Huge Second Quarter Run Lifts Team USA to 114-82 Win Over TurkeyTeam USA closed the first half with a 19-3 run en route to a 114-82 victory over Turkey at Cotai Arena in Macau in the first of four games that Team USA will play in the USA Basketball International Challenge, part of their five game pre-Olympic exhibition tour. LeBron James was selected as the game MVP after scoring 20 points on 8-9 field goal shooting while adding six rebounds, four assists and five steals. He blocked Turkey's first shot of the game and then dribbled coast to coast to score a layup, showing no signs of any ill effects from the sprained ankle that sidelined him from Team USA's first exhibition game, a 120-65 victory over Canada in Las Vegas last Friday. Carmelo Anthony scored 17 points on 5-6 shooting but he had no rebounds in 17 minutes and after a decent defensive outing versus Canada he reverted to the ghastly--or ghostly, as in "invisible"--defense that is the negative flip side of his marvelous offensive repertoire; he sat out the last 7:25 of the second quarter, the precise period when Team USA took command of the game.
Dwight Howard scored 14 points--all of them on rim-rocking dunks--and snared a game-high eight rebounds. He played 24 minutes, while Carlos Boozer scored five points in 10 minutes and Chris Bosh had 13 points in nine minutes, a deceptive total since nine of his points came in fourth quarter garbage time. As I said when this roster was first announced, look for the minutes breakdown of Team USA's three bigs to be roughly 20 minutes for Howard and 10 each for Boozer and Bosh.
Dwyane Wade, who returned to the bench with James in the starting lineup, scored 13 points. Chris Paul played an excellent all-around game, finishing with 12 points, six assists and four rebounds. Kobe Bryant did not look for his shot that often but he had a game-high seven assists and tied James for game-high honors with five steals. On some plays it looked like Bryant was playing with the Lakers: he drew double team coverage, made the correct pass and then the recipient reversed the ball to someone for a wide open shot (a Bryant to Anthony to Jason Kidd sequence of that nature led to Kidd's only basket, a three pointer from the top of the key). Bryant is credited with seven points in the boxscore but an examination of the play by play sheet confirms that he actually scored nine points and that Deron Williams scored four points, not the six that are listed by his name in the boxscore.
Kidd had a very quiet game. His numbers will never blow you away in FIBA competition but his intangible impact on this contest was not at the level that it usually is. He only played 12 minutes and was not particularly sharp offensively or defensively.
Once again, Rick Kamla and Fran Fraschilla handled the broadcasting duties, this time for ESPN2. Fraschilla's three keys for Team USA were defensive cohesiveness, half court execution and rebounding (his keys for the Canada game were build chemistry, establish pressure defense and make outside shots). Taking the last point first, Team USA won the rebounding battle 29-24 after enjoying a 38-24 advantage versus Canada; many people keep beating to death the idea that Team USA is too small but Howard is probably going to be the leading rebounder in every game, LeBron James is as big as Karl Malone was, Bryant and Kidd can rebound from the guard position if necessary and Anthony will hit the offensive glass if nothing else. Boozer and Bosh provide rebounding power off of the bench, so there is no reason that rebounding should be a big problem for this team.
Team USA got off to a slow start versus Canada, only leading 28-21 after the first quarter, and they fared even worse versus Turkey, trailing 27-24 late in the first quarter before rallying to take a 31-30 lead by the end of the first ten minutes. The problem, as it almost always is when Team USA struggles in FIBA play, was poor defensive execution. Scoring and shooting are not problems for Team USA; their only offensive problems happen in the half court set when a lack of familiarity (with each other and with FIBA play) sometimes results in stagnant possessions or turnovers. However, Team USA still has to get better at defensive recognition and defensive execution. A perfect example of this happened at the 1:42 mark of the first quarter when Ender Arslan drained a three pointer against Anthony as the shot clock wound down. "You have to know that," Fraschilla said immediately. "With the clock running down if he's not making a move to the hoop he's setting himself up for the pullup (jumper). He had too much room right there." There were also several instances of bad screen/roll defense, including one time when Bryant forced his man to an area expecting help from Anthony only to notice too late that Anthony had his back turned and was completely oblivious to the play.
Team USA led 24-19 when Bryant sat down at the 3:02 mark of the first quarter but Turkey made an 11-7 run with Bryant out of the game. That brings us to the interesting tale of the plus/minus numbers from this game. I tracked Bryant, Kidd, James and Anthony, none of whom played a minute in the fourth quarter, during which Team USA led by at least 27 points for the entire 10 minutes. Overall, Team USA outscored Turkey 66-40 when Bryant was in the game, 34-27 when Kidd was in the game, 66-45 when James was in the game and 62-43 when Anthony was in the game. Kidd did not have much impact and his plus/minus numbers in limited minutes reflect that. Whether or not Bryant scores a lot this team consistently plays better when he is in the game than when he is on the bench and that has been the case from the moment he joined the roster last summer. It is also not surprising that James' plus/minus numbers were so good: he played an outstanding game and a lot of his minutes overlapped with Bryant's. Anthony's plus/minus numbers look good on the surface but those numbers do not tell the entire story. At the 8:38 mark of the second quarter, Anthony switched on a screen/roll play, enabling his man--Kerem Gonlum--to cut to the hoop and score over the much smaller Paul. "There's a switch and that's what you don't want to do," Fraschilla said. "International teams are very good at reacting to switching defenses." While there are some situations in which it is OK to switch, that was an instance where a switch led to a fatal mismatch, something that could have been avoided had Anthony been in better position to deal with the screen. Gonlum's basket trimmed Team USA's lead to 35-34 and when Coach Krzyzewski benched Anthony at the 7:25 mark of the second quarter Team USA only led 39-34. Team USA closed the quarter with a 15-3 run to blow the game open and the key was not rebounding or outside shooting but rather good defense, spearheaded by Bryant and James. The flashiest play during that time came when Bryant broke up a screen/roll play by stealing the ball. He then pushed the ball downcourt and delivered a perfect lob to James for a fast break dunk. Kamla started screaming like he was a fan watching the game at home on TV but Fraschilla made a very important observation: "You love the highlight but what I like about that is excellent pick and roll defensive execution. They thought they could throw the little bounce pass but Kobe had none of that." Bryant's play is precisely what Team USA did not do in its recent FIBA losses--defend the pick and roll aggressively, get a stop and then score in transition. There is all this talk about how Team USA needs more shooters or more bigs but what Team USA really needs is sound and aggressive perimeter defense, something that Bryant and Kidd have added to the team--and something that James has improved at in the past few years.
Team USA led 54-37 at halftime and they quickly pushed that margin past 20 in the opening minutes of the third quarter: James drove to the hoop and earned two free throws--making both--Bryant got a steal and delivered another nice lob for a dunk--this time to Howard--and then Team USA converted their prettiest play of the game: Kidd made a bounce pass to Bryant cutting along the baseline and then Bryant slipped a pass to Howard, who dove down the lane and threw down a monster jam to make the score 60-39. That was probably Team USA's best half court set of the game. A few minutes later, James returned the favor from the first half by lobbing a pass to Bryant for a reverse dunk on a fast break to put Team USA up 68-46. One interesting development in the third quarter was that Coach Krzyzewski used James at center for a while, creating a very fast lineup that did not suffer at all on the boards. That approach may not work against every team but it showcases once again the versatility that Team USA enjoys, which is far more important than adding a one dimensional player like Tyson Chandler to the roster (no disrespect to Chandler, whose game is much more suited to the NBA style than the FIBA style). Team USA led 87-59 by the end of the third quarter.
After the game, Turkish coach Bogdan Tanjevic said of Team USA,"They had great technique, great effort, and defensively they were much better than the World Championship team of two years ago, and they are definitely in better shape than they were two years ago, and they use a team system--not a star system." The last time these teams played, Team USA beat Turkey 79-67 in a training game prior to the 2004 Olympics. James scored seven points in 16 minutes in that contest, while Wade had nine points in 18 minutes and Anthony added five points in 15 minutes; Bryant and Kidd were not on that squad, a team that settled for the bronze medal in the Olympics. Team USA and Turkey both have made roster changes since 2004 but the main differences for Team USA are the additions of Bryant and Kidd coupled with James' improvement, particularly on defense.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:10 PM