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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Team USA Demolishes Spain, 119-82

Team USA put together their most complete game of the Olympics against their most well respected opponent, routing 2006 FIBA World Champion Spain 119-82 to improve to 4-0 and clinch the top seed in preliminary round play. Spain dropped to 3-1 but will still advance to the medal round. This game was expected to be the biggest test so far for this version of Team USA and they responded by dominating nearly every meaningful statistical category, forcing 28 turnovers, shooting .579 from the field--including a blistering .480 from three point range--and holding Spain to .394 field goal shooting overall and .214 shooting from behind the arc. Team USA outscored Spain by at least seven points in every quarter. Eight Team USA players scored in double figures and every player made at least one field goal; Jason Kidd scored his first points of the Olympics on a left handed fast break layup after a nice feed from LeBron James.

James led Team USA with 18 points and he again filled up almost every category in the boxscore, amassing eight assists, five rebounds and four steals. Chris Paul also put up gaudy all-around numbers: 14 points, eight assists, five rebounds, five steals. Dwyane Wade had 16 points and six rebounds off of the bench and Carmelo Anthony scored 16 points on 6-8 field goal shooting. Foul trouble limited Kobe Bryant to 16 minutes and he finished with 11 points.

Michael Redd is an excellent player and seems to be a good person but I think that the story about him changing into a suit before he met with Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo has been told frequently enough at this point. Yes, that was very professional of Redd and reinforces the idea that Colangelo filled out the roster with players who are not only talented but who are also fully committed mentally to the USA Basketball program. That said, Redd's actual role on this team is far less significant than most pundits predicted or than some people still portray it to be: even when Bryant suffered early foul trouble, Redd still did not get on the court, as Coach Mike Krzyzewksi rightly chose to utilize Tayshaun Prince, who is a better defender than Redd as well as a capable shooter, particularly from the short FIBA three point line. Prince shot 3-4 from three point range and scored 10 point in 13 minutes, while Redd did not make his first appearance until late in the third quarter. Redd scored a couple garbage time baskets in the fourth quarter and finished with four points. I mention this not to denigrate Redd but to emphasize that the most important thing for Team USA is defense--starting with pressure by the guards--and that three point shooting is a nice luxury for Team USA to have but not an essential part of the gold medal recipe. Yes, Team USA shot very well from three point range versus Spain and that helped turn what might have been a 15 or 20 point win into a 37 point annihilation but even if Team USA had missed every three point shot--which of course is highly unlikely--they still would have outscored Spain. The key three point shooting number from this game is Spain's 6-28 brick fest.

Felipe Reyes shot 9-12 from the field and led Spain with 19 points and eight rebounds. He was easily their most effective player. Pau Gasol had solid numbers (13 points on 5-8 shooting, six rebounds) but he committed five turnovers and did not have a huge impact. Many people have expressed concern about Team USA's lack of frontcourt size but Team USA has controlled the paint defensively throughout the Olympics and Spain's slight rebounding advantage (39-36) was inconsequential in light of Team USA's complete dominance in every other phase of the game.

Spain's much touted backcourt was a disaster area, as Team USA hounded them into turnovers and missed shots. Starters Jose Calderon (four points on 1-9 shooting, zero assists) and Rudy Fernandez (eight points on 3-8 shooting, three assists) struggled mightily and reserves Juan Carlos Navarro (five points on 2-10 shooting, one assist) and Ricky Rubio (eight points on 1-4 shooting, three assists) were even worse. Those four players combined to post seven assists and nine turnovers while shooting 7-31 (.226) from the field.

The biggest difference between this edition of Team USA and the 2002, 2004 and 2006 Team USA squads is improved defense, particularly on the perimeter. Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd set the tone in that regard starting in last year's FIBA Americas tournament and just about everyone else on the roster has bought in as well. On the first play of the game, Pau Gasol bobbled the ball while maneuvering in the post and James swept in for the steal, passed to Kidd and received a return pass for a layup. Spain hung tough in the early going but Team USA's game plan is not based on winning the game in the first five minutes; Team USA sets the tone by applying immediate defensive pressure from the start and that pressure combined with Team USA's depth wears the opponent down, usually by the second quarter.

Early in the first quarter, Pau Gasol set a screen and his Lakers teammate Bryant was called for a foul after he made no attempt to go around Gasol and simply bowled him over. Gasol had a wry smile on his face after the play but Bryant did not smile, nor did he offer a hand to help Gasol back up. Doug Collins, who did the color commentary for NBC while Mike Breen handled play by play duties, said, "You're going to laugh but I think that's a good foul. I think that you knock Pau Gasol around early and let him know that he's going to be in a physical contest. He likes to be a finesse player. The knock on him has been that he does not like contact." Although everything that Collins stated is true, the flip side to that is that it only takes five fouls to be disqualified in FIBA play, so it is a little risky to give up one of those fouls early in the game. As it turned out, Bryant essentially took one for the team by making that play, because a couple minutes later he was whistled for his second foul and had to check out of the game for the remainder of the first quarter.

Dwight Howard continues to start at center but he has not been as effective as Chris Bosh, particularly on defense. Bosh is an ideal FIBA big man because of his ability to both defend the paint and switch aggressively on screen/roll plays. Meanwhile, Howard has struggled with his free throw shooting and has been foul prone. After Howard goaltended an Alex Mumbru shot that did not seem to have a chance of going in, James had an exasperated look on his face. That basket tied the score at 9-9. Wade checked in for Bryant shortly after that play and Team USA went on a 20-7 run, fueled by relentless pressure defense; Team USA got seven steals and forced 10 turnovers in the first quarter. Spain scored six points in the last 1:34 to cut Team USA's lead to 31-22 at the end of the quarter.

Bryant returned at the start of the second quarter. Reyes buried him in the post after a switch and made a short hook over him as Bryant tried to avoid committing his third foul but Bryant answered with several strong plays. First he drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and kicked the ball to James, who reversed the ball to Prince for a wide open three pointer. Then Bryant stole the ball and sailed in for a reverse dunk. James and Bryant each nailed three pointers to put Team USA up 45-31 but on the next possession Bryant was sidelined for the rest of the first half after being called for his third foul while defending against a post move with a bent forearm. Less than a minute later, Anthony also received his third foul. Breen noted, "What I find watching international ball, the problem is the officiating is wildly inconsistent." It is strange that in FIBA play sometimes a player can drive to the hoop and be knocked down without anything being called but then a defender who is playing solid defense will be whistled for incidental body contact; Team USA assistant coach Nate McMillan later told sideline reporter Craig Sager that the referees called a much tighter game than Team USA had expected, not allowing defensive contact that had been deemed permissible in earlier games. Deron Williams eventually fouled out, while Bryant, Anthony and Howard finished the game with four fouls each.

After Anthony went to the bench, Team USA used a 9-0 run to take a 56-36 lead but then Coach Mike Krzyzewski inexplicably put Anthony back in the game late in the quarter despite Anthony's foul trouble. Anthony sagged too deeply into the lane and allowed Jorge Garbajosa to make a three pointer and Krzyzewski then took Anthony out of the game after a timeout. That three pointer started a 9-3 run that enabled Spain to cut the lead to 59-45 and that would have been the halftime score if Spain exercised good shot clock management but instead Rudy Fernandez shot too quickly, giving Team USA plenty of time to operate for the final possession of the half--so much time, in fact, that Team USA got off three shots, the last one a putback by Carlos Boozer as the clock expired. James had a monster first half with 14 points, three assists and four steals, though he did commit four turnovers. Thanks largely to James and Wade, Team USA performed very well when first quarter foul trouble sidelined Bryant, outscoring Spain 22-13, but when Bryant missed the final 5:39 of the second quarter Spain had their best extended stretch of the contest, playing Team USA dead even (14-14) until Boozer's shot.

With the starters back on the court to open the third quarter, Team USA used a quick 11-3 burst to essentially end all resistance: Bryant scored on a dunk, Howard split a pair of free throws, Anthony hit two three pointers and James spoon fed Kidd for a layup to put Team USA up 72-48. Spain never got closer than 17 points the rest of the way and trailed 86-63 at the end of the third quarter. The fourth quarter garbage time fiesta included some more strange substitution patterns by Coach Krzyzewski: Bryant has usually sat out the final stanza when Team USA has big leads, but Coach Krzyzewski put him back in the game with Team USA leading 92-66. James and Wade played briefly at the start of the quarter before going to the bench but when Williams fouled out Coach Krzyzewski put James back in the game for the last couple minutes; that would not look like a very smart move if James tweaked an ankle with Team USA winning by 30-plus points.

The strange substitution patterns skewed the on court/off court numbers a bit, allowing Bryant and James to pad their totals slightly in fourth quarter garbage time. The final tally shows that Team USA outscored Spain 82-57 with James on the court, 60-37 with Wade on the court, 42-32 with Bryant on the court and 45-39 with Anthony on the court. The score was tied 31-31 during Kidd's 13 minutes. Team USA's three most significant scoring runs came late in the first quarter (20-7 to build a 29-16 lead), in the middle of the second quarter (9-0 to push the margin to 56-36) and early in the third quarter (11-3 to go up 72-48). James scored seven points in the first quarter run, Deron Williams had five of the nine points in the second quarter run and Bryant, James and Anthony each made their presence felt by scoring and/or passing during the third quarter spurt. Wade's energy was a crucial factor in the first two of those runs (he was on the bench at the start of the third quarter). In other words, as indicated by the well balanced scoring, this was a team win in which many players made valuable contributions.

It has been suggested by various commentators (including Fran Fraschilla and Doug Collins) that sometimes in FIBA play teams will do some jockeying for position and perhaps try harder in certain games than others--and the reality is that after a team clinches a medal round berth the remaining preliminary round games are not essential--but I don't think that Spain was holding back some great secret strategical weapon to use against Team USA in a potential one and done medal round game. It did seem like Spain got discouraged in the second half and did not play with great defensive intensity but who would not get discouraged in the face of Team USA's onslaught? Four of Spain's starters played more than their average number of minutes, so if Spain was playing possum they chose a strange way of doing it.

In the single elimination medal round, anything can happen--just like the NCAA Tournament--but I think that it is fair to say that this is the best squad that USA Basketball has put on the court since the 1996 Olympic team. The competition is much tougher now but Team USA plays unselfish basketball at both ends of the court and is much, much better defensively than the 2002, 2004 and 2006 teams. Team USA faces Germany in the final preliminary round game and will then need to win three straight games to capture their first gold medal in a major FIBA competition since the 2000 Olympics.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 PM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Sunday, August 17, 2008 12:52:00 AM, Anonymous S.Tiku said...

David,

Great post as usual. I actually got to watch the game this time around, and I think Doug Collins was spot on when he said that USA's depth and pressure defense wears down their opponents as the game progresses. Also, wanted to point out that the starting point guard for Spain is Jose Calderon, not Juan Calderon.

 
At Sunday, August 17, 2008 3:17:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

S. Tiku:

For some reason, I have a Chris Mullin/Jeff Mullins or Byron Russell/Bryon Russell thing with Navarro and Calderon's first names; I corrected the post accordingly.

 
At Sunday, August 17, 2008 7:12:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

Spain did keep a couple tricks up its sleeve: defensive specialist Carlos Jiménez sat out despite being cleared to play, and they did not try any aggresive zone defenses such as Aito's trademark 1-3-1 defense, opting instead for more passive options such as a vanilla 2-3 zone. Whether such tweaks (plus hopefully a more inspired effort byt Spain at the medal rounds) will make a difference or not, that's another story. I am quite sceptical, the 1-3-1 is a hard defense to learn and implement (better suited to a club team with a full season to practise) and Spain is nort anywhere close to their impressive play in 2006. Rumours of internal turmoil are not welcomed by us Spanish fans.

Three-point shooting was a big boost for Team USA, as it helped build the feeling that it was a game Spain could not win. I think that Dwight Howard played a better game than his stats indicate. He played very good defende on Gasol, taking him out of his comfort zone and basically taking him out of the game except for a brief run in the second quarter vs Bosh. Even though Felipe Reyes' fine effort ultimately failed to have an impact on the game, I think it showed the vulnerability of playing just one big man (who was covering Gasl, a much more dangerous threat).

Spain has a few tricks left: zone defense, Jiménez, a better effort by Gasol, hopes that Team USA will not have another great shooting gamne. Nevertheless, right now it seems that the only way Team USA fails to win the gold medal by a comfortable margin is that they themselves find some way to lose. If they keep up this standard of playing, Argentina, Greece, Spain and Lithuania will not have a prayer.

 
At Sunday, August 17, 2008 12:47:00 PM, Anonymous warsaw said...

Spain was surprisingly heartless, while USA defense was impressive sometimes. Spanish players seemed to be scared of getting a block.

I doubt that Bryant's early foul on Gasol had any use at all, and I think Pau pretty much welcomed it: It means one foul on their best player and probably more free throws on that quarter.
If Gasol had a quiet game was because USA defense was doubling him -which allowed Reyes to score at will- not because of that silly foul.

Travelling calls have been inconsistent too, sometimes being called according to the FIBA rules, sometimes not. The Flopping call is even more unpredictable.

Ricky RUbio did a solid game, stealing some balls, defending well. People just look at how many point he is doing, but he's one of the best stealers in the tournament and also a good passer. And he's 17.
I was more dissapointed at Rudy Fernandez and Calderón.

 
At Sunday, August 17, 2008 1:12:00 PM, Anonymous S.Tiku said...

David,

The Economist have recently covered the topic "globalization and sports" in depth, and thought you might be interested in reading it. Here it is:

http://www.economist.com/specialreports/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11825627

 
At Sunday, August 17, 2008 3:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

It is doubtful that one player or one defensive gimmick can make up a 37 point margin but it is also probably unlikely that Team USA will make 12 three pointers if these teams play each other again. If Team USA plays Spain in the medal round I would expect Team USA to win by 20 or so based on those factors plus what we saw in yesterday's game.

Howard had some decent moments defensively versus Gasol but he made a lot of mistakes, too. Also, Howard basically is only a post defender, while Bosh can defend in the paint or on the perimeter. In the NBA, Howard is a more dominant and valuable player but in FIBA play Bosh is a more versatile and valuable player, at least based on their performances this year. Honestly, I expected Howard to play better than this based on how he did in last year's FIBA Americas tournament.

 
At Sunday, August 17, 2008 3:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Warsaw:

In the post I expressed my skepticism of the value of Kobe fouling Gasol but I thought that it was worth mentioning that Collins had a different take. It certainly seemed like Kobe did this deliberately since he made no effort to go around Gasol. Maybe Kobe was trying to send a message to his own team that just because Gasol is a Laker he will not go lightly on him. I suspect that Kobe would not try to send such a message in a medal round game.

I agree that a lot of the officiating has been inconsistent. I don't think that it is biased but it is inconsistent.

Rubio performed the best of the four Spanish guards but that is not saying much. This was just one game and I'm not drawing any broad conclusions about him overall; he's young and I'm sure that he will keep improving.

 
At Sunday, August 17, 2008 3:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

S. Tiku:

The global reach of sports and the amount of money that athletes make have both grown exponentially in recent years.

 
At Monday, August 18, 2008 8:28:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

I do think the foul on Gasol set the tone. Pau Gasol was visibly intimidated for most of the game, and even if they had to take a few fouls, that was a result of Team USA staking their ground early. Much of the same happened vs Greece, with Kidd and then Howard in early foul trouble.

Ricky Rubio is a great prospect, but I do not think that at this stage he is a great point guard as such - yet.

There was a play that mystified me: Garbajosa scored a three pointer, and then Coach K called for a timeout, gathered the starters and very conspicuously stated "my fault". Any idea on what was his fault?

 
At Monday, August 18, 2008 4:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

That came right after Coach K put Melo back in the game even though Melo had three fouls. Garbajosa was Melo's man. Coach K immediately took Melo out of the game but in this instance I think it was because of the foul trouble, not the poor defense; it made no sense for Coach K to put Melo in the game near the end of the half when Melo had three fouls, so I assume that Coach K forgot about the foul situation and that was what was his fault.

 

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