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Friday, August 31, 2007

Team USA Defeats Argentina 91-76, Improves to 8-0

Team 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.

NOTES:
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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.

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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

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Perfect Storm: LeBron James Does Not Miss a Shot, Team USA Cruises by Uruguay, 118-79

LeBron James scored a game-high 26 points on 11-11 field goal shooting as Team USA improved to 7-0 with a 118-79 win over Uruguay. James did all of his damage in just 14 minutes and sat out the entire second half. Amare Stoudemire added 19 points and a game-high seven rebounds, while Deron Williams had a game-high six assists. Esteban Batista, the third leading scorer in the FIBA Americas tournament, scored 20 points for Uruguay and for a stretch of time during the first quarter he was the best player on the court for either team.

Team USA deviated from its usual starting lineup and this time it was not because of a whim by Coach Mike Kryzewski--leading scorer Carmelo Anthony bruised his heel in Tuesday's victory against Puerto Rico when he tried to slap the backboard with two hands after a dunk and landed awkwardly. No ill effects were apparent at the time, but he sat out the Uruguay game. Michael Redd took his place in the starting lineup, playing alongside regular starters Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Anthony has usually provided much of the early scoring for Team USA but Team USA is well stocked with capable scorers; Team USA will ultimately rise or fall based on its work at the defensive end of the court.

Early on against Uruguay, Team USA's defense broke down in several areas, including pick and roll plays, three point line defense, inbound plays and basic post defense. Mauricio Aguiar opened the scoring with a three pointer. Team USA's first two field goal attempts were missed three pointers by Redd and Bryant. It is not necessary for Team USA to make three pointers to win but it is very important to shut down the opposing team's three point shooters and Team USA struggled with this in the first few minutes versus Uruguay. Kidd tied the score by making a three pointer but Uruguay recaptured the lead on a three point play by Batista. James brought Team USA to within one by making a jumper but Nicolas Mazzarino's three pointer put Uruguay up 9-5. The 6-0 Mazzarino is shooting .532 from three point range in this tournament and the way that he got open for this shot is reminiscent of how previous Team USA squads failed defensively: Uruguay ran a pick and roll play at the top of the key, with James getting switched onto Mazzarino; James backed off instead of denying the jump shot and Mazzarino fired without hesitation. Team USA soon tied the game after Howard made two free throws and Bryant converted a fast break dunk. An interesting exchange took place a few possessions later: Bryant drove to the hoop and seemed to have an uncontested layup but he instead kicked the ball out to an open Redd, hoping to get the struggling three point specialist going. Redd missed and on Uruguay's next possession Team USA's defense failed in a different way than it had minutes earlier: Howard got completely out of position on a pick and roll play, enabling Batista to cut to the hoop for an easy score.

After Kidd missed a three pointer, Aguiar's layup at the 4:52 mark gave Uruguay its final lead of the night, 14-12. At this point, Uruguay had shot 2-4 from three point range and Batista had scored six points on inside moves. Anyone who says that Team USA struggled in these first few minutes because of the absence of Anthony's scoring simply did not watch the game; Team USA played poor defense on the perimeter and in the paint, which not only enabled Uruguay to score but also prevented Team USA from getting any open court opportunities on offense. This is exactly the type of scenario that I have been talking about when I keep emphasizing that Team USA's biggest problem in recent years has not been the absence of shooters like Redd or Mike Miller but rather defensive breakdowns; the addition of Kidd and Bryant to this Team USA roster has largely resolved those defensive problems, except for a brief stretch in the Mexico game and the first five minutes or so of the Uruguay game. It is not clear if Team USA was a little complacent/overconfident at the start of this game or if there was a little confusion regarding the skill sets of some of Uruguay's players.

Team USA slowly began to figure things out. James answered Aguiar's drive with a three pointer and then Bryant stole the ball on Uruguay's next possession. Bryant pushed the ball up the court and in a fast break situation he had several options, including taking the shot himself, but he again passed to Redd, whose layup gave Team USA its biggest lead yet (19-14); whether or not a player is selfish is not revealed simply by looking at statistics for assists but also by watching how he plays: this was the second time in the early going that Bryant provided Redd with an easy opportunity to score.

A couple possessions later, Mazzarino used a baseline screen to free himself for another three pointer. Bryant was visibly upset after this play, though it was not clear if he was mad at himself for getting screened or frustrated at a teammate for not switching, thus enabling a great shooter to have a wide open look. The next sequence was incredibly bizarre. Bryant drove to the hoop from the right baseline but missed a layup. He got the offensive rebound, gathered himself and then missed a one handed dunk. Bryant rebounded that miss and missed another layup. Uruguay finally got a defensive rebound but Aguiar missed a three pointer. On Team USA's next possession, Bryant converted a three point play to again put Team USA up five, 22-17, with 2:45 remaining.

After Bryant made the free throw, the starters went out and the second unit of Amare Stoudemire, Tayshaun Prince, Mike Miller, Chauncey Billups and Deron Williams entered the game (Tyson Chandler does not often see action until Team USA has a huge lead). That group closed out the quarter with a 9-4 run. Both of Uruguay's baskets were scored in the paint by Batista; on the first one, he drove right around Stoudemire and threw down a dunk. Team USA led 31-21 and Batista had 10 of Uruguay's points. The second unit--though Krzyzewski does not like to use that term--remained in the game until the 6:47 mark of the second quarter and was only able to extend the lead to 37-25. Williams made a layup, Billups hit two free throws and Stoudemire had a putback but Team USA also had some terrible plays. Batista twice scored by executing simple cuts to the hoop and catching the defense completely flatfooted. Stoudemire missed a three pointer--which seemed like a curious shot selection in a game that was still close--and Billups jumped in the air with the ball and came down without shooting or passing, resulting in a traveling violation. After that play, the five starters returned to action with 6:47 left in the period.

Krzyzewski may not like to publicly use the term "second unit" but the on court/off court point differentials of various Team USA players clearly indicate that some groupings are performing a lot better than others. The starters immediately went on an 8-0 run to take a 45-28 lead. James had six of the points, while Bryant made two free throws after getting a steal and driving to the hoop--but the most important thing to understand is that all of those scoring opportunities were created by defense. Whatever the problems were in the first few minutes of the game, Team USA solved them and in the second quarter the starters shut down Uruguay's three point shooters while at the same time controlling the action in the paint; steals and defensive rebounds were then converted into layups, dunks and open three point shots (as opposed to off balance, contested three point shots). Batista took his first rest at the 6:15 mark and that no doubt hurt Uruguay as well. James put on a stunning offensive display in the last 6:47, shooting 7-7 from the field and scoring 16 points--and, except for two three pointers that he made in the half court offense, all of those baskets were fast break layups or dunks that came as a direct result of good team defense. On the last possession of the half, James passed to Stoudemire, who made his second three pointer of the tournament to give Team USA a 66-38 lead as time expired.

The halftime statistics told a very familiar story: defense is the key to Team USA's success. Uruguay shot just 5-18 (.278) from three point range, which means that when Team USA pulled away Uruguay shot 2-13 after starting out 3-5. Notice the pattern? When Team USA's perimeter defense struggled, Uruguay led; Team USA then shut down the three point shooters and it rapidly became a blowout. Yes, Team USA shot 7-16 from three point range (.438) in the first half but they would have still had the lead even if they had shot 0-16 (which is unlikely to ever happen, of course). Team USA shoots three pointers best in transition--in other words, after steals or defensive rebounds--and is not dependent on Redd and Miller to deliver from outside: five players other than those two (Kidd, James, Williams, Stoudemire and Tayshaun Prince) made at least one three pointer against Uruguay; in addition, Anthony is a deadly shooter behind the FIBA three point arc (.542 accuracy in six games) and Bryant (0-2 versus Uruguay) is shooting .478 on three pointers in this tournament. The rebounding battle in the first half was almost even (21-19 in favor of Team USA) but Team USA forced 10 turnovers while committing only four.

Uruguay never got closer than 25 points in the third quarter but did manage to nearly keep pace with Team USA, only getting outscored 29-26. The fourth quarter was a bit ragged and each team had its lowest scoring quarter of the game (23-15 in favor of Team USA). One would like to think that Team USA's second unit could do better against Uruguay if it were necessary but based on Team USA's performances in recent international competitions when Bryant and Kidd were not on the team I would not automatically assume that this is the case. There is a very good reason that certain players are usually on the court when Team USA breaks these games open. Since Anthony did not play, I decided to track Team USA's scoring differential with Kidd on the court and off the court in addition to tracking those numbers for Bryant and Redd. Kidd played 12 minutes--contributing three points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals--and during all of that time Bryant and James were also on the court; Team USA outscored Uruguay 40-26 when Kidd was in the game and led 26-12 when Kidd was on the bench. Redd shared his 12 first half minutes with Kidd.

Although I did not intentionally track James' numbers, it turned out that he and Bryant played all 14 of their minutes together, so they obviously had identical on court/off court statistics: 51-30 Team USA lead when they were in the game, 15-8 Team USA lead when they were on the bench. James had four assists, two steals and no rebounds in addition to his 26 points, while Bryant finished with 13 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Redd was the only starter who played in the second half; Team USA led 30-29 while he was on the court, making his total on court numbers for the game 70-55. He ended up with nine points, two assists, one rebound and two steals, with most of that production happening in the second half. Except for the Mexico game, Team USA has played its best when Bryant was on the court and it has not made much difference whether or not Redd was in the game. Note, too, that Team USA was able to match its tournament-leading scoring average despite the absence of leading scorer Anthony. It is much, much easier for Team USA to replace a player's scoring--even when that player is as gifted as Anthony is--than it is for Team USA to make up for the absence of good defense. James was the scoring star on this night, but he benefited from great Team USA defense that led to open court scoring opportunities (James also contributed to the great defense).

Team USA closes out quarterfinal round play tonight by playing Argentina, the only other undefeated team in the tournament. The winner of that game will get the top seed in the semifinal round. This Argentina squad does not have the services of Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni or Fabricio Oberto but it has been capably led by Luis Scola (who will play for the Houston Rockets this year) and Carlos Delfino (Toronto Raptors). Argentina ranks second to Team USA in scoring (94.1 ppg compared to 117.6 ppg) and three point field goal percentage (.423 compared to .449). Argentina is holding its opponents to 75.9 ppg, with a high game of 92, while Team USA's opponents have averaged 74.9 ppg, with a high game of 100. This is a good dress rehearsal for Team USA for the 2008 Olympics and the key to victory, as always, will be to play good defense. Expect Bryant and Kidd to lead the way in that regard, while any one of several players might score the most points for Team USA.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:07 AM

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Yi Jianlian Signs With Milwaukee

Refuting critics who said that they could not pull it off, the Milwaukee Bucks signed first round pick Yi Jianlian to a contract. There had been some speculation that Yi would never set foot in Milwaukee, but it is good for the league--and will ultimately be good for Yi's development as a player--that Yi did not try to circumvent the NBA Draft. I'll be more honest than most people who are pontificating about what kind of player Yi will turn out to be: frankly, I don't know. I've only seen him play a couple times as a member of the Chinese National team (plus of course those nifty workout clips on ESPN). Yi seems to be more athletic and less physically imposing/dominant than Yao Ming. Keep in mind that it took Yao some time to adjust to the NBA--remember Charles Barkley and his infamous bet that Yao would not score 19 points in a game?

Based on Yi's poor summer league numbers and the possibility that he is actually 22 or 23 instead of 19, ESPN's John Hollinger suspects that Yi may join the ranks of Martell Webster, Dajuan Wagner, DerMarr Johnson and Tractor Traylor as sixth overall selections who did not meet high expectations. Hollinger may be 100% correct, but if we are going to use the summer league as the primary basis for projecting the arc of his entire career then what does that say about Kevin Durant? I think that as rookies Yi will struggle a lot and Durant will be up and down. Yi has the added challenge of adapting to a new country/culture in addition to getting acclimated to the NBA game. I don't think that the age factor is a huge deal, unless it turns out that Yi is 30 (which he's not). Even if Yi is 23 and it takes him three years to fully reach his potential he can still have a long and productive NBA career after that point.

posted by David Friedman @ 6:02 PM

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Team USA Cruises to 117-78 Win Over Puerto Rico

Team 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

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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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Monday, August 27, 2007

Kobe Bryant Shuts Down Leandro Barbosa, Team USA Routs Brazil 113-76

Remember when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen took turns completely shutting down Croatia's Toni Kukoc in the 1992 Olympics? If you forgot what that looked like, Kobe Bryant provided a reasonable facsimile on Sunday, holding Leandro Barbosa to four points on 1-7 field goal shooting--and the lone make came when Bryant was not in the game--as Team USA defeated Brazil 113-76 to finish 4-0 in Group B play. Barbosa entered the game as the leading scorer in the FIBA Americas tournament but Bryant has consistently asked for and received the toughest defensive assignments for Team USA and Sunday was no exception. Bryant also had his best scoring performance so far, contributing 20 points on 6-9 shooting; Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James tied for game-high honors with 21 points each and Anthony added a game-high 10 rebounds. Kidd, James and Deron Williams each had a game-high five assists.

Throughout this tournament I have been emphasizing three themes: (1) Defense is more important to Team USA's success than outside shooting; (2) Kobe Bryant has had the biggest impact on Team USA's defense (though Kidd has also had a very positive effect); (3) Team USA was plagued by slow starts in the 2006 FIBA World Championships but has gotten off to good starts in this event. I have been comparing Team USA's scoring differential with Bryant on the court to its scoring differential when he is out of the game to indicate how much impact he has had but I thought that for this game--which matched Team USA against what was supposed to be its toughest opponent yet--it would be interesting to track not only Bryant's plus/minus numbers but also those of Anthony and Michael Redd, the team's leading scorers.

Thanks to the late conclusion of the WNBA playoff game, ESPN2 joined the game with the score already 8-0 in Team USA's favor. As a brief aside, I must say that I have been thoroughly disappointed with the television coverage of this event; the game is almost treated as a side show while the announcers talk about whatever random thoughts pop into their heads--little effort is made to break down either team's strategies, players who commit fouls are frequently not identified (making it difficult to know who is in foul trouble) and player substitutions are often not noted (making it tough to track precise on court/off court data--thank you TIVO for saving the day). ESPN2 never bothered to show or tell how exactly Team USA got its quick lead (but Bill Walton continued his personal mission to explain how every country in South America got its name). Team USA was up 12-6 when Bryant made a play that typified the type of energy and effort he has brought on a nightly basis; he pressured Barbosa from the top of the key, chasing him to midcourt and eventually forcing a backcourt violation. When the ball was loose--and before the backcourt violation had been called--Bryant dove on the floor to try to steal the ball, leading the crowd to start chanting, "Kobe, Kobe." When the two-time defending NBA scoring champion plays that kind of defense, it has an immense effect on his own team, the opposing team and even the fans.

Bryant and Anthony have started every game, so their point differentials obviously are identical until one or the other sits out. Anthony took a breather with 5:02 remaining in the first quarter. He had already scored nine points and Walton and play by play announcer John Saunders raved throughout the game about how well Anthony's game is suited for FIBA play--but half of any basketball game occurs at the defensive end of the court and despite Anthony's scoring, Team USA only led 14-10 at this point. Bryant had Barbosa locked down but Team USA's interior defense had some lapses in the early going. Bryant stayed in for about one more minute and the score was 19-12 when Redd checked in for him. Bryant returned nearly three minutes later with Team USA leading 25-17 and Brazil ended the quarter with a 4-2 run, getting one of its baskets when Tayshaun Prince collapsed to the court with a sprained ankle. So, after a quick start, Team USA faded a bit down the stretch in the first quarter. The scoring differentials at this point were as follows: 21-16 with Bryant on, 6-5 with him off the court; 14-10 with Anthony on, 13-11 with him off the court; 6-9 with Redd on the court, 21-12 with him off the court. As already noted, there were times when some of these players were on the court at the same time, a subject we will further examine a bit later.

Things got very interesting in the second quarter. Anthony was on the court, while Bryant and Redd both were off the court. James opened the quarter by scoring on a nice post move but Brazil countered when Tiago Splitter drove right by Anthony for a layup. Anthony tried to answer with a jumper but he missed and on the next possession Team USA's defense broke down, allowing an Alex Garcia dunk. James then missed a turnaround jumper and Barbosa beat Chauncey Billups down court for a layup that brought Brazil to within two points, 29-27. James made a three pointer, Team USA got a stop and then Anthony put back his own miss to make the score 34-27. Walton nearly lost his mind at this point, pausing from his explanations of arcane trivia about South America to declare, "Carmelo Anthony is establishing himself as the premier player on this team, along with Jason Kidd." Those words were barely out of his mouth when Splitter again blew by Anthony for an easy layup, pulling Brazil back to within five, 34-29. At that time, Team USA's score with its "premier player" on the court was an underwhelming 21-18. Soon after this, Bryant returned to action and he and Anthony were in the game together for a little over a minute as Team USA outscored Brazil 5-3, with Bryant (3) and Anthony (2) scoring all of the points. James then checked in for Anthony and about a minute later Redd entered the fray as well. Redd soon hit a three on a feed from Bryant and not long after that James missed a rushed three pointer that Barbosa rebounded. Bryant stripped the ball from Barbosa and saved the ball from going out of bounds; a Redd drive on that extra possession made the score 52-36 Team USA and when Bryant checked out after hitting two free throws with 27 seconds left the score was 54-36. James' buzzer beating three pointer made the halftime score 57-38. James had 15 first half points, Anthony added 13 and Bryant had 10--but check out Anthony, Bryant and Redd's on court/off court numbers: Team USA led 41-23 with Bryant on the court but just 16-15 with him off the court; Team USA led 26-21 with Anthony on the court and 31-17 with him off the court; Team USA led 21-14 with Redd on the court and 36-24 with him off the court. Keep in mind that Anthony and Redd both shared some time with Bryant during big Team USA runs. Anyone who wants to understand why this version of Team USA is better than the last several editions will have to look a lot deeper than just glancing at who is leading the team in scoring. Brazil did not score a single field goal in the last 6:08 of the second quarter, which corresponds almost exactly with when Bryant was on the court. Brazil had no three point game (2-7 shooting from behind the arc) and Barbosa was 1-4 from the field for three points. It is interesting to note that Brazil outrebounded Team USA 17-16 in the first half; combine that little statistical nugget with the 57 points that Team USA scored and it becomes more and more apparent that in FIBA play Team USA is not having problems scoring and its success is not dependent on rebounding or three point shooting--shutting down the guard play and three point shooting of the opposing team are the two items of paramount importance. Walton offered this curious halftime comment: "Both teams are shooting well over 50 percent," an odd thing to say when Brazil shot 13-28 (.464) in the first half. Will someone please bring back Steve Jones so that he can retrieve Walton from outer space?

Anthony and Bryant were both in the game at the start of the third quarter, while Redd was on the bench. Nene's three point play cut the lead to 57-41 but then Team USA's suffocating defense took over, leading to numerous open court opportunities. Bryant nailed back to back three pointers, Kidd threw a lob to Anthony and James followed that with a steal and layup that became a three point play after he was fouled. Consecutive three pointers by James and Anthony made the score 74-41 and ended matters from a competitive standpoint. This was such an impressive display that it actually knocked some sense into Walton, who stopped chattering about miscellanea long enough to say that Team USA's game clinching run had been fueled by defense, adding, "Kobe Bryant has been the initiator of that defense...When you are able to put the clamps on the other team's best player (Barbosa) to the point where he basically just wants to throw in the towel and go to the bench to get this over with, then the rest of the (Brazilian) team crumbled because there is no leadership, no spark, no spirit and, worst of all, no hope." Later in the game, for some inexplicable reason, Walton felt it necessary to say that Bryant spent most of last season getting "torched" by the NBA's best shooting guards, apparently not understanding that the complete inability of the rest of the Lakers' roster to play any defense might have had something to do with opposing players being able to convert pick and roll opportunities after Bryant had been successfully screened and was thus no longer involved in the play; the league's head coaches--who are more concerned with basketball than they are with the etymology of "Venezuela" or the policies of Hugo Chavez, both of which fascinated Walton in an earlier telecast--figured this out and voted Bryant to the All-Defensive First Team; I'd be willing to bet that Bryant would get Barbosa's vote now, too.

Bryant went to the bench at the 5:19 mark of the third quarter with Team USA leading 76-43. Surprisingly, despite the sizable margin he actually returned to the game a few minutes later and Team USA made a 7-0 run to go up 96-47 before he left the game for good. Redd played the entire fourth quarter, which consisted of the "extensive gar-bage time" that has characterized the concluding portion of each of Team USA's games so far. One should not put too much stock in what happened in that final period with the game well in hand but it should not be ignored that Brazil outscored Team USA 29-17; that made Redd's final on court differential 51-45, while his off court differential was 62-31. He ended up with 16 points on 6-10 shooting. Redd is a nice player to have around but, even if he leads this team in scoring by collecting garbage time points, he is nowhere close to being the best player on the team or even an essential player. The only time during the game that Team USA did very well while he was on the court was when Bryant was also in the game--you may recall that Bryant passed to Redd for a wide open three pointer and even Walton observed that Redd was not very effective during the portions of the game when he was attempting shots other than wide open, spot up three pointers. Those shots, of course, are the product of good defense leading to open court opportunities and Team USA plays its best defense when Bryant is in the game.

Bryant's final on court differential was 67-30, while his off court differential was 46-46. Anthony had a 59-27 on court differential and a 54-49 off court differential. These numbers indicate a couple things: (1) Team USA built its lead when Bryant was on the floor, whether or not Anthony and/or Redd were also playing; (2) Team USA did well when Anthony was on the court but closer analysis shows that Team USA's best moments with Anthony in the game corresponded to when Bryant was also in the game shutting down Barbosa, which is why Team USA also had a slightly positive differential even when Anthony was on the bench.

Anthony is a wonderfully versatile scorer and Redd is a terrific spot up shooter. They are both valuable players to Team USA and it is a joy to watch them perform well--but Anthony was on previous teams that failed to bring home gold and Redd's individual numbers do not have a significant impact on Team USA's scoring differential. The reason that this version of Team USA is better than the last several ones is that Kobe Bryant has brought the team's defense to a higher level. Jason Kidd also deserves credit for adding to the team's defensive mindset and for setting a tone of unselfishness at both ends of the court. It should be a lot of fun watching this version of Team USA win the gold medal in the 2008 Olympics.

posted by David Friedman @ 4:19 AM

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