Team USA Topples Defending Olympic Champion Argentina, 101-81Team USA raced to a 21-4 lead en route to a 101-81 victory over defending Olympic champion Argentina, earning a berth in Sunday's gold medal game versus 2006 FIBA World Champion Spain. Team USA seemed to lose focus shortly after Manu Ginobili--the leading scorer in the tournament--left the game for good with a left foot injury. There are a lot of weird numbers from this game. Carmelo Anthony led Team USA in scoring with 21 points but he shot just 3-14 from the field while going 13-13 from the free throw line. LeBron James had 15 points and five rebounds but no steals or blocked shots while committing four turnovers and passing for two assists. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul scored 12 points each, Chris Bosh added 11 points and a team-high 10 rebounds and Dwight Howard produced 10 points and nine rebounds in just 16 minutes. Jason Kidd had a game-high seven assists and played a vital role in settling Team USA down after Argentina fought their way back into the game.
Frankly, this is the type of game that Team USA lost in previous years when Bryant and Kidd were not on the team and James did not defend the way that he does now; Team USA had a poor game offensively by their standards (.471 field goal percentage, 15 turnovers) but they won because they played great defense for most of the game, holding Argentina to .441 field goal shooting and forcing 16 turnovers. Team USA shot just 10-31 from three point range (.323) but that did not matter because they held Argentina--the best three point shooting team in the tournament--to 6-23 three point shooting (.261).
Team USA also dominated the rebounding battle 43-32 even though they frequently used a small lineup. Michael Redd (zero points in five minutes) was again a non-factor as this game provided yet more proof that Team USA's roster was constructed properly: they do not need more big men, nor are they dependent on making three point shots. During Team USA's great start, NBC commentator Doug Collins emphasized some points that I have been saying about Team USA for years: "If you play against the United States and your point guards and your team don't take care of the ball you can't win even if the United States shoots poorly from three point and the free throw line because they attack and score off of turnovers and steals."
The number that should concern Team USA is not their own three point shooting percentage but rather the fact that 31 of their 68 field goal attempts came from behind the arc. Bryant shot 2-9 from three point range and Anthony shot 2-8 on three pointers. Bryant and Anthony are certainly capable of making jumpers from the 20-6 FIBA three point line but Team USA is better served to move the ball, move players and look for other shots. However, the biggest thing that Team USA did wrong to allow Argentina to fight back is committing several silly fouls that put Argentina in the bonus early in the second quarter; Argentina shot 10-10 from the free throw line in the second quarter. Team USA also had no answer for Luis Scola, who shot 13-21 from the field and had game-high totals in points (28) and rebounds (11). Carlos Delfino had 17 points and eight rebounds but he shot just 6-18 from the field as James and Bryant did a good job against him defensively.
The first eight minutes of this game showcased Team USA at their ball hawking best as they hounded Argentina into six turnovers. Bryant scored nine of Team USA's first 16 points, starting with a tip-in of Howard's miss on the opening possession and concluding with a fast break dunk after Team USA forced a turnover. He guarded Ginobili most of the time and forced him into 1-4 field goal shooting (on a couple possessions, Kidd guarded Ginobili while Bryant checked point guard Pablo Prigioni). It is not clear exactly how Ginobili got hurt. He drove to the hoop and although he did not seem to step on anyone's foot or land awkwardly he started limping and had to leave the game. He finished with two points, two fouls and one turnover in six minutes. Andres Nocioni, who is nursing a knee injury, replaced Ginobili. Team USA led 21-4 when Bryant sat out for the first time. Despite Ginobili's absence, Argentina scored seven points in the last 1:36, capped off by a running jumper by Nocioni just before the buzzer. Still, Team USA enjoyed a 30-11 advantage and it looked like the contest was over.
Nocioni opened the second quarter with a jumper and then Dwyane Wade had to go to the bench after committing a charge, his second foul of the game. Bryant checked in for Wade. In less than two minutes, Team USA committed three more fouls, giving Argentina three free points and ensuring that every subsequent foul would put Argentina on the free throw line. Team USA compounded this problem by going on a 3:45 scoring drought, during which time Argentina pulled to within 37-29. During that stretch, Anthony missed two threes and a layup, Bryant missed a three and had his reverse dunk attempt blocked sensationally by Nocioni and James missed a three pointer. Team USA also committed three fouls. A Bryant three pointer pushed the lead back to 42-31 but Argentina soon closed to within 46-40. That Argentina run took place when Redd checked in for James. Redd has not usually played when the outcome of a game was still in doubt and his short stint in this contest showed why: on one disastrous possession he caught the ball at the three point line, held it as the offense ground to a halt and then made a bad crosscourt pass to Chris Paul, who nearly fell out of bounds trying to catch it. With the shot clock dying, Paul inexplicably made a dangerous pass to the middle of the court and Alfredo Quinteros swooped in for the steal and fast break layup. Collins said, "Michael Redd caught that ball on the wing, held it, held it, held it, then threw a bad pass and got Chris Paul in trouble." Team USA got a break at the end of the half when Juan Gutierrez fouled Anthony on a three point attempt. Anthony drained all three free throws to put Team USA up 49-40 at halftime.
Team USA opened the third quarter with a 12-4 run as Howard scored inside twice, followed by five straight points by James and three more by Howard as he split a pair of free throws and then dunked after a feed by Kidd. Kidd made several good passes during this stretch as Team USA's ball movement was vastly better than it had been during the middle of the second quarter. After Delfino was whistled for an intentional foul against Howard, Howard kept his cool but Anthony started jawing with some of Argentina's players. Bryant, James and Kidd immediately pushed Anthony far away to settle him down. Soon Anthony was laughing and indicating that he had regained his composure. Not long after that, Nocioni fouled Anthony and received a technical foul to boot; technical fouls count as personal fouls in FIBA play, so Nocioni now had four fouls, one short of disqualification. Anthony made all four of the resulting free throws to put Team USA up 67-49 but then Team USA committed turnovers on their next three possessions. Team USA survived those miscues to build a 76-55 advantage but Delfino hit a couple three pointers late in the quarter to carve the deficit back down to 78-64.
Team USA had its starting lineup of Bryant, Kidd, James, Anthony and Howard on the court to open the fourth quarter, a rare sight in this tournament. James nailed back to back threes and received a feed from Bryant for a layup to push the lead to 88-69 but Argentina kept battling, getting as close as 13 points on multiple occasions. The score was just 92-79 after a Delfino jumper at the 3:40 mark but Bosh hit two free throws, Wade made a layup, Bosh converted a putback and Wade split a pair of free throws as Team USA made a 7-2 mini run to put the game out of reach. Bryant and James went to the bench at the 1:55 mark with Team USA leading 99-81.
Since this was easily Team USA's most competitive game in the Olympics, it is instructive to look at how Coach Mike Krzyzewski distributed the minutes. As Collins mentioned during one of the previous games, the coaching staff indicates who they trust by which players they put on the court when the game is tight--and this game was tighter than the final score indicates. Bryant led Team USA with 32 minutes, while Anthony played 30, James 26, Paul 21, Bosh 20 and Kidd and Howard 16 each. When the outcome was very much in doubt at the start of the third quarter, Kidd did an excellent job of settling things down and running the halfcourt offense. Team USA outscored Argentina 82-61 when Bryant was in the game, 69-48 when James was in the game, 49-31 when Wade was in the game, 72-59 when Anthony was in the game and 40-30 when Kidd was in the game.
Team USA's rough stretch during the second quarter will no doubt lead some commentators to say that Spain can beat Team USA by playing a zone defense and forcing Team USA to shoot three pointers. In a done and done format like this, Spain has a puncher's chance but the reality is that Team USA dictates the pace of the game by playing pressure defense and they decide when to shoot three pointers. As Collins mentioned during this game, just because a team plays zone you don't have to shoot three pointers; you can still go inside, which is what Team USA did early in the third quarter with Kidd setting up Howard deep in the paint. If Team USA plays good pressure defense without fouling then they will beat Spain by at least 15 or 20 points. It would be preferable if Team USA would shoot fewer three pointers and/or make a better percentage of their long range shots but Team USA's three point shooting will not be a decisive factor in the outcome of the gold medal game.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:58 PM