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Saturday, August 11, 2012

Blockbuster Dwight Howard Deal Vaults Lakers Back into Championship Hunt

The Las Vegas oddsmakers continued to tout the L.A. Lakers as championship contenders long after the Lakers ceased to deserve such respect--primarily because betting odds reflect the opinions of the betting public and are not, contrary to popular belief, predictions about what will actually happen--but now that the Lakers have acquired Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic as part of a four team deal the Lakers are legitimate championship contenders for the first time since 2010. The Magic got rid of some bad contracts and acquired some assets for the future, the Denver Nuggets landed All-Star Andre Iguodala and the Philadelphia 76ers now have an All-Star big man (Andrew Bynum) plus a veteran shooting guard (Jason Richardson) but this complicated transaction will primarily be remembered for what Howard does--or does not--accomplish as an L.A. Laker, so this article will focus on Howard and the Lakers.

After the Dallas Mavericks swept the L.A. Lakers out of the 2011 playoffs, I declared in no uncertain terms that the championship window for the Lakers as currently constructed had definitely closed:

"If you understand how the Lakers achieved the success that they did from 2008-2010 and you understand what went wrong in 2011 then you can only draw one conclusion: the Lakers as presently constituted are not likely to qualify for the playoffs in 2011-12. If you think that statement sounds crazy then consider the reality that since 2008 the eighth seeded team in the West has won 50, 48, 50 and 46 games; four of the Lakers' five starters started all 82 games in 2010-11, with Odom filling in for Bynum when Bynum was hurt, and the Lakers ended up with 57 wins. If the Lakers keep the current roster intact it is highly likely that they will not enjoy similar health at the top of their rotation and it is also highly likely that Bryant's minutes will have to be further reduced as a concession to all of the mileage that he has accumulated; every minute that Bryant is not on the court is a minute that must be filled by one of the Lakers' ineffective bench players."

I then concluded:

"The Lakers must get younger, deeper and more athletic. Historically, the Lakers have always responded in times of crisis by acquiring the best available big man: they nabbed Wilt Chamberlain in 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975, Shaquille O'Neal in 1996 and Pau Gasol (who really should not be mentioned with those other guys but was a serviceable second option for three-plus years) in 2008. The obvious, logical solution for the Lakers is to find a way to acquire Dwight Howard but that may turn out to be easier said than done; the Lakers are way over the salary cap and it is not clear what the new CBA will look like."

While the most severe aspect of my prediction did not come true--the Lakers qualified for the playoffs in the lockout shortened 2012 campaign, albeit with their worst winning percentage since the 2006-07 season--the overall picture that I painted proved accurate: the Lakers finished just five games ahead of the eighth seeded Utah Jazz and nine games behind the first seeded San Antonio Spurs. Kobe Bryant had a little bit more left in the tank than I thought and Andrew Bynum stayed healthy enough to make the All-Star team for the first time in his career but even though the Lakers had a better regular season than I expected their weaknesses were once again exposed in the playoffs as the eventual Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder easily dismissed the Lakers in the second round. The Lakers clearly were not a championship caliber team and they clearly needed to upgrade their roster along the lines that I had described in order to become a championship caliber team.

Lakers' management understood what had to be done and the Lakers methodically got rid of some dead weight and maneuvered themselves into position to acquire Howard. Kevin Ding summarizes the Lakers' moves from the past year or so:

"The Lakers essentially exchanged Bynum and Lamar Odom for Howard and point guard Steve Nash--an undeniable upgrade. The Lakers did concede some financial and draft considerations in that swap, but the sign-and-trade deal for Nash to spark the Lakers' offense came about via the trade exception acquired from Dallas for Odom.

Getting Howard without having to give up much more than Bynum or take on burdensome overpaid players was the Lakers' stance all along."

Anyone who just compares Howard and Bynum based on statistics completely misunderstands the true nature of how each player impacts the game: in other words, that person is a "stat guru." Howard is a mobile, extremely athletic, defensive-minded performer who has a rudimentary post game but still scores efficiently because of his prowess in the screen/roll game and his ability to attack the offensive boards. If Nash can make Howard's former backup Marcin Gortat look good in the screen/roll game then just imagine what a Howard-Nash screen/roll play will look like with Bryant on one wing and Gasol either cutting to the hoop from the baseline or stationing himself for the open 15 foot jump shot. Bynum's post moves may be more polished than Howard's but Bynum is not as mobile defensively, plus Bynum is injury prone and immature--yes, Howard is coming off of back surgery but he presumably will return to full health soon and he played in all 82 games in five of his first seven seasons, missing just seven games total.

L.A. Lakers Coach Mike Brown is an excellent defensive-minded coach who got a raw deal in Cleveland and who is capable of leading a team to a championship, much like Bill Belichick survived being criticized by Cleveland's "expert" pundits to lead New England to three Super Bowl titles. Brown walked into a tough situation in L.A. as Phil Jackson's successor but he is the right man to direct an L.A. defense that could be fearsome with Howard protecting the paint, Bryant and Metta World Peace actively checking opposing wings and Pau Gasol permanently shifting to his comfort zone at power forward, where he can use his length and mobility without having to deal with the bigger centers he had to check whenever Bynum was out of the lineup. Steve Nash is a defensive sieve but Howard's Magic teams annually ranked among the league leaders defensively despite a dearth of good perimeter defenders.

Offensively, the arrival of Howard, Nash and Antawn Jamison (who will bolster a weak bench) will make things much easier for Bryant. Howard will command attention in the post, Nash will find the open man and Jamison will be the best second unit scorer the Lakers have had in quite some time (Lamar Odom essentially played starters' minutes because Bynum was out of the lineup so frequently). Bryant will no longer be the primary playmaker, nor will he be the only player who consistently draws double teams; many teams will have to double team Howard and some teams will be inclined to trap Nash to get the ball out of his hands. If the opposing defense tilts toward Howard or Nash then Bryant will get open shots from his sweet spots on the boxes (low post) and elbows (high post/free throw line extended). Instead of having to fight to get open shots, Bryant will have the opportunity to be the recipient of plays created by Howard and/or Nash. Gasol has always been more comfortable in a secondary or tertiary role and Howard's physical presence at both ends of the court will revitalize Gasol's career. The Lakers still do not have a proven scorer at small forward or much of a bench outside of Jamison but their starting lineup is much better constructed--in terms of complementary skill sets--than Miami's; the Heat had to shift Chris Bosh to center, convince Dwyane Wade to accept a lesser role and ask LeBron James to do everything (just like he did in Cleveland) in order to win a championship but the Lakers' stars should mesh together seamlessly: Howard will operate in the paint, Gasol will play his preferred faceup game, Bryant will confront fewer double teams and Nash will be Nash. With Nash controlling the action, fewer Lakers' possessions will end with Metta World Peace launching an ill-advised three pointer.

The only possible concerns that could derail the Lakers' title quest relate to age (Nash, Bryant, World Peace and Jamison are all significantly older than 30) and injury (which can happen to anyone but will be particularly worrisome if Howard's back does not heal on schedule or flares up after initially seeming to be fine).

A fascinating dynamic to watch will be the inevitable "transfer of power" from Bryant to Howard; Bryant was on the other end of such an exchange about eight years ago and he surely learned some lessons from how poorly Shaquille O'Neal conducted himself in the elder statesman role, feuding with Bryant instead of accepting the inevitable passing of the torch. Bryant will likely still be the best player on the team this season--though Howard is without question Bryant's most talented teammate since O'Neal left town--but Howard will inevitably become the Lakers' franchise player either with Bryant by his side or the instant that Bryant retires.

Howard and his new teammates wisely refrained from publicly predicting that they would win a championship, so they are showing a proper and healthy respect for the difficult process of capturing a title (something that James and company did not immediately figure out). The Heat are the reigning champions and they deserve that respect until they are dethroned but--as I wrote three years ago--Howard is the one player who could possibly deny James some rings the way that Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stood in Julius Erving's way during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:14 PM

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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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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Bryant Emerges from Shooting Slump and James Has Historic Triple Double as Team USA Beats Australia

Team USA overcame yet another somewhat sluggish start to defeat Australia 119-86 in the quarterfinal round; this is the elimination stage of the Olympics and Team USA will face Argentina on Friday for the opportunity to play Russia or Spain in the gold medal game on Sunday. Kobe Bryant bounced back from a scoreless first half to score 20 points in the second half--and 12 of those points came in an outburst of four three pointers in 67 seconds during the fourth quarter, sealing the win by pushing Team USA's lead from 93-78 to 105-80 at the 4:43 mark. Bryant achieved his team-high point total on 6-14 field goal shooting after shooting just 14-36 from the field in Group A play. He also had three assists, tying for second best on Team USA, and he was an important presence defensively.

After the game, Coach Mike Krzyzewski effusively praised Bryant: "Not many people have achieved the excellence that he has, there are only a few. They take responsibility; they don't make excuses...he is one of the top-10 players of all-time, maybe one of the top-5 players of all time. He just keeps working. You would be amazed at the preparation he puts in for a contest and you just have to stick with him because he has produced five NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal for us and tonight he really broke out of his scoring slump. I like the fact that they (Australia) have great camaraderie but we do too. The way his teammates really went up for him and one of the great plays was when LeBron hit him in the corner with a rhythm pass and helping him get off. When he stole the ball a couple times, instead of going for layups the bench was saying 'shoot it again!' They have seen him do that. So I love that he has that support from his teammates."

While Bryant elevated his personal level of play, LeBron James demonstrated once again why he must be considered the best player in the world. James notched the first triple double in U.S. Olympic basketball history (assists have only been officially tracked in the Olympics since 1976, so we do not know if Oscar Robertson, Jerry West or someone else had a triple double before that year): James tallied 11 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists, tying the U.S. Olympic single game record for assists also held by Phil Ford, Leon Wood and Michael Jordan. James is Team USA's best player, followed closely by Kevin Durant (who finished with 14 points and five rebounds). Bryant is number three--both on this team and in the NBA overall--but his propensity to rise to the occasion in clutch situations and his ability to impact a game at both ends of the court make him a crucial member of Team USA's roster even if his statistical imprint has at times been negligible. Deron Williams led Team USA with 13 first half points and he finished with 18 points, second only to Bryant. Carmelo Anthony (17 points) and Kevin Love (10 points, 11 rebounds) were the other double figure scorers for Team USA.

Patty Mills scored a game-high 26 points for Australia. He is the prototypical FIBA guard that gives Team USA fits: he is tough-minded, he can hit the three (he shot 4-9 from long distance versus Team USA) and he can drive to the hoop in the screen/roll game. Joe Ingles added 19 points and a team-high eight rebounds; it is worth noting that--even though Team USA's starting center Tyson Chandler had only two rebounds in just nine minutes--Team USA outrebounded Australia 52-42.

Australia took an early 8-5 lead after Mills drained his first two three pointers but Team USA eventually settled in defensively to go up 28-21 by the end of the first quarter. Team USA's defensive execution was also spotty at times in the second quarter but Deron Williams erupted for 11 points to help Team USA push the margin to 56-42 by halftime. Australia opened the third quarter with an 11-0 run and Team USA once again faced a competitive game in the second half, just like the previous contests versus Argentina and Lithuania. Bryant assisted on a three pointer by Durant and he tossed a lob to Chandler for an emphatic two handed dunk to give Team USA some breathing room and he later scored eight points in two minutes during a 9-2 run that gave Team USA a 70-58 lead. Australia hung tough the rest of the quarter and still were within striking distance (84-70) entering the fourth quarter.

The margin stayed around the 15 point range until Bryant's barrage of three pointers ended all resistance. Not long after that, Bryant and James headed to the bench, their work over for the night.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:05 AM

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Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Defensive Stalwart Dan Roundfield Dies as a Hero

Dan Roundfield--a 1980 All-NBA selection, a three-time All-Star and a five-time member of the All-Defensive Team--died yesterday after saving his wife when they got caught in rough water while swimming off of the coast of Aruba. The Detroit Free Press has the tragic details:

Former Piston, Chippewa Dan Roundfield drowns saving wife

Roundfield began his career with the Indiana Pacers in 1975-76, the ABA's last season, and he emerged as a star a few years later with the Atlanta Hawks. He tied for fifth in MVP voting in 1979-80 behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, George Gervin and Larry Bird. Roundfield also played two years with Detroit before finishing his career in 1986-87 as Washington Bullet.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:26 PM

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Team USA's Depth Overwhelms Argentina

Team USA finished with a 5-0 record in Group A play after routing Argentina 126-97 but, for the second game in a row, Team USA faced a serious challenge in the early going before using their speed, defensive pressure and depth to eventually prevail. Argentina also battled very hard against Team USA during Team USA's pre-Olympic exhibition tour, so Argentina's competitiveness in the first half was less surprising than Lithuania's ability to stay close with Team USA for the entire 40 minutes. Kevin Durant led Team USA with a game-high 28 points. He shot 9-12 from the field, including 8-10 from three point range, and he also had four rebounds and four assists. Chris Paul had an outstanding all-around game: 17 points on 6-7 field goal shooting, seven assists and no turnovers. LeBron James contributed 18 points and five assists despite being limited to 22 minutes because of foul trouble. Reserves Kevin Love and Andre Iguodala each finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. Kobe Bryant continued to struggle with his shot but he inched into double figures with 11 points and he remains a strong presence on defense. Carmelo Anthony scored just five points on 1-6 field goal shooting and since his primary value is his ability to score Coach Mike Krzyzewski only used Anthony for 12 minutes. Manu Ginobili paced a balanced Argentina attack with 16 points, six assists and five rebounds. Five of his teammates scored between 11 and 13 points, led by Carlos Delfino (13 points) and Andres Nocioni (12 points). Facundo Campazzo had eight points and seven assists in a game-high 37 minutes as he had to play virtually the entire game because starting point guard Pablo Prigioni sat out due to kidney stones.

Team USA jumped out to a 14-8 first quarter lead but Argentina answered with a 7-0 run keyed by five points by Ginobili. Team USA then responded with an 8-2 burst but Team USA could never get much separation throughout the first half and even trailed again on several occasions. Argentina would have won the first quarter if not for a buzzer beating three pointer by Durant that made the score 34-32 in Team USA's favor. Team USA never led by more than six points during the second quarter and only had a 60-59 halftime edge but in the third quarter things quickly fell apart for Argentina as James scored seven points in a 12-5 run that foreshadowed the 12-2 run that essentially ended the game; that second streak featured eight points by Durant, concluding with his back to back three pointers. By the end of the third quarter, Team USA had cruised to a 102-76 lead and they were content to essentially match baskets with Argentina during garbage time in the fourth quarter. The tide turned because a fresh, deep Team USA squad shut down Argentina's fatigued starters and then capitalized by either scoring in transition or else creating good shots in the half court offense with crisp ball movement as Argentina's defensive rotations became less precise.

FIBA teams that have some NBA talent on their rosters and the right game plan are capable of challenging Team USA for extended stretches but Team USA's depth--including a trio of MVP caliber wings (LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant), an armada of All-NBA caliber point guards (Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook), plus several other All-Stars--is very daunting to face even in a 40 minute game that is eight minutes shorter than an NBA contest. The overall team statistics in blowouts featuring extensive garbage time are often skewed but the consistent pattern we have seen is that Team USA starts slowly--forcing jump shots and playing spotty defense--while their opponents are fired up and efficient in the early going, using screen/roll actions to create open shots while packing the paint on defense and enticing Team USA to shoot long jumpers. Eventually, Team USA either wears down the opposing team's starters or else exploits their inferior bench players to break the game open by clamping down on defense and scoring in transition; Team USA's three pointers that come in transition or as a result of drive/kick plays are good, rhythm shots--Team USA needs to refrain from taking contested three pointers early in the shot clock with little or no ball movement. Despite the gaudy shooting numbers that Team USA has posted in the Olympics, including a .458 three point percentage, Team USA's foundation is the pressure defense that creates open shots.

Durant led Team USA in scoring during Group A play (18.6 ppg), Kevin Love topped the squad in rebounding (6.4 rpg) and Chris Paul averaged a team-high 5.8 apg. Team USA's next game on Wednesday is a quarterfinal round elimination showdown versus Australia, which finished with a 3-2 record in Group B.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:31 AM

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Sunday, August 05, 2012

LeBron James Takes Over in the Clutch as Team USA Survives Major Scare Versus Lithuania

Lithuania outscored Team USA during the final three quarters and led 84-82 with 5:50 remaining in the game but LeBron James, Chris Paul and Deron Williams keyed a furious rally that enabled Team USA to pull out a 99-94 victory. Team USA improved to 4-0 in Group A competition, clinching the top seed in the quarterfinal round with one game remaining versus Argentina on Monday. James scored nine of his 20 points in the final 3:58. James shot 9-14 from the field overall and grabbed five rebounds in a team-high 35 minutes. He also had three steals and a blocked shot but did not register an assist. Carmelo Anthony tied James with 20 points but he did not play in the final 4:29; as I have repeatedly predicted, when Team USA faced the realistic possibility of losing a game Coach Mike Krzyzewski benched starting center Tyson Chandler (who had just one point and one rebound in eight minutes) and he benched Anthony--who can be instant offense for both teams--in favor of a small lineup featuring LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and two point guards. Chris Paul came up with several big plays down the stretch--including a few deflections and an offensive rebound that led to a Deron Williams trey that put Team USA up 95-88 with 2:49 remaining--and he had a greater impact on the outcome than his boxscore statistics (seven points, team-high six assists, team-high four steals) suggest. Deron Williams finished with 12 points but shot just 4-12 from the field. Durant had 16 points on 5-12 field goal shooting, while Bryant struggled at both ends of the court, finishing with six points on 1-7 field goal shooting. Bryant made some good defensive plays but he also gave up some open shots with risky gambles and he forced a couple shots on offense when Team USA was struggling. Linas Kleiza led Lithuania with a game-high 25 points on 10-20 field goal shooting, former Duke point guard Martynas Pocius scored 14 points and dished off six assists and Darius Songaila contributed 11 points. Veteran Team USA killer Sarunas Jasikevicius added eight points and six assists; he and Pocius dissected Team USA on screen/roll plays throughout the game, hitting three pointers, making deft drives and passing to open cutters for layups.

The two main stories emerging from this game are (1) this is clearly and emphatically LeBron James' team and (2) Team USA is still potentially vulnerable against teams that pack the paint on defense and can efficiently execute screen/roll plays on offense. This game looked like a nightmare rerun of Team USA's 101-95 loss to Greece in the 2006 FIBA World Championship. In the 2008 Olympics, Team USA turned to Bryant to save the day when things got tough against Spain the gold medal game--and that made sense because Bryant was the best player in the league at the time. Bryant is still an All-NBA First Team caliber performer but James is the best player in the league and a champion and Team USA relied on James to take over at the end of the game.

Before the game, NBC's Doug Collins said that Team USA's coaching staff wanted the players to "ramp it up" and "force their will defensively." Neither of those things happened; Lithuania had an excellent game plan at both ends of the court and constantly had Team USA on their heels. The saving grace for Team USA--besides the aforementioned clutch individual plays made by James, Paul and Williams--is that Team USA forced 23 turnovers and generated a substantial part of their offense in transition. Team USA shot just 35-79 (.443) from the field and that number would have been much lower without those fast break points. Lithuania played a classic FIBA game against Team USA, shooting 38-65 (.585) from the field overall and 7-16 (.438) from three point range: their middle screen/roll play consistently produced layups and open three pointers.

Team USA opened the game with a 9-4 run but Bryant committed two quick fouls and had to sit out at the 8:16 mark of the first quarter. Team USA only outscored Lithuania 24-21 the rest of the quarter to lead 33-25 after the first 10 minutes. Team USA stretched that margin to 39-27 but Collins commented, "The Americans are not sharp here in this game." Lithuania deserves credit for how well they played but Team USA also made a lot of mental errors at both ends of the court; as NBC's Doc Rivers put it at halftime, Team USA played hard but they did not play smart.

Team USA led 55-51 at halftime but Lithuania quickly scored a Jonas Valanciunas layup and a Jasikevicius three pointer to go up 56-55. Team USA retaliated with a 7-0 run but Lithuania never folded mentally or physically, tying the score twice more during the quarter and only trailing 78-72 as the fourth quarter began.

Anyone who expected Team USA to use quickness and depth to outrun and wear down Lithuania was very disappointed; after Anthony opened the fourth quarter with a jumper to make the score 80-72, Lithuania went on a 10-0 run, causing Coach Krzyzewski to call just his second timeout of the Olympics. Soon after that he went with the lineup he trusts the most: Bryant, Durant, James, Paul and Williams. Team USA does not need more size or more three point shooters; the way to win in FIBA play is to fully utilize speed and quickness to shut down the screen/roll attack and to generate offense with crisp cutting and passing and that is what Team USA's prime quintet did in the final 4:29, led by James, Paul and Williams.

Lithuania is older and slower than they were when they were a top medal contender in FIBA events--they dropped to just 1-3 in Group A--but they have played Team USA tough for the past decade and they once again showed the blueprint to use against Team USA; it will be interesting to see if more talented teams like Argentina, Spain or Russia will be able to use that blueprint to upset Team USA.

What does Team USA need to do differently? Defensively, they need to stop switching so much; the perimeter players must fight through the screens and the weak side defenders must be active against cutters in the lane while also keeping an eye on anyone who is a three point threat. Offensively, Team USA must rely less on one on one play and three pointers taken early in the shot clock; Team USA should attack the hoop to score layups or create open three pointers on drive/kick plays. Collins said that Bryant is Team USA's best postup scorer with James and Anthony close behind but I think that at this stage of their respective careers James is now Team USA's best low post scorer provided that he is playing with the correct aggressive mindset. Anthony can score from just about anywhere but his defense is so bad that I would not trust him in a close game--and, judging from his late game lineup, Coach Krzyzewski shares those concerns.

Team USA is not as dominant as they looked against Nigeria nor are they quite as vulnerable as they looked against Lithuania; they are the clear gold medal favorite but they can be beaten if they are sloppy and if their opponent executes a Lithuania-style game plan for the entire 40 minutes.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:40 AM

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