Team USA Edges France 100-97 to Finish 5-0 in Group A PlayTeam USA improved to 5-0 and clinched first place in Group A with a 100-97 win over France but legitimate questions still remain about whether Team USA will win the gold medal. France outscored Team USA 51-45 in the second half despite being without the services of their floor leader, six-time All-Star/2007 NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker (who sat out to rest for the quarterfinal round). France shredded Team USA's defense, shooting 41-73 (.562) from the field. France also outrebounded Team USA 35-29. Each team committed 13 turnovers but that is a victory for France because a major part of Team USA's strategy is to win the turnover battle and convert those extra possessions into transition points.
In the wake of Team USA's lackluster 94-91 win over Serbia, Coach Mike Krzyzewski reinserted Klay Thompson in the starting lineup and returned Paul George to the bench. The other four starters remained the same: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, DeMarcus Cousins and Kyrie Irving. Thompson emerged from his shooting slump to score a game-high 30 points on 9-16 field goal shooting, including 7-13 from three point range. Durant scored 17 points on 6-6 field goal shooting and he grabbed a team-high six rebounds. Irving (10 points, plus a U.S. Olympic record-tying 12 assists) and Anthony (10 points on 4-11 field goal shooting) were Team USA's other double figure scorers. Guards Thomas Heurtel (18 points, game-high eight rebounds, game-high nine assists) and Nando De Colo (18 points, five assists) led the way for France.
Plus/minus can be a noisy statistic, particularly in small sample sizes, but it is interesting that four Team USA players had negative plus/minus numbers in this game and three of them were starters: Cousins (-5), Anthony (-3) and Irving (-3); the other "negative" player was Draymond Green, who was -1 in just six minutes of playing time. It is probably not coincidental that the three "negative" starters are also the three starters who are the worst defensively, while Durant (who also has had his share of defensive lapses in the Olympics) was +2 and Thompson was +1.
Team USA got off to another slow start--a recurring theme during the Olympics--and trailed 9-5 after De Colo hit a jumper off of nice ball reversal and Heurtel scored a runner in the lane. De Colo and Heurtel got to wherever they wanted to go on the court for most of the game, either beating Team USA's guards off of the dribble or confusing Team USA's defense in screen/roll actions. Team USA's defense during the Olympics has been pathetic and seems to be getting worse instead of improving. Team USA is vastly more talented than any other team in this event, yet they are getting beaten defensively one on one (both in the post and on the perimeter), they are getting back doored for layups and they are defending screen/roll actions as if they have never seen them before in their lives.
I am rooting for Team USA but I cannot say that I am enjoying watching them play; they are careless, which is indicative of indifference, arrogance or some combination of both. Each Team USA player is a star on his own team, yet the players have reduced minutes and roles so there is no excuse for not playing hard at both ends of the court. Kevin Durant has repeatedly let players back door him for layups while he is blankly staring off into space. Maybe he should have signed with Houston instead of Golden State; his defense during the Olympics would mesh perfectly with James Harden's "Shaqtin' a Fool" caliber defense.
Durant looked engaged--at least offensively--for a brief spurt during the first quarter when he made a three pointer, a layup and a fast break layup to put Team USA up 12-9. He opened the game by scoring nine points on 4-4 field goal shooting after shooting 2-4 from the field in the entire game versus Serbia. Apparently satisfied that he had fulfilled his duties for the night, Durant scored just eight points over the next three quarters--not nearly enough to compensate for his lackluster defense. Durant is unquestionably the best player on this team. He is a dominant scorer and an above average defensive player when he is so inclined. If he is content to let others do the scoring on this team, that is fine, but then he should assert himself as a defensive stopper the way that Kobe Bryant did during the 2008 Olympics. Durant has the mobility and length to guard all five positions in FIBA play.
Team USA's offense is hardly a thing of beauty but even after the slow start they poured in 30 first quarter points, so tweaking the offense should not be Coach Krzyzewski's first priority. France scored 24 points in the first quarter, putting them on pace for 96 points--and they maintained that pace the rest of the way. France should not score more than 70-75 points against Team USA, particularly with Parker sitting out.
Team USA's second unit looked sharper than the starters and they extended the lead to 36-26 before the starters began returning to action. A De Colo three pointer cut the margin to 44-40 with 3:30 remaining but France bailed Team USA out to some extent by twice fouling three point shooters: Durant and Thompson combined to make six straight free throws, helping Team USA push the lead to 55-46 at halftime. Durant and Thompson each scored 13 first half points; Thompson had scored just 11 points combined in the first four games.
Thompson put on a shooting exhibition in the third quarter, draining five three pointers and helping Team USA build a 78-62 lead with 2:23 remaining but France kept their composure and closed the quarter on a 7-3 mini run to keep the contest within reach.
Every time the camera panned to Coach Krzyzewski during the fourth quarter I thought that his head was going to explode; his face seemed to be getting redder and redder and his lips became more and more tightly pursed. Assistant Coach Tom Thibodeau also looked less than pleased. After DeMar DeRozan handed free possessions to France with a careless inbounds pass followed by another turnover for traveling, Coach Krzyzewski was literally stomping mad.
As Team USA repeatedly crumbles in the fourth quarter, it is interesting to see who wants the ball. Irving definitely wants the ball but the problem is that once he gets it passing is absolutely, positively the last resort. It's not like he lacks passing skills; he is an excellent passer. Irving lacks the desire to pass the ball. The cliche saying is "He does not trust his teammates" but I think that the reality is he just has a whole lot of confidence in himself. Anthony also wants the ball but he too is very disinclined to pass it, so we are "treated" to his full repertoire of Knick moves: the endless jab steps, the pointless dribbling to nowhere and the low percentage shots with one or more defenders draped all over him. Irving and Anthony can make tough shots--but the question is why anyone on Team USA would ever take a tough shot when there are four other players on the court who are open for easier shots if one player has been surrounded defensively. Durant only wants the ball if it is delivered to him when and where he wants it. Doug Collins made a great observation about a late game Team USA offensive possession: Thompson cut through the lane and motioned to Durant to cut as well but Durant just stood in one spot as if he had been planted there like a tree. Thompson then cut back through the lane. That could be an interesting dynamic for the Golden State Warriors next season.
Speaking of the Warriors, it is worth noting that all three of Team USA's players from the 73-9 Warriors are having difficulties: Thompson had been in and out of the starting lineup before his breakout game against France, Green has not been great during his limited minutes and Harrison Barnes did not even play in three of the five games.
If Team USA is not careful, one of the upcoming games is going to end in defeat with an Irving runner or Anthony jumper bouncing off of the rim as time expires. Anthony's skill set should be well-suited to FIBA play but I have never been as convinced of his greatness as a FIBA player the way that many commentators are. He was part of the disastrous 2004 Olympic team and he was nowhere close to being the most important player for the 2008 and 2012 gold medalists, who featured the leadership/defensive intensity of Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd (2008 only) plus the all-around play of LeBron James. Anthony scored a lot of points mainly because the opponents could not load up on him. This year, Anthony is the team's second leading scorer (15.2 ppg) but he has also jacked up far more shots than anyone else despite having the lowest field goal percentage among Team USA's top six scorers. Not including the two walkover games against vastly inferior competition (Venezuela and China), Anthony is shooting 18-40 (.450) from the field, including 3-8 versus Serbia and 4-11 versus France. If only Nigeria were on the remaining schedule then we could see Anthony pad his stats (as he did in the 2012 Olympics) but I question how productive--and, more importantly, how efficient--Anthony will be if Team USA needs critical baskets down the stretch of the kind that Bryant produced in the 2008 gold medal game versus Spain when no one else wanted the ball.
The fourth quarter versus France was a mess for Team USA. A Joffrey Lauvergne dunk cut Team USA's lead to 85-81 at the 5:27 mark. A Mickael Gelabale jumper kept France within five points (88-83) with just 4:03 to go. Team USA led 100-90 with 1:25 left and then seemingly decided to not try for the last 85 seconds as France scored the final seven points. It is true that France scored a three pointer came at the buzzer, so this was not a one possession game in the sense that the Serbia game was (with a three pointer to tie in the air a couple seconds before regulation time ended), but it is also true that France inexplicably elected not to foul down the stretch to extend the game.
Team USA players seem to have a blase attitude of "We did not play our best and we still won" but an alternative perspective is that France was not even trying to win this game (Parker rested, France did not intentionally foul with the game still in reach) but almost won anyway. Team USA should have pressured De Colo and Heurtel all over the court--particularly with Parker out of action and France's depth thus compromised--and won this game by 25 points to send a message to the rest of the field about how committed Team USA is to tough defense and to winning the gold medal.
Team USA's first game in the quarterfinals on Wednesday will be against the fourth place finisher in Group B, which will be determined by the results of Monday's final Group B games. If Team USA loses on Wednesday, they will be eliminated from medal contention.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:24 AM