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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Team USA Outlasts Spain to Advance to the Gold Medal Game Versus Serbia

Team USA defeated Spain 82-76 to advance to the gold medal game on Sunday versus Serbia, who routed Australia 87-61 in the other semifinal matchup. Team USA never trailed and led by as many as 15 points but Spain stayed in contact throughout the game and had a chance to cut the lead to six with :44 remaining in the fourth quarter when Nikola Mirotic missed a layup after rebounding his own missed free throw. It is not surprising that Spain made this game competitive, because Spain proved to be a challenging foe for Team USA in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold medal games even when Team USA featured LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski stuck with the starting lineup that helped lead Team USA to a 105-78 quaterfinal victory over Argentina: DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Thompson has not shot well during this tournament but he scored a team-high 22 points on 8-16 field goal shooting, including 4-8 from three point range. Durant scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds but he performed erratically and Team USA was outscored by two points during his nearly 31 minutes of action. In contrast, Jordan led Team USA with a +11 plus/minus number. He scored nine points, tied the Team USA Olympic single game record with 16 rebounds and he blocked four shots. Irving's statistics do not jump off of the page (13 points, five rebounds, two assists) but he had Team USA's second best plus/minus number (+7). Anthony struggled mightily (seven points on 2-11 field goal shooting) but because he shared a lot of minutes with Thompson and Jordan he had a plus/minus number of +6.

Pau Gasol overcame a calf injury to lead Spain in scoring (23 points) and rebounds (eight). Sergio Rodriguez (11 points, team-high five assists) was Spain's only other double figure scorer as Team USA held Spain to 28-72 (.389) field goal shooting.

Durant started the game with a careless pass that led to a turnover and that play foreshadowed how the entire contest went for Team USA's leading scorer in the Rio Olympics; Durant made several questionable plays, he never found a great shooting rhythm and he also battled foul trouble. Team USA scored their first points on a Jordan putback and then Gasol countered with a putback as Spain tied the score for the first and last time. Gasol almost singlehandedly kept the game close in the first quarter, scoring nine of Spain's first 13 points and finishing the quarter with 12 points on 4-6 field goal shooting. Kyle Lowry hit a three pointer with five seconds left to push Team USA's lead to 26-17. Team USA shot 11-21 (.524) from the field and grabbed six offensive rebounds in the first quarter.

With Anthony struggling--one of his shots hit the side of the backboard--Coach Krzyzewski tapped him to shoot two technical free throws at the 9:10 mark of the second quarter but the attempt to boost Anthony's confidence backfired when Anthony missed both shots. The officiating was odd--not biased for one team, but just odd: five technical fouls were called in the first half, three on Spain and two on Team USA but the action was not chippy and the complaining that led to technical fouls did not seem excessive (at least based on the camera angles for the TV viewers). Durant received one of the technical fouls at the 3:40 mark right after he shot an airball. In FIBA play a technical foul also counts as a personal foul and five personal fouls lead to disqualification, so Durant sat out the rest of the half as he had accumulated three personal fouls. Juan Carlos Navarro made the ensuing free throw to cut Team USA's advantage to 33-30. Nikola Mirotic received a technical foul--his fourth foul of the first half--with 3:02 remaining and that was a major blow to Spain as he is a key member of their squad.

Team USA's offense was stuck in mud or quicksand during most of the second quarter. With more than eight minutes elapsed, Team USA had scored just 10 points--eight of them by Thompson. Team USA closed the quarter with nine points in the final 1:52 to hold on to a 45-39 lead. Team USA's biggest first half run was 5-0. As Doug Collins put it, the first half was disjointed" for both teams. Spain did an excellent job of slowing the game down and minimizing Team USA's transition opportunities (Team USA scored just three points off of turnovers in the first half).

Play continued to be choppy and sloppy in the third quarter. Anthony's three point play at the 6:20 mark put Team USA up 53-43 but Spain countered with a Gasol tip in and a Sergio Llull three pointer to cut the margin to five points. Jordan dunked an alley oop pass from Thompson just before the buzzer to extend Team USA's advantage to 66-57 but with 10 minutes to go it was still anyone's game.

Two layups by Kyle Lowry sandwiched around a George layup put Team USA up 72-57 with 7:28 to go but Navarro and Mirotic each hit a three pointer in an 8-3 run as Spain refused to go quietly. The score remained 75-65 for over a minute until Irving connected on a three pointer from the right wing to create some separation. A Rodriguez three pointer followed by a Mirotic dunk cut the difference to single digits again but neither team scored for over a minute and a half until Durant's layup put Team USA up 80-69 with 1:43 to go. That shot, followed by a George dunk, should have clinched the game but Victor Claver made a three pointer and then George fouled Mirotic on a three point shot. Mirotic made the first two free throws to trim the deficit to 82-74 with :44 remaining and then Mirotic snared the rebound after he missed the third free throw. Mirotic missed a point blank shot to make it a two possession game. Team USA had control at that point and a meaningless Rodriguez layup at the buzzer closed out the scoring.

Spain outscored Team USA 19-16 in the fourth quarter and Team USA's halfcourt execution throughout the game was painful to watch at times. Team USA would come out of a timeout and you could not tell what--if any--play had been called on the sideline. Spain deserves credit for being an excellent, well-coached defensive team but Team USA also bailed Spain out with careless passes, too much one on one play and some questionable shot selection. After the hot shooting first quarter, Team USA cooled off to finish 33-79 (.418) from the field, including 22-58 (.379) in the final 30 minutes. If Team USA had not chased down 21 offensive rebounds then Spain could very well have won.

Ugly wins count just as much as beautiful ones, so Team USA got the job done and is one victory away from capturing the third straight Olympic gold medal of the Jerry Colangelo-Mike Krzyzewski era. Those two men were charged with the responsibility of resurrecting the wayward Team USA program in the wake of embarrassing performances in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and 2004 Olympics and they have more than accomplished that task, a fact which should not be ignored even as we basketball purists wish that this version of Team USA would hold itself to a higher standard than just doing enough to get by.

On paper, Spain was the biggest threat to Team USA in the Olympics. Spain is second in the world (behind only Team USA) in the FIBA rankings and prior to the semifinal game Spain led the Olympics in points allowed (70 ppg) and defensive field goal percentage (40%) while ranking second in rebounding (39.2 rpg). However, Serbia only lost to Team USA by three points in Group A play and Serbia outscored Team USA 91-85 in the final 37 minutes of that contest. One would hope that the first game against Serbia served as a wakeup call for Team USA, because Serbia demonstrated that they are absolutely capable of competing with and possibly beating Team USA. I expect another close game and I have a hunch that Irving will hit the shot that clinches the gold medal for Team USA.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:35 AM

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At Saturday, August 20, 2016 7:11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

They're winning but I'm not really impressed. I now believe that Barkley was right the NBA is watered down.

 

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