Team USA Grinds Out 89-68 Win Versus RussiaKobe Bryant scored a game-high 19 points as Team USA defeated Russia 89-68 to improve to 4-0 on their pre-Olympic exhibition tour, including 3-0 in the USA Basketball International Challenge. This was the first of two games that Team USA will play at Qizhong Arena in Shanghai after beating Turkey and Lithuania at Coati Arena in Macau; Team USA will wrap up exhibition play on Tuesday versus Australia. Carmelo Anthony added 17 points and a team-high seven rebounds but he once again played terribly on defense, particularly in the third quarter when Andrei Kirilenko repeatedly drove right by him; Kirilenko led Russia in points (18), rebounds (eight) and assists (four), while American import J.R. Holden scored 17 points.
Dwyane Wade provided a lift off of the bench for Team USA with 16 points on 6-7 field goal shooting. LeBron James was the only other Team USA player to reach double figures (10 points) but this was easily his worst performance on the exhibition tour as he shot 4-9 from the field, committed a team-high four turnovers and fouled out with more than five minutes remaining in the game. Dwight Howard had just five points and one rebound in 16 foul plagued minutes as Team USA was outrebounded (33-29) for the first time in these four games. Jason Kidd started at point guard but played just nine minutes as Coach Mike Krzyzewski is apparently resting the 35 year old veteran to keep him fresh for the Olympics. Deron Williams and Chris Paul each logged 20 minutes; Williams scored five points and a had a game-high nine assists, while Paul finished struggled on defense and only contributed four points and one assist.
With Team USA's exhibition tour almost over, ESPN2 color commentator Fran Fraschilla not only provided his customary three keys to the game for Team USA (keep sharing the ball, stay focused defensively and no injuries) but he also listed "what we've learned" about Team USA so far:
(1) Great chemistry
(2) Simple offense
(3) Outside shooting=no problem
(4) Defense starts with ball pressure
(5) Clean up pick and roll defense
Team USA won the jump ball and on their first possession Bryant received the ball at the free throw line extended on the left side of the court after setting a back pick for Dwight Howard. Sergei Bykov fouled Bryant as Bryant attempted a jumper and Bryant opened the scoring by splitting a pair of free throws. Throughout the game, Fraschilla emphasized that Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski is using a simple half court offense akin to what he runs at Duke, allowing Team USA's players the space to read the defense and make plays as opposed to running a lot of intricate half court sets. This fits in with something that I have repeatedly stressed, namely that Team USA will probably never run a half court FIBA offense as well as the other FIBA teams do and will thus have to rely on pressure defense to create transition scoring opportunities.
Team USA took early 5-0 and 7-2 leads with Bryant applying his typical suffocating pressure defense against Russia's best guard, Holden, but the Russian team kept their composure and rallied to tie the score at 9-9. Holden scored Russia's first two points with a tough drive against Bryant and Fraschilla said, "He's going to tell his grandkids about that one." Fraschilla also noted that Russia, coached by ex-Princeton player David Blatt, used a technique that Pete Carril's Princeton teams employed: not crashing the offensive boards in order to get all five players back on defense to protect the paint and force the opposition to shoot from outside. Team USA led 29-17 after the first quarter. Even though Russia succeeded in slowing down the pace they were not completely able to take advantage of this because they kept committing fouls, enabling Team USA to score 10 points on free throws.
In the second quarter, Russia refrained from excessive fouling and Team USA's scoring plummeted as several players bailed out the zone defense by launching long jumpers early in the shot clock. Team USA only outscored Russia 17-14 and play by play announcer Rick Kamla coined a very apt description of what Russia did in the first half: "uglying" the game. Fraschilla said that Russia "muddied up the waters with the zone (and) got four and five people back in transition." Fraschilla concluded that Russia deserved credit for containing Team USA's offense but that Team USA also helped Russia by taking some "tough shots." Fraschilla also pointed out that Russia's deliberate offense played a key role in slowing the tempo of the game and that this kept the score down as well.
Team USA opened the third quarter with a 7-2 run as Anthony buried a jumper, Bryant forced a turnover that led to a possession in which James scored and then Bryant drilled a three pointer. It seemed like the game was about to turn into a rout but then Team USA got very sloppy at both ends of the court, particularly on defense. Fraschilla observed, "There have been a couple moments in these first four exhibition games when Chris Paul fell asleep on defense, though he certainly has made up for it at the offensive end." After Kirilenko blew by Anthony but missed the layup, Fraschilla said, "That is poor defense by Carmelo Anthony. He is not a good on ball defender."
When Russia cut Team USA's lead to 55-43, Fraschilla said of Team USA, "You almost sense in this game that these guys are ready to get to Beijing. More so than in any other game they are pretty much going through the motions." Coach Krzyzewski has yet to call a timeout in these exhibition games and Fraschilla suggested that perhaps he should do so just to get his players accustomed to the FIBA timeout scenario (only the coach can call a timeout in FIBA play and he can only do so in a dead ball situation). After Kirilenko again blew by Anthony for a layup to make the score 57-45 and Team USA turned the ball over, Fraschilla declared, "This is where I would call timeout." Krzyzewski did not call timeout and on the next possession Holden used a screen to escape Bryant, drove right by Anthony and drew a foul on him. Holden made both free throws and Russia was very much in the game, only trailing 57-47 with 4:45 remaining in the quarter.
Bryant answered with a contested jumper but Fraschilla correctly stated that Team USA better not depend on those kinds of shots when they face "live bullets" in the Olympics. During the first part of the third quarter Bryant almost singlehandedly maintained Team USA's lead, scoring nine of Team USA's first 13 points. Kirilenko once again drove by Anthony as if he were a traffic cone to bring Russia within ten, 59-49; Anthony inexplicably forced the right handed Kirilenko to the right. Anthony took a seat on the bench shortly after that play and Team USA closed the quarter with a 12-2 run. Michael Redd, who usually has been padding his scoring numbers with Team USA safely in front, only scored six points in this game but they were much more meaningful than some of the bigger outputs he had in previous games on this tour and in last year's FIBA Americas tournament; Redd made two three pointers in the last 1:17 of the third quarter to help Team USA rebuild a comfortable lead going into the fourth quarter. Russia did not mount a serious challenge in the final period, never getting closer than 18 points.
As usual, I attempted to track the plus/minus numbers for Bryant, James, Kidd and Anthony but that proved to be a little tricky: Team USA led 70-52 after the third quarter according to ESPN2 but then the graphic changed twice early in the fourth quarter without either team scoring; apparently, the score was actually 71-51 after three quarters. At the end of the game, ESPN2 displayed a final score of 90-68 but the actual final score was 89-68. I looked at the official play by play sheet to try to fix the plus/minus numbers accordingly and what I came up with shows Team USA outscoring Russia 57-46 when James was in the game, 54-46 when Anthony was in the game, 58-52 when Bryant was in the game and 13-11 during Kidd's cameo appearance. This is a good example of a small plus/minus sample being "noisy"; in other words, those numbers do not give an entirely accurate depiction of each player's relative contribution. For instance, in the third quarter Bryant scored 11 points but it was all he could do to keep up with everything that Anthony was giving up at the other end of the court. James played the entire third quarter and although he did not make a large contribution during that time his plus/minus numbers benefited from Redd's two three pointers. One thing that these plus/minus numbers do correctly indicate is that the starters did not have a great game as a collective unit and the bench provided a nice lift, particularly Wade and Williams, with a nod to Redd for his two big shots; TNT's Doug Collins always talks about the importance of closing quarters strongly and in this game the bench players contributed to important Team USA runs to close the second and third quarters.
Team USA will face tougher teams than Russia in the Olympics and in those games it will be very important to tighten up their half court offensive execution as well as their defense, particularly regarding Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. On the other hand, it is reasonable to assume that if Team USA experiences a lull in a game that counts that Jason Kidd will not remain glued to the bench; Coach Krzyzewski has smartly used the exhibition games as an opportunity to get some much needed FIBA experience for Paul and Williams and that will prove to be beneficial not only in these Olympics but also in future competitions when they will have to take over for Kidd on a permanent basis. These exhibition games don't "count" but they are meaningful in terms of preparing this team not only for this year's Olympics but also as part of the ongoing development of the younger players who will play key roles for Team USA for the next several years.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 AM