Bryant, James and Wade Dazzle as Team USA Routs China, 101-70Yao Ming opened the scoring with a three pointer and China kept the game close in the first half but Team USA relied on defensive pressure, depth and athleticism to prevail 101-70 in an Olympic preliminary round contest that is widely being termed the most watched basketball game ever. Dwyane Wade scored a game-high 19 points on 7-7 field goal shooting and LeBron James authored another excellent all-around performance: 18 points on 8-12 shooting, six rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots, one steal. Kobe Bryant led Team USA in minutes played (27), anchored the perimeter defense and finished with 13 points, three assists, two rebounds and two steals. Dwight Howard scored 13 points but had just two rebounds. Chris Bosh was very productive in his 13 minutes, contributing nine points on 4-4 shooting and a team-high eight rebounds. China boasts a huge frontline anchored by the 7-5 Yao but Team USA won the rebounding battle 40-37. Carmelo Anthony, ballyhooed in some quarters as Team USA's best FIBA player, was a huge disappointment, missing all three of his field goal attempts and scoring just three points. Yao led China with 13 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots in a game-high 31 minutes but he seemed to wear down as the game progressed, shooting just 3-10 from the field.
Mike Breen and Doug Collins did the play by play and color commentary respectively for NBC. Collins offered three keys for Team USA: Defense creates offense, three point shooting (guarding the three point shot as well as making their own three pointers) and poise. This contest provided ample evidence of the significance of all of those factors, though it is much more important for Team USA to defend well against the three point shot than it is for them to shoot well from long distance. One might think that given the emphasis that China has placed on success in the Olympics that the Beijing crowd would be very pro-China and anti-Team USA but that was not the case. The fans certainly cheered for China but they also cheered for Team USA and it seems as though Kobe Bryant is the most popular player in the country, at least based on the warm reception he received on the exhibition tour, when he came to the arena to watch the U.S. women's basketball team yesterday and during this game.
Team USA got off to slow starts in several of the exhibition games and that was also the case versus China. China led 3-0, 6-2 and 11-7 in the early going. Howard scored Team USA's first four points and then James gave Team USA their first lead of the game, 7-6, after he snared a defensive rebound and went coast to coast for a layup and a three point play. China made their first three three point shots and shot 4-6 from long distance in the first quarter. Team USA scored the last four points of the first quarter to post a 20-16 lead.
Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo recently criticized Anthony's conditioning level and shooting accuracy in the wake of the five game exhibition tour and it is very interesting that Coach Mike Krzyzewski benched Anthony for the entire second quarter. Wade took Anthony's place for most of that time. Wade drove to the hoop aggressively and helped to force some turnovers but on several occasions he gave up open three point shots because he wandered too far into the lane reacting to drives or trying to double team Yao; as Fran Fraschilla pointed out when I interviewed him prior to Team USA's exhibition tour, "the (FIBA) game is played from outside in, whereas in the United States in college and the NBA the game is played from inside out." FIBA's trapezoid lane is another reason that post up play is not nearly as big a factor in the international game as it is in the NBA, so Wade and the other Team USA players must stay at home on the three point shooters.
Obviously, it would be nice if Team USA shoots well from outside but that is gravy as long as Team USA plays good defense and scores in transition. The key for Team USA is containing the opposing team's three point shooters. After Team USA started out 1-7 from three point range, Coach Krzyzewski put Michael Redd into the game with Team USA clinging to a 29-24 lead early in the second quarter. There has been so much talk about how important Redd's outside shooting can be for this team but the reality is that in 10 FIBA Americas tournament games last year and in the five exhibition games this year Redd has rarely been on the court when the outcome of the game was in doubt. Shortly after entering the game, Redd made a one on one move and missed a wild shot off of the glass. Meanwhile, Yao scored inside and China drained yet another three pointer to tie the score. At that point, China had shot 7-11 from three point range while Team USA was just 1-9.
Jason Kidd did not play a huge role during the exhibition tour and he did not score or have an assist in this game but he was the point guard on the floor when Team USA opened up the game for good. Kidd replaced Wade at the 5:29 mark with the score tied at 29. Redd missed a three pointer but Bosh scored on a putback. Team USA ratcheted up the pressure defense, leading to two fast break dunks by Bryant and a Chinese timeout. Wade came in to the game for Redd and Wade again made the mistake of sagging too far into the lane on defense, this time to double team Yao. After Li Nan drained a three pointer, Collins commented, "That's where Dwyane Wade has to have the discipline not to come over to help on Yao Ming and leave the three point shooter." Again, the important point here is that defending three point shooters correctly is much more important for Team USA than how many three pointers Redd or anyone else makes for Team USA.
Collins noted that the lineup with Bryant, Kidd, James, Wade and Bosh is Team USA's strongest defensive unit, an active and mobile quintet that can pressure the ball. Bosh is a much more valuable FIBA big man than Tyson Chandler (who was on the team last summer in the FIBA Americas tournament) because Bosh can defend multiple positions in addition to being much more versatile offensively. Team USA went on a 13-0 run after Wade's defensive miscue, scoring most of their points in transition. Kidd is not credited with any assists in the boxscore but he made a gorgeous feed to Bosh for a layup during that stretch; Bosh caught the ball in stride, took one dribble and went straight up for the score, so that definitely should have been scored as an assist. Team USA led 49-37 at halftime.
Bryant uncharacteristically struggled with his outside shot during this game (1-7 from three point range) but he shot 5-7 from inside the arc, including a driving dunk after a nice pump fake to open the third quarter. Yi Jianlian countered with a tip dunk right over Anthony. Kidd and Anthony ran a nice screen/roll action that resulted in two made free throws by Anthony. It was very obvious at several points that Kidd was making a concerted effort to get Anthony involved offensively, even forcing a couple passes to him. Team USA's depth really took a toll on China late in the second quarter and into the third quarter and China's three point shots stopped falling. A Wade free throw at the 2:17 mark pushed Team USA's lead to 68-48 and they maintained at least a 20 point margin the rest of the way. At the end of the third quarter, Collins mentioned that he had spoken with Team USA during their Las Vegas training camp. Collins was a member of the 1972 Team USA squad that lost to the Soviet Union in a very controversial gold medal game, an outcome that required the end of the game to be played a few times until the "desired" result took place (the Team USA players still refuse to accept their silver medals). He knows what kind of an opportunity this is for the players and he impressed upon them that they are all winners but that there are very few chances in life to become a champion; that distinction between winners and champions is very important.
Bryant, James, Anthony and Kidd did not play at all in the fourth quarter, while Wade made just a brief cameo appearance. I tracked Team USA's performance when each of those players was in the game. Team USA outscored China 73-46 when Bryant was in the game, 65-45 when James was in the game, 52-37 when Wade was in the game, 33-21 when Kidd was in the game and 25-16 when Anthony was in the game. Again, remember that Anthony sat out the entire second quarter when Team USA built a double digit lead while Kidd was in the game when Team USA made that key 20-8 run, including a 13-0 burst. Chris Paul (three points, six assists, three rebounds and two steals in 20 minutes) and Deron Williams (nine points, four rebounds, one assist in 19 minutes) both played well but it is interesting that when the game was close in the first half Kidd received the key minutes at point guard. In fact, in the first half Team USA outscored China 29-19 when Kidd was in the game, a bigger margin than Team USA enjoyed when Bryant (45-37), James (45-37), Wade (34-26) or Anthony (9-11) were in the game. Paul and Williams are better NBA point guards than Kidd at this point but Kidd is still an important part of Team USA's roster.
Redd led the garbage time brigade with nine fourth quarter points, all coming on three pointers with Team USA leading by at least 30--yet there is no doubt that someone who did not watch the game with understanding will look at his 3-7 three point shooting in the boxscore and proclaim that Team USA needed Redd's outside shooting in order to win.
Although Team USA started slowly, overall this was a good performance against a home team that obviously was extremely motivated to play their best game. Team USA withstood the initial wave and maintained their poise. Tuesday's game against Angola figures to be less emotionally charged and much easier but an interesting challenge looms on Thursday: a showdown with the Greek team that beat Team USA in the 2006 FIBA World Championship.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:09 PM