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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Team USA-Spain Gold Medal Game Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:50 PM

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Team USA Topples Defending Olympic Champion Argentina, 101-81

Team USA raced to a 21-4 lead en route to a 101-81 victory over defending Olympic champion Argentina, earning a berth in Sunday's gold medal game versus 2006 FIBA World Champion Spain. Team USA seemed to lose focus shortly after Manu Ginobili--the leading scorer in the tournament--left the game for good with a left foot injury. There are a lot of weird numbers from this game. Carmelo Anthony led Team USA in scoring with 21 points but he shot just 3-14 from the field while going 13-13 from the free throw line. LeBron James had 15 points and five rebounds but no steals or blocked shots while committing four turnovers and passing for two assists. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul scored 12 points each, Chris Bosh added 11 points and a team-high 10 rebounds and Dwight Howard produced 10 points and nine rebounds in just 16 minutes. Jason Kidd had a game-high seven assists and played a vital role in settling Team USA down after Argentina fought their way back into the game.

Frankly, this is the type of game that Team USA lost in previous years when Bryant and Kidd were not on the team and James did not defend the way that he does now; Team USA had a poor game offensively by their standards (.471 field goal percentage, 15 turnovers) but they won because they played great defense for most of the game, holding Argentina to .441 field goal shooting and forcing 16 turnovers. Team USA shot just 10-31 from three point range (.323) but that did not matter because they held Argentina--the best three point shooting team in the tournament--to 6-23 three point shooting (.261).

Team USA also dominated the rebounding battle 43-32 even though they frequently used a small lineup. Michael Redd (zero points in five minutes) was again a non-factor as this game provided yet more proof that Team USA's roster was constructed properly: they do not need more big men, nor are they dependent on making three point shots. During Team USA's great start, NBC commentator Doug Collins emphasized some points that I have been saying about Team USA for years: "If you play against the United States and your point guards and your team don't take care of the ball you can't win even if the United States shoots poorly from three point and the free throw line because they attack and score off of turnovers and steals."

The number that should concern Team USA is not their own three point shooting percentage but rather the fact that 31 of their 68 field goal attempts came from behind the arc. Bryant shot 2-9 from three point range and Anthony shot 2-8 on three pointers. Bryant and Anthony are certainly capable of making jumpers from the 20-6 FIBA three point line but Team USA is better served to move the ball, move players and look for other shots. However, the biggest thing that Team USA did wrong to allow Argentina to fight back is committing several silly fouls that put Argentina in the bonus early in the second quarter; Argentina shot 10-10 from the free throw line in the second quarter. Team USA also had no answer for Luis Scola, who shot 13-21 from the field and had game-high totals in points (28) and rebounds (11). Carlos Delfino had 17 points and eight rebounds but he shot just 6-18 from the field as James and Bryant did a good job against him defensively.

The first eight minutes of this game showcased Team USA at their ball hawking best as they hounded Argentina into six turnovers. Bryant scored nine of Team USA's first 16 points, starting with a tip-in of Howard's miss on the opening possession and concluding with a fast break dunk after Team USA forced a turnover. He guarded Ginobili most of the time and forced him into 1-4 field goal shooting (on a couple possessions, Kidd guarded Ginobili while Bryant checked point guard Pablo Prigioni). It is not clear exactly how Ginobili got hurt. He drove to the hoop and although he did not seem to step on anyone's foot or land awkwardly he started limping and had to leave the game. He finished with two points, two fouls and one turnover in six minutes. Andres Nocioni, who is nursing a knee injury, replaced Ginobili. Team USA led 21-4 when Bryant sat out for the first time. Despite Ginobili's absence, Argentina scored seven points in the last 1:36, capped off by a running jumper by Nocioni just before the buzzer. Still, Team USA enjoyed a 30-11 advantage and it looked like the contest was over.

Nocioni opened the second quarter with a jumper and then Dwyane Wade had to go to the bench after committing a charge, his second foul of the game. Bryant checked in for Wade. In less than two minutes, Team USA committed three more fouls, giving Argentina three free points and ensuring that every subsequent foul would put Argentina on the free throw line. Team USA compounded this problem by going on a 3:45 scoring drought, during which time Argentina pulled to within 37-29. During that stretch, Anthony missed two threes and a layup, Bryant missed a three and had his reverse dunk attempt blocked sensationally by Nocioni and James missed a three pointer. Team USA also committed three fouls. A Bryant three pointer pushed the lead back to 42-31 but Argentina soon closed to within 46-40. That Argentina run took place when Redd checked in for James. Redd has not usually played when the outcome of a game was still in doubt and his short stint in this contest showed why: on one disastrous possession he caught the ball at the three point line, held it as the offense ground to a halt and then made a bad crosscourt pass to Chris Paul, who nearly fell out of bounds trying to catch it. With the shot clock dying, Paul inexplicably made a dangerous pass to the middle of the court and Alfredo Quinteros swooped in for the steal and fast break layup. Collins said, "Michael Redd caught that ball on the wing, held it, held it, held it, then threw a bad pass and got Chris Paul in trouble." Team USA got a break at the end of the half when Juan Gutierrez fouled Anthony on a three point attempt. Anthony drained all three free throws to put Team USA up 49-40 at halftime.

Team USA opened the third quarter with a 12-4 run as Howard scored inside twice, followed by five straight points by James and three more by Howard as he split a pair of free throws and then dunked after a feed by Kidd. Kidd made several good passes during this stretch as Team USA's ball movement was vastly better than it had been during the middle of the second quarter. After Delfino was whistled for an intentional foul against Howard, Howard kept his cool but Anthony started jawing with some of Argentina's players. Bryant, James and Kidd immediately pushed Anthony far away to settle him down. Soon Anthony was laughing and indicating that he had regained his composure. Not long after that, Nocioni fouled Anthony and received a technical foul to boot; technical fouls count as personal fouls in FIBA play, so Nocioni now had four fouls, one short of disqualification. Anthony made all four of the resulting free throws to put Team USA up 67-49 but then Team USA committed turnovers on their next three possessions. Team USA survived those miscues to build a 76-55 advantage but Delfino hit a couple three pointers late in the quarter to carve the deficit back down to 78-64.

Team USA had its starting lineup of Bryant, Kidd, James, Anthony and Howard on the court to open the fourth quarter, a rare sight in this tournament. James nailed back to back threes and received a feed from Bryant for a layup to push the lead to 88-69 but Argentina kept battling, getting as close as 13 points on multiple occasions. The score was just 92-79 after a Delfino jumper at the 3:40 mark but Bosh hit two free throws, Wade made a layup, Bosh converted a putback and Wade split a pair of free throws as Team USA made a 7-2 mini run to put the game out of reach. Bryant and James went to the bench at the 1:55 mark with Team USA leading 99-81.

Since this was easily Team USA's most competitive game in the Olympics, it is instructive to look at how Coach Mike Krzyzewski distributed the minutes. As Collins mentioned during one of the previous games, the coaching staff indicates who they trust by which players they put on the court when the game is tight--and this game was tighter than the final score indicates. Bryant led Team USA with 32 minutes, while Anthony played 30, James 26, Paul 21, Bosh 20 and Kidd and Howard 16 each. When the outcome was very much in doubt at the start of the third quarter, Kidd did an excellent job of settling things down and running the halfcourt offense. Team USA outscored Argentina 82-61 when Bryant was in the game, 69-48 when James was in the game, 49-31 when Wade was in the game, 72-59 when Anthony was in the game and 40-30 when Kidd was in the game.

Team USA's rough stretch during the second quarter will no doubt lead some commentators to say that Spain can beat Team USA by playing a zone defense and forcing Team USA to shoot three pointers. In a done and done format like this, Spain has a puncher's chance but the reality is that Team USA dictates the pace of the game by playing pressure defense and they decide when to shoot three pointers. As Collins mentioned during this game, just because a team plays zone you don't have to shoot three pointers; you can still go inside, which is what Team USA did early in the third quarter with Kidd setting up Howard deep in the paint. If Team USA plays good pressure defense without fouling then they will beat Spain by at least 15 or 20 points. It would be preferable if Team USA would shoot fewer three pointers and/or make a better percentage of their long range shots but Team USA's three point shooting will not be a decisive factor in the outcome of the gold medal game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:58 PM

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Scouting Report: Kobe Bryant Versus LeBron James

My newest article for SlamOnline is a scouting report-style comparison of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James:

Scouting Report: Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:50 PM

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

What it Takes to Make it to the NBA Finals

A couple months ago, ESPN The Magazine ran a fascinating article about what it takes to get to the NBA Finals. Guest writer Baron Davis interviewed fellow All-Star guards Kobe Bryant, Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker. Bryant, of course, teamed with Shaquille O'Neal to lead the Lakers to three straight NBA championships from 2000-02. O'Neal and Bryant's Lakers also made it to the 2004 Finals, where they lost to the Detroit Pistons as Billups won the Finals MVP. This year Bryant, sans O'Neal, guided the Lakers back to the Finals, where they lost in six games to the Boston Celtics. Parker has won three championships as a San Antonio Spur (2003, 2005, 2007) and he was selected as the 2007 Finals MVP.

Davis noted, “I know what it's like to make big shots and to win a playoff series or two. I've reshaped my game to make a good team into a scary one." Davis said to Bryant, "I've only been to the conference semis. How do I get further?” Bryant answered, "Execution. You have to focus on Xs and Os, on how you want to take your opponent apart. That's what it's about. It's not about the crowd being loud or how many towels they wave." Bryant added, “The trick is to get everybody playing together, trying to accomplish the same goal. If you have the talent and the sacrifice on top of that, you have a championship caliber team. One player can only do so much. If you haven't gotten to the next level, you haven't figured out how to get everybody on the same page.”

Bryant drew a distinction between the mindset of the three championship teams he played on with O'Neal and the 2008 Lakers team that made it to the Finals: “I'd never been on a winning team that got along (prior to 2008). When I was young, I was like, ‘Take it or leave it. Train's gotta keep moving.’ If you want to win a championship, if you're slacking, I'm going to let you know. And that went from Shaq down to Rick Fox. But when you have that togetherness, you don't get into finger-pointing. If a guy makes a mistake, loses a game, everyone plays the next game to redeem him. That attitude was critical to our getting the number one seed this year.”

So much has been said and written about the “Shaq-Kobe Feud” but what it always boiled down to at its core was a basic and fundamental difference between Shaq and Kobe's basketball philosophies: Kobe is a gym rat, a work out fiend and a perfectionist, while Shaq is someone who always has to be pushed to give maximum effort, particularly when it comes to staying in shape and playing defense. It was natural and inevitable that Shaq and Kobe would clash as teammates. Throw in the huge age difference plus Shaq's craving for recognition combined with Kobe's desire to prove his greatness and a clash was inevitable. Previous great NBA duos--Jordan/Pippen, Magic/Kareem, Bird/McHale, Erving/Malone and on down the line--featured players whose skill sets and personalities complemented each other. Shaq and Kobe's skill sets complemented each other very well--a dominant inside player paired with a dynamic perimeter player--but their mental and philosophical approaches to the game are completely different.

Billups' advice to Davis is exactly what one might expect from a player whose Pistons have several All-Stars but no superstar: “Everybody has all the cliches. You have to sacrifice. You have to be on the same page. But they're all true. When you're on a team that isn't championship-caliber, nobody looks around and says, 'You've got the better matchup tonight. Let's ride that.' You can't care about who's going to be on SportsCenter's top plays, who's going to be in ESPN The Magazine, who's making the All-Star team. When you win, everyone gets the glory.” Davis asked Billups, ‘What's you recipe for winning it all?’ Billups replied, “One of the main things is--and I may be biased--great guard play. A great center is a plus, but it doesn't matter who your center is if your guards can't get the ball to him.”

Billups also told Davis that the game is not decided in the first half but that what happens in the early minutes sets the tone for the rest of the game. It irritates me when people say that you only have to watch the last two minutes of an NBA game, because that kind of thinking disregards the fact that what happened in the first 46 minutes great impacts the strategy, tactics and execution of the closing minutes. A basketball game unfolds in stages, much like a chess game has an opening, a middlegame and an endgame--and any strong chess player understands that each stage of a chess game flows directly into the next stage, because the deployment of forces and the exchanges that are made or not made provide the template for what will happen. Similarly, how a basketball team runs its offensive sets and how it defends against the other team's offensive sets in the first three quarters influences the decisions that are made in the fourth quarter. Billups provided an example of this to Davis, citing a key factor in Detroit's victory over the Lakers in the 2004 Finals: “The Lakers' weakness was pick and roll defense, so we were going to make them stop that. It didn't matter who was guarding me; my job was to pick and roll Shaq. Every series has its own version of that. And if we have to run it every time, we run it every time.” Someone who only watches the last two minutes of an NBA game misses the chess match between the coaches and players as the teams utilize different personnel combinations and strategies to try to exploit their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.

What is fascinating about Parker is that he successfully made the transition from being a European basketball prodigy to being one of the top point guards in the NBA; Parker started playing pro basketball at the minor league level in France at the age of 15 and by the time he was 17 he was playing for Paris Basket Racing, one of France's top professional teams. Parker had just turned 19 when the Spurs drafted him in 2001 but he made the All-Rookie First Team in 2001-02 and has been steadily improving ever since that time.

For Parker, his journey to becoming a Finals MVP was all about developing toughness, prodded by hard nosed San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich: “My first three years, sometimes he was so hard on me he made me cry,” Parker told Davis. “It seemed like I could never do enough for him. But when I was Finals MVP, his eyes were watering, and mine, too. That's why it gives me goose bumps anytime I see anyone win a championship. I know how it feels to work hard all year just so you can hold that trophy at the end.”

Each Finals trip was different for Parker: “My first Finals, everything went so fast, I didn't realize what I was doing and what I was part of. I enjoyed the second time more, but the third is when I saw everything in slow motion. Everything was so easy.” Davis asked Parker, “Were you ready for the Finals the first time?” Parker candidly admitted, “No, I didn't realize how hard it was. I see that now but the reason I played so well last season (in the 2007 Finals) is that I had the experience of the first two trips.”

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:42 PM

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Team USA-Argentina Olympic Semifinal Preview

Watching Argentina narrowly defeat Greece 80-78 to earn the right to play Team USA in an Olympic semifinal matchup, three things came to mind:

1) Argentina is a deadly three point shooting team

Manu Ginobili scored 24 points while shooting 6-13 from three point range and Carlos Delfino added 23 points while shooting 5-8 from three point range. Ginobili is shooting 17-41 (.415) from behind the arc in the Olympics and Delfino's percentage is even better (17-34, .500). Kobe Bryant will undoubtedly guard Ginobili. Delfino does not start but he averages 23.7 mpg, so when he is on the court at the same time as Ginobili someone besides Bryant will have to step up defensively and deny Delfino any open three point shots.

2) Andres Nocioni is a key player for Argentina

Andres Nocioni scored 12 points versus Greece while battling a knee injury that forced him out of the game a couple times. Nocioni leads Argentina in rebounding (6.8 rpg) and ranks third on the team in scoring (12.8 ppg). Ginobili candidly told Craig Sager after the game that if Nocioni is not healthy then Argentina has no chance to beat Team USA. Argentina has six players who average at least 23.7 mpg, while the other six players average 10 mpg or less; their main guys are very talented--five of them have NBA experience--and have great chemistry because they have played together so long on the national team but Argentina severely lacks depth. In all likelihood, Team USA's superior manpower will wear down Argentina eventually but that will happen much more quickly if Nocioni is limited by his injury or cannot play at all.

3) Luis Scola is a beast in FIBA play

Luis Scola ranks second on the team in scoring (17.8 ppg) to Ginobili (20.3 ppg) and second in rebounding (6.5 rpg) to Nocioni. Scola is shooting .597 from the field and he poured in 37 points versus Russia in a preliminary round game. LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony will have their hands full with him defensively.

Team USA-Argentina Tale of the Tape, 2002-Present

Argentina is the only country to twice defeat Team USA since 1992, when the United States started sending NBA players to FIBA competitions. Argentina's first win over Team USA was an 87-80 triumph in the 2002 FIBA World Championship. Argentina built a 20 point lead early in the game and withstood a Team USA run that cut the margin to six in the third quarter. Ginobili led a balanced Argentina scoring attack with 15 points and after the game he said, "They had no team defense...There is not a bond like us. We know each other. We know where picks will be, when to cut for a pass. Apparently, the United States did not."

Argentina also defeated Team USA in the 2004 Olympics, 89-81. Ginobili scored a game-high 29 points on 9-13 field goal shooting, including 4-6 from three point range, and Argentina shot 32-59 (.542) from the field, including 11-22 (.500) from behind the arc. Delfino was just a bit player on that squad, but Nocioni was the second leading scorer for Argentina with 13 points. In addition to playing poor defense, Team USA also did not shoot well but even the best players have games when their shots don't go down; that is why great teams hang their hats on defense: if Team USA had held Argentina to 8-22 (.364) three point shooting then they could have squeaked out a victory. Instead, Team USA had to settle for a bronze medal (after beating Lithuania), while Argentina went on to win the gold medal.

Team USA got a measure of revenge by defeating Argentina 96-81 to claim the bronze medal in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. Dwyane Wade led the way offensively with 32 points--including 18 in the fourth quarter--and LeBron James nearly had a triple double (20 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) but the biggest difference for Team USA came at the defensive end of the court: they held Argentina to 34-75 (.453) field goal shooting and 4-21 (.190) three point shooting, a vast improvement over their 2004 defensive numbers versus Argentina. It is important to remember that this was a consolation game for two teams that both expected to contend for the gold medal, so perhaps Argentina was not quite as amped up as they were in the 2004 and 2002 meetings.

Team USA defeated Argentina twice in last year's FIBA Americas tournament. The first win, a 91-76 decision in the quarterfinal round, was Kobe Bryant's first chance to play against Argentina. He led Team USA with 27 points on 10-15 field goal shooting and he spearheaded the defense with four steals, causing ESPN's John Saunders to exclaim at one point, "You'd think this is game seven of the NBA Finals, the way Kobe is playing." Team USA held Argentina to 5-21 (.238) three point shooting in that game, though it must be noted that Argentina basically sent its "B" to the FIBA Americas tournament: NBA players Ginobili, Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto and Walter Herrmann did not play for Argentina. Still, that kind of performance in the FIBA Americas tournament by Team USA laid the groundwork for how they have played so far in this year's Olympics.

Team USA and Argentina faced each other in the FIBA Americas tournament gold medal game, with Team USA cruising to a 118-81 victory. That game was over after the first quarter as Team USA raced to a 35-14 lead. Team USA held Argentina to .434 field goal shooting and .333 three point shooting but even those numbers were inflated a bit by garbage time production. Bryant took a back seat in terms of scoring but had a game-high eight assists and led the way defensively; James scored a game-high 31 points, including remarkable 8-11 shooting from three point range.

The numbers and the history all point to the same conclusion: if Team USA plays solid defense and limits Argentina's three point shooting then Team USA should win by at least 15-20 points. The game will likely stay close for a while in the first half but Team USA's defensive pressure and superior depth will wear Argentina down eventually. The recipe for a Team USA loss is to revert to bad defensive habits, not force turnovers/missed shots and allow Argentina to hang around long enough to be able to steal the game at the end.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:42 AM

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Team USA Pounds Australia, 116-85

Kobe Bryant scored a game-high 25 points--the most by any American player in this year's Olympics--as Team USA defeated Australia 116-85 and moved to within two victories of winning the gold medal. LeBron James added 19 points, nine rebounds, three assists and four steals. Bryant played a team-high 26 minutes, while James played 25 minutes, five more than any other player on the squad. NBA fans get so caught up in debating whether Bryant or James is the best player in the league but the important thing right now is that the two best players in the world are on the same team and they are both playing at a very high level. Before the game, USA Network color commentator Doug Collins singled them out as the two most important players on the roster. He said, "The guy who has been the catalyst is LeBron James. He's the guy on the back line blocking shots (and also) stealing the basketball." Collins then spoke of Bryant's contributions, noting, "Defensively on the perimeter, he has taken the other team's toughest guy." People who fretted that Team USA does not have enough big men do not understand basketball in general and FIBA basketball in particular: James is big enough to be a big man in any league in the world and great defense starts with defensive pressure in the backcourt, which Bryant has supplied since he was added to the team last summer.

Carmelo Anthony (15 points on 5-9 field goal shooting), Chris Bosh (10 points on 3-4 shooting, six rebounds) and Deron Wiliams (10 points) also scored in double figures. Dwyane Wade had a quiet game offensively--eight points on 3-8 shooting--though he did get eight rebounds. Dynamic guard Patrick Mills led Australia with 20 points, while reserve Glen Saville added 13 points. Andrew Bogut had just four points before leaving in the second half after reinjuring his balky left ankle.

Team USA's game plan early in the game focused on feeding the ball to Dwight Howard in the paint and this worked to perfection as Howard drew two fouls on Bogut in the first 2:42. Team USA raced to a 12-3 lead as Howard converted a three point play, Anthony scored two baskets, Bryant made a jumper and James drilled a three pointer. Australia is a feisty team, though, and they battled back to cut the margin to 17-14 as Team USA took some questionable shots and had some defensive lapses. In one sequence, James inexplicably pulled up behind the three point line and launched a jumper on a 2 on 4 fast break, with Bryant in the left corner and not one Team USA player in the paint. Later, Bryant wisely passed up taking a three pointer in the half court set in order to feed the ball to Howard in the post. Howard got fouled and split a pair of free throws but Bryant, who is a great free throw line offensive rebounder, corralled the miss; his turnaround jumper was off the mark but the extra possession paid off for Team USA because Howard tipped in Bryant's shot. Australia answered with a Chris Anstey three pointer and then Bryant missed a three pointer early in the shot clock. Collins said, "I think every time the United States takes one of those quick threes it helps Australia's defense." So many people have erroneously talked about how important it is for Team USA to make three pointers but it is far more important for Team USA to defend the three point line effectively, force turnovers/missed shots and then score in transition. For Team USA, the three point shot is a luxury that can pad a lead, not a necessity for winning--something that should be evident to everyone after this contest, considering that three straight three pointers bridging the second and third quarters enabled Team USA to push a nine point lead to 18; Team USA was winning even before the three point barrage, but the outside bombing turned the game into a rout. That is why you only see Michael Redd on the court in garbage time and why defensive specialist Tayshaun Prince is the first wing player off of the bench after Wade.

Sideline reporter Craig Sager said that after a stoppage of play late in the first quarter, Coach Mike Krzyzewski told Team USA, "Stop being stupid. You are making dumb plays." In other words, stop looking for early three point shots and do a better job of guarding Australia's three point shooters; Australia shot 3-7 from three point range in the first quarter, tied the score at 21 and only trailed 25-24 after the first 10 minutes. A greater concern for Team USA than three point shooting is their free throw shooting: Team USA shot 5-11 (.455) from the free throw line in the first quarter and 18-31 (.581) for the game. Team USA can decide how many three pointers to shoot and when to shoot them but the opposing team dictates to some extent how many free throws Team USA will shoot and slowing the game down by fouling may be the best strategy against Team USA, at least for a team that has enough depth to withstand some foul trouble.

Early in the second quarter, Team USA went with a small lineup of Bryant, James, Anthony, Wade and Williams, trying to speed up the tempo against the bigger, slower Australian group that was on the court. Team USA forced a turnover that James converted into a fast break dunk for a 33-28 lead but then Anthony committed his second foul and had to go to the bench. He was replaced by Bosh, giving Team USA a more conventional--but still very quick--quintet. Bogut scored on a nice drive to the hoop but Bryant answered with an emphatic dunk in the half court set. Collins said, "Smart decision by Kobe Bryant. Looked like he was going to take the three. (David) Anderson on the closeout could not play with that type of quickness and Kobe with a brilliant play." Next came a wild sequence in which James stole the ball but threw it away and then Wade stole the ball and passed to Williams, who advanced the ball to Bryant, who faked a behind the back pass and made a layup. Australia trailed 37-30 and immediately called a timeout. On the next possession, Australia ran a great play resulting in a layup for Bogut. Collins observed, "Chris Bosh showed too quickly and when he did Andrew Bogut slipped the pick." Bryant immediately came over to Bosh and explained to him what he did wrong. That kind of leadership does not show up in the boxscore but it is exactly what Team USA was missing in previous years. Don't forget that Team USA led 33-21 early in their 101-95 loss to Greece in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. At that point, James told his teammates on the bench, "They don't know what to do"--but when Greece hit Team USA with a 24-8 run it was James and Team USA that did not know how to stop the bleeding. It is a different story now with Bryant on the team, because the defensive intensity is higher and when mistakes are made they are immediately corrected during the game. After the game, Jason Kidd said of Australia's strong early play, "We felt that in this game that they were going to live and die by the three pointer. They made a couple. We had a couple of defensive breakdowns but we took care of it. That’s the beauty of this team. On the fly we can solve problems without having to call timeouts. Communication is a big weapon for us. Nobody is afraid to talk to one another because we all respect one another." Once again Kidd's boxscore numbers (four points, one assist) will not blow anyone away but he has played a big role in changing the culture for Team USA and that should not be diminished or forgotten.

Another key moment came at the 3:59 mark with Team USA leading 43-36. James failed to complete a three point play by missing a free throw, Anthony got a strong rebound and Australian reserve Mark Worthington wound up and took a big swipe at Anthony's put back attempt, clocking Anthony in the head. Anthony smartly just smiled and walked to the free throw line but players from both teams began jawing at each other. Australia knows that Anthony and Howard can be hotheads and part of their strategy was to be very physical and hopefully get those guys off of their games. That approach helped Australia to give Team USA their toughest battle in the pre-Olympic exhibition tour, with Team USA only winning by 11, 87-76. Collins noted that the Soviet Union used a similar approach against Team USA when Collins played in the 1972 Olympics and it paid off as the Soviets baited Dwight Jones into being ejected. Collins said, "This is where you have to keep your poise. Worthington comes into the game. He's a guy who has no value to the Australians except maybe to get one of the better American players thrown out." Anthony made both free throws to put Team USA up 45-36. After the mishap on the Bogut play, Team USA closed the quarter with an 18-11 run--punctuated by a buzzer beating three pointer by Williams--to make the score 55-43 at halftime.

If Australia had any illusion about keeping the game relatively close in the second half, Bryant quickly disabused them of that notion, draining a three pointer on Team USA's first possession of the second half and scoring nine points in just 3:20 as Team USA used a 14-0 run to take a 69-43 lead. Bryant shot just 1-15 from three point range in the first two games of the Olympics, leading to some poorly considered commentary in some quarters about Bryant's relative value to this team. However, I kept a level head and wrote, "Bryant shot 17-37 (.459) from three point range last summer when Team USA went 10-0 en route to winning the gold medal in the FIBA Americas tournament and he shot 7-19 (.368) from three point range when Team USA went 5-0 during their pre-Olympic exhibition tour--that adds up to 24-56 (.429) three point shooting during his 15 FIBA games prior to the Olympics. Bryant shot .361 from the 23-9 NBA three point distance last season and is a .340 career NBA three point shooter. In other words, at some point he is going to have a 6-8 game from the three point line and by the end of the Olympics his three point shooting percentage will be around its normal level." Bryant shot 4-7 from three point range versus Australia and he has shot 11-21 from behind the arc (.524) in the past four games, improving his overall three point percentage in the Olympics to .333. Bryant told Sager after the game, "The three point line now (in FIBA play), that's where I shoot fadeaways from." I read an idiotic comment somewhere in which someone asked how can Bryant be a top NBA shooting guard if he cannot make catch and shoot shots from 20 feet? As Bryant indicated, in the NBA he catches the ball at the free throw line extended and shoots turnaround jumpers from that range (or from just a little closer); Bryant is used to shooting three pointers from 23-9, so catching the ball facing the hoop at 20-6 is a little bit different. It's not that he cannot make the 20-6 shot but just that faceup shots from that range are not part of his normal repertoire. Bryant admitted that he is actually more comfortable shooting from a few steps behind the FIBA three point line, which he did a couple times in this game.

Bryant was the only Team USA player who played the entire second quarter plus the opening minutes of the third quarter, a stretch during which Team USA outscored Australia 46-24 (James sat out a little over a minute and a half during that time); except for the game against Spain when Bryant experienced early foul trouble, he typically has played most if not all of the second quarter and has almost always been on the court when Team USA breaks the game open in the second or third quarter.

Team USA pushed the margin to 85-55 before settling for an 89-61 advantage at the end of the third quarter. By that time, Bryant, James, Anthony and Kidd had been on the bench for a few minutes and one could have reasonably expected that their work was done. Wade was on the court at the end of the third quarter and he started the fourth quarter, which has been a normal rotation for this team--but Coach Krzyzewski inexplicably brought Bryant, James, Anthony and Kidd back into the game shortly after the start of the fourth quarter with Team USA leading 91-63. That quartet played alongside Redd. Maybe the idea was to spread out the defense enough so that Redd could make a shot? Redd did nail his first jumper en route to a 2-3 shooting performance in the fourth quarter to improve his Olympic shooting percentage to 10-31 (.323). Collins assured viewers that Redd could go off and make four in a row at any point to get his numbers back up to par. I have no doubt that this is true but if Redd does this it will be in garbage time, not when the game is even remotely in doubt. The bigger issue is bringing back four starters with a huge lead. Frankly, I was dumbfounded by this decision, particularly considering that Australia is a physical team and that they were no doubt frustrated about their imminent elimination from medal play. What would happen to Team USA if Australia committed a hard foul on Bryant or James and injured one of those guys?

Team USA outscored Australia 10-7 before the four starters returned to the bench. Wade came back for a cameo appearance and then he left the game for good. The curious substitution patterns slightly distorted the on court numbers for the five players who I have been tracking: Team USA outscored Australia 77-48 when Bryant was on the court, 75-48 when James was on the court, 60-37 when Anthony was on the court, 44-26 when Kidd was on the court and 48-43 when Wade was on the court. As I noted, Bryant was the only player who was on the court during Team USA's 46-24 run in the second quarter and early stages of the third quarter, though James was on the court for the vast majority of that time. Kidd helped Team USA get off to a good start by feeding Howard the ball early in the game and he was the point guard when Team USA broke the game open in the third quarter.

Argentina defeated Greece 80-78, so they will play Team USA for the right to advance to the gold medal game. Manu Ginobili scored 24 points and shot 6-13 from three point range versus Greece and it will be Bryant's job to contain him, a challenge that Bryant welcomes and relishes. After Team USA beat Australia but before Argentina played Greece, Bryant said, "We want to play the best. We want to play the defending (Olympic) champs. It’s all about challenges and obviously we welcome all comers. We know what a great team Greece is. Argentina is the defending champs. You want to be able to play the guys who won it the last time. I would love for us to have the opportunity." Of course, someone tried to twist his words into a slap at the Greeks, so Bryant immediately clarified his remarks by adding, "They’re both great teams. The point that I’m making is that when you’re a champion, you want to have the opportunity to defend your championship. And, anyone who has aspirations to be a champion, you understand there is a sense of pride that comes along with beating a champion. That’s all that comment’s about."

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:46 PM

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Five Observations About Team USA Heading Into Medal Round Play

Before Olympic medal round play begins, it is worthwhile to take a moment to address a few issues relating to Team USA and its star players:

1a) Has there been a changing of the guard in the "best player in the NBA" discussion?

1b) Where does Dwyane Wade fit into the mix with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in that discussion?

Dwyane Wade (16.2 ppg, .721 FG%) and LeBron James (15.8 ppg, .608 FG%) are Team USA's leading scorers, with Kobe Bryant (12.6 ppg, .433 FG%) a distant third. Those scoring numbers and shooting percentages have been cited in some quarters as proof that James is the best player in the NBA and that Wade has regained his status among the league's elite players. It is important to understand that a FIBA event is not the proper forum for deciding who the best NBA player is: keep in mind that Pau Gasol was the MVP of the 2006 FIBA World Championship and that Luis Scola was the MVP of the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament; I don't expect either of their names to come up in NBA MVP conversations any time soon. Also, for those who don't know or have forgotten, in the 1992 Olympics Michael Jordan averaged 14.9 ppg while shooting .451 from the field and .211 from three point range; he was the only player on the Dream Team to shoot below .500 from the field other than little-used Christian Laettner and Jordan had by far the worst three point shooting percentage among the nine players who made at least one three point shot. Does anyone doubt that Jordan was the best player in the NBA in 1992?

Bryant was a landslide winner in the 2008 NBA MVP race because he led the Lakers to the best record in perhaps the toughest Western Conference playoff race ever and if that award needed "validation" then he provided it by carrying the Lakers to the NBA Finals, defeating the 2007 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs and the 2007 Western Conference Finalist Utah Jazz along the way. Bryant averaged 31.9 ppg on .509 field goal shooting in the Western Conference playoffs. James had a great 2008 NBA regular season, establishing himself as the second best player in the league behind Bryant, but his inconsistent outside shot enables elite defensive teams to sag off of him, resulting in low shooting percentages and high turnover rates: James averaged 22.0 ppg, shot .356 from the field (including .200 from three point range) and committed 5.8 turnovers per game as the Spurs swept his Cavs in the 2007 NBA Finals, while Bryant averaged 29.2 ppg, shot .533 from the field (including .333 from three point range) and committed just 2.4 turnovers per game as the Lakers beat the Spurs in five games in the 2008 Western Conference Finals. Similarly, James averaged 26.7 ppg, shot .355 from the field (including .231 from three point range) and committed 5.3 turnovers per game in the 2008 Eastern Conference Finals versus the Celtics, while Bryant averaged 25.7 ppg, shot .405 from the field (including .321 from three point range) and committed 3.8 turnovers per game versus the Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals. The Cavs play better team defense than the Lakers and that is why they extended their series with Boston to seven games while L.A. fell in six but Bryant clearly demonstrated his superiority over James based on playoff performances against the two most recent NBA champions--not that this comes as a surprise to any regular 20 Second Timeout visitors, because I have repeatedly stressed that as great as James is he will not surpass Bryant until he improves his outside shot (defense was also a problem area for James at one time but he has largely shored up that issue).

In my Team USA Olympic Preview, I predicted that Anthony, James, Wade and Bryant would be the team's leading scorers, so people who are acting like it is some kind of surprise that Bryant is not the top scorer on the squad simply are not paying attention; Bryant was added to the roster to be a defensive stopper, that is exactly what he has done and that is the main reason that Team USA has not lost a game since he joined the team. Don't forget that Anthony, James and Wade had two previous chances to win gold medals together in FIBA play without Bryant and they failed both times; 2004 Olympic Coach Larry Brown has been criticized for allegedly not utilizing those three players enough but Anthony has never played defense and neither James nor Wade were the defenders then that they are now and you are not going to get on the court for Brown if you don't play defense. The only slight blemish on Bryant's FIBA record to this point is his 1-15 three point shooting in the first two games of the preliminary round of the Olympics; he has shot 7-14 from three point range in the three games since then. I don't know why Bryant missed so many three pointers to start the Olympics but 14 missed three pointers in FIBA play do not change the pecking order in the NBA universe, where Bryant is still number one and James is number two.

Wade won the 2006 NBA Finals MVP and then he averaged 19.3 ppg while shooting .576 from the field in the 2006 FIBA World Championship as Team USA won the bronze medal. Wade keeps claiming that last year he was written off faster than any other player of his caliber but while that is certainly a good motivational tool for him to use it is not really a fair or accurate statement; there is a difference between correctly stating that Wade did not play well last season versus making a blanket statement that he will never play well again. Wade is obviously healthy now and he has regained the explosiveness that enabled him to play at such a high level in 2006. However, the Wade that we are seeing in FIBA play is not new, nor does this necessarily indicate how he will perform during the upcoming NBA season. Wade's style of play results in him taking a physical beating and it remains to be seen if he will be healthy for an entire 82 game NBA season while playing at an All-NBA level. Based on how Wade looks now I certainly expect him to start out strongly in the 2008-09 NBA season but we'll see what happens after that. Bryant and James have proven to be more durable--and simply better all-around players--than Wade, so Wade's numbers versus FIBA teams do not convince me that he is a better NBA player than Bryant or James.

2) What happened to Carmelo Anthony's game?

The surprise for Team USA is not James or Wade but rather Anthony; many people considered him to be Team USA's best FIBA player coming into the Olympics. I never bought into that due to his shoddy defense but I certainly expected him to lead the team in scoring. Anthony's defense has, at best, shown sporadic improvement, but his offense has disappeared: he averaged 8.6 ppg on .467 field goal shooting in the five preliminary round games, ranking sixth on the team in scoring. Before the Olympics began, USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo criticized Anthony's conditioning level and shot selection but rather than using those words as motivation it seems like Anthony's game has gone into the tank. I don't understand how Anthony could get out of condition while participating in a training camp with Team USA.

3) Team USA is big enough and strong enough.

Team USA outrebounded the opposition 40.2 rpg to 38.0 rpg in the five preliminary round games and has not been seriously hurt in the paint at either end of the court. The "experts" who said that Tyson Chandler or some other big man should have been added to the roster did not know what they were talking about. Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh have been a good tandem at center, while Carlos Boozer has been available for spot duty when necessary. Meanwhile, Team USA's numerous big, quick and versatile wing players have wreaked havoc defensively and completely disrupted opposing offenses. Bryant, James and Wade deserve particular credit in this regard, while Bosh has done an excellent job on the perimeter when he has had to switch on to smaller players in screen/roll situations.

4) Michael Redd's shooting is a luxury, not a necessity.

Remember all the breathless stories about how important Michael Redd's three point shooting would be for Team USA? Remember how I kept repeating that Redd's shooting would have minimal impact on the outcome of these games? As I predicted, Redd has spent little time on the court when the score has been close. In fact, unlike his performance in last year's FIBA Americas tournament, he has not even shot well during garbage time, averaging 4.0 ppg on 8-28 (.286) field goal shooting, including 4-16 (.250) from three point range. Redd is shooting so badly that even with Bryant's 1-15 start Bryant actually has a better three point shooting percentage than Redd.

5) Team USA's gold medal chances depend on pressure defense/guarding three point shooters.

In the five preliminary round games, Team USA has forced 113 turnovers and held their opponents to 36-134 (.269) three point shooting. James and Wade have certainly contributed mightily to that defensive performance but the reality is that they did not play that way in FIBA events in 2004 and 2006. Team USA started playing this kind of defense only after Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd joined the team last year. Would James and Wade have seen the light anyway and played excellent defense this time around even if Bryant and Kidd were not on the team? We'll never know the answer to that question but there is no doubt that the number one reason that this version of Team USA looks like the best squad USA Basketball has put on the court since 1996 is that Bryant and Kidd set a defensive tone that permeated the entire roster. Kidd was USA Basketball's 2007 Male Athlete of the Year because of his role in the gold medal performance in the FIBA Americas tournament. We know that Chris Paul and Deron Williams are better NBA guards than he is now and they are receiving more minutes than Kidd is in the Olympics but it is amazing to me that people don't appreciate everything that Kidd has brought to the table for Team USA since 2006. Colangelo's idea was to use a three year plan to build continuity and to make Team USA a real national team instead of a collection of All-Star scorers. Kidd absolutely personifies everything that is right about this team and yet there are people who mock him for not shooting the ball and who seem to be openly rooting against him. What did Team USA look like when Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury were on the roster or when a young Paul and Kirk Hinrich were the point guards? Most likely, Paul and Williams will be running the show for Team USA in future competitions--maybe they will even be starting alongside each other, because they have performed well together as bench players for this year's team. Hopefully they will ultimately distinguish themselves in international play the way that Jason Kidd has throughout his FIBA career.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:55 AM

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Monday, August 18, 2008

Team USA Cruises Past Germany, 106-57

Team USA hit Germany with a 20-3 run to start the game and never looked back en route to a 106-57 win to finish preliminary round play with a 5-0 record. Team USA will face Australia on Wednesday in a quarterfinal matchup; Germany had already failed to qualify for a medal round berth prior to this loss. Each Team USA player made at least one field goal as the easy victory allowed Coach Mike Krzyzewski to distribute the playing time very evenly: everyone played between nine and 22 minutes. Dwight Howard led Team USA in scoring (22 points) and rebounding (10), powering his way to 9-10 field goal shooting and he would have had even better numbers were it not for his 4-9 free throw shooting. LeBron James shot 4-5 from three point range and finished with 18 points and three rebounds. He was officially credited with no assists and no turnovers but, quite frankly, neither of those numbers are accurate: James should have received an assist on the very first score of the game and he committed at least two turnovers in the early going. FIBA scorekeeping--particularly regarding assists, turnovers and steals--is highly questionable. Kobe Bryant (13 points), Dwyane Wade (10 points) and Chris Paul (10 points) were Team USA's other double figure scorers. Carmelo Anthony, Team USA's leading scorer in the 2006 FIBA World Championship and last summer's FIBA Americas tournament, scored four points on 2-7 field goal shooting.

Dirk Nowitzki led Germany with 14 points and eight rebounds in what was most likely his final FIBA performance. Chris Kaman had a quiet six points and three rebounds, shooting 3-9 from the field. Germany has four seven footers plus another player who is 6-11 but Team USA scored at will in the paint and dominated the rebounding battle 53-38. The Germans shot .387 from three point range in their first four games but Team USA held them to 7-30 (.233) three point shooting and 22-73 (.301) field goal shooting overall. As usual, Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd spearheaded Team USA's defensive pressure in the early going: Germany's starting guards Demond Greene and Stefann Hamanb combined to shoot 2-12 from the field and committed three turnovers while passing for three assists.

In what almost looked like a set play on the opening tip, Howard directed the ball to James who immediately passed ahead to a streaking Anthony for a layup. A feed that leads to an uncontested shot should be credited as an assist but for some reason James did not receive one. The Germans missed their first four field goal attempts as Team USA took an 8-0 lead. Oven Schultze made a three pointer over Anthony but Team USA answered with 13 straight points, effectively ending the game at the 3:32 mark of the first quarter; a 17 point lead that early is not insurmountable in theory but it was obvious that Germany simply could not keep up with Team USA at either end of the court.

When Team USA did not score in transition they made a concerted effort to get the ball to Howard deep in the paint. Bryant fed Howard three times, resulting in one dunk and two trips to the free throw line for Howard. Two Kidd passes--a post feed and a dish on a fast break--resulted in two more Howard field goals as he scored eight of Team USA's first 20 points. These kinds of plays are examples of situations that are not captured precisely by statistics: Bryant and Kidd each received one assist during the 20-3 run but they ran the offense and made the decisions about who would get the ball at what time. This is not even an instance of poor stat keeping--such as James officially not having an assist or a turnover--but rather just a case in which you had to actually watch the game to understand what took place, namely that Team USA applied defensive pressure to score in the open court but when they had the ball in the half court set Bryant and Kidd made sure to exploit Howard's advantage in the post. Previous editions of Team USA did not have good defensive guards nor did their guards understand how to run an offense the way that Kidd and Bryant do. Bryant was the last of Team USA's starters to go to the bench and after he sat out Team USA outscored Germany just 11-9 to finish the first quarter with a 31-12 lead.

Team USA opened the second quarter with an 8-0 run keyed by good defensive pressure resulting in three pointers by Deron Williams and Chris Paul and a fastbreak layup by Williams. Team USA's total domination meant that some of the bench players could get into the game earlier than usual: Michael Redd made his first appearance with Team USA up 49-19 late in the second quarter; he ended up with two points on 1-9 shooting. Team USA led 53-29 at halftime and they picked right up where they left off by making a 9-0 run at the start of the third quarter.

Bryant, Anthony and Kidd left the game early in the quarter and did not return the rest of the way, while James remained in the game just a couple minutes longer before taking a seat for the night. Wade played the bulk of the third quarter, sat out briefly at the beginning of the fourth quarter and then got a little fourth quarter run before going back to the bench. There is a limit to how much one can read into on court/off court numbers in a blowout like this: Team USA outscored Germany 45-12 when Anthony was on the court despite Anthony's poor shooting; Anthony did grab six rebounds, all on the defensive boards. Team USA outscored Germany 53-29 when James was on the court, 47-27 when Bryant was on the court, 43-27 when Kidd was on the court and 51-21 when Wade was on the court; Wade's numbers were padded by an 11-2 run in fourth quarter garbage time.

Australia proved to be Team USA's toughest opponent during the pre-Olympic exhibition tour, getting as close as four points in the second half and only losing 87-76 even though Andrew Bogut did not play. Australia is a physical team and they played mind games with Team USA by referring to Team USA players by number instead of by name when they called out defensive assignments or switches. Nevertheless, if Team USA continues to play excellent pressure defense and shut down the three point shooters then they will beat Australia by at least 15 or 20 points, even if the game is close for the first quarter or two. The Team USA-Australia winner will face either Argentina or Greece for a chance to play in the gold medal game, most likely against Spain.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:51 PM

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