Team USA Pounds Australia, 116-85Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 25 points--the most by any American player in this year's Olympics--as Team USA defeated Australia 116-85 and moved to within two victories of winning the gold medal. LeBron James added 19 points, nine rebounds, three assists and four steals. Bryant played a team-high 26 minutes, while James played 25 minutes, five more than any other player on the squad. NBA fans get so caught up in debating whether Bryant or James is the best player in the league but the important thing right now is that the two best players in the world are on the same team and they are both playing at a very high level. Before the game, USA Network color commentator Doug Collins singled them out as the two most important players on the roster. He said, "The guy who has been the catalyst is LeBron James. He's the guy on the back line blocking shots (and also) stealing the basketball." Collins then spoke of Bryant's contributions, noting, "Defensively on the perimeter, he has taken the other team's toughest guy." People who fretted that Team USA does not have enough big men do not understand basketball in general and FIBA basketball in particular: James is big enough to be a big man in any league in the world and great defense starts with defensive pressure in the backcourt, which Bryant has supplied since he was added to the team last summer.
Carmelo Anthony (15 points on 5-9 field goal shooting), Chris Bosh (10 points on 3-4 shooting, six rebounds) and Deron Wiliams (10 points) also scored in double figures. Dwyane Wade had a quiet game offensively--eight points on 3-8 shooting--though he did get eight rebounds. Dynamic guard Patrick Mills led Australia with 20 points, while reserve Glen Saville added 13 points. Andrew Bogut had just four points before leaving in the second half after reinjuring his balky left ankle.
Team USA's game plan early in the game focused on feeding the ball to Dwight Howard in the paint and this worked to perfection as Howard drew two fouls on Bogut in the first 2:42. Team USA raced to a 12-3 lead as Howard converted a three point play, Anthony scored two baskets, Bryant made a jumper and James drilled a three pointer. Australia is a feisty team, though, and they battled back to cut the margin to 17-14 as Team USA took some questionable shots and had some defensive lapses. In one sequence, James inexplicably pulled up behind the three point line and launched a jumper on a 2 on 4 fast break, with Bryant in the left corner and not one Team USA player in the paint. Later, Bryant wisely passed up taking a three pointer in the half court set in order to feed the ball to Howard in the post. Howard got fouled and split a pair of free throws but Bryant, who is a great free throw line offensive rebounder, corralled the miss; his turnaround jumper was off the mark but the extra possession paid off for Team USA because Howard tipped in Bryant's shot. Australia answered with a Chris Anstey three pointer and then Bryant missed a three pointer early in the shot clock. Collins said, "I think every time the United States takes one of those quick threes it helps Australia's defense." So many people have erroneously talked about how important it is for Team USA to make three pointers but it is far more important for Team USA to defend the three point line effectively, force turnovers/missed shots and then score in transition. For Team USA, the three point shot is a luxury that can pad a lead, not a necessity for winning--something that should be evident to everyone after this contest, considering that three straight three pointers bridging the second and third quarters enabled Team USA to push a nine point lead to 18; Team USA was winning even before the three point barrage, but the outside bombing turned the game into a rout. That is why you only see Michael Redd on the court in garbage time and why defensive specialist Tayshaun Prince is the first wing player off of the bench after Wade.
Sideline reporter Craig Sager said that after a stoppage of play late in the first quarter, Coach Mike Krzyzewski told Team USA, "Stop being stupid. You are making dumb plays." In other words, stop looking for early three point shots and do a better job of guarding Australia's three point shooters; Australia shot 3-7 from three point range in the first quarter, tied the score at 21 and only trailed 25-24 after the first 10 minutes. A greater concern for Team USA than three point shooting is their free throw shooting: Team USA shot 5-11 (.455) from the free throw line in the first quarter and 18-31 (.581) for the game. Team USA can decide how many three pointers to shoot and when to shoot them but the opposing team dictates to some extent how many free throws Team USA will shoot and slowing the game down by fouling may be the best strategy against Team USA, at least for a team that has enough depth to withstand some foul trouble.
Early in the second quarter, Team USA went with a small lineup of Bryant, James, Anthony, Wade and Williams, trying to speed up the tempo against the bigger, slower Australian group that was on the court. Team USA forced a turnover that James converted into a fast break dunk for a 33-28 lead but then Anthony committed his second foul and had to go to the bench. He was replaced by Bosh, giving Team USA a more conventional--but still very quick--quintet. Bogut scored on a nice drive to the hoop but Bryant answered with an emphatic dunk in the half court set. Collins said, "Smart decision by Kobe Bryant. Looked like he was going to take the three. (David) Anderson on the closeout could not play with that type of quickness and Kobe with a brilliant play." Next came a wild sequence in which James stole the ball but threw it away and then Wade stole the ball and passed to Williams, who advanced the ball to Bryant, who faked a behind the back pass and made a layup. Australia trailed 37-30 and immediately called a timeout. On the next possession, Australia ran a great play resulting in a layup for Bogut. Collins observed, "Chris Bosh showed too quickly and when he did Andrew Bogut slipped the pick." Bryant immediately came over to Bosh and explained to him what he did wrong. That kind of leadership does not show up in the boxscore but it is exactly what Team USA was missing in previous years. Don't forget that Team USA led 33-21 early in their 101-95 loss to Greece in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. At that point, James told his teammates on the bench, "They don't know what to do"--but when Greece hit Team USA with a 24-8 run it was James and Team USA that did not know how to stop the bleeding. It is a different story now with Bryant on the team, because the defensive intensity is higher and when mistakes are made they are immediately corrected during the game. After the game, Jason Kidd said of Australia's strong early play, "We felt that in this game that they were going to live and die by the three pointer. They made a couple. We had a couple of defensive breakdowns but we took care of it. That’s the beauty of this team. On the fly we can solve problems without having to call timeouts. Communication is a big weapon for us. Nobody is afraid to talk to one another because we all respect one another." Once again Kidd's boxscore numbers (four points, one assist) will not blow anyone away but he has played a big role in changing the culture for Team USA and that should not be diminished or forgotten.
Another key moment came at the 3:59 mark with Team USA leading 43-36. James failed to complete a three point play by missing a free throw, Anthony got a strong rebound and Australian reserve Mark Worthington wound up and took a big swipe at Anthony's put back attempt, clocking Anthony in the head. Anthony smartly just smiled and walked to the free throw line but players from both teams began jawing at each other. Australia knows that Anthony and Howard can be hotheads and part of their strategy was to be very physical and hopefully get those guys off of their games. That approach helped Australia to give Team USA their toughest battle in the pre-Olympic exhibition tour, with Team USA only winning by 11, 87-76. Collins noted that the Soviet Union used a similar approach against Team USA when Collins played in the 1972 Olympics and it paid off as the Soviets baited Dwight Jones into being ejected. Collins said, "This is where you have to keep your poise. Worthington comes into the game. He's a guy who has no value to the Australians except maybe to get one of the better American players thrown out." Anthony made both free throws to put Team USA up 45-36. After the mishap on the Bogut play, Team USA closed the quarter with an 18-11 run--punctuated by a buzzer beating three pointer by Williams--to make the score 55-43 at halftime.
If Australia had any illusion about keeping the game relatively close in the second half, Bryant quickly disabused them of that notion, draining a three pointer on Team USA's first possession of the second half and scoring nine points in just 3:20 as Team USA used a 14-0 run to take a 69-43 lead. Bryant shot just 1-15 from three point range in the first two games of the Olympics, leading to some poorly considered commentary in some quarters about Bryant's relative value to this team. However, I kept a level head and wrote, "Bryant shot 17-37 (.459) from three point range last summer when Team USA went 10-0 en route to winning the gold medal in the FIBA Americas tournament and he shot 7-19 (.368) from three point range when Team USA went 5-0 during their pre-Olympic exhibition tour--that adds up to 24-56 (.429) three point shooting during his 15 FIBA games prior to the Olympics. Bryant shot .361 from the 23-9 NBA three point distance last season and is a .340 career NBA three point shooter. In other words, at some point he is going to have a 6-8 game from the three point line and by the end of the Olympics his three point shooting percentage will be around its normal level." Bryant shot 4-7 from three point range versus Australia and he has shot 11-21 from behind the arc (.524) in the past four games, improving his overall three point percentage in the Olympics to .333. Bryant told Sager after the game, "The three point line now (in FIBA play), that's where I shoot fadeaways from." I read an idiotic comment somewhere in which someone asked how can Bryant be a top NBA shooting guard if he cannot make catch and shoot shots from 20 feet? As Bryant indicated, in the NBA he catches the ball at the free throw line extended and shoots turnaround jumpers from that range (or from just a little closer); Bryant is used to shooting three pointers from 23-9, so catching the ball facing the hoop at 20-6 is a little bit different. It's not that he cannot make the 20-6 shot but just that faceup shots from that range are not part of his normal repertoire. Bryant admitted that he is actually more comfortable shooting from a few steps behind the FIBA three point line, which he did a couple times in this game.
Bryant was the only Team USA player who played the entire second quarter plus the opening minutes of the third quarter, a stretch during which Team USA outscored Australia 46-24 (James sat out a little over a minute and a half during that time); except for the game against Spain when Bryant experienced early foul trouble, he typically has played most if not all of the second quarter and has almost always been on the court when Team USA breaks the game open in the second or third quarter.
Team USA pushed the margin to 85-55 before settling for an 89-61 advantage at the end of the third quarter. By that time, Bryant, James, Anthony and Kidd had been on the bench for a few minutes and one could have reasonably expected that their work was done. Wade was on the court at the end of the third quarter and he started the fourth quarter, which has been a normal rotation for this team--but Coach Krzyzewski inexplicably brought Bryant, James, Anthony and Kidd back into the game shortly after the start of the fourth quarter with Team USA leading 91-63. That quartet played alongside Redd. Maybe the idea was to spread out the defense enough so that Redd could make a shot? Redd did nail his first jumper en route to a 2-3 shooting performance in the fourth quarter to improve his Olympic shooting percentage to 10-31 (.323). Collins assured viewers that Redd could go off and make four in a row at any point to get his numbers back up to par. I have no doubt that this is true but if Redd does this it will be in garbage time, not when the game is even remotely in doubt. The bigger issue is bringing back four starters with a huge lead. Frankly, I was dumbfounded by this decision, particularly considering that Australia is a physical team and that they were no doubt frustrated about their imminent elimination from medal play. What would happen to Team USA if Australia committed a hard foul on Bryant or James and injured one of those guys?
Team USA outscored Australia 10-7 before the four starters returned to the bench. Wade came back for a cameo appearance and then he left the game for good. The curious substitution patterns slightly distorted the on court numbers for the five players who I have been tracking: Team USA outscored Australia 77-48 when Bryant was on the court, 75-48 when James was on the court, 60-37 when Anthony was on the court, 44-26 when Kidd was on the court and 48-43 when Wade was on the court. As I noted, Bryant was the only player who was on the court during Team USA's 46-24 run in the second quarter and early stages of the third quarter, though James was on the court for the vast majority of that time. Kidd helped Team USA get off to a good start by feeding Howard the ball early in the game and he was the point guard when Team USA broke the game open in the third quarter.
Argentina defeated Greece 80-78, so they will play Team USA for the right to advance to the gold medal game. Manu Ginobili scored 24 points and shot 6-13 from three point range versus Greece and it will be Bryant's job to contain him, a challenge that Bryant welcomes and relishes. After Team USA beat Australia but before Argentina played Greece, Bryant said, "We want to play the best. We want to play the defending (Olympic) champs. It’s all about challenges and obviously we welcome all comers. We know what a great team Greece is. Argentina is the defending champs. You want to be able to play the guys who won it the last time. I would love for us to have the opportunity." Of course, someone tried to twist his words into a slap at the Greeks, so Bryant immediately clarified his remarks by adding, "They’re both great teams. The point that I’m making is that when you’re a champion, you want to have the opportunity to defend your championship. And, anyone who has aspirations to be a champion, you understand there is a sense of pride that comes along with beating a champion. That’s all that comment’s about."
posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 PM