Team USA Survives Against Veteran Argentina SquadTeam USA improved to 4-0 in their pre-Olympic exhibition tour, winning 86-80 against a tough and experienced Argentina squad that features several NBA players and is clearly not intimidated by Team USA. Kevin Durant scored a game-high 27 points on 10-15 field goal shooting--including 7-11 from the shorter FIBA three point arc--and he also had a team-high six assists. Kobe Bryant added 18 points, shooting 6-12 from the field and 3-7 on three pointers; in the previous exhibition games against mainly inferior competition (although Brazil did put up a very credible fight), Bryant was content to accept a lesser role offensively and just concentrate on defense but--much like he did versus Spain in the 2008 Olympic gold medal game--he stepped up at both ends of the court versus Argentina. Bryant had four rebounds and two steals and he did not commit a turnover in 25 minutes of playing time. Team USA would not have won in 2008 without Bryant and will likely need this kind of performance from him in the medal round to take the gold in the London Olympics. LeBron James scored 15 points on 6-11 field goal shooting but he shot just 3-9 from the free throw line. James had an excellent floor game (seven rebounds, five assists). Russell Westbrook was the only other double figure scorer for Team USA (13 points on 3-8 field goal shooting). Manu Ginobili led Argentina with 23 points on 7-13 field goal shooting, Carlos Delfino contributed 15 points and five rebounds and Luis Scola added 14 points, six rebounds and four assists. Andres Nocioni did not make much of a dent in the box score (five points, five rebounds) but he threw around his body as usual. Starting point guard Pablo Prigioni--who was recently signed by the New York Knicks--scored eight points, grabbed five rebounds and led Argentina with six assists.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski kept Durant in the starting lineup in place of Carmelo Anthony (who finished with just four points on 2-8 field goal shooting) but he elevated Chris Paul above Deron Williams; neither point guard had an outstanding game (five points on 1-3 field goal shooting plus five assists for Paul and three points on 1-6 field goal shooting plus two assists for Williams) and they played roughly the same number of minutes (21 for Paul, 19 for Williams). Team USA jumped out to a 19-3 lead while shooting 7-7 from the field, with Bryant (10 points) and Durant (nine points) accounting for all of the points. Unfortunately, Team USA became a bit three point happy and the offense died on the vine as the starters exited the game; the defensive intensity also waned, though Team USA was still up 31-16 at the end of the first quarter. Team USA briefly pushed the margin to 20 but then Argentina cooked up what ESPN commentator Fran Fraschilla called "the recipe to beat Team USA" (assuming that Team USA cooperates by either shooting poorly from the outside and/or not attacking the paint aggressively): Argentina played a defense that could either be described as a soft man to man or a sagging zone, daring Team USA to shoot jumpers. Team USA connected on just 2-15 three pointers after Durant and Bryant went 5-5 in the opening moments and Argentina picked Team USA's defense apart with strong post ups and sharp passes to cutters in the lane. By halftime Team USA only led 47-40.
Williams replaced Paul as the starting point guard in the third quarter and the starters built a solid double digit lead: Durant buried a three pointer and Bryant stole the ball and connected on a transition three pointer as Team USA widened the margin to 58-43. Team USA again established a 20 point lead--69-49--but squandered a sizeable portion of it down the stretch with a lineup featuring Durant plus four bench players (Carmelo Anthony, Andre Iguodala, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook). Team USA led 72-61 heading into the fourth quarter and had a 78-68 advantage when Bryant went to the bench at the 4:58 mark. Team USA did not score with Bryant out of the game and the margin had slipped to 78-71 when Bryant returned. Then Anthony was "late" (according to Fraschilla) on a screen/roll play defensively, enabling Ginobili to convert a three point play to pull Argentina to within four points, 78-74. On the next possession, Bryant passed to James, who drew the defense to the top of the key and then swung the ball to Durant for a three pointer. Ginobili answered with two free throws and then Team USA ran another nice play, with Bryant passing to James who then swung the ball to Paul and set a screen. Paul knocked in a three pointer to put Team USA up 84-76 and that was enough to preserve the win.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant are the three best basketball players in the world (in that order) and thus it should not be surprising that Team USA plays better when they are in the game; this might not matter too much against most of Team USA's opponents but that trio will likely have to play big minutes against teams like Argentina and Spain (and perhaps one or two other squads). Durant tallied a team-high 33 minutes versus Argentina, followed by James' 31 and Bryant's 25. Anthony inexplicably played 24 minutes and his lack of productivity at both ends of the court repeatedly helped Argentina to get back in the game. Coach Krzyzewski may have to consider going even "smaller" than usual in key situations with a lineup consisting of James, Durant, Bryant and two of the three point guards--or perhaps Andre Iguodala could play small forward with James at center, Durant at power forward and Bryant plus one of the point guards in the backcourt. Although Anthony is touted as a great FIBA player, he did not play well in the 2008 Olympics--shooting just .422 from the field and landing on the bench in crucial moments--and he is shooting .452 from the field during the four game exhibition tour, which is not good for a player who does not provide much at the defensive end of the court; Team USA can live with Bryant not shooting very much--or even not shooting very well--because Bryant is a top notch defender, but if Anthony is firing at will while shooting blanks that could be a problem against a good team.
Games like this should disabuse anyone of the notion that a team of U.S. college kids could win a FIBA event; Argentina would beat such a team by at least 15 points and maybe more than that. For that matter, a U.S. team sans James, Durant and Bryant would not be a sure lock to win a FIBA event (such a team would still likely be the favorite but not a prohibitive favorite). Team USA's roster is interesting. Without the injured Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh (who not only can play center very well in FIBA competition but even played center in the 2012 playoffs as the Miami Heat won the title), Tyson Chandler is the only true center but since Team USA cannot really go "big" their best lineups usually involve going "small" and putting Chandler on the bench; he did not score against Argentina while playing just 13 minutes, though he did have a game-high eight rebounds. Rookie Anthony Davis likely will not see any playing time in any game during which Team USA is challenged and James Harden may have fallen out of the rotation as well (neither player got off of the bench versus Argentina). In terms of FIBA play, point guards Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook are somewhat interchangeable. Kevin Love's ability to both rebound in the paint and stretch the floor by making three pointers theoretically makes him a prototypical excellent FIBA power forward but he did not receive much playing time during the 2010 FIBA World Championship and that has also been the case thus far during the exhibition games; he did not score during his seven minutes on the court versus Argentina and that is the second time he played less than 10 minutes during the exhibition tour.
What all of this means is, regardless of Coach Mike Krzyzewski's assertion that he has seven players who can start, James, Durant and Bryant are a cut above the other players on the roster; most of the other players are either interchangeable (the three point guards) or can be replaced by someone else who will be roughly as effective but there is a drop off against tough competition when James, Durant and/or Bryant are not in the game. That could make things interesting if Team USA is seriously challenged and/or if one of the team's Big Three gets injured or experiences foul trouble (in FIBA play a player is disqualified after five fouls, not six, though the game is also eight minutes shorter than an NBA game).
Team USA looks best when they are able to use pressure defense to create scoring opportunities in transition; their half court offense is somewhat erratic unless James creates something by posting up or driving or unless they involve one or more of the Big Three in a screen/roll action or they run a set featuring quick passes and a lot of player movement. Team USA only forced 13 turnovers against Argentina, which explains both Team USA's relatively low scoring total (by their standards) and how Argentina kept the game close; teams like Argentina and Spain that have savvy FIBA veterans and/or players with NBA experience are not going to just throw the ball all over the place the way that weaker teams do when faced with Team USA's pressure defense.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 AM