Team USA Applies Defensive Pressure, Beats Lithuania 120-84Team USA concluded the Macau portion of the USA Basketball International Challenge with a 120-84 victory over Lithuania, improving to 2-0 in this event and 3-0 overall on their pre-Olympic exhibition tour. Team USA will play their final two exhibition games in Shanghai before beginning Olympic preliminary round action against host China on August 10. The story of this game was Team USA's pressure defense, led by Kobe Bryant, who set the tone right from the start by completely taking sharpshooter Sarunas Jasikevicius out of the game. Jasikevicius did not make a field goal in the first quarter as Team USA opened the contest with a 24-5 outburst. Jasikevicius finished with nine points on 2-8 field goal shooting, a far cry from his usual numbers against Team USA in FIBA competition (see Historical Note below). That history was very much on Bryant's mind: "He had a great game against us a few years ago, and he was real brash about it, trash talking and things of that nature. So it's my responsibility to bring it to him. He reminded me of it, so we sicced the Doberman on him." Although Bryant referred to "us," he was not a member of the previous teams that Jasikevicius burned and that is the biggest difference between the 2002-2004-2006 editions of Team USA and the current squad: Bryant has made it his personal mission to shut down the perimeter players who have caused Team USA so much trouble and heartbreak in recent FIBA competitions, a job that no one on those teams was willing and/or able to fill. In addition to his superb defense, Bryant scored 13 points on 6-9 field goal shooting, had three assists and did not commit a turnover.
Dwyane Wade scored a game-high 19 points on 7-9 shooting in 18 minutes off of the bench. Dwight Howard powered his way to 17 points and five rebounds and LeBron James had another great all-around performance: 15 points, six assists, five rebounds. Michael Redd added 16 points, including 10 in the fourth period garbage time session. Jason Kidd had two points, two assists and three steals in just 11 minutes. He played a key role in Team USA's opening run but it seems like Coach Mike Krzyzewski is limiting Kidd's playing time to save him for the Olympics. Carmelo Anthony scored 11 points on 4-9 shooting but his poor defense is the untold story so far for Team USA; he is the only starting player of whom it could be said that Team USA plays better when he is on the bench. I know that this contradicts a lot of what has been said and written about Anthony and I will elaborate on this point momentarily.
Rick Kamla and Fran Fraschilla did the play by play and color commentary respectively for ESPN2. Kamla's high strung and excessive cheerleading are tiresome and it sometimes seems like he is trying so hard to come up with a good quip or to use certain material that he prepared that he is not actually paying attention to the action. Case in point: Deron Williams drove to the hoop and tried to throw down a one handed dunk instead of going up with two hands. Williams was fouled and Fraschilla noted that if Williams had used two hands then this could have potentially been a three point play. Kamla then went off on a whole tangent about how well coached Williams is and how important it is to go up with two hands when you are being contested by a Lithuanian player who has experience as a boxer; when Kamla finished, Fraschilla gently reminded Kamla that Williams had in fact NOT gone up with two hands. I half expected Kamla to offer up an Emily Litella-esque "Never mind."
Fraschilla did his usual excellent job of explaining the differences between FIBA play and NBA play, describing the strengths and weaknesses of FIBA players who may be unfamiliar to the viewing audience and talking about the strategies for both sides but he should place greater emphasis on how bad Anthony's defense is and make note of the impact that this has on the game. Fraschilla has mentioned this at times but he neglected to point out that Anthony was benched for the final 7:25 of the second quarter in Team USA's 114-82 win over Turkey and he did not mention the quick hook that Anthony got in the second quarter of this game or the fact that Team USA again played better in the second quarter with Anthony on the bench. Fraschilla's three keys for Team USA were a solid defensive start, find shooters and half court execution. Team USA did an excellent job with the first and third points and a pretty good job with the second point, though there was some slippage in the early moments of the third quarter.
Team USA won the opening tip and ran an excellent half court play: Howard set a screen for Bryant, who popped up to the top of the key, received a dribble hand off from James and buried a long jumper. After Jasikevicius missed a three pointer, Howard and Anthony executed a screen/roll play that culminated in a Howard dunk. Then Bryant poked the ball away from Jasikevicius, which led to a Howard layup. Team USA nearly forced another turnover but in the scramble Robertas Javtokas recovered the ball and drove down the lane for a thunderous dunk. The teams traded misses and then Kidd penetrated, drew the defense and fed Howard for a layup. James played excellent screen/roll defense, Kidd jumped in the air to get the steal and then while still off the ground he threw the ball ahead to James for a fast break dunk and a 10-2 lead. Lithuania called timeout right after that play. On the next possession, Howard poked the ball free and James had another fast break dunk. After a few misses by both teams, Bryant snared a defensive rebound and threw a great outlet pass to Kidd for a fast break layup. Lithuania had enormous difficulties running their offense because of the relentless pressure that Bryant applied to Jasikevicius.
Lithuania switched to a zone defense to try to contain Howard and force Team USA to shoot jumpers but Bryant foiled that plan by driving to the hoop and nailing a short bank shot. Howard also scored on a drive and made a free throw to put Team USA up 19-5 while tagging Javtokas with his third foul. Kidd and Anthony both sat down at that point. Bryant made a turnaround jumper and drilled a three pointer over the zone to push the lead to 24-5. "Team USA has imposed its defensive will on this team," Fraschilla said. Bryant and James both went to the bench with Team USA leading 25-7. Anthony came back into the game. Lithuania outscored Team USA 8-6 in the last 2:48 of the quarter. Howard (10) and Bryant (nine) scored 19 of Team USA's 31 first quarter points.
Kidd sat out the entire second quarter and James and Bryant began the second quarter on the bench. Anthony was in the game but at the 8:41 mark James came in for him; Team USA had yet to score, though Lithuania had just two points. James assisted on a Redd three pointer but Team USA let Lithuania get loose for a couple three pointers and the score was 38-23 Team USA when Bryant returned to action. Team USA extended the margin slightly to 45-27 by the time that Anthony checked back in to the game. Ramunas Siskauskas promptly launched Anthony out of his shoes with a pump fake and waltzed down the lane for a score. Bryant drove and then dished to Deron Williams who swung the ball to a wide open Anthony for a three pointer but at the next loose ball Krzyzewski removed Anthony from the game; Anthony had only been in for 1:18, during which time Team USA was outscored 5-3. Yes, that is a small sample size but this is the second game in a row that Anthony exited play shortly after making a bad defensive play. More to the point, in the second quarter Team USA outscored Lithuania 22-17 when Anthony was on the bench but were outscored by Lithuania 7-3 when he was in the game. The overall plus/minus numbers are even more revealing: Team USA led 56-39 at halftime but only outscored Lithuania 28-20 when Anthony was in the game--and that includes a 19-5 start to which he did not contribute much (Bryant, James and Howard were the dominant players on the court). In contrast, Team USA outscored Lithuania 37-18 when Bryant was in the game during the first half and 50-29 during James' first half playing time.
Team USA got off to a very shaky start in the third quarter, giving up back to back three pointers, answering with a James three pointer and then giving up another three pointer. The three point shot is the lifeblood of most FIBA teams and it is vitally important to contest these shots or, even better, apply so much defensive pressure that the other team does not even get to shoot from three point range. Team USA did an exceptional job in this regard in the first quarter--spearheaded by Bryant--but the first few minutes of the third quarter looked like a nightmare replay of Team USA's losses in recent FIBA competitions. Lithuania cut the lead to 59-48 after their fourth three pointer in the first 1:45 of the third quarter but Team USA did not panic and made the appropriate adjustments. Bryant had lengthy discussions with Coach Krzyzewski, Howard and several of his other teammates and it sure would be interesting to know what was said during those conversations, as opposed to the banal and irrelevant questions that are typically asked in postgame press conferences. The best that I could figure out based on Bryant's gestures and what Team USA did before and after the three point barrage is that Bryant was trying to get everyone on the same page regarding when to switch on screen/roll plays, when not to switch and who should be rotating to cover the big man rolling to the hoop. This is the stuff that Team USA never could figure out in previous defeats but whatever was said the bottom line is that Team USA promptly went on a 16-8 run to push the lead back to 20, 75-55, after which Lithuania never seriously threatened again. Obviously, that required a total team effort by Team USA but Bryant's fingerprints were all over this game deciding burst: he was credited with two assists during the run, fed Anthony for a three point play with a pass that was not scored as an assist and he provided the punctuation mark with a fast break dunk. Bryant sat down at that point and James went to the bench shortly after that with Team USA still up by 20, 80-60. Wade scored seven points in the final 1:30 of the third quarter to extend the lead to 91-66, enabling Bryant, James, Kidd and Anthony to sit out the entire fourth quarter.
Team USA outscored Lithuania 56-34 when Bryant was in the game, including the 25-4 run to open the game and the 16-8 third quarter run that decided the game. Team USA outscored Lithuania 74-50 when James was in the game and he also played a key role in both of those important runs. Kidd contributed to the 19-5 start and saw some third quarter action; Team USA outscored Lithuania 36-21 during his time on the court. I don't understand how Anthony can be considered Team USA's best FIBA player. While there is no question that he is a tremendous scorer, his defense is poor, so he is not nearly the all-around threats that Bryant and James are. Team USA only outscored Lithuania 45-36 when Anthony was in the game and it is important to remember that he shares some of his minutes with Bryant and James, who are clearly carrying most of the load for this team. Anthony has value as a versatile scorer who must be guarded but it will be interesting to monitor his production--and his minutes--against the elite FIBA teams: although I have yet to read or hear anyone talking about it, Anthony has twice been benched shortly after committing defensive lapses. Maybe that is just a coincidence as Coach Krzyzewski tinkers with his rotation but Anthony sat out the last 7:25 of the second quarter versus Turkey and went to the bench in the second quarter of this game twice after being on the court for less than two minutes and that kind of substitution pattern is an unusual way to handle someone who many people consider to be the best FIBA player on team.
Jasikevicius missed a three pointer at the buzzer in the 2000 Olympics semifinals that could have handed Team USA its first loss since NBA players began participating in FIBA play in 1992. Jasikevicius had a game-high 27 points and shot 5-11 from three point range in that contest. Team USA escaped with an 85-83 victory, foreshadowing the end of Team USA's run at the top of FIBA competitions even though Team USA claimed the gold medal that year; Team USA did not win another FIBA gold medal until last summer's FIBA Americas tournament, the first time that Bryant suited up for Team USA.
Lithuania defeated Team USA 94-90 in the preliminary round of the 2004 Olympics. Jasikevicius trashed Team USA's shoddy defense, pouring in a game-high 28 points while shooting 7-12 from three point range as Lithuania shot 13-27 from behind the arc overall. Team USA forced 20 turnovers but did not take advantage of those extra possessions as starting guards Allen Iverson (4-12) and Stephon Marbury (2-14) shot horribly from the field. The teams each grabbed 31 rebounds. Four current Team USA players were on the 2004 squad: Dwyane Wade scored six points in 16 minutes, Carmelo Anthony had five points in 10 minutes and LeBron James did not score in six minutes. Carlos Boozer contributed 10 points in 13 minutes.
Team USA avenged that loss with a 104-96 victory in the bronze medal game. Shawn Marion led the way with 22 points as Team USA overcame Lithuania's 22-37 three point shooting barrage, including 7-12 by Arvydas Macijauskas (who had a game-high 24 points) and 5-9 by Sarunas Jasikevicius, who finished with 17 points. Team USA won by forcing 20 Lithuania turnovers and dominating the paint (40-26 rebounding advantage). Boozer had seven points and tied Tim Duncan with a game-high eight rebounds in 23 minutes, Wade scored nine points in 16 minutes, James had six points in seven minutes and Anthony scored three points in seven minutes.
Summary: In his three previous games against Team USA, Jasikevicius averaged 24.0 ppg and shot 17-32 (.531) from three point range.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:54 PM