Team USA Opens Olympics With 98-71 Win Over FranceTeam USA cruised to a 1-0 record in preliminary round play with a 98-71 victory over a French team that features eight players with NBA experience, including 2007 NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker. Team USA will play four more games in Group A; these are not elimination games but the top four teams from each group of six will advance to the "win or go home" quarterfinal round. Kevin Durant led Team USA with 22 points and he was one of three American players who grabbed nine rebounds. Kevin Love provided a nice spark off of the bench with 14 points, while Kobe Bryant was the only other Team USA player who scored in double figures--10 points in just 12 minutes of playing time as Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski wisely saved Bryant for some of the tougher games ahead in the Olympic format of one game every other day. LeBron James contributed nine points, a game-high eight assists, five rebounds and the highlight of the game: a two-handed over the head bounce pass that nearly traveled the length of the court before Durant caught it, resulting in a three point play to give Team USA an 11-5 lead. Tyson Chandler added eight points and nine rebounds in just 11 minutes, while Carmelo Anthony had nine points and nine rebounds but shot just 3-10 from the field. Team USA only shot 31-72 from the field (.431) but they forced 18 turnovers, outrebounded France 56-40 and held France to 26-66 field goal shooting (.394). Pressure defense and activity on the glass by Team USA's athletic wing players are more important for Team USA than their own field goal percentage, though of course it would be nice if Team USA played a bit more crisply at the offensive end of the court. Parker had just 10 points, one assist and four turnovers, perhaps hindered not just by the highly publicized injury that almost cost him the use of one eye but also because his recuperation from that injury limited his ability to train/stay in shape. Post player Ali Traore led France with 12 points.
Coach Krzyzewski went with a starting lineup of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Tyson Chandler, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul; if/when things ever get tight for Team USA, expect to see Durant, James and Bryant on the court alongside one of the three point guards (Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Russell Westbrook) plus either Carmelo Anthony for offensive purposes (but only if Anthony improves his shot selection and field goal percentage) or Andre Iguodala for defensive purposes or possibly even a second point guard if Coach Krzyzewski wants to go really small. Team USA cannot go "big" and thus I suspect that Chandler and Love will not play heavy minutes in any competitive games, though they will be productive rebounders on a per minute basis; Team USA's strength is their combination of speed and depth, which enables them to keep playing at a fast tempo no matter which point guards or wings are in the game (though of course everything looks better when the wings are Durant, James and Bryant).
Team USA's starters took an early 13-7 lead but the first quarter featured some "disjointed" play (in the words of NBC commentator/Philadelphia 76ers Coach Doug Collins) with a lot of fouls being called against both teams and some Team USA players occasionally breaking the offense to go one on one; Collins declared that Team USA has so much talent that there is no reason for the squad to ever force a shot: just keep the ball moving and someone will get a good open look. After Team USA's reserves entered the game, France cut the margin to 22-21 by the end of the first quarter.
Team USA missed their first six three point shots but then James, Bryant and Paul each nailed a trey early in the second quarter to push the lead to 33-21 (Bryant also made two free throws during that 12-0 run). France fought back to cut the deficit to seven (33-26) but Team USA pulled away to a comfortable 52-36 halftime lead and France never mounted a serious threat the rest of the way; Team USA was ahead 78-51 by the end of the third quarter and the main fourth quarter drama consisted of Team USA trying to find a way to get Anthony Davis a basket (he eventually converted a Deron Williams lob from into a dunk).
As Team USA pulled away in the third quarter, Collins listed his four keys for Team USA to be successful in the Olympics (these keys will sound familiar to anyone who has followed 20 Second Timeout's coverage of Team USA's participation in FIBA events for the past several years, particularly my analysis of the reasons behind Team USA's FIBA losses from 2002-2006):
1) Pressure defense converted into points off of turnovers
2) Defend the three point line
3) Defensive rebounding
Yes, it is true that a few teams have post players who could potentially cause Team USA some trouble but if Team USA plays excellent pressure defense then it will not be easy for opposing teams to feed the ball into the post. The big key is for Team USA to guard the three point shooters without giving up layups. Team USA limited France to 2-22 three point shooting (.091) without giving up much inside except for a few hoops by Traore. Team USA does not need more pure shooters on the roster nor is it even essential to have more true big men, though the mobility of Dwight Howard and especially Chris Bosh would obviously have been useful; Chandler will play 10-20 mpg as the primary defender against the opposing team's top big man and Kevin Love will get some spot minutes but Team USA's best lineup will use James and Durant as the de facto center/power forward duo--and the NBA's two best players are more than capable not only of holding their own defensively against FIBA big men but also posing matchup nightmares at the other end of the court. It is odd that people who are so concerned about how Team USA will match up inside defensively fail to consider that guys like Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Luis Scola, Nene and Anderson Varejao will also have to chase Durant and James around at the other end of the court.
Team USA is built for speed, versatility and pressure defense, qualities that will serve them well in FIBA play. The other element that has finally been present in Team USA's program over the past few years is continuity; Team USA will probably never have quite the level of continuity that the other top national teams possess but at least Team USA now has a sufficient level of continuity to successfully compete against the world's elite. That continuity is reflected both in terms of the stability of the roster composition (including five players from the 2008 Olympic Championship team and five players from the 2010 FIBA World Championship team) and in terms of the familiarity that the players and the coaching staff have with the FIBA game.
posted by David Friedman @ 8:02 PM