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Thursday, August 14, 2008

Team USA's Suffocating Defense Stymies Greece, 92-69

Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh set the tone defensively as Team USA beat Greece 92-69, avenging Team USA's 101-95 loss to Greece in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship. Team USA improved to 3-0 in preliminary round play and clinched a berth in the medal round. Bryant finished with 18 points and four rebounds, Bosh scored 18 points on 7-8 shooting while snaring five rebounds and Wade turned in another fine performance with 17 points, five assists and six steals. LeBron James again stuffed multiple categories in the box score, contributing 13 points, a team-high six assists, a team-high three blocked shots and a team-high (tied with Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony) six rebounds. Carmelo Anthony, who was Team USA's leading scorer in the 2006 FIBA World Championship (19.9 ppg) and in the 2007 FIBA Americas tournament (21.2 ppg), scored eight points on 2-6 field goal shooting; Anthony is averaging just 7.7 ppg on .400 field goal shooting during the Olympics and it is fair to say that he is not making up for that at the defensive end of the court, though he does lead Team USA in rebounding (5.3 rpg). Anthony has reportedly said that his goal is to average 10 rpg, which is not an obtainable goal in the approximately 20 mpg that he can reasonably expect to play; in fact, the main reason that he is leading the team in rebounding at all is that he has played in the fourth quarter the past two games while most of the other starters enjoyed the blowout wins from the bench.

Theo Papaloukas led Greece with 15 points and eight rebounds (tied with Antonios Fotsis) but he only had two assists to go along with five turnovers, a far cry from the 12 assists against just two turnovers that he had versus Team USA in 2006. Vassilis Spanoulis scored 14 points but shot just 4-13 from the field (including 0-5 from three point range), not even close to matching his 22 points on 6-10 field goal shooting (including 3-5 from three point range) versus Team USA in 2006. Dimitris Diamantidis did not score and committed seven turnovers, also well short of the 12 points on 4-6 shooting with no turnovers that he had against Team USA in 2006. The difference for Team USA this time around was defense and that change happened the moment that Bryant was added to the roster. He set a tone the first time that he came on to the practice court, something that Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo, Coach Mike Krzyzewski and several of the players have repeatedly emphasized. Bryant went to the coaching staff prior to each game in last summer's FIBA Americas tournament and asked them "Who do you want me to take out?" Steve Kerr told me that story last December, relaying something that then-Suns coach (and Team USA assistant coach) Mike D'Antoni had mentioned to him. The start of this game was no different: Greece won the jump ball but Bryant would not even let Spanoulis, Greece's high scorer in their 2006 win over Team USA, catch the ball until 14 seconds had run off of the shot clock. Greece eventually ended up with an open three point attempt by Fotsis just before the shot clock expired (Anthony cheated way too far into the lane) but Fotsis missed. Bryant promptly took Spanoulis into the post and scored over him and the message had been sent at both ends of the court: this is not going to be like 2006.

Spanoulis answered with a drive after the interior help defense broke down; later in the game, sideline reporter Craig Sager mentioned that Coach Krzyzewski had asked Tayshaun Prince to explain to Howard what he was doing wrong in help defense situations because he (Krzyzewski) did not have time to do this during the game. Bryant also talked with Howard during a stoppage of play. While great defense starts with pressure by the guards it is critically important that all five players are "on a string" defensively and that everyone rotates properly.

Bryant drew a foul on Team USA's next possession and made two free throws to give Team USA a 4-2 lead. Jason Kidd picked up three fouls in the first 1:27 and had to go to the bench, which altered Team USA's defensive plan. Bryant had been defending point guard Spanoulis while Kidd was checking Diamantidis but Chris Paul is way too small to guard Diamantidis so Paul had to take Spanoulis. Bryant forced Diamantidis to miss a three pointer, James grabbed the rebound and passed ahead to Bryant, who missed the layup after obviously being pushed. During the scramble for the loose ball, Bryant was whistled for an intentional foul against Spanoulis, a truly bizarre call, especially in light of some of the prior contact that had been ignored; Bryant committed a loose ball foul but there was nothing flagrant or intentional about it. This is what Fran Fraschilla meant when he said several times during Team USA's pre-Olympic exhibition tour that a few times a game FIBA officials will make calls that you don't understand and that you simply have to play through. Spanoulis made both free throws and Greece retained possession by rule but they were not able to score.

James missed a layup and a jumper sandwiched around a dunk by Fotsis before an Anthony three pointer put Team USA up 7-6. Howard had another poor defensive possession, fronting Andreas Glyniadakis but allowing him to catch the ball and make a short hook shot. Coach Krzyzewski complained that Glyniadakis committed a three second violation; I looked at the play several times: Glyniadakis came into the lane at the 5:50 mark, stepped out at the 5:47 mark and then ducked back in to catch the pass and score, so if it was a three second violation it would have been almost impossible to detect in real time. Doug Collins, doing the color commentary alongside play by play man Mike Breen on USA Network, noted that FIBA officials rarely call three second violations.

Greece led 13-9 after Sofoklis Schortsanitis, another player who killed Team USA in 2006 (14 points on 6-7 shooting), scored a layup but that turned out to be his only basket of the game. As Doug Collins said during Team USA's win over Angola, it is not reasonable to expect Team USA to blow teams out in the first few minutes. Team USA's plan is to use pressure defense to disrupt the opposing team's offensive execution and to wear the opponent down over the course of the game with that pressure combined with their superior depth.

Wade and Bosh entered the game midway through the first quarter and they both made an impact. Bosh played much better defensively than Howard had and Wade provided tremendous energy. Wade made a great drive and fed Bosh for a three point play to put Team USA up 18-14 and then after Team USA forced a 24 second violation Wade converted an offensive rebound into a layup to push the lead to 20-14. Papaloukas drove right through Team USA's defense to close out the quarter with Team USA in front 20-16.

Early in the second quarter Wade and Bryant combined to produce what Collins immediately called "the play of the tournament": Wade stole the ball and while falling out of bounds he threw a lob pass that Bryant slammed home with two hands after catching the ball with both of his hands even with the top of the square. Apparently, the rumors of the demise of Bryant's athleticism are much exaggerated. After the game, Wade told Sager, "I give credit to Kobe on that one. I made the steal, threw it up to the rim--unbelievable athleticism by Kobe, made me look good."

Wade averaged 19.3 ppg on .576 field goal shooting in the 2006 FIBA World Championship but he had 13 steals in eight games compared to nine steals in three games so far in the Olympics. FIBA teams have always had trouble defending against Wade's slashing moves but, as I've said repeatedly, scoring and shooting are not the reasons that Team USA has failed to win a gold medal in major FIBA competitions since 2000; poor defense has been their downfall and Bryant has turned that around not only with his own play but also by raising the defensive level of his teammates.

So many people have expressed the fear that Team USA would not be able to force turnovers against the better FIBA teams and that Team USA would have to make three point shots to win but this game provided convincing proof that what I have been saying all along is correct: Team USA's pressure defense, spearheaded by Bryant "taking out" the other team's best perimeter player, is the key to winning the gold medal. Wade's steal/feed to Bryant was one of 15 thefts by Team USA and one of Greece's 25 turnovers.

We have also been told repeatedly by some "experts" that Michael Redd's three point shooting will be essential to beat the top FIBA teams but Redd did not enter this game until six minutes remained and Team USA led 80-57. Does anyone still seriously believe that he is a key player or that Team USA should have added Mike Miller to the roster? Note that in 2006 Team USA scored 95 points versus Greece and shot 9-28 (.321) from three point range, while in this game Team USA scored 92 points and shot 7-20 (.350) from three point range, including 2-4 in garbage time in the fourth quarter. Obviously, the difference this time is that Team USA gave up 32 fewer points. Team USA won convincingly because they held Greece to 4-18 three point shooting (.222) and 26-63 field goal shooting (.413) overall. Team USA's alleged weakness inside also was a complete non factor: the teams battled to a 38-38 draw on the glass and Team USA had seven blocked shots compared to just one for Greece. Does anyone still think that Team USA really needs Tyson Chandler?

Wade assisted on dunks by Howard and James as Team USA pushed the lead to 26-18 but after just two minutes of play in the second quarter Wade was totally gassed and asked to come out of the game. He is playing very well but it is important to remember that he missed a significant amount of time last season and he is recovering from multiple surgical procedures. His strength and explosiveness seem to be as good as ever but his wind is not yet up to par, which is why he is perfect for the sixth man role on this team: he gets to play against tired starters and/or the other team's reserves and Coach Krzyzewski can use Wade in short, effective bursts, an apt description of both his playing time and how he plays when he is on the court.

Wade only sat out for a couple minutes to get his second wind and then he came right back into the game. Bryant rebounded a missed free throw by James and threw a slick, no look pass behind his head to a cutting Wade, who scored and made a free throw to convert a three point play and put Team USA up 31-22. That was the beginning of the end for Greece. Wade then scored a layup and made a three pointer on Team USA's next two possessions. Anthony allowed Papaloukas to drive right around him and feed Konstantinos Tsartsaris for a layup but Bryant answered with a three pointer from NBA range to make the score 41-30, followed immediately by James blocking a shot, driving down court and feeding Bosh for another three point play. Then James stole the ball and put Team USA up 46-30 with a fast break dunk. Wade went back to the bench after another effective, short burst. James and Bosh ran a gorgeous screen/roll play, with James feeding Bosh for a three point play. Collins commented, "These European teams are front runners. You get them behind and they are not the same competitors."

Team USA led 51-32 at halftime. Bosh had 12 points and four rebounds, Bryant added 11 points and four rebounds and Wade contributed 10 points and three assists. Steve Jones offered his analysis at halftime and it was great to see USA Network acknowledge that Jones was a three-time ABA All-Star (the ABA does not get nearly enough on-air recognition). Jones said that this edition of Team USA is unselfish and the players don't care who scores as long as the team wins, adding, "Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd provide a different kind of leadership" than Team USA had in previous years. Jones called Wade a "difference maker" and noted that after seeing Team USA practice this summer he had predicted that no one would get within 20 points of Team USA in the Olympics.

Greece started the game pushing Team USA around physically, trying to use the same tactics that unnerved Germany in their previous game, but after Team USA took a commanding lead the Greeks were whining to the officials and begging for calls. Diamantidis slapped at Howard's hand during a free throw line situation early in the third quarter and Howard popped him in the face with an elbow, contact that went undetected by the officials; it was hard to tell how hard Howard hit Diamantidis or if Howard meant to get him in the face (as opposed to just knocking his hand down). Diamantidis complained to the officials before going to the bench to seek treatment. Deron Williams stood up from Team USA's bench, shouted to get Howard's attention and gave Howard a hand signal to cut it out. ESPN.com's Chris Sheridan reported after one of Team USA's exhibition games that Howard got into Krzyzewski's dog house by taking a cheap shot at an opposing player, so it will be interesting to see if there is any fallout from this. Ironically, while this was going on Sager made the report about Prince tutoring Howard about screen/roll defense.

Team USA pushed the lead to 65-42 after Jason Kidd got a steal and made a nice bounce pass through traffic to Bryant for a fast break dunk at the 4:59 mark. After that, Team USA seemed to go on cruise control the rest of the way, maintaining a 74-54 margin at the end of the quarter and never being seriously threatened in the fourth quarter. Bryant left the game for good shortly after his dunk, while James, Anthony and Wade only played briefly in the fourth quarter. Team USA outscored Greece 62-45 when James was on the court, 60-45 when Bryant was on the court, 54-37 when Anthony was on the court, 52-33 when Wade was on the court and 18-12 during Kidd's limited action (hampered by the early foul trouble, he played just seven minutes). Bryant was the only player from that quintet who played the entire second quarter as Team USA outscored Greece 31-16 to break the game open (James played nine of the 10 minutes).

During the fourth quarter, Collins offered his take on why Team USA is better defensively now than in 2006: "Their big men have been very aggressive, their guards are bodying up and they're trying to take the legs away from the Greek players so that they can't get in the lane and make plays." Bosh deserves a ton of credit not only for his play in the paint but also for his excellent defense against screen/roll plays. Bryant "took out" Spanoulis early and did well on other occasions when he was matched up with Diamantidis or Papaloukas. James' defense is vastly improved and he is all over the court getting steals and blocking shots. Wade makes some high risk gambles but he also has been getting a lot of rewards in terms of steals and deflections. The game on Saturday versus Spain--the winners of the 2006 FIBA World Championship--will be another good test for Team USA but Team USA looks to be up for the task.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 PM



At Friday, August 15, 2008 6:22:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet another poor day in three point shooting (at least Kobe managed a couple), compounded with a very bad day in FT shooting. It did not really matter as perimeter defense picked up and kept Greece out of the game altogether. Wade again gambled too much, I recall one play when he went for the high-risk steal at the opposing free throw line and ended up leaving Papaloukas open for a drive and score. Greece shoot themselves in the foot when they tried force-feeding Schortchianitis: he is not in any shape to play, most passes were risky and easily picked up by US defense, and it took them out of their regular offensive play. Typical case of obssessing with exploiting a mismatch that was not there.

However, I think that the need for a big man was clearly exposed: you can't simply trust that Carmelo and LeBron will perform as "ersazt" big men against teams with a proper frontcourt - rather thatn outside shooters like Fotsis.

At Friday, August 15, 2008 6:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Team USA's three point shooting is not great but I still say (1) this does not matter that much and (2) the shooting percentage will improve in the upcoming games.

The poor free throw shooting is a little more worrisome but I don't expect it to be fatal; against Greece the only real problem was Wade missing free throws after Team USA already had a comfortable lead.

Wade and Paul do gamble too much and they turned their men loose for layups far more than Kobe did but all most people seem to notice are Wade's steals. Overall I think that Wade's energy has been a plus but he is taking a lot of chances. Kobe gambles sometimes, too, but not as frequently and usually if he does not get the steal he is in position to recover back into good defensive position. With Wade it's either a steal for him or a layup for his man.

I think that Greece was almost overconfident based on the 2006 win and they did not react well to Team USA's relentless pressure defense, nor did they expect Team USA to be equipped to deal with their screen/roll action.

Melo's playing terribly at both ends of the court but in key sequences Team USA is either replacing him with Wade or shifting Kobe to sf, LeBron to pf and putting the two young point guards in the game. LeBron can certainly play pf in any league, including the NBA; he's just as big as Karl Malone was and LeBron is freakishly athletic. When Team USA has Bosh, LeBron, Kobe, Wade and (choose a point guard) on the court they have enough size and more than enough speed to deal with anybody they are going to face. Once or twice a game a team may break through the pressure and get a layup by passing to a big guy in the lane who can overpower Bosh but I don't see that happening consistently with the kind of pressure defense that Team USA is unleashing on the perimeter.


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