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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Team USA Dominates Nigeria

Kobe Bryant made sure that Team USA did not get off to a slow start this time; he scored 14 points in the first 6:06 as Team USA led Nigeria from opening tip to final buzzer, winning 156-73 to improve to 3-0 in Group A and clinch a spot in the quarterfinal round--not that advancing was ever in doubt but now it is official, with the next step being to earn the top seed. Team USA set numerous records: they shattered Brazil's all-time Olympic record of 138 points (Team USA's previous all-time Olympic high was 133, while the 1992 Dream Team twice scored 127 points), they broke the Team USA mark for margin of victory in the Olympics (the old standard was 72, set in a 101-29 victory over Thailand in 1956) and their 14 first half three pointers alone were good enough to set a Team USA single game Olympic record. Team USA shot an astounding 29-46 (.630) from three point range overall. Bryant finished with 16 points on 6-8 field goal shooting in just 11 minutes; his early barrage included two three pointers and a reverse dunk after he stole the ball and drove full court. Carmelo Anthony took advantage of extensive garbage time to set the single game Team USA Olympic scoring record with 37 points on 13-16 shooting, including a blistering 10-12 from three point range. Russell Westbrook scored 21 points on 7-8 field goal shooting and he also contributed three steals plus two assists. Kevin Love added 15 points and six rebounds in a team-high 23 minutes, while Deron Williams had a double double (13 points, 11 assists). Kevin Durant finished with 14 points and six assists, while LeBron James had six points and five assists.

Nigeria has more NBA players than a casual American basketball fan might realize; Al-Farouq Aminu (seven points plus a team-high four assists) and Ike Diogu (27 points and seven rebounds, team-highs in both categories) were both NBA Lottery picks, while Olumide Oyedeji (0 points in just nine minutes) played 93 games for Seattle and Orlando from 2000-03.

This game is yet another example of how deceptive box score numbers can be; it would be easy to assume that Team USA beat Nigeria mainly because of their prolific three point shooting but the reality is that Team USA's superior athleticism silenced Nigeria's offense and also forced Nigeria to play a zone defense that conceded wide open jumpers that Team USA made with great regularity. However, the key for Team USA against the better FIBA teams will be to use pressure defense to shut down the perimeter game without giving up easy baskets in the paint; it is not essential for Team USA to make a lot of three pointers but when Team USA gets hot from three point range they are capable of blowing out any FIBA squad.

Neither Tunisia nor Nigeria had a realistic chance to beat Team USA but Team USA should have a higher internal standard than just winning: Team USA should play the right way at all times, sharing the ball on offense to create open shots and pressing all over the court on defense to force turnovers and bad shots. Team USA should never have trailed against Tunisia, let alone allow Tunisia to have a three point lead more than seven minutes into the first quarter. Team USA's dominating performance against Nigeria is a step in the right direction with just two more Group A games remaining before elimination play begins. Team USA will face Lithuania on Saturday and then conclude Group A play against Argentina on Monday.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:20 PM

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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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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Team USA Opens Olympics With 98-71 Win Over France

Team USA cruised to a 1-0 record in preliminary round play with a 98-71 victory over a French team that features eight players with NBA experience, including 2007 NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker. Team USA will play four more games in Group A; these are not elimination games but the top four teams from each group of six will advance to the "win or go home" quarterfinal round. Kevin Durant led Team USA with 22 points and he was one of three American players who grabbed nine rebounds. Kevin Love provided a nice spark off of the bench with 14 points, while Kobe Bryant was the only other Team USA player who scored in double figures--10 points in just 12 minutes of playing time as Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski wisely saved Bryant for some of the tougher games ahead in the Olympic format of one game every other day. LeBron James contributed nine points, a game-high eight assists, five rebounds and the highlight of the game: a two-handed over the head bounce pass that nearly traveled the length of the court before Durant caught it, resulting in a three point play to give Team USA an 11-5 lead. Tyson Chandler added eight points and nine rebounds in just 11 minutes, while Carmelo Anthony had nine points and nine rebounds but shot just 3-10 from the field. Team USA only shot 31-72 from the field (.431) but they forced 18 turnovers, outrebounded France 56-40 and held France to 26-66 field goal shooting (.394). Pressure defense and activity on the glass by Team USA's athletic wing players are more important for Team USA than their own field goal percentage, though of course it would be nice if Team USA played a bit more crisply at the offensive end of the court. Parker had just 10 points, one assist and four turnovers, perhaps hindered not just by the highly publicized injury that almost cost him the use of one eye but also because his recuperation from that injury limited his ability to train/stay in shape. Post player Ali Traore led France with 12 points.

Coach Krzyzewski went with a starting lineup of Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Tyson Chandler, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul; if/when things ever get tight for Team USA, expect to see Durant, James and Bryant on the court alongside one of the three point guards (Chris Paul, Deron Williams or Russell Westbrook) plus either Carmelo Anthony for offensive purposes (but only if Anthony improves his shot selection and field goal percentage) or Andre Iguodala for defensive purposes or possibly even a second point guard if Coach Krzyzewski wants to go really small. Team USA cannot go "big" and thus I suspect that Chandler and Love will not play heavy minutes in any competitive games, though they will be productive rebounders on a per minute basis; Team USA's strength is their combination of speed and depth, which enables them to keep playing at a fast tempo no matter which point guards or wings are in the game (though of course everything looks better when the wings are Durant, James and Bryant).

Team USA's starters took an early 13-7 lead but the first quarter featured some "disjointed" play (in the words of NBC commentator/Philadelphia 76ers Coach Doug Collins) with a lot of fouls being called against both teams and some Team USA players occasionally breaking the offense to go one on one; Collins declared that Team USA has so much talent that there is no reason for the squad to ever force a shot: just keep the ball moving and someone will get a good open look. After Team USA's reserves entered the game, France cut the margin to 22-21 by the end of the first quarter.

Team USA missed their first six three point shots but then James, Bryant and Paul each nailed a trey early in the second quarter to push the lead to 33-21 (Bryant also made two free throws during that 12-0 run). France fought back to cut the deficit to seven (33-26) but Team USA pulled away to a comfortable 52-36 halftime lead and France never mounted a serious threat the rest of the way; Team USA was ahead 78-51 by the end of the third quarter and the main fourth quarter drama consisted of Team USA trying to find a way to get Anthony Davis a basket (he eventually converted a Deron Williams lob from into a dunk).

As Team USA pulled away in the third quarter, Collins listed his four keys for Team USA to be successful in the Olympics (these keys will sound familiar to anyone who has followed 20 Second Timeout's coverage of Team USA's participation in FIBA events for the past several years, particularly my analysis of the reasons behind Team USA's FIBA losses from 2002-2006):

1) Pressure defense converted into points off of turnovers
2) Defend the three point line
3) Defensive rebounding
4) Depth

Yes, it is true that a few teams have post players who could potentially cause Team USA some trouble but if Team USA plays excellent pressure defense then it will not be easy for opposing teams to feed the ball into the post. The big key is for Team USA to guard the three point shooters without giving up layups. Team USA limited France to 2-22 three point shooting (.091) without giving up much inside except for a few hoops by Traore. Team USA does not need more pure shooters on the roster nor is it even essential to have more true big men, though the mobility of Dwight Howard and especially Chris Bosh would obviously have been useful; Chandler will play 10-20 mpg as the primary defender against the opposing team's top big man and Kevin Love will get some spot minutes but Team USA's best lineup will use James and Durant as the de facto center/power forward duo--and the NBA's two best players are more than capable not only of holding their own defensively against FIBA big men but also posing matchup nightmares at the other end of the court. It is odd that people who are so concerned about how Team USA will match up inside defensively fail to consider that guys like Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Luis Scola, Nene and Anderson Varejao will also have to chase Durant and James around at the other end of the court.

Team USA is built for speed, versatility and pressure defense, qualities that will serve them well in FIBA play. The other element that has finally been present in Team USA's program over the past few years is continuity; Team USA will probably never have quite the level of continuity that the other top national teams possess but at least Team USA now has a sufficient level of continuity to successfully compete against the world's elite. That continuity is reflected both in terms of the stability of the roster composition (including five players from the 2008 Olympic Championship team and five players from the 2010 FIBA World Championship team) and in terms of the familiarity that the players and the coaching staff have with the FIBA game.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:02 PM

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