Team USA Routs Puerto Rico 135-91, Earns Berth in 2008 OlympicsTeam USA clinched a spot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics with a 135-91 semifinal round victory over Puerto Rico in the FIBA Americas Tournament. Puerto Rico kept the game close for a quarter and a half but Team USA began pulling away toward the end of the first half and ended up winning by an even bigger margin than they did in Wednesday's quarterfinal round matchup between these teams. Carmelo Anthony once again led the way offensively, scoring a game-high 27 points on 8-9 field goal shooting, including 6-7 from three point range. LeBron James added 19 points and a game-high nine assists, while Kobe Bryant (15 points) and Jason Kidd provided their customary leadership and defense in the backcourt. Kidd again had a stat line that does not do justice to his impact: eight points, four rebounds, two assists. Once the game was well out of hand, Michael Redd came in and put on an impressive shooting display, scoring 23 points on 8-10 shooting, including 7-8 from behind the three point arc. Dwight Howard led Team USA with six rebounds.
Puerto Rico seemed to play with a lot more fire and intensity early in this game than they did on Wednesday. ESPN Classic analyst Bill Walton went so far as to suggest that Puerto Rico played possum in that contest, saving their best effort for this game, where a victory would earn a trip to the Olympics. Puerto Rico employed a zone defense on Sunday, daring Kidd to shoot from three point range. Kidd had attempted just six shots from the field in the previous eight games but even in the NBA he is a solid three point shooter and the closer FIBA three point arc is not a real challenge for him: Kidd foiled Puerto Rico's strategy by shooting 2-3 from three point range and scoring all eight of his points in the first quarter. Making the FIBA three point shot is not difficult for any reasonably talented NBA player but the important thing for Team USA is to play good defense and create open court scoring opportunities; Team USA will probably never run a half court FIBA offense as smoothly as the teams that are more accustomed to playing under these rules but in a fast paced game Team USA can bury teams with a barrage of dunks and wide open three pointers. Puerto Rico led briefly early in the game but never by more than two points and their last lead was 10-9 after a Carlos Arroyo drive. An Arroyo jumper provided the last tie at 15-15 but by the end of the quarter Team USA was up 33-27.
During this game we were once again "treated" to FIBA's quirky officiating. Contrary to what you may read elsewhere, overall the calls have neither favored Team USA nor gone against Team USA; they have just been strange. For example, Amare Stoudemire drove baseline, clearly stepped out of bounds but was allowed to continue to the hoop and score. Early in the second quarter, Bryant cleanly blocked an Elias Ayuso three pointer but was called for a foul. Walton commented, "Even with three referees they still missed that one completely." On another occasion, the wrong Puerto Rican player attempted a free throw as James frantically protested; that one was eventually straightened out. After a replay of a Tayshaun Prince foul, Walton noted that Prince had made contact with the shadow of a Puerto Rican player. The key thing for Team USA is to realize that these calls go both ways and to not get frustrated.
Team USA clamped down defensively in the second quarter, limiting Puerto Rico to 15 points and taking a 57-42 halftime lead. The statistics told a familiar story: Team USA held Puerto Rico to 43% shooting, including 3-11 (.273) on three pointers. This led to many transition scoring opportunities and Team USA took advantage by shooting 66% from the field, connecting at a 7-16 rate (.438) on three pointers. As usual, it was not the designated shooters--Redd and Mike Miller--who did the damage from long distance when the game was competitive. Rather, it was Kidd (two three pointers), Bryant (two three pointers), Anthony (two three pointers) and Prince (one three pointer) who connected from three point range in the first half. Redd played just six scoreless minutes and Miller did not even get in the game.
Redd and Miller remained glued to the bench in the third quarter as Team USA blew the game wide open, relentlessly pushing the ball up the court for a host of fast break layups and transition three pointers, most of the latter being delivered by Anthony, who scored 16 points in a little over six minutes. Walton praised how well Anthony has shot the ball throughout this tournament but also noted two factors that weigh heavily in his favor: (1) Team USA has gone with a small lineup that puts Anthony at power forward, matching him up against defenders who are way too slow to guard him; (2) "The defense is stacked against Kobe and LeBron," observed Walton at one point, so Anthony rarely sees any double-teams. By the 3:30 mark, Team USA led 88-62 and Bryant and Anthony headed to the bench. Up to that point, Team USA led 77-48 when Bryant was in the game and trailed 14-11 when he was off the court; Anthony's numbers were 70-44 and 18-18 respectively. Meanwhile, Team USA trailed 17-14 during Redd's scoreless minutes and led 74-45 when he was not in the game. Of course, anyone who did not see the game and just glances at the boxscore will think that Redd played like a star. This is not meant to belittle Redd, who is a fine player, and it was nice to see Redd and the entire second unit actually extend the lead while playing for the entire fourth quarter--but there is a big difference between making shots when your team is up 25-30 points or more and making shots when the game is close.
Team USA has already accomplished its main mission in this tournament by qualifying for the Olympics but it is still important to beat Argentina in the gold medal game on Sunday--especially considering the fact that this is Argentina's "B" team due to the absences of Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto and others. Team USA does not want to give Argentina any added confidence for their likely showdown in next year's Olympics. Luis Scola had a huge game (27 points, 10-14 shooting, nine rebounds) in Argentina's 91-80 win over Brazil in the other semifinal matchup and Team USA's frontcourt players should relish this opportunity to play better against him than they did in Team USA's 91-76 victory on Thursday, when Scola had 20 points in just 18 foul-plagued minutes. 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.
posted by David Friedman @ 1:28 AM