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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Team USA-Spain Gold Medal Game Preview

The gold medal game will be a clash between 2006 FIBA World Champion Spain and Team USA, which is the number one ranked FIBA team; I don't know exactly how Team USA earned a number one ranking despite not winning a gold medal in a major FIBA event since 2000 but in light of their dominance thus far in the Olympics that certainly looks like the correct call.

These teams met in the preliminary round in a game that was considered to be a test for Team USA but Team USA routed Spain 119-82, shooting .579 from the field, forcing 28 turnovers and holding Spain to .394 field goal shooting, including .214 from three point range. Spain kept within striking distance during the first half, in part because Kobe Bryant went to the bench with early foul trouble; Team USA built a 14 point lead but Spain kept pace with Team USA for more than five minutes in the second quarter with Bryant on the bench, as each team scored 14 points during that stretch. A tip-in by Carlos Boozer just before the halftime buzzer put Team USA up 61-45. Team USA blasted the game open with an 11-3 run to start the third quarter.

Felipe Reyes (19 points, eight rebounds, 9-12 field goal shooting) was Spain's best player in that game, while Pau Gasol had 13 points, six rebounds and five turnovers. Spain's much touted backcourt quartet of Jose Calderon, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro and Ricky Rubio shot 7-31 from the field (.226) and had seven assists and nine turnovers. Calderon may not play in the gold medal game due to injury.

If Bryant and LeBron James avoid early foul trouble, Team USA could very well jump on Spain right from the start, much like they did while taking a 21-4 first quarter lead in their 101-81 semifinal win over Argentina. I suspect that collectively Team USA is a bit embarrassed by the way that they let Argentina crawl back into that game. Individually, Bryant no doubt would like to make amends for his shot selection (nine three point attempts is too many) and field goal percentage (5-14) in that contest, Carmelo Anthony (3-14 field goal shooting) also had a rough shooting night and James (two assists, four turnovers) made some uncharacteristically poor decisions.

Team USA has posted a 7-0 record in the 2008 Olympics, winning every game by at least 20 points while ranking first in the Olympics in scoring (104.6 ppg), field goal percentage (.544), two point field goal percentage (.641) and rebounding (43.0 rpg). Team USA is forcing 20 turnovers per game while holding their opponents to 74.3 ppg on .386 field goal shooting and .283 three point shooting. Their 30.3 point differential is much better than the 2004 and 2000 versions of Team USA posted in the Olympics (4.6 ppg and 21.6 ppg respectively) and is reminiscent of the dominance of the 1996 and 1992 Olympic teams (31.7 and 43.8 ppg respectively). Team USA is playing so well overall that all the critics and doubters can do is nitpick about a few small details, such as free throw shooting, three point shooting and interior defense.

Free throw shooting is the one legitimate weakness of this team; they rank 11th out of 12 teams with a .670 percentage. One obvious explanation for this is that Dwight Howard (15-31, .484) ranks second on the team in free throw attempts. However, James (11-22, .500) and Dwyane Wade (21-34, .618) are both shooting well below their career averages and that has also pulled down Team USA's free throw percentage. Even Bryant has struggled, albeit in a small number of attempts (4-9, .444). The good news is that Anthony (24-28, .857), Chris Bosh (19-23, .826), Chris Paul (13-14, .929) and Deron Williams (7-8, .875) have consistently knocked down their free throws--and the better news is that Team USA is so dominant in other areas that their poor free throw shooting will be nothing more than a quirky historical footnote. That said, if I were coaching an opposing team, I might consider fouling James, Wade and particularly Howard, especially if I had enough depth to deal with some foul trouble; considering Team USA's field goal percentage, a "hack Team USA" policy might be the opposing team's best chance, with an added psychological benefit of possibly irritating some of Team USA's players and maybe throwing them off of their games. Howard and Anthony in particular seem prone to being distracted and possibly trying to retaliate. I don't think that this approach would really work for a whole game versus Team USA but it might be worth a try; Australia caused Team USA some problems by doing this, though they did not have the talent or overall depth necessary to defeat Team USA.

The main three point shooting weakness of Team USA is that they shoot too many of them: 176 of their 502 field goal attempts have come from behind the arc and even though that is a lower percentage than their opponents' 184/477, it would be better if Team USA did not shoot quite so many long range bombs. That said, Team USA is shooting a solid .364 from three point range and it is understandable that the siren song of that short 20-6 FIBA three point line is difficult for some of the players to resist. As Bryant told Craig Sager, he shoots turnaround shots from that distance in the NBA.

I realize that in some of my game recaps it might seem like I am singling out Michael Redd for criticism but I actually really like his game, particularly in the NBA; he has worked hard to build himself up from a little used reserve to an All-Star caliber player. My beef is with people who believed that Team USA had to add a pure shooter and/or that Redd would play a vital role for this team. What Team USA "had to do" was fix their glaring defensive problems and they did just that by bringing Bryant and Jason Kidd aboard. Team USA shot .369 from three point range in the 2006 FIBA World Championship but did not even make it to the gold medal game. Team USA shot .314 from three point range in the 2004 Olympics but the real problem there was that they allowed their opponents to shoot .441 from behind the arc, essentially making opposing players look like Reggie Miller or Ray Allen. In their disastrous performance in the 2002 FIBA World Championship (which included Team USA's first three losses with NBA players on the roster), Team USA shot .392 from three point range but allowed their opponents to shoot .363 from three point range.

In other words, Michael Redd's three point shooting abilities are a luxury for this team, not a necessity and Team USA could have done just as well--if not better--had his roster spot been filled by a versatile perimeter defender. Redd is averaging just 10.3 mpg, 11th on the 12 man roster. He has shot 10-31 (.323) from the field, including 5-18 (.278) on three pointers. The one time that he came into a game when Team USA did not have a huge lead--in the semifinals versus Argentina--he was ineffective. If his performance had really been as vital as so many "experts" were suggesting beforehand, then Team USA would not be 7-0 right now.

Anyone who still thinks that Team USA needed to add Tyson Chandler or another big man is simply defying reality, because all visual and statistical evidence clearly shows that USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo did a great job assembling this roster. Team USA enjoys an outstanding 43.0-35.7 rpg advantage on the glass and even though certain individual big men have had good games against Team USA (most notably Argentina's Luis Scola, who is having a great tournament overall) no team has posed a serious threat to Team USA in the paint at either end of the court. Meanwhile, the decision to bolster the size, strength and savvy of the backcourt by adding Bryant and Kidd is the number one reason that Team USA is poised to win the gold medal: Team USA's dominance in terms of defensive field goal percentage, defensive three point field goal percentage and forced turnovers is a direct result of Bryant and Kidd, both in terms of their on court play and--just as importantly--the way that they changed Team USA's attitude toward defense. Just look at Team USA's defensive statistics from the 2006 FIBA World Championship, when they settled for the bronze medal sans Bryant and Kidd: .462 defensive field goal percentage, .349 defensive three point field goal percentage, 18.3 turnovers forced per game, 83.1 ppg allowed, 20.5 ppg scoring differential. As noted above, Team USA is performing much better in every one of these categories this time around.

The other big change defensively is the vast improvement that LeBron James has made at that end of the court. Larry Brown has been criticized for not using James, Wade and Anthony more during the 2004 Olympics but at that time those players were youngsters who barely understood NBA defense, let alone FIBA defense. That trio led Team USA in scoring during the 2006 FIBA World Championship but they still were not great defensively and they did not step up individually or collectively at that end of the court during the loss to Greece. In this year's Olympics, James has been a great defender and Wade has been a very active defender, even if he still gambles too much. As for Anthony, let's just say that he still has some room for improvement in this regard; at times he seems to be making more of an effort than he previously did but he reaches too much instead of sliding his feet and he is still out of position too frequently. Part of the improvement defensively by James and Wade can be attributed to the natural development curve of these players, part of it should be credited to Coach Mike Krzyzewski but I also believe that Bryant and Kidd have had a huge impact on the defensive intensity of their teammates; in contrast to the 2006 loss to Greece when Team USA was unable to make in game defensive adjustments, this year on the few occasions when Team USA hit defensive lulls Bryant and/or Kidd could be seen counseling various teammates about what adjustments to make. Their leadership is also very evident from the Team USA practice footage that has been aired occasionally.

Spain will most likely try the few tactics that have had limited success against Team USA: physical play, zone defense, sending Team USA to the free throw line. I would not be surprised if Spain keeps the game close for a quarter or even the first half, but I am more inclined to believe that Team USA will make a statement in the gold medal game by jumping on Spain quickly. Either way, look for Team USA to win by at least 20 points.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:50 PM

4 comments

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4 Comments:

At Sunday, August 24, 2008 5:22:00 AM, Anonymous Allen said...

David,

I think your analysis all throughout this Olympic games has been vindicated and confirmed.

So many things you said have been spot on. You talked about Kobe and Lebron having to avoid foul trouble. You talked about the value of having Kobe Bryant on the team, even though his statistics did not impress the number crunchers. You talked about much more, all of which was on point.

Score another one for thoughtful, insightful analysis.

 
At Sunday, August 24, 2008 5:45:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

win by at least 20? lol

 
At Sunday, August 24, 2008 9:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

It takes a real man to comment anonymously, make no prediction beforehand and then focus on one aspect of what I predicted when the reality is that 99% of what I have been saying about Team USA for the past several years has been proven to be correct, in contrast to the so-called experts who rattled on about Michael Redd's importance, the supposed lack of big men, etc., etc.

 
At Sunday, August 24, 2008 9:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Allen:

Thank you.

I truly believe that I am supplying something here that no other media outlet is offering and I am glad that you (and others) appreciate this.

I am also very glad that USA Basketball hired Jerry Colangelo and that he righted the ship. Eight years was a long time for Team USA to wait to win a gold medal in a major FIBA event.

 

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