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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Team USA Trails Early, Rallies to Rout Spain

Team USA concluded their five game pre-Olympic exhibition tour with a perfect record after registering a 100-78 win over Spain, widely considered to be Team USA's toughest potential London opponent. Carmelo Anthony led Team USA with a game-high 27 points, shooting 10-15 from the field and 5-8 from three point range. LeBron James started slowly but finished with 25 points on 10-15 field goal shooting plus a team-high seven assists. Kevin Durant was Team USA's only other double figure scorer, contributing 13 points and eight rebounds. Kobe Bryant did not aggressively look for his shot, scoring six points on 2-3 field goal shooting, but he finished second on Team USA with four assists--he also had a few "hockey assists," making the pass that led to the assist--and he again had an impact defensively. Kevin Love grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds in just 13 minutes, though he padded that total a bit in garbage time with the outcome of the contest well in hand. The rebound battle was close in the first half but Team USA finished with a 37-26 advantage. Pau Gasol led Spain in both scoring (19 points on 6-9 field goal shooting) and rebounds (five). Serge Ibaka scored 16 points--all in the first half and most in the first quarter--while Juan Carlos Navarro added 11 points but also committed a game-high six turnovers. All-Star center Marc Gasol did not play for Spain due to a shoulder injury that is not expected to keep him out of action during the Olympics.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski went with a starting lineup of Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Tyson Chandler. That quintet got off to a slow start--or Spain played very well, depending upon your perspective--and fell behind 10-3 as Gasol and Navarro each drained three pointers. Chandler picked up two quick fouls (he eventually fouled out after playing just eight total minutes) and Anthony checked in for him at the 5:40 mark. Anthony started shooting--and scoring--as soon as he took off his warmups but Spain still pushed the lead to 22-13 before Team USA's defense settled in and stopped giving up wide open shots. Ibaka scored 12 first quarter points on 6-6 field goal shooting, with most of his attempts coming from point blank range. It is well documented that Chandler is the only true center on Team USA's roster, so some of the bigger FIBA teams--like Spain--should have some success attacking Team USA inside the paint; Team USA must counter this by pressuring the ball very aggressively on the perimeter and by making sure that their weak side rotations are quick and precise (Anthony provides points at one end of the court when he shoots like he did against Spain but he also consistently gives up points at the other end of the court). Spain led 23-21 at the end of the first quarter.

Chandler committed his third foul early in the second quarter and sat out the rest of the half but Team USA finally started to make their move with him on the bench; the lineup of James, Durant, Anthony, Bryant and Paul proved to be too quick for Spain. Back to back three pointers by Anthony and James put Team USA up 28-26 and, although Spain remained in contact for the most part until the fourth quarter, Spain never led the rest of the way. Team USA led 48-40 at halftime. Anthony poured in 23 first half points.

Anthony started the third quarter instead of Chandler and Team USA's "small" lineup once again gave Spain a lot of trouble; Durant scored 10 points in less than four minutes as Team USA pushed the margin to 14, 60-46. Bryant went to the bench at the 6:17 mark and the other starters soon joined him. Team USA's reserve players extended the lead to 69-48 but then sloppy play at both ends of the court by Team USA enabled Spain to whittle that advantage to 74-59 entering the final period.

The Spanish team did not seem to overly exert themselves trying to come back in the fourth quarter--ESPN commentator Fran Fraschilla has repeatedly mentioned that many FIBA coaches believe that their teams can beat Team USA once but not twice and thus are not inclined to go all out for 40 minutes during exhibition games--and Team USA outscored Spain 26-18 in the final stanza as Anthony Davis, James Harden and Kevin Love received garbage time minutes.

It is important to remember that Team USA blew Spain out in a 2008 exhibition game only to face a real dogfight in the gold medal game at the Olympics. Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka can do damage inside against Team USA, not only scoring points but also potentially getting Team USA in foul trouble. Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook can have success putting pressure on Spain's guards but Spain is not likely to just throw the ball all over the court the way that some of the weaker FIBA teams do, so Team USA will have to play good half court defense and execute well in their half court offense in order to beat Spain if the teams meet in the medal round. Team USA shot 13-23 (.565) from three point range while holding Spain to just 5-19 (.263) shooting from behind the arc; the latter number is more significant: Team USA does not have to shoot a great three point percentage to win FIBA events (though Team USA is almost unbeatable if they do shoot a great three point percentage while not neglecting the defensive end of the court) but it is important for Team USA to effectively guard the three point line without giving up easy points in the paint. Team USA struggled defensively early in the game but looked much better in that regard during the final three quarters.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:47 AM

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Team USA Survives Against Veteran Argentina Squad

Team 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:21 AM

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