Team USA Overcomes Sluggish Start to Beat Australia, 87-76Team USA trailed for most of the first quarter but built a 15 point halftime lead and held on to post an 87-76 win over Australia at Qizhong Arena in Shanghai. Team USA finished 5-0 on their pre-Olympic exhibition tour--including a 4-0 mark in the USA Basketball International Challenge, which consisted of two games apiece in Macau and Shanghai--but this game (and a to a lesser extent their 89-68 win over Russia, a contest that was also competitive in the second half) showed that the road to the gold medal will not be a cakewalk for this squad. Dwyane Wade again provided a major lift off of the bench, scoring a game-high 22 points. LeBron James finished with 16 points, four assists and a game-high five steals. Kobe Bryant scored 13 points but did not shoot well (3-9 from the field, 5-8 from the free throw line) and he largely made his presence felt as a defender and playmaker (four assists). Carmelo Anthony scored 12 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds but he shot just 4-13 from the field. Jason Kidd did not attempt a shot and had three assists in 15 minutes as he split time almost evenly with Deron Williams (one point, 0 assists in 18 minutes) and Chris Paul (four points, five assists, five fouls in 16 minutes), Team USA's point guards of the future. Australia placed five players in double figures, led by Patrick Mills and former NBA center Chris Anstey with 13 points each. David Barlow scored 12 points on 4-5 shooting from the field while C.J. Bruton and Brad Newley--a 2007 second round draft pick of Houston's--added 11 points each.
For the first time in these five exhibition games, a Team USA player received a DNP-CD (did not play-coach's decision): Carlos Boozer. Although some people continue to insist that Team USA needs more bigs--and Australia, like Russia, did outrebound Team USA (42-41)--Coach Mike Krzyzewski went with a small lineup with no true NBA big for a total of seven minutes; starting center Dwight Howard had eight points and five rebounds in 22 minutes, while Chris Bosh contributed nine points and four rebounds in 11 minutes. Howard shot 4-4 from the field, while Bosh made all three of his field goal attempts. Bigs are not as important in FIBA play as they are in the NBA because of FIBA's trapezoid lane. In any case, James and Anthony are as big and strong as just about any power forwards that Team USA will see, while Howard, Bosh and Boozer provide more than enough depth at center. Team USA's problem is not size but rather maintaining the awareness and discipline to defend against perimeter players from opposing teams; Team USA must contest three point shooters without giving up wide open driving lanes and they struggled in both of those areas in this game as Australia shot 8-20 (.400) from three point range and 29-61 (.475) from the field overall. I'm sure that many people will point out Team USA's subpar three point shooting (3-18, .167) but what concerns me more than that poor percentage is the volume and quality of those long range shots: Team USA shot too many three pointers and they shot them too early in the shot clock. Other than Bryant (2-5), no one on Team USA had a good game from behind the arc: James shot 1-4, Anthony shot 0-4, Michael Redd--who is supposed to the team's zone busting sharpshooter--shot 0-3, Wade shot 0-1 and Paul shot 0-1. It's fine to talk about how many long range shots Redd drained in last year's FIBA Americas tournament but he did most of his scoring after Team USA used good defense to build sizable leads; if Team USA gets in a close game during the Olympics, Redd will not be on the court unless Bryant or James are injured or in foul trouble. There is nothing wrong with adding a shooting specialist to the team but what will make or break Team USA is perimeter defense and this game was a perfect example of that: Australia used a zone, a matchup zone and a sagging man to man defense but Redd contributed just two points on 1-4 shooting in eight minutes.
Rick Kamla and Fran Fraschilla handled the play by play and color duties one last time live and direct from ESPN2's studios in Bristol before turning over the microphones to Mike Breen and Doug Collins, who will call the Olympic basketball games for NBC. Fraschilla's three keys for Team USA were bang the boards, deflections and no injuries. He also listed a blueprint for how to beat Team USA in FIBA competition:
(1) Don't hit offensive boards
(2) Play zone or pack man to man
(3) Sub on free throws
(4) Take care of the ball
(5) Use shot clock
Australia followed several of those prescriptions. They won the battle of the boards despite getting just five offensive rebounds, which means that they got back on defense, clogged the paint and often limited Team USA to one shot. The reason it is important to substitute after made free throws is that this limits Team USA's ability to quickly inbound the ball and try to score in transition. Australia took care of the ball in stretches but Team USA built their leads during key runs when they forced some turnovers (Australia finished with 18 turnovers compared to 11 for Team USA). Australia did a pretty good job of using the shot clock, as indicated by the much lower pace of this game compared to Team USA's first three games (Russia also did a good job of slowing the game down). The concern for Team USA is that there are several FIBA teams (Spain, Greece, Argentina) that can follow the above five point plan and that have more depth than Australia and Russia.
Team USA won the opening tip and ran a nice backdoor action as Kidd set a back pick for Bryant, who cut to the baseline, received a feed from James, scored, got fouled and made a free throw for a three point play. The reason that I have provided "verbal diagrams" of Team USA's opening play in several of these recaps is that this is often the first--and last--time that Team USA runs a good half court offensive set. Team USA obviously wants to pressure the ball, force turnovers and score in transition but I don't understand why they don't run these kinds of actions later in the game during sequences when the action has slowed down.
Australia immediately answered by involving Anthony defensively in a screen/roll, resulting in a Bruton three pointer. During the Olympics, look for teams to go right at Anthony's poor defense, particularly in the one and done games during medal round action. Team USA ran a screen/roll with Bryant and Howard, who was not open on the roll; Bryant kept the ball and was eventually fouled but he missed both free throws. Barlow blew straight past James to give Australia a 5-3 lead. On the next possession, Anthony took the worst possible shot: a long two pointer with :18 left on the shot clock. James stole the ball but promptly threw it away; Kidd alertly broke up the resulting 3 on 1 opportunity for Australia. Anthony was intentionally fouled after a steal. He made both free throws and Team USA retained possession. Team USA again ran a back door action for Bryant, who drew a non-shooting foul but Team USA turned the ball over after Anthony made a bad pass trying to feed Howard in the post. "That's a bad angle," Fraschilla noted. "When you throw the ball in from the top of the key into the post you'd like to have the defender on Dwight Howard's back." The correct passing angle is from below the free throw line extended.
Australia led 11-9 at the 4:56 mark when starting guards Kidd and Bryant both went to the bench. Paul came into the game and really struggled to keep Mills in front of him; Mills drove past Paul and went coast to coast for a score after a made basket, something that should never happen. I laughed yesterday when I read that someone--a Hornets fan, naturally, as opposed to an objective analyst--praised Paul's defense in these exhibition games; as I have noted repeatedly and as Fraschilla has mentioned during the telecasts, Paul's defense has been poor. I disagreed with those who criticized Paul's NBA defense last season but there is no question that Paul has not played good FIBA defense so far. As Fraschilla said after Mills burned Paul a third time, forcing Paul to foul him, "There have been a number of times in this (exhibition tour) when he has not guarded the ball particularly well. Patrick Mills takes advantage of that." Team USA regained the lead late in the first quarter thanks to a steal and a layup by Wade, who also made two of three free throws after he was fouled on a three point shot with one second left. That made the score 22-19 Team USA.
The second quarter began with Bryant blocking a shot and Williams passing ahead to Wade for a fast break dunk. Then came a series of bad possessions by Team USA, starting with a Bryant three point attempt with eight seconds on the shot clock. Team USA wasted too much time standing around before James passed to Bryant, who was in a no win position: there were no driving lanes available at that point against Australia's zone and the lack of good spacing meant that if Bryant passed the ball Team USA was unlikely to get a better attempt than the one he took. Deron Williams turned the ball over, leading to a Bruton jumper. Then Wade missed a long jumper with :14 on the shot clock. The next time down the court, Anthony bricked a contested three pointer with :12 on the shot clock and Fraschilla immediately exclaimed, "Oh, no. That's just too fast in the shot clock and he didn't move any defenders." Team USA's problem has never been--and is not now--a lack of players who can shoot but rather an inability and/or unwillingness to run good half court continuity; if they would move the ball and move bodies then someone would get an open shot that he is more than capable of making, so there is no reason to jack up long, contested jumpers with 12, 14 or more seconds on the shot clock. Team USA failed to score on the next possession thanks to a James travel.
Kidd checked in at the 7:13 mark with Team USA clinging to a 24-21 lead. The teams traded baskets, a James jumper and a layup by David Anderson after James allowed dribble penetration. "Did LeBron fall asleep a little bit there?" Kamla asked after James got completely turned around. "Sure he did," replied Fraschilla, who at one point suggested that Team USA was already mentally in Beijing for the Olympics despite still being physically in Shanghai. He said that during the Russia game, too, but after Team USA's string of failures in FIBA events you'd think that they would be more attentive. James tried to post up on the block and unitentionally provided a good demonstration of why FIBA teams do not frequently use post up play; the trapezoid lane forces the offensive player away from the hoop, making it easier to trap him. "Right now he's playing one on three," Fraschilla said. James fired an ill advised behind the back pass to Anthony but the defense easily rotated and blocked his shot. Anthony went to the bench at the next dead ball with Team USA only ahead 26-25.
Team USA had its first good half court possession of the second quarter when James drove to the hoop and kicked the ball to Bryant at the three point line; the drive and kick is a staple of FIBA basketball and in this case the defender, in his haste to recover, fouled Bryant, whose three free throws gave Team USA a four point lead. Bryant's third make enabled Team USA to trap--something you cannot do when you are turning the ball over and taking bad shots--and Bryant forced a turnover that James converted into a fast break dunk. Bryant then forced another turnover, this time leading to a James three pointer. After another defensive stop James missed a shot but Bryant got the offensive rebound and passed the ball back to James, who drove to the hoop and converted a three point play to put Team USA up 37-25. Right around this time Fraschilla made a very astute observation: Bryant put so much pressure on Australia's backcourt that Australia had to go small by bringing in another point guard just to get the ball up the court but this led to favorable matchups for Team USA at the other end of the court, namely a smaller player having to guard either Bryant or James. This is a good example of something that statistical analysis does not pick up: James scored eight straight points and he certainly played very well in this stretch but those scoring opportunities were created not only by Bryant's defense forcing turnovers but also by Bryant's defense forcing a lineup change that created favorable matchups for Team USA to exploit. You may recall that it was right around that point in the second quarter that Greece hit Team USA with a 24-8 run en route to a 101-95 victory in the 2006 FIBA World Championships. That version of Team USA got big offensive performances from Anthony (27 points), Wade (19 points) and James (17 points) but did not have a defensive stopper on the perimeter who could thoroughly disrupt the opponent's ability to even advance the ball up the court.
Team USA led 44-29 at halftime but began the third quarter extremely sluggishly. James sagged too far into the paint, enabling Barlow to make an open three pointer; in the NBA you want to defend the paint first but in the FIBA game with the short three point line you simply cannot leave outside shooters unattended. After another Barlow three pointer plus a Bruton three pointer and a Barlow layup, Team USA's advantage shrunk to 46-42. Anthony's jumper pushed the margin to six but Australia quickly answered and Coach Krzyzewski did something he had not done in the previous four exhibition games: call a timeout. Bryant hit a three pointer on the next possession to put Team USA up 53-44. Team USA enjoyed at least a three possession lead the rest of the way, including a 65-55 advantage at the end of the third quarter. Perhaps Team USA was never in serious danger of losing after that point but on the other hand they never really put Australia away, either; there was always the chance that Australia might hit two quick three pointers and be right back in the game.
Considering the closeness of this game it is interesting to look at how Coach Krzyzewski distributed the playing time: James played a game-high 33 minutes, while Bryant and Wade played 25 each. Bryant and James were the primary instigators of Team USA's second quarter run, while Wade provided steady scoring throughout the game. Anthony played 24 minutes but Team USA actually trailed 42-41 during his time on the court (Team USA outscored Australia 54-50 when Bryant was in the game and was tied 70-70 and 35-35 respectively when James and Kidd were in the game). Redd (eight minutes) and Tayshaun Prince (three minutes) hardly received any run and, as mentioned previously, Boozer did not even get into the game.
Team USA will have to play better than this to win the gold medal but they are more than capable of doing so.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:49 PM