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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Team USA Wears Down Argentina to Reach Gold Medal Game

Argentina again battled Team USA very hard for the first half but ultimately Team USA wore down their proud and gritty rivals; Team USA's 109-83 victory sets up a rematch of their 2008 Olympic gold medal victory against Spain. Kevin Durant led Team USA with a game-high 19 points on 7-14 field goal shooting, adding four rebounds and two blocked shots. LeBron James again showcased his all-around skills, contributing 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Carmelo Anthony scored 18 points with six rebounds and three assists. Kobe Bryant contributed 13 points and four rebounds in just 19 minutes, while Kevin Love produced nine points and a game-high nine rebounds in only 16 minutes. Manu Ginobili paced Argentina with 18 points, while Carlos Delfino and Luis Scola had 15 points each. Team USA only forced 11 turnovers as Argentina reacted well to Team USA's pressure defense but Team USA created many extra possessions because of their 46-29 rebounding advantage.

Team USA beat Argentina 126-97 in Group A preliminary round play but Argentina only trailed 60-59 at halftime in that game and the semifinal round matchup on Friday followed a similar course. Scola opened the scoring with a jumper and he answered Bryant's three pointer with a jump hook to put Argentina up 4-3. Bryant responded with a driving, two hand reverse layup/almost dunk that gave Team USA the lead for good but the score was competitive well into the third quarter. Bryant exploded for 11 first quarter points as Team USA jumped on top 18-6 and seemed to be on the verge of breaking the game open but Argentina countered with a quick 9-0 run. Team USA only led 24-19 at the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter repeated that pattern; Team USA pushed the margin to 41-29 but Argentina struck back to trim the difference to seven, 47-40, by halftime. Delfino led Argentina with 13 first half points and NBC's Doug Collins explained how he scored most of them: Argentina's half court offense is based on using a middle screen/roll action to either create a layup for the screener (who "slips" the screen and cuts to the hoop instead of standing firm and making contact) or if the defense rotates to the screener (Scola in most cases) then he passes to the weak side corner for a wide open three pointer. Team USA consistently has trouble defending that kind of action and that is why some of the better FIBA teams can stay close for a while--but what eventually makes the difference is Team USA's depth; opposing teams either have to run their starters into the ground or else bring in reserve players who are not nearly as good: either way, the opposing team runs out of gas at some point in the second half. This is what will most likely happen in the gold medal game on Sunday, the main question being how long can Spain keep the game close; Spain's best chance to pull off the upset is to stay within striking distance until the last five minutes and hope that Team USA hits a dry spell.

Ginobili's three pointer brought Argentina to within 47-43 early in the third quarter and Team USA only led 59-51 after Ginobili scored a layup on a nice inbounds play but Team USA closed the stanza with a 15-6 run that included back to back three pointers by Durant--who had 12 points on four three pointers during the third quarter--and seven points by James. Team USA completely shut the door with a 9-0 run to open the fourth quarter, punctuated by an Anthony three pointer. Anthony later made three straight three pointers to extend the lead to 93-64; he was the third different Team USA player to score at least 10 points in a quarter in this game.

Team USA's excellent three point shooting during the Olympics has turned a lot of heads but it should be noted that the numbers are a bit skewed by blowouts against inferior teams and by garbage time minutes when good teams conceded defeat, thus enabling Team USA reserves to pad their stats; the biggest key for Team USA is pressure defense, because this not only can create easy baskets but is also wears down Team USA's opponents: Argentina never succumbed to the pressure in terms of committing a lot of turnovers but the pressure nevertheless took its toll on Argentina's starters. During the postgame show, Doc Rivers praised the defensive versatility of James and Bryant, noting that the skills of those two players enable Team USA to effectively utilize a small lineup; starting center Tyson Chandler had just four points and three rebounds in 12 minutes: while many pundits declared that Team USA is too small, I have consistently said that Team USA is built for speed, not size, and that any time Team USA is challenged at all Coach Krzyzewski's response will be to pull Chandler and go small.

The final test for that theory will be the gold medal game against Spain, a team that features a huge frontcourt with Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka. From a size standpoint, Team USA cannot match up with those guys--but Spain's bigs will also have to guard LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, while Spain's perimeter players will have to contend with Bryant, Chris Paul and Deron Williams (Russell Westbrook might miss the game after spraining his ankle versus Argentina). Spain has the necessary talent, guile and toughness to make the gold medal game interesting for the better part of the 40 minute contest but Team USA should prevail--though it may take a great fourth quarter performance by James, Durant or Bryant to seal the deal.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:49 AM

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