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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sluggish Team USA Outlasts Brazil, 80-69

Team USA's first exhibition game was a glorified scrimmage against a vastly outmatched Dominican Republic squad but Team USA faced a real dog fight in their second exhibition game before prevailing 80-69 against a Brazilian squad that features six players with NBA experience (including four who are currently in the league). Brazil outshot Team USA .509 to .408 and outrebounded Team USA 38-30 but Team USA's pressure defense saved the day, forcing 26 turnovers and converting those miscues into 28 points. LeBron James led Team USA with 30 points and six rebounds, shooting 11-20 from the field and doing the vast majority of his damage in the paint--where no one in the world can guard him if he plays with the right mindset. Kevin Durant added 11 points but shot just 5-13 from the field, while Chris Paul had 10 points plus a team-high three assists. Kobe Bryant struggled with his shot (scoring eight points on 3-11 field goal shooting) but he played ferocious defense to earn 25:07 of playing time; minutes played is an interesting statistic to monitor whenever Team USA has a close game, because that number tells you which players the coaching staff trusts the most: James led Team USA with 32:56, followed by Bryant, Durant (24:54) and Paul (22:41). No other Team USA player played more than 20 minutes and starting forward Carmelo Anthony logged just 17:15 as he struggled through a 1-7 shooting performance, finishing with just three points. If/when Team USA is involved in other close games look for Durant and/or Andre Iguodala to take some of Anthony's minutes (depending on whether the coaching staff is looking for offense or defense respectively). Alex Garcia led Brazil with 14 points, while Anderson Varejao had 12 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.

While it certainly would be a nice bonus for Team USA to shoot well from the field and to connect frequently from behind the shorter FIBA three point line (Team USA shot just 6-24 from three point range against Brazil), it is a myth that Team USA needs great outside shooting in order to win FIBA events; no, what Team USA needs is great defense that contains opposing three point shooters without conceding easy shots in the paint. Brazil blitzed Team USA 27-17 in the first quarter but then Team USA turned loose tremendous pressure defense during the second quarter; Russell Westbrook came off of the bench to force several turnovers and then starters James, Bryant and Paul continued to harass various Brazilian ballhandlers. Team USA forced 12 turnovers in the second quarter and outscored Brazil 20-5 to take a 37-32 halftime lead. Four Team USA players were credited with at least three steals apiece in the final box score (James and Paul had four each, while Westbrook and Tyson Chandler had three each), while Bryant officially had two steals but he also made several deflections and forced several turnovers miscues that directly led to scoring opportunities for Team USA. The key stretch of the game took place after Bryant checked back in at the 6:42 mark of the second quarter with Team USA trailing 29-21. James scored on a fast break dunk, Bryant assisted on a lob to Durant and Bryant nailed a three pointer to quickly cut Brazil's lead to 29-28. Then Chandler stole an inbounds pass and converted a layup to put Team USA up 30-29. After James split a pair of free throws, Bryant pressured Leandro Barbosa from the three point line all the way to half court, eventually forcing a bad pass that Paul stole and converted into a fast break layup. The game was competitive the rest of the way but Brazil never got closer than three points.

What, if anything, did this game tell us about Team USA's prospects in the upcoming Olympics? ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla noted that Brazil has been in training camp longer than Team USA and that it is likely that neither team completely showed their hand: Brazil did not play a zone defense to try to keep Team USA out of the paint--a tactic that Team USA will likely face when the games actually count--and Team USA may not have shown their full array of screen/roll options defensively. That said, we saw enough to understand that the other FIBA teams have developed immensely in terms of athleticism, skill level and confidence since 1992 when the first (and only) Dream Team cruised to the Olympic gold medal. Team USA is clearly the favorite to win in London but there are a handful of teams capable of pulling off the upset in a one and done format; the 40 minute FIBA game can be unforgiving if a team goes cold from the field or--more importantly for Team USA--if a team gets rattled and strays away from sound defensive principles. If James, Bryant, Paul and Westbrook lead the way with tremendous pressure defense then Team USA should score enough points in transition to win even if the team's outside shooting is off. Some of the bigger teams may outrebound Team USA but Team USA should be able to force those teams to commit a lot of turnovers.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:49 AM

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