Team USA Dominates Argentina 118-81, Wins Gold Medal in FIBA Americas TournamentWhen Team USA breaks out of huddles, the players chant "1,2,3, Dominate!" Team USA more than lived up to that slogan with a 118-81 victory over Argentina in the gold medal game of the FIBA Americas tournament. This is the first time that Team USA has won a gold medal in FIBA competition since the 2003 team won the FIBA Americas tournament and this triumph comes on the heels of very disappointing results in the 2006 FIBA World Championship (bronze medal), the 2004 Olympics (bronze medal) and the 2002 FIBA World Championship (sixth place). LeBron James had a game-high 31 points on 11-15 field goal shooting, including 8-11 from three point range. Dwight Howard shot 7-7 from the field en route to his 20 points, while Carmelo Anthony contributed 16 points and a game-high eight rebounds. Orchestrating Team USA's tenacious defense and crisp ball movement were starting guards Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd; Bryant scored only five points but he had a game-high eight assists, revisiting the playmaking role that he had on three Lakers championship teams, while Kidd did not attempt a shot but finished with six rebounds and four assists. Luis Scola led Argentina with 23 points and his consistent performance throughout the event earned him the Most Valuable Player trophy.
Team USA put up some gaudy offensive numbers--118 points, .575 field goal shooting, .488 three point shooting--but it is important to understand why Team USA could do this: stifling defense created numerous open court opportunities, including many one on none fast break dunks. Team USA held Argentina to .434 field goal shooting and .333 three point accuracy. Even those numbers don't completely tell the story, because they are slightly inflated by garbage time production. In the first quarter, when Team USA took a 35-14 lead, Argentina shot 4-11 (.364) on two pointers and 2-7 (.286) from three point range. Argentina is a composed, wily team and did not commit many turnovers but Team USA contested virtually every shot, grabbed the rebound and then took off downcourt at breakneck speed. NBA TV analyst Steve Jones noted that Team USA would make one 15 foot pass and then another and that Argentina could not keep up; there is no comparison between the marvelous job that Jones and play by play announcer Joel Meyers did and the shoddy, rambling "effort" put forth by ESPN's broadcasters, notably Bill Walton. Instead of babbling nonstop about geographical and political trivia, Jones and Meyers actually called the game and treated this event with the respect that it deserves. They noted when fouls were called and mentioned when substitutions were made and throughout the telecast they provided interesting information about both teams. Jones and Meyers also did fine work on the bronze medal game, a 111-107 Puerto Rico victory over Brazil.
In my most recent post I wrote, "It will be interesting to see if Team USA really tries to send a message and beats Argentina--whose only loss in this tournament is to Team USA--by more than 20 points." Team USA made it clear from the start of the game that it had every intention of sending a message to Argentina and the rest of the world. Argentina--even without stalwart players Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni and Fabricio Oberto--is a strong team and they kept things close for a few minutes but Bryant's three pointer at the 2:48 mark of the first quarter gave Team USA a 25-14 lead and the margin never dipped below that the rest of the way. Team USA led by as many as 31 points in the second quarter and was up 59-34 at halftime.
For once, the on court/off court scoring differentials that I have been tracking for Bryant, Anthony and Michael Redd told a story of domination throughout the game; the second unit did not take its foot off of the gas pedal as Team USA turned in not only its finest performance of the tournament but one of the best American performances in FIBA play in quite some time. For the record, during the first three quarters Team USA led 65-50 when Bryant was in the game and 28-11 when he was off of the court; he did not play at all in the fourth quarter as Team USA outscored Argentina 25-20. Anthony's numbers were very similar: 55-40 advantage when he was in the game during the first three quarters, 38-21 lead when he was off of the court. He made a token fourth quarter appearance, during which Team USA outscored Argentina 5-4. Redd played all of his minutes when Bryant sat, so his numbers through the first three quarters are exactly the opposite of Bryant's and then you can tack on the 25-20 Team USA advantage in the fourth quarter, during which Redd played every minute. Redd finished with five points, shooting 1-3 from three point range. The other designated long range marksman, Mike Miller, did not get in the game until one minute remained in the third quarter and Team USA led 89-59. Miller played the entire fourth quarter and finished with nine points, including 2-4 shooting from beyond the three point arc.
Just to clarify what I said before this event and have reiterated in my game recaps, I do not mean to denigrate either Redd and Miller nor do I mean to belittle the importance of outside shooting. My message is that to beat the best FIBA teams Team USA must play outstanding perimeter defense--particularly on three point shooters--without compromising their interior defense; it does no good to deny three pointers at the expense of giving up wide open layups. Obviously, since Team USA went 10-0 it can hardly be said that Redd or Miller hurt the team but it also must be noted that Miller never found his shooting stroke (his .439 field goal shooting was the second worst mark on the team) and that he and Redd scored the vast majority of their points in garbage time. In the 2008 Olympics, Team USA will likely face Argentina's "A" team plus several other squads that are stronger than the ones that they just routed in the FIBA Americas tournament and it would be wise to consider adding some more perimeter defenders in case Bryant or Kidd have to deal with injuries or foul trouble. In addition to James' lights out three point shooting versus Argentina, Anthony shot 4-8 and Tayshaun Prince shot 3-7. Bryant did not exert himself as a scorer in this game but we know that he can make 20 foot jumpers at will and even against the best defenders. For all those who think that Redd and Miller's shooting is vitally important please consider these three point shooting percentages from the FIBA Americas tournament: James shot 23-37 (.622), Anthony shot 26-45 (.578) and Bryant shot 17-37 (.459). I mentioned previously that even though Kidd does not have a great field goal percentage in the NBA he is a decent three point shooter and he lived up to that, albeit with a small number of attempts (5-8, .625). Meanwhile, Redd shot 29-64 (.453) and Miller shot 19-50 (.380). Take out Redd's 7-8 performance in garbage time versus Puerto Rico and his percentage was below .400 (that number is also padded by other garbage time efforts). Jones offered a more nuanced and accurate portrayal of Team USA's three point shooting in FIBA events than just about any other expert who I have heard or read discuss the subject: "In the past, they didn't pass, they didn't take the shot when it presented itself and then shooting becomes problematic...When you think of the way that these guys make shots during the regular season, that 20 foot jump shot is an easy shot for them to make. Why would it suddenly become difficult in international play?" Team USA's big problems in recent FIBA events stemmed from poor defense and bad team chemistry, both of which led to a complete lack of offensive flow; the issue was not a lack of shooters but basic flaws in the way that the team played overall. I will examine this subject in depth in a future post.
From day one, the 2007 version of Team USA has been markedly different from its recent predecessors. During his post game remarks, Argentina Coach Sergio Hernandez said this Team USA roster is one of the greatest teams in international basketball history, mentioning that they play hard, they play defense and they have tremendous chemistry. He added that Team USA clearly respects the other FIBA teams and they proved it by playing hard throughout the tournament; Hernandez explained that if a team is good enough to beat his squad by 40 then he wants them to do it and to not be satisfied to win by 20 and he said that because of this approach it was a "pleasure" to compete against Team USA. This is the attitude that the best FIBA teams have always had regarding the participation of America's NBA players in these events. While know nothings in the United States alternate between criticizing NBA players for not bringing home the gold and than lamenting when Team USA blows out smaller countries, people forget that it was at the instigation of the rest of FIBA that the United States put together the Dream Team in 1992. In fact, the United States was the one country that was initially opposed to the idea. The fact is that sending college players to compete against other countries' professionals is pointless; the college players cannot win in these kind of events and it is better for the development of the game for the best to play against the best. The NBA regular season MVPs won by Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash are emblematic of the growth of basketball worldwide and can be directly attributed to the lasting impact of the one and only Dream Team.
Team USA's statistics for the FIBA Americas tournament can be found here. While some "experts" have already issued their "report cards"--essentially giving out grades before the final exam--I waited until all the games were over. Without further ado, here are capsule evaluations of each member of Team USA, listed in order of minutes played per game (which hints at Coach Krzyzewski's evaluation, though the fact that every game turned into a blowout definitely padded the numbers for the bench players):
LeBron James (22.2 mpg, 18.1 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.6 rpg, 15 steals, five blocked shots): James led the team in assists, ranked second in scoring and steals and shot an amazing .760 from the field, including .847 from two point range as he showcased a variety of soaring slam dunks. James is part of the "Fab Four" who will without question not only go to next year's Olympics but will be in the starting lineup (barring injury, of course).
Kobe Bryant (19.9 mpg, 15.3 ppg, 2.9 apg, 2.0 rpg, 16 steals, four blocked shots): Bryant led the team in steals, ranked third in scoring and ranked fourth in assists behind James and point guards Kidd and Williams. In his first taste of FIBA play he brought to the team the pedigree of a three-time NBA champion, a two-time scoring champion and a perennial All-NBA and All-Defensive team member--and he did not rest on his laurels, setting the pace for the team in workout sessions and providing an example of the defense and intensity that have been sorely lacking on recent editions of Team USA. Obviously, he is part of the "Fab Four."
Michael Redd (19.9 mpg, 14.4 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 1.5 apg, nine steals, zero blocked shots): Redd played exactly the same number of minutes as the player who started in front of him, Bryant, thanks to the extensive amount of garbage time minutes that existed in these games. Redd is a designated shooter whose role is to camp out behind the three point line and wait to receive a pass. He does not create many scoring opportunities either for himself or his teammates. Many people seem to assume that he is a lock to be on the Olympic team but it will be interesting to see what happens if several of the players who weren't available this time can play in 2008. Dwyane Wade is of course a lock to be on the team. I would also prefer Shane Battier and Bruce Bowen over Redd, although Bowen may be out of favor with USA Basketball for not participating in the workouts this summer. A versatile big like Chris Bosh would also be a nice addition to the roster.
Carmelo Anthony (19.4 mpg, 21.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.4 apg, six steals, three blocked shots): Anthony led the team in scoring and, playing the power forward position, ranked second in rebounding. He is a marvelously gifted scorer who is deadly from all areas of the court, though his free throw shooting in FIBA play tends to be subpar (.714 this time). Anthony is not a great defender but that weakness has less impact when he shares the court with Bryant and Kidd (and even James, whose defense is improving). Anthony is also a member of the "Fab Four."
Tayshaun Prince (17.9 mpg, 7.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.1 apg, six steals, three blocked shots): Like Redd, Prince generally only played in garbage time. His shooting was erratic and he was one of only three players to make less than half of his field goal attempts but his floor game was solid. With Wade, Bosh and others waiting in the wings, he is far from a lock to be on the Olympic team, particularly if USA Basketball decides to bring Redd back as shooting insurance.
Amare Stoudemire (17.7 mpg, 11.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, .7 apg, 11 steals, six blocked shots): I had assumed that Stoudemire would be the starter but as a backup he actually played slightly more minutes than Howard did. Stoudemire played solidly, though he did not block a lot of shots considering the amount of time that he was on the court.
Dwight Howard (16.8 mpg, 10.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg, .2 apg, six steals, 18 blocked shots): As I predicted, Howard led the team in rebounding. He also led in blocked shots and field goal percentage (.814). Howard is the perfect big man for this team: he rebounds, protects the paint and does not complain about being a secondary offensive option. He's not in my "Fab Four" but he's an important member of the team.
Chauncey Billups (16.0 mpg, 5.6 ppg, 2.6 apg, eight steals, zero blocked shots): he produced almost exactly the scoring and assists numbers that I predicted, which is to say that he did not have a huge impact on the team. He had the worst shooting percentage on the squad (.378) and the offense did not run as smoothly with him in the game as it did with Kidd on the court, something that was noted by Bill Walton and Charley Rosen. I was a bit surprised that he made the roster, even though so many people stressed his importance before the tournament; if Kirk Hinrich and some other players had not dropped out at the last minute Billups may not have made the cut and it will be interesting to see if he is on the Olympic roster.
Jason Kidd (15.9 mpg, 1.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.6 apg, 13 steals, five blocked shots): He tied for second on the team in assists but the contributions of this member of my "Fab Four" are not adequately measured by his statistics. Kidd and Bryant clearly have the respect of the younger players on the roster, who followed their lead in terms of professionalism, work ethic and defensive intensity. It is a joy to watch him play basketball.
Mike Miller (15.6 mpg, 7.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg, .9 apg, seven steals, two blocked shots): He and Redd were this team's designated shooters but they rarely saw any action until games were well in hand. Miller struggled with his shooting throughout the tournament and I would be very surprised to see him on the Olympic team.
Deron Williams (14.3 mpg, 4.7 ppg, 4.6 apg, 1.0 rpg, four steals, zero blocked shots): Williams tied with Kidd for second on the team in assists but most of Williams' assists came on passes to Redd, Miller and other reserves in garbage time. He is obviously one of the young, upcoming point guards in the NBA and he did a decent job when he was in the game but we still don't know how he would do against the best FIBA guards in a close game, particularly on defense (note his low totals in steals for a team that played a lot of pressure defense).
Tyson Chandler (8.6 mpg, 2.1 ppg, 3.6 rpg, zero assists, two steals, 14 blocked shots): Team USA's version of the human victory cigar, it seemed like Coach Krzyzewski did not want him on the court unless the margin was at least 25 points. Chandler ranked second in blocked shots despite his limited minutes and he got a lot of practice converting lobs into reverse slam dunks, the closest thing he has to a signature offensive move. Chandler has no post moves, cannot make a faceup jumper to save his life, has poor hands and is not a good passer, so he pretty much is the antithesis of a good FIBA big (contrast his skill set with Scola's). Do not expect to see him on the Olympic roster.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:03 AM