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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Team USA Sleepwalks Early Before Routing Tunisia

Team USA defeated Tunisia 110-63 to become the only team with a 2-0 record in Group A but the final margin somewhat obscures how sloppily Team USA played for most of the first half, particularly their starting five. Team USA's bench players provided a huge energy burst and eventually blew the game open with a 25-3 run to begin the third quarter as Team USA's five starters watched from the bench. Individual and team statistics are inevitably somewhat deceptive during any game that features a significant amount of garbage time--and at least 15 of the 40 minutes of this contest largely consisted of Team USA players padding their stats with lob dunks and wide open three pointers--but, for the record, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love led Team USA with 16 points apiece. Anthony shot 6-6 from the field, while Love shot 6-9 from the field. Kevin Durant, the most productive starter, added 13 points and a team-high 10 rebounds. Anthony Davis scored 12 points, 10 of them coming on dunks. Russell Westbrook scored 11 points and swiped two steals. LeBron James only had five points, four assists and two rebounds in 19 minutes, while Kobe Bryant scored four points and committed three fouls in a team-low nine minutes. Starting point guard Chris Paul played a team-high 25 minutes and only scored two points, though he did have a game-high seven assists. Macram Ben Romdhane led Tunisia in scoring (22 points), rebounds (11) and assists (4) in a game-high 36 minutes. Mohamed Hadidane scored 11 points--and the pronunciation of his last name brings to mind the classic Doug E. Fresh track "La Di Da Di," which I am sure that Kenny Smith would have pointed out if this game had been telecast on TNT. Marouan Kechrid drilled three first half three pointers, providing flashbacks of the little known guards who caused nightmares in Team USA's FIBA losses in the early/mid 2000s, but he did not score in the second half.

Tunisia is the only one of the 12 Olympic teams that does not have at least one player with NBA experience but they led Team USA 15-12 at the 2:39 mark of the first quarter; Coach Mike Krzyzewski took the unusual step of replacing all five starters at the same time, bringing in Carmelo Anthony, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams. After the game, Coach Krzyzewski denied that there was any particular significance to the mass substitution, saying that he simply wanted to experiment with different lineups during this game, but even if that is the case he could not have been very happy with how Team USA played during the first seven minutes versus Tunisia. Team USA's starters shot 0-6 from the three point line and--more importantly--they not only gave up several wide open three pointers but they also twice allowed Tunisian players to drive coast to coast for layups, which is simply inexcusable considering Team USA's huge advantage in athleticism. Team USA's reserves immediately went on a 14-0 run spanning the end of the first quarter--Team USA led 21-15 after the first 10 minutes--and the early moments of the second quarter. The starters lacked defensive intensity and awareness but the reserves forced two shot clock violations with their relentless pressure against Tunisia's ballhandlers.

Team USA's starters gradually returned to action early in the second quarter but they still looked sluggish and Team USA only led 33-25 when Kobe Bryant picked up his third foul at the 5:26 mark. Bryant went to the bench at that point and did not play for the rest of the game; I think that Coach Krzyzewski is wisely saving his oldest--and most decorated--player for games against the tougher teams, particularly in the medal round. Team USA built a 46-33 halftime lead. Tunisia shot 7-16 (.438) from three point range in the first half, including a missed desperation heave just before the halftime buzzer. Team USA shot just 2-12 (.167) from long distance in the first half but the problem was not so much the shooting percentage as the kind of shots that Team USA took; NBC's Doug Collins repeatedly emphasized that Team USA should never take a bad or contested shot because if they patiently swing the ball then they should be able to get a wide open shot. Far too many of Team USA's first half shots were rushed, contested attempts.

At halftime, Boston Celtics Coach Doc Rivers--serving as an NBC basketball analyst during the Olympics--made an interesting point: bench players will almost always perform well in games that they expect that their team is going to easily win because they know beforehand that they will receive a lot of playing time. It should also be noted that it is human nature for the starters to be a bit lackadaisical in such situations--but it is still disappointing that the starting unit, led by the NBA's three best players (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant), played so listlessly and inattentively. One might assume that Coach Krzyzewski read the team--or at least the starters--the riot act at halftime but, according to Bryant, that was not the case at all. After the game, someone asked Bryant about how Coach Krzyzewski reacted during halftime and Bryant replied, "He was fine. He was good. The point that I wanted to make is that we needed to adjust and that we needed to stop switching so much. In the first half we switched a lot and I think because of it our defense was a little softer and gave them a lot more space. In the second half we came out and put bodies on bodies and put a lot of pressure on them."

Before the third quarter began, NBC's Craig Sager mentioned that the coaching staff informed him that Team USA would fight through picks instead of switching; this proved to be very effective, limiting Tunisia to 2-10 three point shooting (.200) in the second half. The same reserve unit that played so well in the latter part of the first quarter and throughout the second quarter started the third quarter for Team USA. That group scored the first nine points of the quarter and was largely responsible for the 25-3 run that turned the game into a rout.

Glancing at the final boxscore without watching the game could give one an inaccurate picture of why the game was relatively close at halftime and why Team USA pulled away in the second half. Tunisia finished with a .346 three point percentage (9-26) while Team USA shot .400 (10-25) from behind the arc but this was very much a tale of two halves and a tale of Team USA defensive pressure/Team USA shot selection. In the first half, Team USA played far too softly on defense, enabling Tunisia to shoot uncontested three point shots; Team USA compounded that mistake by jacking up three pointers early in the shot clock instead of driving to the hoop, collapsing the defense and then either passing for a dunk or kicking the ball to a wide open shooter. Things completely changed in the second half: Team USA pressured Tunisia all over the court and did not give up many open shots, while on offense Team USA played with much more patience and discipline, only shooting three pointers in rhythm after good ball movement. Those distinctions can get lost in the shuffle if someone only examines the game statistically as opposed to actually watching the game analytically and that is why I have consistently criticized the "stat gurus" who assert that it is not necessary--or even beneficial--to watch a game because the numbers tell the whole story. The numbers provide an outline but the complete story can only be written by someone who knows and understands the plot, someone who actually watched the story unfold.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:48 PM

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