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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Team USA's Quickness Overwhelms Great Britain

Team USA improved to 3-0 on their five game pre-Olympic exhibition tour with a 118-78 victory over Great Britain. Six Team USA players scored in double figures: Carmelo Anthony (19 points on 8-10 field goal shooting), Deron Williams (19 points on 7-8 field goal shooting), LeBron James (16 points on 7-10 field goal shooting, plus six rebounds, four assists and two steals), Russell Westbrook (15 points on 5-9 field goal shooting, plus a game-high nine assists), Kevin Durant (13 points on 5-12 field goal shooting) and Anthony Davis (11 points on 5-7 field goal shooting). Kobe Bryant had another quiet game offensively (five points on 1-3 field goal shooting) but he contributed five rebounds, three assists and two steals; Bryant, James, Westbrook, Williams and Chris Paul (three points, six assists, three steals) put tremendous pressure on Great Britain's perimeter players and helped Team USA to force 27 turnovers. That relentless defensive effort led to easy baskets and is the main reason that Team USA shot .603 from the field. Chicago All-Star Luol Deng led Great Britain with a game-high 25 points but he only shot 7-18 from the field. Former NBA player Pops Mensa-Bonsu contributed 12 points and a game-high nine rebounds.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski responded to Team USA's sluggish first quarter against Brazil by making two changes to his starting lineup, benching Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul in favor of Kevin Durant and Deron Williams respectively. Team USA opened up a 13-6 lead by the 5:07 mark when Paul entered the game for Williams and Anthony came in for Chandler. Anthony performed very well in a reserve role, scoring 10 first quarter points as Team USA extended the margin to 33-20 by the end of the quarter.

Team USA led 55-37 at halftime and they quickly broke the game open in the third quarter with the new starting lineup once again on the court; Williams scored Team USA's first 11 points--and had 14 in the quarter overall--as Team USA went up 66-41 and never looked back. Team USA was on top 89-55 at the end of the third quarter, turning the final 10 minutes of the game into--as Marv Albert loves to say--"extensive garbage time."

After the game, Coach Krzyzewski downplayed the significance of the starting lineup changes, suggesting that Team USA in effect has seven starters and that some combination of four of those players plus center Tyson Chandler will start each game. It is probably true that it does not make a big difference which five of those seven players start the game but I still suspect that if/when Team USA is seriously challenged the "starters" whose end of the game minutes are most likely to be curtailed are Anthony's and Chandler's; Team USA cannot really go "big," so the best way for them to change up the game is to go "small," use pressure defense all over the court and then score in transition. The ideal lineup in that kind of scenario would feature James, Durant, Bryant and then some combination of Paul, Westbrook and Williams. Andre Iguodala could also potentially be used in such a case. James or Durant can play center, while the other three players can switch and trap on the perimeter; Team USA should score a lot of fast break points playing that way but even if an opposing team succeeds in slowing the game down Team USA could still run an effective half court FIBA offense with James operating in the post and the other four players spotting up behind the shorter FIBA three point line and/or cutting to the hoop when James is double-teamed.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:36 PM

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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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