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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 single-handedly 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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Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Team USA Overcomes Typical Sluggish Start to Defeat Argentina, 105-78

Argentina jumped out to a 19-9 first quarter lead over Team USA and it looked like the 2004 Olympics all over again, but Team USA rallied and won going away, 105-78, to advance to a semifinal matchup against Spain on Friday. Team USA cut Argentina's lead to 25-21 by the end of the first quarter and then employed suffocating defense to build a 25 point second quarter lead before Argentina cut the margin to 56-40 at halftime. Team USA's lead hovered around 20 points for most of the third quarter before they made a late push to go up 87-61 heading into the final 10 minutes. Argentina did not get closer than 23 points in the fourth quarter.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski tweaked his starting lineup again, inserting DeAndre Jordan at center in place of DeMarcus Cousins. The other four starters were Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. Doug Collins noted that part of the reasoning behind the change at center is that neither Cousins nor Irving defend the screen/roll very well, so having them on the court together "brings out the worst in both players." Collins also said that in order to win Team USA's top two priorities against Argentina would be to control the boards and to defend the three point line. Despite the shaky start, Team USA finished well in both departments, winning the rebound battle 54-43 and holding Argentina to 8-32 (.250) three point shooting.

Durant scored a game-high 27 points on 9-13 field goal shooting and he also had seven rebounds and six assists. George added 17 points on 8-14 field goal shooting plus a team-high eight rebounds. George easily had the best plus/minus number (28, seven better than Durant). Cousins scored 15 points in less than 14 minutes. Irving added 11 points. Anthony, who has been touted by some as supposedly the greatest U.S. Olympic basketball player, scored seven points on just 3-10 field goal shooting. Yes, Anthony has played on two gold medal-winning teams but in Team USA's 118-107 win in the 2008 gold medal game versus Spain Team USA was outscored 49-38 when Anthony was on the court, which explains why Coach Krzyzewski benched him for the final 8:13 with the outcome up for grabs. In Team USA's 107-100 victory in the 2012 gold medal game versus Spain, Anthony scored eight points on 3-9 field goal shooting in 21 minutes and he was again on the bench down the stretch while Chris Paul, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant made the key plays. If Team USA secures two more victories and Anthony wins his third gold medal he likely will once again be on the bench during crunch time of those contests while Durant, George, Irving or someone else does the heavy lifting.

Luis Scola led Argentina with 15 points and a game-high 10 rebounds. Manu Ginobili (14 points, seven assists), Facundo Campazzo (13 points, game-high nine assists) and Andres Nocioni (12 points, five rebounds) also scored in double figures. Argentina started three players with NBA experience (Scola, Ginobili and Nocioni) alongside point guard Campazzo and forward Patricio Garino. However, Ginobili is 39 years old while Scola and Nocioni are each 36 years old. Carlos Delfino, who once was a key cog in Argentina's attack, is still on the squad but at 33 years of age and dogged by injuries he is no longer the player he used to be.

Durant got Team USA off to a good start by drawing a foul and making two free throws but Campazzo abused Team USA's defense with three nifty drives to help Argentina go up 10-5. Argentina shot 7-9 from the field to start the game, while Team USA opened 3-13 before making four straight shots. Durant single-handedly kept Team USA in the game, scoring 13 first quarter points as Team USA slowly woke up defensively, enabling Team USA to turn a 19-9 deficit into a 25-21 advantage by the end of the quarter.

In the second quarter, Coach Krzyzewski deployed a more defensive-minded squad, inserting Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry into the lineup alongside Cousins and Durant. Cousins dominated the smaller Argentina team in the paint, while George and Butler wreaked havoc on the perimeter and Team USA extended the lead to 36-21. The score was 36-24 when Anthony returned to action. With George smothering Campazzo, Team USA was up 47-27 at the 4:10 mark when Anthony went back to the bench after committing his third foul. Anthony had scored two points on 1-5 field goal shooting.

Team USA took a 56-31 lead when Durant punctuated a beautiful crossover move with a jumper but while Team USA's bench players danced and the players on the court celebrated, Argentina hustled down court and Ginobili passed to Campazzo for a layup. Argentina closed the half on a 9-0 run in the last 1:52. Careless Team USA plays like that did not change the outcome of this game mainly because Argentina is an older team that lacks the necessary size and depth to compete with Team USA for a full 40 minutes but Eddie Johnson recently said something great on NBA Radio: "If you mess with the game, the game will mess with you." Team USA does not have the proper respect for the game and for the opposition. They might get away with it and win this tournament anyway but if they fall behind by 10 to Spain it will not be quite so easy to come back--and if they give up nine points to Spain in less than two minutes they will be flirting with disaster. Durant scored 18 points on 6-9 field goal shooting in the first half and Team USA's bench outscored Argentina's bench 28-7.

Team USA led 76-55 when Anthony sat out for good at the 4:21 mark of the third quarter after collecting his fourth person foul. Coach Krzyzewski went with the defensive-minded lineup that blew the game open in the second quarter and Team USA closed out the quarter with a mini 11-6 run to extend the margin to 87-61.

It was apparent by this point that Argentina had given all that they had to give--they are an older, undersized team that lacks depth and it just was not conceivable that they could outscore Team USA by 26 points in 10 minutes. Just looking at the final score, Team USA's victory seems impressive but Argentina's ability to effortlessly build a 10 point first quarter lead against Team USA's starters is a warning sign that Team USA should not ignore; if Argentina had the depth and youth of a decade ago they could have pushed Team USA throughout this contest and very possibly pulled off the upset.

Considering the strength of the opposition, this was Team USA's best overall performance so far in the Rio Olympics but we still saw too much sloppiness, particularly from the starting lineup in the early going. Spain has better size and depth than Argentina. If Team USA starts sluggishly versus Spain in Friday's semifinal game, it will not be so simple to wear Spain down. Team USA's starters must play better defense and Team USA's offense should not be so dependent on Durant alone, because if Team USA utilized the ball and player movement that other teams showcase against them then Team USA could get scoring contributions from a variety of players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:55 PM

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Monday, August 15, 2016

Team USA Edges France 100-97 to Finish 5-0 in Group A Play

Team 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. 

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:24 AM

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