bizarre sequence against Uruguay during which he missed a dunk and two layups, against Argentina it was Anthony who messed up some plays that he normally converts: in the first quarter, Bryant threw a long outlet pass to Anthony, who bobbled the ball and could not regain his footing in time to make a fast break layup. Instead, Anthony dribbled all the way out to three point range and hoisted a shot from there. "Ill advised shot," Walton intoned solemnly (and quite correctly). On another occasion, Anthony missed a two handed dunk on a fast break, but James promptly scooped up the ball, scored and drew Scola's fourth foul, so that miscue actually turned out well for Team USA.
On the plus side, Anthony drove around two defenders and posterized a couple more with a dunk that Walton immediately termed the nastiest throwdown he's ever seen Anthony do.
The boxscore lists James with six turnovers, Bryant with four and Kidd with two. It seemed like Kidd had more turnovers than that but maybe that is just because he was a little wilder with his passes than usual. One time, James and Prince were trailing on the break with Kidd ahead of the pack and Kidd threw the ball high in the air. Neither James nor Prince could control it and Prince had a bemused look on his face that seemed to say, "You don't think I can catch that one, do you?" Presumably, Kidd's intended target was James. On another play, Kidd drove to the hoop and threw the ball high off of the top right hand corner of the backboard for James, who swooped in, caught the ball but was not able to convert a two handed dunk.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:43 AM