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Saturday, August 16, 2008

Team USA Demolishes Spain, 119-82

Team USA put together their most complete game of the Olympics against their most well respected opponent, routing 2006 FIBA World Champion Spain 119-82 to improve to 4-0 and clinch the top seed in preliminary round play. Spain dropped to 3-1 but will still advance to the medal round. This game was expected to be the biggest test so far for this version of Team USA and they responded by dominating nearly every meaningful statistical category, forcing 28 turnovers, shooting .579 from the field--including a blistering .480 from three point range--and holding Spain to .394 field goal shooting overall and .214 shooting from behind the arc. Team USA outscored Spain by at least seven points in every quarter. Eight Team USA players scored in double figures and every player made at least one field goal; Jason Kidd scored his first points of the Olympics on a left handed fast break layup after a nice feed from LeBron James.

James led Team USA with 18 points and he again filled up almost every category in the boxscore, amassing eight assists, five rebounds and four steals. Chris Paul also put up gaudy all-around numbers: 14 points, eight assists, five rebounds, five steals. Dwyane Wade had 16 points and six rebounds off of the bench and Carmelo Anthony scored 16 points on 6-8 field goal shooting. Foul trouble limited Kobe Bryant to 16 minutes and he finished with 11 points.

Michael Redd is an excellent player and seems to be a good person but I think that the story about him changing into a suit before he met with Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo has been told frequently enough at this point. Yes, that was very professional of Redd and reinforces the idea that Colangelo filled out the roster with players who are not only talented but who are also fully committed mentally to the USA Basketball program. That said, Redd's actual role on this team is far less significant than most pundits predicted or than some people still portray it to be: even when Bryant suffered early foul trouble, Redd still did not get on the court, as Coach Mike Krzyzewksi rightly chose to utilize Tayshaun Prince, who is a better defender than Redd as well as a capable shooter, particularly from the short FIBA three point line. Prince shot 3-4 from three point range and scored 10 point in 13 minutes, while Redd did not make his first appearance until late in the third quarter. Redd scored a couple garbage time baskets in the fourth quarter and finished with four points. I mention this not to denigrate Redd but to emphasize that the most important thing for Team USA is defense--starting with pressure by the guards--and that three point shooting is a nice luxury for Team USA to have but not an essential part of the gold medal recipe. Yes, Team USA shot very well from three point range versus Spain and that helped turn what might have been a 15 or 20 point win into a 37 point annihilation but even if Team USA had missed every three point shot--which of course is highly unlikely--they still would have outscored Spain. The key three point shooting number from this game is Spain's 6-28 brick fest.

Felipe Reyes shot 9-12 from the field and led Spain with 19 points and eight rebounds. He was easily their most effective player. Pau Gasol had solid numbers (13 points on 5-8 shooting, six rebounds) but he committed five turnovers and did not have a huge impact. Many people have expressed concern about Team USA's lack of frontcourt size but Team USA has controlled the paint defensively throughout the Olympics and Spain's slight rebounding advantage (39-36) was inconsequential in light of Team USA's complete dominance in every other phase of the game.

Spain's much touted backcourt was a disaster area, as Team USA hounded them into turnovers and missed shots. Starters Jose Calderon (four points on 1-9 shooting, zero assists) and Rudy Fernandez (eight points on 3-8 shooting, three assists) struggled mightily and reserves Juan Carlos Navarro (five points on 2-10 shooting, one assist) and Ricky Rubio (eight points on 1-4 shooting, three assists) were even worse. Those four players combined to post seven assists and nine turnovers while shooting 7-31 (.226) from the field.

The biggest difference between this edition of Team USA and the 2002, 2004 and 2006 Team USA squads is improved defense, particularly on the perimeter. Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd set the tone in that regard starting in last year's FIBA Americas tournament and just about everyone else on the roster has bought in as well. On the first play of the game, Pau Gasol bobbled the ball while maneuvering in the post and James swept in for the steal, passed to Kidd and received a return pass for a layup. Spain hung tough in the early going but Team USA's game plan is not based on winning the game in the first five minutes; Team USA sets the tone by applying immediate defensive pressure from the start and that pressure combined with Team USA's depth wears the opponent down, usually by the second quarter.

Early in the first quarter, Pau Gasol set a screen and his Lakers teammate Bryant was called for a foul after he made no attempt to go around Gasol and simply bowled him over. Gasol had a wry smile on his face after the play but Bryant did not smile, nor did he offer a hand to help Gasol back up. Doug Collins, who did the color commentary for NBC while Mike Breen handled play by play duties, said, "You're going to laugh but I think that's a good foul. I think that you knock Pau Gasol around early and let him know that he's going to be in a physical contest. He likes to be a finesse player. The knock on him has been that he does not like contact." Although everything that Collins stated is true, the flip side to that is that it only takes five fouls to be disqualified in FIBA play, so it is a little risky to give up one of those fouls early in the game. As it turned out, Bryant essentially took one for the team by making that play, because a couple minutes later he was whistled for his second foul and had to check out of the game for the remainder of the first quarter.

Dwight Howard continues to start at center but he has not been as effective as Chris Bosh, particularly on defense. Bosh is an ideal FIBA big man because of his ability to both defend the paint and switch aggressively on screen/roll plays. Meanwhile, Howard has struggled with his free throw shooting and has been foul prone. After Howard goaltended an Alex Mumbru shot that did not seem to have a chance of going in, James had an exasperated look on his face. That basket tied the score at 9-9. Wade checked in for Bryant shortly after that play and Team USA went on a 20-7 run, fueled by relentless pressure defense; Team USA got seven steals and forced 10 turnovers in the first quarter. Spain scored six points in the last 1:34 to cut Team USA's lead to 31-22 at the end of the quarter.

Bryant returned at the start of the second quarter. Reyes buried him in the post after a switch and made a short hook over him as Bryant tried to avoid committing his third foul but Bryant answered with several strong plays. First he drove to the hoop, collapsed the defense and kicked the ball to James, who reversed the ball to Prince for a wide open three pointer. Then Bryant stole the ball and sailed in for a reverse dunk. James and Bryant each nailed three pointers to put Team USA up 45-31 but on the next possession Bryant was sidelined for the rest of the first half after being called for his third foul while defending against a post move with a bent forearm. Less than a minute later, Anthony also received his third foul. Breen noted, "What I find watching international ball, the problem is the officiating is wildly inconsistent." It is strange that in FIBA play sometimes a player can drive to the hoop and be knocked down without anything being called but then a defender who is playing solid defense will be whistled for incidental body contact; Team USA assistant coach Nate McMillan later told sideline reporter Craig Sager that the referees called a much tighter game than Team USA had expected, not allowing defensive contact that had been deemed permissible in earlier games. Deron Williams eventually fouled out, while Bryant, Anthony and Howard finished the game with four fouls each.

After Anthony went to the bench, Team USA used a 9-0 run to take a 56-36 lead but then Coach Mike Krzyzewski inexplicably put Anthony back in the game late in the quarter despite Anthony's foul trouble. Anthony sagged too deeply into the lane and allowed Jorge Garbajosa to make a three pointer and Krzyzewski then took Anthony out of the game after a timeout. That three pointer started a 9-3 run that enabled Spain to cut the lead to 59-45 and that would have been the halftime score if Spain exercised good shot clock management but instead Rudy Fernandez shot too quickly, giving Team USA plenty of time to operate for the final possession of the half--so much time, in fact, that Team USA got off three shots, the last one a putback by Carlos Boozer as the clock expired. James had a monster first half with 14 points, three assists and four steals, though he did commit four turnovers. Thanks largely to James and Wade, Team USA performed very well when first quarter foul trouble sidelined Bryant, outscoring Spain 22-13, but when Bryant missed the final 5:39 of the second quarter Spain had their best extended stretch of the contest, playing Team USA dead even (14-14) until Boozer's shot.

With the starters back on the court to open the third quarter, Team USA used a quick 11-3 burst to essentially end all resistance: Bryant scored on a dunk, Howard split a pair of free throws, Anthony hit two three pointers and James spoon fed Kidd for a layup to put Team USA up 72-48. Spain never got closer than 17 points the rest of the way and trailed 86-63 at the end of the third quarter. The fourth quarter garbage time fiesta included some more strange substitution patterns by Coach Krzyzewski: Bryant has usually sat out the final stanza when Team USA has big leads, but Coach Krzyzewski put him back in the game with Team USA leading 92-66. James and Wade played briefly at the start of the quarter before going to the bench but when Williams fouled out Coach Krzyzewski put James back in the game for the last couple minutes; that would not look like a very smart move if James tweaked an ankle with Team USA winning by 30-plus points.

The strange substitution patterns skewed the on court/off court numbers a bit, allowing Bryant and James to pad their totals slightly in fourth quarter garbage time. The final tally shows that Team USA outscored Spain 82-57 with James on the court, 60-37 with Wade on the court, 42-32 with Bryant on the court and 45-39 with Anthony on the court. The score was tied 31-31 during Kidd's 13 minutes. Team USA's three most significant scoring runs came late in the first quarter (20-7 to build a 29-16 lead), in the middle of the second quarter (9-0 to push the margin to 56-36) and early in the third quarter (11-3 to go up 72-48). James scored seven points in the first quarter run, Deron Williams had five of the nine points in the second quarter run and Bryant, James and Anthony each made their presence felt by scoring and/or passing during the third quarter spurt. Wade's energy was a crucial factor in the first two of those runs (he was on the bench at the start of the third quarter). In other words, as indicated by the well balanced scoring, this was a team win in which many players made valuable contributions.

It has been suggested by various commentators (including Fran Fraschilla and Doug Collins) that sometimes in FIBA play teams will do some jockeying for position and perhaps try harder in certain games than others--and the reality is that after a team clinches a medal round berth the remaining preliminary round games are not essential--but I don't think that Spain was holding back some great secret strategical weapon to use against Team USA in a potential one and done medal round game. It did seem like Spain got discouraged in the second half and did not play with great defensive intensity but who would not get discouraged in the face of Team USA's onslaught? Four of Spain's starters played more than their average number of minutes, so if Spain was playing possum they chose a strange way of doing it.

In the single elimination medal round, anything can happen--just like the NCAA Tournament--but I think that it is fair to say that this is the best squad that USA Basketball has put on the court since the 1996 Olympic team. The competition is much tougher now but Team USA plays unselfish basketball at both ends of the court and is much, much better defensively than the 2002, 2004 and 2006 teams. Team USA faces Germany in the final preliminary round game and will then need to win three straight games to capture their first gold medal in a major FIBA competition since the 2000 Olympics.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:56 PM


Kobe Bryant: "We Understand the Significance and Importance of Representing our Country"

NBC Sports' Cris Collinsworth did an interview with Kobe Bryant that aired during NBC's Friday night Olympics telecast. Here is a transcript:

Collinsworth: "Big picture for USA Basketball: Last couple Olympics--that you were not a part of--maybe the reputation wasn't the greatest in the world. This is a different team, isn't it?"

Bryant: "It is a different team. I think it's a different attitude. I think we understand the significance and importance of representing our country. I think that was something that was maybe missing on those past teams."

Collinsworth: "Tell the story of when you got your USA uniform."

Bryant: "I had goosebumps and I actually just looked at it for a while. I just held it there and laid it across my bed and just stared at it for a few minutes. As a kid growing up, this is the ultimate, ultimate in basketball."

Collinsworth: "Where does the patriotism come from inside of you? Historically, what is it?"

Bryant: "Our country, we believe, is the greatest country in the world and it has given us so many great opportunities. It's just a sense of pride that you have to say, 'You know what? Our country's the best.'"

Collinsworth: "Is that a cool thing to say in this day and age, that you love your country and that you are fighting for the red, white and blue? It seems sort of like a day gone by."

Bryant: "No, it's a cool thing for me to say. I feel great about it and I'm not ashamed to say it. This is a tremendous honor."

Collinsworth: "There have been some of the most spectacular plays that I've ever seen come out of this."

(As Collinsworth said those words, NBC showed the highlight from Team USA's 92-69 win over Greece when Dwyane Wade threw a lob to Bryant, who caught the ball with both of his hands even with the top of the square and threw down a two handed dunk)

Bryant: "You know, we get a kick out of that. That is what gets us going, when we make plays like that. We acknowledge each other and our team seems to feed off of that."

(Cut to footage of Michael Phelps at the pool, with a shot of Bryant in the stands applauding)

Bryant: "Meeting Michael Phelps and Dara Torres the first night that we got here was fun. I was planning on meeting them but also having an opportunity for me--I'm a huge soccer fan--and one of my favorite players in the world is Lionel Messi, who plays for Argentina. He's just a phenom. He's 21 years old and already he's one of the best players in the world. Moments like that are just cool. They're cool moments."

Collinsworth: "I think one of my favorite moments was listening to you talking with the Italian television crew. We did an interview and then you go right next door and do the Italian one. I understand that you speak Spanish as well. You're like a one man UN here, it's unbelievable."

Bryant (laughs): "It's a blast. It's the first time my teammates have ever really heard me speak another language. They're like, 'Damn, how many languages do you speak?' It's been fun."

Collinsworth: "A Renaissance man--there you go."

After NBC ran the interview footage, they cut back to a live shot of Collinsworth, who was in the studio with Bob Costas. Collinsworth said, "You know, every once in a while somebody will make a comment to me about young people in this country today but these young Olympians have represented our country so magnificently that I think we should all be very proud."

Kobe Bryant is not a popular figure in some circles and perhaps, as Collinsworth suggested, patriotism is considered passe, but I much prefer the attitude that Bryant is not only expressing verbally but also demonstrating on the court to what we saw from the 2002, 2004 and 2006 editions of Team USA; many of the players from those squads gave lip service to patriotism and to playing together as a team but the results on the court showed that those were empty words--and we have heard players like Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony candidly admit that the previous teams did not have the right mindset about competing for their country, nor did they adequately understand or respect the FIBA teams that they faced. That all changed last summer when Bryant and Jason Kidd joined the team and I am proud of the way that Team USA has played and conducted itself starting in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament and continuing through this year's pre-Olympic exhibition tour and the first three preliminary round games in the Olympics.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:50 AM


Friday, August 15, 2008

When Did Jason Kidd Become Public Enemy Number One?

It is truly baffling to read and hear all of the negative reactions to Jason Kidd's performance for Team USA this year. Just two weeks ago I did a brief post that explained Kidd's value and included quotes from Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade about how much they respect Kidd's game but it seems like a more detail discussion of this subject is warranted.

The number one problem for the 2002, 2004 and 2006 editions of Team USA was poor defense and a big reason for that was that Team USA's guards lacked the savvy, size and toughness to deal with the physical play in the FIBA game. That is why Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd were added to the roster after Team USA finished third in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. Carmelo Anthony (19.9 ppg, .504 FG%), Dwyane Wade (19.3 ppg, .576 FG%) and LeBron James (14.1 ppg, .587 FG%) led that team offensively but nobody set the proper tone defensively, particularly at the point guard position, which was manned by Chris Paul and Kirk Hinrich. The addition of Bryant provided a defensive stud who can "take out" the other team's best perimeter offensive player and his example has clearly affected the attitude that the rest of the team has about defense. Kidd owns a perfect record in FIBA play and he was the point guard when Team USA won the 2000 Olympic gold medal; that was the last time that Team USA finished first in either the Olympics or the FIBA World Championship.

Recent editions of Team USA were All-Star teams that were thrown together without rhyme or reason and none of those squads practiced together enough under FIBA rules. Team USA's current managing director, Jerry Colangelo, put an end to that by requiring players to make a three year commitment to USA Basketball. Thanks to Wade, Anthony and James failing to bring home the gold in 2006, Team USA had to play in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament in order to qualify for a spot in the 2008 Olympics. Kidd averaged 1.8 ppg, 4.6 apg and 3.3 rpg as Team USA went 10-0 and won the gold medal. Those numbers will not blow anyone away, yet Kidd was named USA Basketball’s 2007 Male Athlete of the Year in recognition of his vital importance to Team USA. People who criticize Kidd's reluctance to shoot or scoff at his statistics do not understand basketball; Kidd was not added to the roster to shoot or to put up gaudy numbers but rather to be a leader, a stabilizing influence, a mentor for the younger point guards who will have to carry the torch for USA Basketball in the future and a distributor who is willing to get the ball to the primary scorers.

Even in 2000, when Kidd was coming off of an All-NBA First Team selection, his value to Team USA was not fully reflected in his statistics: Kidd averaged 6.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 4.4 apg in the Olympics.

Jason Kidd is not as good as he was in 2000 and maybe he is not even quite as good as he was in 2007 but to belabor those facts is to miss the larger truth: Kidd is the oldest player on the team and he already "did his time" for USA Basketball by helping the 2000 team to win the gold medal, so he could have been like Kevin Garnett and other players who refused to make a three year commitment to Team USA. Instead, Kidd embraced the challenge of taking a leadership role and helping the NBA's young stars learn how to be successful in FIBA play. It is wrong to discount or underestimate Kidd's impact on the practice court and it is terrible to minimize or forget the key role that he played in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament, when neither Chris Paul nor Deron Williams were ready to fully take the reins in FIBA play.

Kidd's three year commitment to rebuilding Team USA will hopefully culminate in a gold medal performance in Beijing, a fitting conclusion to Kidd's FIBA career. Kidd deserves to be commended for helping to right the ship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:51 PM


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Interview with MIT Associate Head Coach Dr. Oliver Eslinger

Dr. Oliver Eslinger is the associate head coach of MIT's basketball team. His duties range from coaching to scouting to working with alumni to recruiting. MIT aspires to be the Duke or Stanford of Division III basketball, a program combining high academic standards with athletic excellence.

Dr. Eslinger told me about some of the better players who have played for MIT recently:

"A few years ago (2005-06) we won 21 games and set a school record and we had the good fortune of coaching the first All-America in MIT history, Mike D’Auria. When he was a senior and we won 21 games we also had the Conference Rookie of the Year, Jimmy Bartolotta from Colorado. Now he is an All-American as well as an Academic All-American, so you can see that over the last few years there has been a shift in the culture of the basketball program. People see that and read about it and realize that MIT can be tops in schooling and basketball and that certainly helps recruiting as well."

He also mentioned a player who helped to lead MIT to four wins during its first international basketball tour since 1983: "It helps to have at least one guy back there who can at least alter some shots. We have a guy named Hamidou Soumare who is probably one of the most athletic players in the conference and he can certainly block shots. We just call him ‘Dou.’"

I asked Dr. Eslinger which coaches have had the biggest influence on him and he gave an interesting, broad based response:

"Going back to when I was playing, when I started playing basketball in fourth grade in Oklahoma--where I grew up--my coach was named Jack Hale. I fell in love with basketball just because I love the sport but also because he is a great guy, someone who I felt comfortable with. He was nice and he was understanding, so that was my first image of a basketball coach. Since then, throughout my career as a player and as a coach myself, there was a teacher at Bethlehem Central High School in Albany, New York—that’s where I went to high school after I moved from Oklahoma—named Chuck Abba. He was a coaching legend there. I didn’t play for him but I ended up working with him for a year after I graduated from Clark and before I went to grad school. He taught me a lot about how to structure practices and really that when you are a coach you are a teacher and you are an educator. He demanded a lot from his players but he also understood them. His son actually won a national championship at Williams. In the pro ranks, Phil Jackson has been a big influence on me, especially when he was in Chicago and was able to manage players. In the NBA it is so important to manage personalities because everybody is good and so it is a matter of finding the right chemistry and getting the right characters to believe in your philosophy. I think that Phil Jackson has done that. I’ve read all of his books. He talks a lot about the Zen Buddhist philosophy and he got his players to buy into it, he got Jordan to buy into it. He was able to get those guys to buy in to what he was talking about, the five fingers on a hand coming together and that sort of thing. I think that in the college ranks, (I admire) the way that Coach K runs his program and that he’s been there so long and that he may not always have the best players in the country but he gets the guys who are the right fit for Duke and for the campus and for his program. That says a lot. Of course, John Wooden. I was looking at his website the other day and there was a little blurb there about how he believes that his time management and discipline were the most important factors in his success, plus getting to know players on an individual basis as people. That is a key ingredient in my philosophy and that is one reason that I got into psychology. I really enjoy getting to know our players at MIT. Larry Anderson at MIT has been a tremendous influence as well. He has taught me so much about the game and about building a program, especially as it relates to attention to detail, offensive and defensive strategy, and how to get the most out of players."

You can see more from my interview with Dr. Eslinger at SlamOnline:

Athletic Intelligence

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:31 PM


Team USA's Suffocating Defense Stymies Greece, 92-69

Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh set the tone defensively as Team USA beat Greece 92-69, avenging Team USA's 101-95 loss to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship. Team USA improved to 3-0 in preliminary round play and clinched a berth in the medal round. Bryant finished with 18 points and four rebounds, Bosh scored 18 points on 7-8 shooting while snaring five rebounds and Wade turned in another fine performance with 17 points, five assists and six steals. LeBron James again stuffed multiple categories in the box score, contributing 13 points, a team-high six assists, a team-high three blocked shots and a team-high (tied with Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony) six rebounds. Carmelo Anthony, who was Team USA's leading scorer in the 2006 FIBA World Championship (19.9 ppg) and in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament (21.2 ppg), scored eight points on 2-6 field goal shooting; Anthony is averaging just 7.7 ppg on .400 field goal shooting during the Olympics and it is fair to say that he is not making up for that at the defensive end of the court, though he does lead Team USA in rebounding (5.3 rpg). Anthony has reportedly said that his goal is to average 10 rpg, which is not an obtainable goal in the approximately 20 mpg that he can reasonably expect to play; in fact, the main reason that he is leading the team in rebounding at all is that he has played in the fourth quarter the past two games while most of the other starters enjoyed the blowout wins from the bench.

Theo Papaloukas led Greece with 15 points and eight rebounds (tied with Antonios Fotsis) but he only had two assists to go along with five turnovers, a far cry from the 12 assists against just two turnovers that he had versus Team USA in 2006. Vassilis Spanoulis scored 14 points but shot just 4-13 from the field (including 0-5 from three point range), not even close to matching his 22 points on 6-10 field goal shooting (including 3-5 from three point range) versus Team USA in 2006. Dimitris Diamantidis did not score and committed seven turnovers, also well short of the 12 points on 4-6 shooting with no turnovers that he had against Team USA in 2006. The difference for Team USA this time around was defense and that change happened the moment that Bryant was added to the roster. He set a tone the first time that he came on to the practice court, something that Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo, Coach Mike Krzyzewski and several of the players have repeatedly emphasized. Bryant went to the coaching staff prior to each game in last summer's FIBA Americas tournament and asked them "Who do you want me to take out?" Steve Kerr told me that story last December, relaying something that then-Suns coach (and Team USA assistant coach) Mike D'Antoni had mentioned to him. The start of this game was no different: Greece won the jump ball but Bryant would not even let Spanoulis, Greece's high scorer in their 2006 win over Team USA, catch the ball until 14 seconds had run off of the shot clock. Greece eventually ended up with an open three point attempt by Fotsis just before the shot clock expired (Anthony cheated way too far into the lane) but Fotsis missed. Bryant promptly took Spanoulis into the post and scored over him and the message had been sent at both ends of the court: this is not going to be like 2006.

Spanoulis answered with a drive after the interior help defense broke down; later in the game, sideline reporter Craig Sager mentioned that Coach Krzyzewski had asked Tayshaun Prince to explain to Howard what he was doing wrong in help defense situations because he (Krzyzewski) did not have time to do this during the game. Bryant also talked with Howard during a stoppage of play. While great defense starts with pressure by the guards it is critically important that all five players are "on a string" defensively and that everyone rotates properly.

Bryant drew a foul on Team USA's next possession and made two free throws to give Team USA a 4-2 lead. Jason Kidd picked up three fouls in the first 1:27 and had to go to the bench, which altered Team USA's defensive plan. Bryant had been defending point guard Spanoulis while Kidd was checking Diamantidis but Chris Paul is way too small to guard Diamantidis so Paul had to take Spanoulis. Bryant forced Diamantidis to miss a three pointer, James grabbed the rebound and passed ahead to Bryant, who missed the layup after obviously being pushed. During the scramble for the loose ball, Bryant was whistled for an intentional foul against Spanoulis, a truly bizarre call, especially in light of some of the prior contact that had been ignored; Bryant committed a loose ball foul but there was nothing flagrant or intentional about it. This is what Fran Fraschilla meant when he said several times during Team USA's pre-Olympic exhibition tour that a few times a game FIBA officials will make calls that you don't understand and that you simply have to play through. Spanoulis made both free throws and Greece retained possession by rule but they were not able to score.

James missed a layup and a jumper sandwiched around a dunk by Fotsis before an Anthony three pointer put Team USA up 7-6. Howard had another poor defensive possession, fronting Andreas Glyniadakis but allowing him to catch the ball and make a short hook shot. Coach Krzyzewski complained that Glyniadakis committed a three second violation; I looked at the play several times: Glyniadakis came into the lane at the 5:50 mark, stepped out at the 5:47 mark and then ducked back in to catch the pass and score, so if it was a three second violation it would have been almost impossible to detect in real time. Doug Collins, doing the color commentary alongside play by play man Mike Breen on USA Network, noted that FIBA officials rarely call three second violations.

Greece led 13-9 after Sofoklis Schortsanitis, another player who killed Team USA in 2006 (14 points on 6-7 shooting), scored a layup but that turned out to be his only basket of the game. As Doug Collins said during Team USA's win over Angola, it is not reasonable to expect Team USA to blow teams out in the first few minutes. Team USA's plan is to use pressure defense to disrupt the opposing team's offensive execution and to wear the opponent down over the course of the game with that pressure combined with their superior depth.

Wade and Bosh entered the game midway through the first quarter and they both made an impact. Bosh played much better defensively than Howard had and Wade provided tremendous energy. Wade made a great drive and fed Bosh for a three point play to put Team USA up 18-14 and then after Team USA forced a 24 second violation Wade converted an offensive rebound into a layup to push the lead to 20-14. Papaloukas drove right through Team USA's defense to close out the quarter with Team USA in front 20-16.

Early in the second quarter Wade and Bryant combined to produce what Collins immediately called "the play of the tournament": Wade stole the ball and while falling out of bounds he threw a lob pass that Bryant slammed home with two hands after catching the ball with both of his hands even with the top of the square. Apparently, the rumors of the demise of Bryant's athleticism are much exaggerated. After the game, Wade told Sager, "I give credit to Kobe on that one. I made the steal, threw it up to the rim--unbelievable athleticism by Kobe, made me look good."

Wade averaged 19.3 ppg on .576 field goal shooting in the 2006 FIBA World Championship but he had 13 steals in eight games compared to nine steals in three games so far in the Olympics. FIBA teams have always had trouble defending against Wade's slashing moves but, as I've said repeatedly, scoring and shooting are not the reasons that Team USA has failed to win a gold medal in major FIBA competitions since 2000; poor defense has been their downfall and Bryant has turned that around not only with his own play but also by raising the defensive level of his teammates.

So many people have expressed the fear that Team USA would not be able to force turnovers against the better FIBA teams and that Team USA would have to make three point shots to win but this game provided convincing proof that what I have been saying all along is correct: Team USA's pressure defense, spearheaded by Bryant "taking out" the other team's best perimeter player, is the key to winning the gold medal. Wade's steal/feed to Bryant was one of 15 thefts by Team USA and one of Greece's 25 turnovers.

We have also been told repeatedly by some "experts" that Michael Redd's three point shooting will be essential to beat the top FIBA teams but Redd did not enter this game until six minutes remained and Team USA led 80-57. Does anyone still seriously believe that he is a key player or that Team USA should have added Mike Miller to the roster? Note that in 2006 Team USA scored 95 points versus Greece and shot 9-28 (.321) from three point range, while in this game Team USA scored 92 points and shot 7-20 (.350) from three point range, including 2-4 in garbage time in the fourth quarter. Obviously, the difference this time is that Team USA gave up 32 fewer points. Team USA won convincingly because they held Greece to 4-18 three point shooting (.222) and 26-63 field goal shooting (.413) overall. Team USA's alleged weakness inside also was a complete non factor: the teams battled to a 38-38 draw on the glass and Team USA had seven blocked shots compared to just one for Greece. Does anyone still think that Team USA really needs Tyson Chandler?

Wade assisted on dunks by Howard and James as Team USA pushed the lead to 26-18 but after just two minutes of play in the second quarter Wade was totally gassed and asked to come out of the game. He is playing very well but it is important to remember that he missed a significant amount of time last season and he is recovering from multiple surgical procedures. His strength and explosiveness seem to be as good as ever but his wind is not yet up to par, which is why he is perfect for the sixth man role on this team: he gets to play against tired starters and/or the other team's reserves and Coach Krzyzewski can use Wade in short, effective bursts, an apt description of both his playing time and how he plays when he is on the court.

Wade only sat out for a couple minutes to get his second wind and then he came right back into the game. Bryant rebounded a missed free throw by James and threw a slick, no look pass behind his head to a cutting Wade, who scored and made a free throw to convert a three point play and put Team USA up 31-22. That was the beginning of the end for Greece. Wade then scored a layup and made a three pointer on Team USA's next two possessions. Anthony allowed Papaloukas to drive right around him and feed Konstantinos Tsartsaris for a layup but Bryant answered with a three pointer from NBA range to make the score 41-30, followed immediately by James blocking a shot, driving down court and feeding Bosh for another three point play. Then James stole the ball and put Team USA up 46-30 with a fast break dunk. Wade went back to the bench after another effective, short burst. James and Bosh ran a gorgeous screen/roll play, with James feeding Bosh for a three point play. Collins commented, "These European teams are front runners. You get them behind and they are not the same competitors."

Team USA led 51-32 at halftime. Bosh had 12 points and four rebounds, Bryant added 11 points and four rebounds and Wade contributed 10 points and three assists. Steve Jones offered his analysis at halftime and it was great to see USA Network acknowledge that Jones was a three-time ABA All-Star (the ABA does not get nearly enough on-air recognition). Jones said that this edition of Team USA is unselfish and the players don't care who scores as long as the team wins, adding, "Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd provide a different kind of leadership" than Team USA had in previous years. Jones called Wade a "difference maker" and noted that after seeing Team USA practice this summer he had predicted that no one would get within 20 points of Team USA in the Olympics.

Greece started the game pushing Team USA around physically, trying to use the same tactics that unnerved Germany in their previous game, but after Team USA took a commanding lead the Greeks were whining to the officials and begging for calls. Diamantidis slapped at Howard's hand during a free throw line situation early in the third quarter and Howard popped him in the face with an elbow, contact that went undetected by the officials; it was hard to tell how hard Howard hit Diamantidis or if Howard meant to get him in the face (as opposed to just knocking his hand down). Diamantidis complained to the officials before going to the bench to seek treatment. Deron Williams stood up from Team USA's bench, shouted to get Howard's attention and gave Howard a hand signal to cut it out. ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan reported after one of Team USA's exhibition games that Howard got into Krzyzewski's dog house by taking a cheap shot at an opposing player, so it will be interesting to see if there is any fallout from this. Ironically, while this was going on Sager made the report about Prince tutoring Howard about screen/roll defense.

Team USA pushed the lead to 65-42 after Jason Kidd got a steal and made a nice bounce pass through traffic to Bryant for a fast break dunk at the 4:59 mark. After that, Team USA seemed to go on cruise control the rest of the way, maintaining a 74-54 margin at the end of the quarter and never being seriously threatened in the fourth quarter. Bryant left the game for good shortly after his dunk, while James, Anthony and Wade only played briefly in the fourth quarter. Team USA outscored Greece 62-45 when James was on the court, 60-45 when Bryant was on the court, 54-37 when Anthony was on the court, 52-33 when Wade was on the court and 18-12 during Kidd's limited action (hampered by the early foul trouble, he played just seven minutes). Bryant was the only player from that quintet who played the entire second quarter as Team USA outscored Greece 31-16 to break the game open (James played nine of the 10 minutes).

During the fourth quarter, Collins offered his take on why Team USA is better defensively now than in 2006: "Their big men have been very aggressive, their guards are bodying up and they're trying to take the legs away from the Greek players so that they can't get in the lane and make plays." Bosh deserves a ton of credit not only for his play in the paint but also for his excellent defense against screen/roll plays. Bryant "took out" Spanoulis early and did well on other occasions when he was matched up with Diamantidis or Papaloukas. James' defense is vastly improved and he is all over the court getting steals and blocking shots. Wade makes some high risk gambles but he also has been getting a lot of rewards in terms of steals and deflections. The game on Saturday versus Spain--the winners of the 2006 FIBA World Championship--will be another good test for Team USA but Team USA looks to be up for the task.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 PM


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Team USA Improves to 2-0 With 97-76 Win Over Angola

Team USA played sloppily at times but defeated an overmatched Angola 97-76 to improve to 2-0 in preliminary round play. Dwyane Wade again led Team USA in scoring with 19 points, shooting 6-8 from the field. Dwight Howard scored 14 points on 6-6 shooting and LeBron James put up another well rounded stat line: 12 points on 5-7 shooting, a team-high five assists, two rebounds, three steals and one blocked shot, a spectacular spike worthy of Karch Kiraly. Carmelo Anthony added 12 points and a team-high six rebounds, though his totals were boosted significantly by extended minutes in garbage time when the other starters were no longer in the game. Kobe Bryant shot 0-8 from three point range--which is highly unusual considering that the 20-6 FIBA three point shot is a midrange jumper for Bryant during the NBA season--and he finished with eight points, four rebounds and two steals. Carlos Morais scored a game-high 24 points for Angola, doing damage in the paint and from behind the arc (3-8 three point shooting), but he was also charged with 10 of Angola's 25 turnovers. Those miscues fueled Team USA's transition game, which proved to be very important because Team USA shot just 5-21 from three point range. Obviously, that is not good but I still maintain that people are making too big of an issue out of Team USA's three point shooting percentage. The important number is Team USA's defensive three point field goal percentage, which in this case was .290 (9-31). If Team USA continues to play that kind of defense then they will win the gold medal whether or not their players make the midrange jumpers that FIBA designates as three pointers. Case in point: designated three point shooter Michael Redd scored two points on 1-4 shooting (0-2 from three point range) and Team USA won easily.

Mike Breen and Doug Collins handled the broadcasting duties, this time for USA Network, which showed the game live. Craig Sager, on loan from TNT, provided the sideline coverage and he offered this interesting tidbit shortly after the start of the game: Angola Coach Alberto Carvalho told his team before the game that their goal was to lose by fewer than 40 points. That is not exactly shades of Knute Rockne but that lets you know two things--Angola's coach is a very realistic man and the statistics from this game are of limited value in assessing how Team USA will perform against the better teams. Bryant opened the game by missing a three pointer and Angola converted the rebound into a fast break dunk to take a quick 2-0 lead.

Bryant's three point bricklaying (he has shot 1-15 from long distance in the first two games) is sure to be much discussed. I think that Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo should have replaced Bryant on the roster with Mike Miller so that the squad would have enough pure shooters. NOT--I just wanted to see if you are paying attention! 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.

Collins has a slightly different take: "Kobe is still adjusting right now to being a catch and shoot player. In L.A. he is a creator. He is a guy who makes plays for his teammates or does a lot off the dribble. In international play he is getting a lot of catch and shoots and right now he is just not comfortable." I respect Collins' expertise--he and Hubie Brown are the two best on air NBA analysts--and his experience as an Olympian, an NBA All-Star and an NBA head coach but I think that this is just an excuse for Bryant because, as noted above, he shot well from three point range in his previous 15 FIBA games. All that has happened is that in two games Bryant has missed shots that he normally makes; he is shooting very well from inside the arc and the rest of his game is on point, so this is a non-issue, even though some people will surely make a big deal out of it. Bryant's most important role on this team is defensive stopper and that job will be critically important against the better FIBA teams, one of which--Greece--Team USA will face in their next game on Thursday. Team USA must make Greece pay for the 101-95 loss the Greeks dealt them in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship and that is the primary reason that Bryant was added to the roster the next year: he may call himself "Black Mamba" or the "Doberman" but his task versus Greece is to be "the bill collector."

Team USA did not take the lead versus Angola until Howard rebounded a missed Bryant three pointer and dunked the ball to make the score 8-7. Around this time, Collins pointed out that in 1992 the score was tied 7-7 before the Dream Team hit Angola with a 46-1 run. Team USA did not take command with quite so much authority this time but they led 29-18 after the first quarter. Wade provided a nice boost off of the bench, scoring six points as Team USA closed the quarter with a 15-7 run after he entered the game. Collins cautioned that people should not read too much into the fact that Team USA did not immediately blow out Angola: "You can't go for the knockout punch even against Angola. The United States is the deepest team in the field--12 guys wear down the opposition over 40 minutes. That's the game plan." This is apparent by the rotation that Coach Mike Krzyzewski used and the way that the minutes were distributed: no one on Team USA played more than 22 minutes and everyone--even Carlos Boozer and Tayshaun Prince, players who received minimal run previously--played at least 11 minutes. So people can look at the three point shooting or certain individual player statistics but nothing from this game's boxscore tells you anything about what will happen in the game with Greece. As Collins put it, "As the games get tighter you find out who the coach trusts."

As the second quarter began, Sager relayed a funny story about the Dream Team's victory over Angola, a contest in which Charles Barkley infamously elbowed an Angolan player after Barkley felt that he had been fouled but nothing was called. Sager spoke with current Angolan assistant coach Anibal Moreira, who played for Angola in 1992, and Moreira told Sager, "We thought Barkley was a bit deranged. It was not a sane reaction from a person playing basketball." Sager added that Barkley posed for a picture with the Angolan player after the game and that they became friends.

Team USA pushed the lead to 37-21 but Angola cut the margin to 39-32 and Collins said, "Very, very sloppy play by the United States. Right now they are playing down to their competition." During that sequence, Carlos Boozer missed two point blank layups that he should have dunked, including one right after Bryant fed him a gorgeous no look, behind the back pass. Team USA also had some defensive breakdowns and even Bryant was guilty in this regard, committing the cardinal sin of fouling a three point shooter. However, Team USA did not panic and they promptly went on a 12-0 run that essentially put the game away. James had one assist and scored seven points during that stretch, including a three point play on a feed from Bryant. "Incredibly unselfish play by Kobe," Collins said. "He had a wide open layup but dropped it off at the last second." Team USA led 55-37 at halftime. Howard (12 points on 5-5 shooting), James (11 points on 5-5 shooting) and Anthony (eight points on 3-3 shooting) combined to score 31 points on 13-13 field goal shooting.

Bryant did not make a field goal or score a point in the first half but he produced eight of Team USA's first 10 points in the third quarter as the starters maintained a comfortable lead. By the middle of the quarter, all of the starters were on the bench except for James, who stayed in the game a few minutes longer; when he sat down for good Team USA led 73-48 and the margin was 81-53 by the end of the quarter.

Wade played briefly at the start of the fourth quarter before calling it a night and it looked as though none of the starters would play at all in the final stanza but Krzyzewski put Anthony back in with Team USA leading 87-58. Anthony played the rest of the way. That is an unusual move but perhaps Krzyzewski wanted Anthony to get some extra work and/or boost his confidence by padding his numbers. Angola actually outscored Team USA 18-10 in the garbage time fourth quarter minutes when Anthony played despite the fact that Anthony added to his scoring and rebounding totals. For the game, Angola outscored Team USA 46-42 when Anthony was on the court. The reason that Team USA gets outscored more frequently with Anthony on the court than with the other players who I track (Bryant, James, Kidd and Wade) is Anthony's poor defense and that poor defense is a much more significant concern than the ghosts (three point shooting, rebounding) that some people continue to emphasize. If Team USA loses it will be because of poor defense. Team USA outscored Angola 51-25 when Wade was on the court, 53-35 when James was on the court, 45-35 when Bryant was on the court and 32-28 when Kidd was on the court. Team USA broke the game open in the second quarter with James, Wade, Bryant, Chris Bosh (eight points, two rebounds in 14 minutes) and Chris Paul (six points, four rebounds, three assists in 21 minutes) in the game. Paul played excellent pressure defense during that stretch.

Team USA's 101-70 victory over China was an exciting moment in basketball history more than a competitive game and this contest versus Angola was a glorified scrimmage. Four out of six teams from group play advance to the medal round, so Team USA has all but sewn up a berth at this point but the rest of the way is serious business. The game on Thursday against Greece will be a measuring stick for how much Team USA has improved since 2006 and then after that there will be a tough game against 2006 FIBA World Champion Spain, another important litmus test for Team USA. From this point forward it is of paramount importance that Team USA play excellent defense, starting on the perimeter with Bryant, Kidd, young point guards Paul and Deron Williams, plus James and Wade. Howard and Bosh must continue to hold down the fort in the paint and Anthony must at least demonstrate some effort and focus on defense. Good pressure defense will disrupt the opposition's offense while creating transition scoring opportunities for Team USA and that is the recipe for winning the gold medal. If Team USA can make some three pointers along the way that will be nice gravy but the heart of the meal--the meat and potatoes--is defense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:59 PM


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bryant, James and Wade Dazzle as Team USA Routs China, 101-70

Yao Ming opened the scoring with a three pointer and China kept the game close in the first half but Team USA relied on defensive pressure, depth and athleticism to prevail 101-70 in an Olympic preliminary round contest that is widely being termed the most watched basketball game ever. Dwyane Wade scored a game-high 19 points on 7-7 field goal shooting and LeBron James authored another excellent all-around performance: 18 points on 8-12 shooting, six rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots, one steal. Kobe Bryant led Team USA in minutes played (27), anchored the perimeter defense and finished with 13 points, three assists, two rebounds and two steals. Dwight Howard scored 13 points but had just two rebounds. Chris Bosh was very productive in his 13 minutes, contributing nine points on 4-4 shooting and a team-high eight rebounds. China boasts a huge frontline anchored by the 7-5 Yao but Team USA won the rebounding battle 40-37. Carmelo Anthony, ballyhooed in some quarters as Team USA's best FIBA player, was a huge disappointment, missing all three of his field goal attempts and scoring just three points. Yao led China with 13 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots in a game-high 31 minutes but he seemed to wear down as the game progressed, shooting just 3-10 from the field.

Mike Breen and Doug Collins did the play by play and color commentary respectively for NBC. Collins offered three keys for Team USA: Defense creates offense, three point shooting (guarding the three point shot as well as making their own three pointers) and poise. This contest provided ample evidence of the significance of all of those factors, though it is much more important for Team USA to defend well against the three point shot than it is for them to shoot well from long distance. One might think that given the emphasis that China has placed on success in the Olympics that the Beijing crowd would be very pro-China and anti-Team USA but that was not the case. The fans certainly cheered for China but they also cheered for Team USA and it seems as though Kobe Bryant is the most popular player in the country, at least based on the warm reception he received on the exhibition tour, when he came to the arena to watch the U.S. women's basketball team yesterday and during this game.

Team USA got off to slow starts in several of the exhibition games and that was also the case versus China. China led 3-0, 6-2 and 11-7 in the early going. Howard scored Team USA's first four points and then James gave Team USA their first lead of the game, 7-6, after he snared a defensive rebound and went coast to coast for a layup and a three point play. China made their first three three point shots and shot 4-6 from long distance in the first quarter. Team USA scored the last four points of the first quarter to post a 20-16 lead.

Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo recently criticized Anthony's conditioning level and shooting accuracy in the wake of the five game exhibition tour and it is very interesting that Coach Mike Krzyzewski benched Anthony for the entire second quarter. Wade took Anthony's place for most of that time. Wade drove to the hoop aggressively and helped to force some turnovers but on several occasions he gave up open three point shots because he wandered too far into the lane reacting to drives or trying to double team Yao; as Fran Fraschilla pointed out when I interviewed him prior to Team USA's exhibition tour, "the (FIBA) game is played from outside in, whereas in the United States in college and the NBA the game is played from inside out." FIBA's trapezoid lane is another reason that post up play is not nearly as big a factor in the international game as it is in the NBA, so Wade and the other Team USA players must stay at home on the three point shooters.

Obviously, it would be nice if Team USA shoots well from outside but that is gravy as long as Team USA plays good defense and scores in transition. The key for Team USA is containing the opposing team's three point shooters. After Team USA started out 1-7 from three point range, Coach Krzyzewski put Michael Redd into the game with Team USA clinging to a 29-24 lead early in the second quarter. There has been so much talk about how important Redd's outside shooting can be for this team but the reality is that in 10 FIBA Americas tournament games last year and in the five exhibition games this year Redd has rarely been on the court when the outcome of the game was in doubt. Shortly after entering the game, Redd made a one on one move and missed a wild shot off of the glass. Meanwhile, Yao scored inside and China drained yet another three pointer to tie the score. At that point, China had shot 7-11 from three point range while Team USA was just 1-9.

Jason Kidd did not play a huge role during the exhibition tour and he did not score or have an assist in this game but he was the point guard on the floor when Team USA opened up the game for good. Kidd replaced Wade at the 5:29 mark with the score tied at 29. Redd missed a three pointer but Bosh scored on a putback. Team USA ratcheted up the pressure defense, leading to two fast break dunks by Bryant and a Chinese timeout. Wade came in to the game for Redd and Wade again made the mistake of sagging too far into the lane on defense, this time to double team Yao. After Li Nan drained a three pointer, Collins commented, "That's where Dwyane Wade has to have the discipline not to come over to help on Yao Ming and leave the three point shooter." Again, the important point here is that defending three point shooters correctly is much more important for Team USA than how many three pointers Redd or anyone else makes for Team USA.

Collins noted that the lineup with Bryant, Kidd, James, Wade and Bosh is Team USA's strongest defensive unit, an active and mobile quintet that can pressure the ball. Bosh is a much more valuable FIBA big man than Tyson Chandler (who was on the team last summer in the FIBA Americas tournament) because Bosh can defend multiple positions in addition to being much more versatile offensively. Team USA went on a 13-0 run after Wade's defensive miscue, scoring most of their points in transition. Kidd is not credited with any assists in the boxscore but he made a gorgeous feed to Bosh for a layup during that stretch; Bosh caught the ball in stride, took one dribble and went straight up for the score, so that definitely should have been scored as an assist. Team USA led 49-37 at halftime.

Bryant uncharacteristically struggled with his outside shot during this game (1-7 from three point range) but he shot 5-7 from inside the arc, including a driving dunk after a nice pump fake to open the third quarter. Yi Jianlian countered with a tip dunk right over Anthony. Kidd and Anthony ran a nice screen/roll action that resulted in two made free throws by Anthony. It was very obvious at several points that Kidd was making a concerted effort to get Anthony involved offensively, even forcing a couple passes to him. Team USA's depth really took a toll on China late in the second quarter and into the third quarter and China's three point shots stopped falling. A Wade free throw at the 2:17 mark pushed Team USA's lead to 68-48 and they maintained at least a 20 point margin the rest of the way. At the end of the third quarter, Collins mentioned that he had spoken with Team USA during their Las Vegas training camp. Collins was a member of the 1972 Team USA squad that lost to the Soviet Union in a very controversial gold medal game, an outcome that required the end of the game to be played a few times until the "desired" result took place (the Team USA players still refuse to accept their silver medals). He knows what kind of an opportunity this is for the players and he impressed upon them that they are all winners but that there are very few chances in life to become a champion; that distinction between winners and champions is very important.

Bryant, James, Anthony and Kidd did not play at all in the fourth quarter, while Wade made just a brief cameo appearance. I tracked Team USA's performance when each of those players was in the game. Team USA outscored China 73-46 when Bryant was in the game, 65-45 when James was in the game, 52-37 when Wade was in the game, 33-21 when Kidd was in the game and 25-16 when Anthony was in the game. Again, remember that Anthony sat out the entire second quarter when Team USA built a double digit lead while Kidd was in the game when Team USA made that key 20-8 run, including a 13-0 burst. Chris Paul (three points, six assists, three rebounds and two steals in 20 minutes) and Deron Williams (nine points, four rebounds, one assist in 19 minutes) both played well but it is interesting that when the game was close in the first half Kidd received the key minutes at point guard. In fact, in the first half Team USA outscored China 29-19 when Kidd was in the game, a bigger margin than Team USA enjoyed when Bryant (45-37), James (45-37), Wade (34-26) or Anthony (9-11) were in the game. Paul and Williams are better NBA point guards than Kidd at this point but Kidd is still an important part of Team USA's roster.

Redd led the garbage time brigade with nine fourth quarter points, all coming on three pointers with Team USA leading by at least 30--yet there is no doubt that someone who did not watch the game with understanding will look at his 3-7 three point shooting in the boxscore and proclaim that Team USA needed Redd's outside shooting in order to win.

Although Team USA started slowly, overall this was a good performance against a home team that obviously was extremely motivated to play their best game. Team USA withstood the initial wave and maintained their poise. Tuesday's game against Angola figures to be less emotionally charged and much easier but an interesting challenge looms on Thursday: a showdown with the Greek team that beat Team USA in the 2006 FIBA World Championship.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:09 PM