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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Team USA Defeats Mexico 127-100, Improves to 5-0

Team USA looked sluggish at times but still managed to blow out Mexico 127-100 in the first game of the quarterfinals round of the FIBA Americas tournament. Carmelo Anthony had a game-high 28 points. Oddly, although he has been an excellent scorer in FIBA play he continues to struggle with his free throw shooting. He shot 6-10 versus Mexico and is shooting just under .730 from the free throw line in the tournament. Kobe Bryant added 21 points and LeBron James and Dwight Howard each scored 19 points, shooting 6-7 and 9-10 from the field respectively. Chauncey Billups had a game-high eight rebounds, while Jason Kidd had a game-high seven assists. Tayshaun Prince, who sprained his ankle in the previous game versus Brazil, did not play but is expected to be available soon. College basketball fans may have noticed a familiar face on Mexico's bench: Coach Nolan Richardson, who led Arkansas to the 1994 NCAA Championship with his patented "40 minutes of hell" pressure defense. Prior to facing Team USA, Richardson quipped, "We may end up giving them two minutes of hell and 38 minutes of 'What the hell are we doing?'"

Billups and Amare Stoudemire replaced Jason Kidd and Howard respectively in the starting lineup but it is not entirely clear why Coach Mike Kryzewski elected to make those moves. If the idea was to rest Kidd and Howard because of the FIBA schedule that involves playing almost every single day then why did Kidd and Howard end up playing almost as many minutes as Billups and Stoudemire? If the idea was to spread around the honor of starting, I don't like it one bit. Team USA should have a set rotation like every other FIBA team, so that every player knows when he is coming into the game and what role he is expected to play. That is an essential part of developing team chemistry. ESPN2 commentator Bill Walton--who did a much better job this time of talking about the action on the court as opposed to spewing random trivia--noted after the game, "Those dynamics change everything." One might argue that changing the starting lineup was not a bad move because Team USA performed well in the first quarter but it is important to look at the whole picture; these moves altered the rotations and changed who was on the court with whom, which may explain why Team USA looked out of sync in the second quarter. After four games in which everything went perfectly there was hardly a need to experiment with the lineup.

Prior to the game, Walton observed, "The (offensive) numbers for this team belong to Carmelo Anthony but the tone and tenor has been set by Kobe Bryant: his unbelievable work ethic, his drive to make it happen on both ends of the court." Bryant's 21 points versus Mexico are his best output in the tournament, but this was probably his worst overall game of the event so far--"worst" being a relative term, since he has established himself as the best player on the team and the standard by which he is evaluated is necessarily very high. Bryant made an early three pointer from well beyond where the NBA three point line would be and he seemed to be looking for his shot more aggressively than he did in the previous games. He shot 5-13 from the field, although that is slightly mitigated by his 2-5 three point shooting and his 9-10 free throw shooting. Bryant did produce some highlight worthy offensive plays, including a resounding third quarter dunk and a nifty left handed drive. After that move, Walton said of Bryant, "His ability to finish with his left hand is absolutely superb" and he suggested that James should work to improve this aspect of his game.

It was expected that Bryant would spend most of his time guarding Romel Beck, who came into the contest as the second leading scorer in the tournament, but throughout the game Team USA seemed to be experimenting with different lineup combinations and different defensive strategies, including playing some zone defense at times. Beck led Mexico with 20 points, just slightly below his scoring average coming into the game.

Billups scored the first five points for Team USA, nailing a pull-up three pointer and converting a fast break layup. Anthony got off to his customary quick start offensively, contributing eight points as Team USA took an early 15-7 lead. He took his first breather at the 5:02 mark and Team USA went on a quick 7-0 run. James made two great plays during that stretch--first he converted a driving dunk that became a three point play after he was fouled and then he forced a backcourt violation with good pressure defense, diving for a loose ball just like Bryant did in the previous game versus Brazil. Bryant sat out with 3:52 left, while Anthony and Redd checked in to the game. Team USA extended the 7-0 run to 16-2, taking a 34-14 advantage en route to a 45-23 lead by the end of the quarter.

Just like I did last game, I tracked Team USA's scoring differentials when Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Michael Redd were on the court and off the court. In the first quarter, Team USA outscored Mexico 25-12 when Bryant was on the court and 20-11 when he was off the court; Anthony's numbers were 38-23 and 7-0, while Redd's were 20-11 and 25-12. Redd made his first appearance with Team USA already enjoying a 13 point lead but he played a role in extending that lead, while Bryant and Anthony had a lot to do with creating the initial advantage. The second quarter was perhaps Team USA's worst 10 minutes in the tournament so far, as Mexico outscored Team USA 28-20. Team USA did poorly with Anthony off the court (7-10) and even worse when he was in the game (13-18). Bryant played most of the quarter and Team USA was outscored 26-16 when he was in the game. Redd made two layups as Team USA outscored Mexico 4-2 during his brief second quarter stint. After the lackluster second quarter, Team USA had its smallest halftime lead of the tournament, 65-51. Team USA shot 59% from the field in the first half, including 6-14 from three point range (.429), and outrebounded Mexico 23-16. Anthony already had 21 points on 8-11 shooting. So what was the problem? The same thing that has been the downfall of previous editions of Team USA in FIBA competition: defense, particularly against the three point shot--Mexico shot 8-14 from three point range in the first half and only committed eight turnovers, the same number that Team USA committed. Those numbers show that Team USA was not applying sufficient defensive pressure to disrupt Mexico's offense. This illustrates a point that I have been repeating in every game recap: Team USA has no problems offensively and will score prolifically with virtually any lineup it puts on the court. It cannot be emphasized enough that what makes the difference between winning and losing against the elite FIBA teams is how well Team USA plays defense. Fortunately for Team USA, Mexico is not an elite FIBA team and was not strong enough inside to ride its great three point shooting to victory: James, Howard and Stoudemire combined to shoot 19-22 from the field for the entire game and most of those shots came from deep in the paint.

The third quarter followed a similar pattern to the first half: Team USA pushed the lead to 80-57 only to see Mexico creep back to within 82-67. Mexico never seriously threatened to win the game but did manage to break down Team USA's defense on several occasions, scoring 27 points in the quarter. A James three pointer made the score 92-69 but Beck answered with a four point play, using a slick crossover move to get Bryant off balance and then drilling a three pointer as Bryant fouled him. Beck made the free throw and Mexico trailed 92-73. Team USA closed out the quarter with a 9-5 run.

Team USA led by as many as 31 points in the fourth quarter but somehow this did not "feel" like a dominating performance. However, ESPN2's John Saunders completely missed the point when he said that Team USA's "offense has seemed out of sync." He later admitted that this seemed like a strange thing to say about a team that scored 127 points. Saunders' problem is that, like many TV commentators--and not just in sports--he is trying to make the facts fit his preconceived notions. He apparently has bought into the idea that Team USA's biggest concern should be about offense, so when Mexico played straight up with Team USA for an extended period--and actually outscored Team USA in the second quarter--it never occurred to him that Team USA's lapses were happening at the defensive end of the court. A team that scores 127 points on .582 field goal shooting has no offensive problems whatsoever; the reason that Team USA did not look sharp or dominating--even while enjoying a double digit lead for most of the game--is that Mexico was able to score with ease, which was not true of Team USA's previous opponents. Consider this: for the game, Redd (1-6) and Mike Miller (0-4) combined to shoot 1-10 from three point range but Team USA still scored 127 points. If that does not illustrate that Redd and Miller's outside shooting prowess is a nice bonus but not essential to victory then I don't know what will.

The final on court/off court numbers for Bryant, Anthony and Redd reinforce my initial statement that this was probably Bryant's worst performance so far. Team USA outscored Mexico 74-71 when he was in the game and 53-29 when he was off the court. Redd's numbers are almost exactly the opposite (57-33 on, 70-67 off), because he generally substitutes for Bryant, although in this game they briefly were on the court at the same time. Team USA outscored Mexico 83-65 when Anthony was in the game and 44-35 when he was off the court. I did not track James' on court/off court numbers but it seemed like he was Team USA's best player (19 points, five rebounds, five assists, 6-7 field goal shooting, two blocked shots, one steal). Anthony is a scoring machine but I am still wary of how much he gives up at the other end of the court. Kidd had a very effective game that totally belies his bizarre statistics: 0 points (no field goal or free throw attempts), seven assists, three rebounds, three steals. Being paired more with Billups than Kidd due to the starting lineup change may have affected Bryant's on court numbers (not his personal statistics, but how the team performed overall when he was on the court). Walton commented that when Kidd is in the game he makes a point of advancing the ball up the court quickly; I think that Kidd's defense in this event has been markedly better than Billups' has been, too.

Team USA's next game is against Puerto Rico, a team that embarrassed Team USA 92-73 in the 2004 Olympics. Hopefully, Coach Kryzewski is done tinkering with his lineup and his defensive strategies and he will return to the formula that worked so well in the first four games: starting Bryant and Kidd in the backcourt, with Bryant guarding the opposing team's top perimeter scoring threat. Bryant eagerly accepted that challenge in the previous games, so why abandon that approach?

posted by David Friedman @ 4:08 AM

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