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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Durant, James and Bryant Lead as Team USA Beats Spain in Gold Medal Game

Team USA's 107-100 victory over Spain in the Olympic gold medal game answered two questions; we now see the wisdom of how Jerry Colangelo constructed the U.S. roster--favoring talent, speed, quickness and depth over size--and we now understand why the Spanish players were confident about their gold medal chances prior to the Olympics: when the going got tough, Team USA used a small lineup to fend off a serious challenge from a Spanish team that not only kept the game competitive but had a realistic chance to win until the final moments, trailing by just six with 2:24 remaining.

Statistics from blowouts can be deceptive--Carmelo Anthony's record-setting 37 point explosion versus Nigeria was an extraordinary shooting exhibition but is not necessarily indicative of his true value--but one excellent way to determine how to rank players from the same team is to see who the coach trusts in a tight game. Kevin Durant played 38 out of 40 minutes versus Spain, Chris Paul played 33, LeBron James played 30 (and would have probably played about four more minutes if not for foul trouble), Kobe Bryant played 27, Carmelo Anthony played 21 and Kevin Love played 18. No one else from Team USA played more than 10 minutes. Durant scored a game-high 30 points and tied for game-high honors with nine rebounds. James once again filled up the stat sheet with 19 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals. Bryant finished with 17 points, two rebounds and two assists; he will turn 34 on August 23 and after the game he confirmed that this was his final appearance for Team USA. Bryant first joined the squad for the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship and the defensive presence that he and Jason Kidd provided in the backcourt helped to right the ship after Team USA suffered several embarrassing defeats earlier in the decade. Bryant went 26-0 as a member of Team USA (not counting exhibition play, during which he also did not lose a game), winning two Olympic gold medals (2008, 2012) in addition to the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship title. Paul's boxscore numbers (11 points on 4-9 field goal shooting, two assists) do not completely reflect his impact on the game, particularly during the fourth quarter. Love added nine points and nine rebounds. Pau Gasol led Spain with 24 points on 9-17 field goal shooting and he also had eight rebounds and seven assists. Juan Carlos Navarro scored 21 points, Marc Gasol had 17 points on 8-10 field goal shooting in 17 foul-plagued minutes, Rudy Fernandez chipped in with 14 points and six rebounds and Serge Ibaka made his presence felt in the paint with 12 points and nine rebounds.

Anyone who thought that this would be smooth sailing for Team USA was not paying attention when Team USA barely defeated Lithuania in Group A play, let alone when Spain pushed Team USA to the limit in the 2008 Olympic gold medal game showdown. Team USA starting center Tyson Chandler scored the opening basket off of a nice feed from Bryant but that play was not at all indicative of how the game would go; Spain rarely made things that easy for Team USA at either end of the court and Chandler ended up with just two points and one rebound in nine minutes. Navarro answered with a four point play (Bryant fouled him on a made three pointer) and Spain utilized a 1-2-2 zone to entice Team USA to shoot jumpers and discourage Team USA from driving to the hoop. After Durant's three pointer put Team USA up 5-4, Spain went on an 8-2 run to build their biggest lead of the game; Navarro drilled two three pointers during that stretch--one after Durant sagged too far off of him and another after Spain collected two offensive rebounds to extend a possession--and Pau Gasol connected on a hook shot. Bryant responded with a three pointer and then Durant made two free throws after Calderon was called for an unsportsmanlike foul for flinging Durant to the ground as he drove to the hoop. Under FIBA rules, Team USA retained possession after the free throws and Bryant hit another three pointer to give Team USA a slim lead that they would retain until the second quarter.

NBC's Doug Collins offered this early take on the action: "The United States has been very soft defensively to start this game." In any form of competition, players and teams have to play to their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses; one of Team USA's big keys in FIBA play is to shut down opposing three point shooters without giving up easy layups: if the perimeter defenders can do that, few opposing players are going to be able to hurt Team USA by playing one on one in the paint regardless of the size of Team USA's players. The one thing that can cause Team USA problems is a squad that executes middle screen/roll plays effectively enough to consistently generate either wide open three pointers and/or layups when someone cuts to the hoop. Collins is correct that Team USA played "soft" defense for much of the first half, neither shutting down the paint completely nor keeping the three point shooters--particularly Navarro--under control.

NBC's basketball coverage during the Olympics was pretty good overall--with excellent analysis by both Doc Rivers during the studio shows and Collins during the games--but it was annoying and inexplicable that even though the games were presented with "limited commercial interruption" the viewers still missed snippets of the action because of those commercials; I'd rather have been subjected to more commercials but see the entire game than to have fewer commercials but miss what could turn out to be key plays. We never saw Pau Gasol's two free throws at the 3:09 mark of the first quarter or a replay of James' foul against him; it is possible to analyze the game without seeing those things but it would have made more sense for NBC to figure out how to squeeze the entire 40 minute game into their two hour or so broadcast window.

Team USA led 35-27 after the first quarter as Durant poured in 12 points--the 15th time during the Olympics that a Team USA player scored at least 10 points in a quarter--but Spain used a 14-2 run (starting late in the first quarter and then carrying over into the second quarter) to go back on top 39-37 after Sergio Rodriguez made a three pointer. Rodriguez and Chandler then each received a technical foul after Rodriguez elbowed Chandler while Chandler was setting a screen and the two players confronted each other. The teams traded the lead until Love hit a pair of free throws at the 5:29 mark to put Team USA ahead 48-44; Marc Gasol picked up his fourth foul on that play and sat out the remainder of the second quarter plus the entire third quarter. FIBA aficionados often brag about the strategic prowess of the FIBA coaches compared to NBA coaches but it was questionable--to say the least--to keep Gasol in the game after he had already picked up three fouls in the first half.

Even with Marc Gasol on the bench, though, Team USA could not create any separation and they only led 59-58 at halftime. Team USA relies on pressure defense to force turnovers and prevent opponents from getting open three point shots but in the first half each team only committed five turnovers, while Spain enjoyed a slight rebounding advantage (21-19) and shot 7-13 (.538) from three point range, a much higher percentage than Team USA should allow. Spain converted their extra possessions from the rebounding advantage/taking care of the ball into three point baskets.

With Marc Gasol out of the game and Team USA finally locking down the three point shooters, the third quarter became the Pau Gasol show: he scored Spain's first 13 points of the stanza and Spain took a 71-70 lead after his three point play. Team USA generated a mini 7-1 burst--a Bryant three pointer, a Durant jumper and two free throws by Bryant offset only by one Ibaka free throw--to go up 77-72 but when NBC returned from yet another "limited commercial interruption" Team USA led 80-76; yes, NBC abandoned a live telecast of the gold medal basketball game with the outcome very much in doubt during the second half in order to show viewers some commercials and this time viewers missed much more than just a couple of free throws. Pau Gasol scored 15 third quarter points overall but Durant countered with his second double digit quarter of the game (10 points) and Team USA owned a precarious 83-82 advantage heading into the final 10 minutes.

With the game on the line at the start of the fourth quarter, Coach Mike Krzyzewski went with a small lineup (small being a relative term but none of these players is considered a traditional power forward or center in the NBA): LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. That group pushed the one point lead to six before James had to sit out for 4:03 after picking up his fourth foul. Team USA maintained that six point spread with Kevin Love playing center while James was out of the game. Spain shifted to a box and one defense against Durant, quite a show of respect for Durant's skills considering the talent level of his teammates. Team USA briefly enjoyed a 10 point lead after Bryant secured an offensive rebound and made a short jumper but baskets by Navarro and Fernandez trimmed the margin back to 97-91 before James came into the game for Anthony (as usual, Anthony took a seat on the bench for Team USA in crunch time of a close game). James drove to the hoop and dunked with power to put Team USA up 99-91 and he answered Marc Gasol's basket with a three pointer to make the score 102-93 at the 1:59 mark. Paul drew a charging foul on Pau Gasol but James airballed a three pointer that could have sealed the win. Bryant extended the possession by retrieving the miss and throwing the ball out to Paul but Paul missed a three point heave with the shot clock about to expire. After Navarro missed a three pointer, Paul faked out Spain's defense and drove to the hoop for a layup that inspired Coach Krzyzewski to jump out of his seat and celebrate: Team USA led 104-93 with just :53 left. Marc Gasol then scored inside and Coach Krzyzewski made the perhaps premature decision to remove Durant, James and Bryant from the game with :37 remaining; in light of the sometimes bizarre FIBA officiating--on prime display during a game in which each team was whistled for 27 fouls, many of them involving slight, incidental contact--and Team USA's controversial 1972 loss to the Soviet Union, a 104-95 margin is not a 100% lock. Sure enough, Paul split a pair of free throws and Marc Gasol converted a three point play to cut the lead to 105-98 with :19 remaining. Then James Harden split his pair of free throws and Marc Gasol's layup made it a two possession game with :13 left. Collins tried to allay any fears by saying that all Harden had to do was make one of his next two free throws but I cannot fathom why Coach Krzyzewski would take the slightest risk of losing the gold medal just to put a few reserves in the game and/or let his stars receive an ovation. Yes, Harden made one free throw to push the lead to 107-100 but what if he had missed them both and Spain hit a three pointer, stole the inbounds pass and hit another three pointer to force overtime? Admittedly, this is an unlikely scenario but stranger things have happened--and the point is that there is nothing to be gained by risking this at all. The game should have been played out to the very end, with the best players/best free throw shooters on the court--and I don't include Harden in that category on this team because he was cold after sitting out the whole game: the ball should have been in Durant's or Bryant's hands for those final free throws.

Team USA outscored Spain 24-18 in the fourth quarter, with Paul contributing eight points, James scoring seven, Bryant adding four, Durant hitting one three pointer and Harden shooting 2-4 from the foul line to stave off any potential comeback. The most important statistic is that Team USA limited Spain to 0-6 three point field goal shooting in the second half; Team USA controlled the three point shooters without getting dissected by cutters and that is consistently the recipe for Team USA to beat the better FIBA teams. Yes, Pau Gasol had an outstanding third quarter and a great game overall but no one player is going to singlehandedly beat Team USA. Team USA strayed from their defensive principles in the first half--or, to give Spain credit, maybe it just is not possible anymore for an American team to lock down a top FIBA team for an entire 40 minute game--but in the second half they went with the small lineup for extended stretches and used their quickness to hold Spain to 42 points, a significant improvement after giving up 58 points in the first 20 minutes.

Despite the slightly disorganized conclusion to the game, this was an excellent win for Team USA against a very tough opponent. Team USA went 8-0 during the Olympics and it is important to keep in mind that, based on expectations, Team USA must win every game, while Spain faced little or no criticism for losing two preliminary round games prior to the gold medal contest. Team USA's players and coaching staff deserve praise for their long term commitment to return the United States to the top of the basketball world and wipe out the dreadful memories of the dreary, listless performances by Team USA in FIBA events from 2002-2006.

Kevin Durant scored 156 points in eight games (19.5 ppg) during the Olympics, breaking Spencer Haywood's 1968 Team USA record (145); Charles Barkley is third on that list with 144 points (1992). Durant also ranked second on the team in rebounding (5.8 rpg) and steals (1.6 spg) and fourth in assists (2.6 apg). Kevin Love led Team USA in rebounding (7.6 rpg) despite only ranking seventh in minutes played; he padded those rebounding numbers a bit in garbage time but he also played some meaningful minutes, most notably against Spain in the gold medal game. LeBron James paced Team USA in assists (5.6 apg) and shot .603 from the field, second best (to Love's .630) among the nine players who attempted at least four shots per game. Chris Paul led Team USA in steals (2.5 spg) and ranked second in assists (5.1 apg). Thanks mainly to his explosion versus Nigeria, Carmelo Anthony finished second in scoring (16.3 ppg) even though he was often on the bench when the score was close. Kobe Bryant seemed to pace himself offensively during Group A play but he still ranked fourth on the team in scoring overall (12.1 ppg) and he increased his scoring during the three potential elimination games (16.7 ppg, including a team-high 20 points against Australia).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 PM

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