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Friday, August 08, 2008

Team USA Olympic Schedule and Preview

Team USA will begin Preliminary Round play at 10:15 on Sunday morning (Eastern Standard Time) versus host country China as Group B play opens. Jason Kidd recently said that this contest will be like "game seven times seven" because it may be watched by more people than any basketball game in history but the reality is that from a competitive standpoint it will be very anticlimactic. Although China has three players who are at least seven feet tall who are current or former NBA players (Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and Wang Zhi-Zhi), their "triple towers" will hardly be invincible for two reasons: the FIBA game with its trapezoid lane is not geared toward post up play and Team USA's defensive pressure--spearheaded by Kobe Bryant--will make it difficult for the Chinese guards to get the ball up the court, let alone set up the seven footers in their comfort zones. Look for Team USA to get a lot of early deflections and steals en route to a blowout win.

Team USA's second game will be on Tuesday versus Angola, an African basketball powerhouse that will be completely outmatched by Team USA's size and speed.

Team USA will face its first challenge in this year's Olympics on Thursday when they battle Greece, the team that stunned Team USA 101-95 in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship. Bryant was not a member of that version of Team USA and you can bet that he will consider it a special challenge to make sure that Team USA avenges that loss. It will be interesting to see which player Bryant is assigned to take out defensively--point guard Theo Papaloukas or shooting guard Dimitris Diamantidis. The Greeks play together very well but I expect Team USA to win by 15 points.

On Saturday, Team USA will play Spain, the team that won the 2006 FIBA World Championship. The Spanish team is loaded with talent, including the two Gasol brothers, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Calderon, Jorge Garbajosa and exciting young point guard Ricky Rubio. Even more than the game with Greece this contest will really be a measuring stick for Team USA's chances to win the gold medal. If Team USA plays the way that they did in their final exhibition game versus Australia then Spain could beat them but I think that Team USA will win, though I would not be surprised if the game is competitive well into the second half.

Team USA wraps up Preliminary Round play on August 18 with a game against Germany, a team that features a pair of NBA seven footers in Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman but is not good enough or deep enough to beat Team USA.

All that matters in Preliminary Round play is to win enough games to advance to the quarterfinal round. At that point, the event is an NCAA Tournament-style one and done affair. The top four teams from Group A will face the top four teams from Group B. To win the gold medal, Team USA will have to win three games in a row. The teams that will most likely be standing in their way at that stage include Spain, Greece and Germany from Group B plus Argentina, Croatia, Lithuania and Russia from Group A. Since the most important thing in the Preliminary Round is not to win every game but simply to advance to the medal round, it is possible that certain teams will save some wrinkles in their offensive or defensive schemes in order to spring them on Team USA in the medal round.

The semifinal round game has been Team USA's undoing in their past two major international competitions: they lost to Greece in 2006 at the FIBA World Championship and they lost to eventual Olympic gold medalist Argentina in 2004. The most important thing for Team USA, particularly in medal round play, will be to play stifling perimeter defense, shutting down the opposing team's three point shooters without allowing players to waltz down the lane for layups. Team USA may not dominate on the glass but they will not lose any games due to rebounding. Whether or not Team USA shoots a great percentage from the three point line will not be of primary importance, either.

Carmelo Anthony will probably be Team USA's leading scorer during the Olympics, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant following (not necessarily in that order) but Bryant's defense will be the most important factor for this team. James' improved defense and strong all-around game will be the second most important factor. One interesting storyline to follow will be the point guard situation. Jason Kidd will be the starter but he did not play a lot of minutes during the pre-Olympic exhibition tour, leading some people to believe that he is being phased out. That may be true or it may be that Coach Mike Krzyzewski was simply saving Kidd for the games that count. We will not really know which answer is correct until Team USA is seriously challenged, which will probably happen for the first time in the game against Greece. Look to see which point guard is on the court in money time in that game and which point guard gets the most minutes if the game does not become a blowout. I suspect that Kidd will play a more important role than a lot of other people seem to think that he will.

I expect Team USA to win the gold medal, Spain to capture the silver medal and Argentina to claim the bronze medal. Team USA will win most of their games by double digits but will have more than one game that is either decided by fewer than 10 points or is closer than 10 points well into the second half.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:26 PM

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Team USA Pre-Olympic Exhibition Tour Report Card

My report card for Team USA's Pre-Olympic Exhibition Tour has been published at SlamOnline. You can check it out here:

Team USA Exhibition Tour Report Card

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:05 PM

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

USA Basketball: Inside the Redeem Team

There are a series of 14 videos at the AT&T Blue Room site that describe how this year's Team USA--dubbed the "Redeem Team"--has been put together and provide some highlights from the just concluded pre-Olympic exhibition tour (if the videos don't play automatically after clicking on the links below, go to "connection settings" on the right hand side and make the appropriate selection for your internet setup).

Team USA Managing Director kicks off the first video by saying of Team USA's recent failures in FIBA play, "It really bothered me as an American and, quite honestly, I was mad inside because I take great pride in what we've accomplished in this country with the game of basketball."

Jerry Colangelo--Building the national team

After more than a decade of service in the Team USA program, Mike Krzyzewski was likely in line to be the head coach of the Olympic team--but when USA Basketball made the move in 1992 to use NBA players instead of college players, Krzyzewski assumed that he would never get a chance to be the team's coach. That all changed once Colangelo took over:

Selection of Coach K

After clicking on either of the above links, you will have access to the rest of the videos in a continuous play sequence. The other video titles are:

3) Team--Coming Together
4) Announcement
5) Leaders
6) Big Men
7) Redemption
8) Off Court Preparation
9) The Young Point Guards--Chris Paul & Deron Williams
10) The Role Players
11) Team USA vs. Russia
12) Team USA vs. Turkey
13) Team USA vs. Canada
14) Team USA vs. Lithuania

Some of the above footage has also been shown in the "Road to Redemption" series of TV shows.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:35 PM

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Team USA Overcomes Sluggish Start to Beat Australia, 87-76

Team 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:49 PM

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Monday, August 04, 2008

The Man Behind the Icon: Reebok Exclusive Yao Ming Interview

Rebook Exclusive recently posted an interview with Yao Ming. Yao admitted that it has been a little difficult to get back in the swing of things after missing three months of action due to a broken foot but said, "You have to play through it because you are a professional athlete." He is thrilled to have the opportunity to play in the Olympics in his home country: "I can't find the words to explain how excited I am."

Here is the interview video:

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:53 PM

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Team USA Grinds Out 89-68 Win Versus Russia

Kobe 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:18 AM

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