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Monday, August 02, 2021

Team USA Overcomes Slow Start, Routs Czech Republic 119-84 as Durant Breaks U.S. Olympic Career Scoring Record

Team USA started slowly but rallied in the final three quarters to rout the Czech Republic 119-84 to clinch a spot in the quarterfinals of the 2020 Olympics (being held in 2021). Jayson Tatum scored a game-high 27 points on 10-16 field goal shooting, while Kevin Durant had a brilliant all-around game with 23 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, eight rebounds, and six assists. Durant is now Team USA's career Olympics scoring leader while playing in his third Olympics, breaking a record set by four-time Olympian Carmelo Anthony. Jrue Holiday scored 11 points on 5-7 field goal shooting, and he also had three rebounds, two assists, and three steals. As is often the case, Holiday had an impact that extended beyond his scoring; his outstanding defense was a key factor as Team USA mounted a comeback from a 25-18 deficit at the end of the first quarter. 

Zach LaVine contributed 13 points on 5-7 field goal shooting, and he was involved in a play that embodied why Team USA has struggled at times: early in the game, he contorted his body while attempting a three pointer, trying to draw a foul, but the FIBA referees just ignored his flailing and complaining. LaVine was skilled enough/fortunate enough to make the shot anyway, but the larger point is that in FIBA play the offensive player is typically not rewarded for making unnatural gyrations during his shooting motion. In contrast, NBA stars--most notably James Harden, but he is far from the only culprit/benefactor--expect to be rewarded with free throws in such situations, which not only pads their scoring totals while getting the other team in foul trouble but also influences how much space defenders are willing to give to Harden and other high scorers, to the extent that some teams instruct their players to "guard" Harden with their hands behind their backs. In recent years, the advantages that NBA referees confer upon selected players have become very significant, and when watching Team USA in FIBA play it is evident that this has led to an erosion of the abilities of these players to score efficiently without receiving such unfair advantages. Yes, Durant had a spectacular game, but overall he has not been spectacular thus far for Team USA, and the same holds true for most of the team's other players. When referees place a cone of protection around you, it can be difficult to remember how to play without that security blanket. Durant and Team USA's other stars came of age without that cone of protection and should be able to summon up those skills again, but these FIBA games have shown us a lot about the state of the NBA game today, and have reinforced my belief that the narrative that the game and today's players are better than ever is not accurate.

Blake Schilb, a 37 year old forward who never played in the NBA and who had his best EuroLeague season nearly a decade ago, led the Czech Republic with 17 points on 6-9 field goal shooting. Schilb spearheaded a frontcourt attack that overwhelmed Team USA in the first quarter, but--not surprisingly--a player who is nearly 40 years old could not sustain that level of play for a whole game against a squad of NBA All-Stars. 

Team USA's first quarter post defense was awful, and their perimeter defense was not much better. Team USA wore down the Czech Republic thanks to huge advantages in both top line talent and overall depth. Do not be deceived by the final score. Chris Broussard recently posted a video about Team USA during which he made two excellent points: (1) "The world" may have caught up to Team USA (a "World Team" of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Luka Doncic might beat any team the U.S. can put together) but no individual country has overall talent or depth even approaching Team USA's "B" Team, and (2) when a team that clearly has more talent loses to a team with inferior players then coaching is a major issue. Gregg Popovich's string of embarrassing losses as Team USA's coach is inexcusable considering the rosters that he has had. As Broussard correctly noted, many countries now have several NBA players, but Team USA has a squad of NBA All-Stars. Broussard quipped that the Sacramento Kings have NBA players but get beaten on a nightly basis, so just having a few NBA players does not make a team a legitimate powerhouse.

What would have the result been if the Czech Republic's best player had been 27 instead of 37, or if the Czech Republic had a better bench?

We may find out the answers to those questions during Team USA's next game. Even when Team USA had prime Kobe Bryant and a still-capable Jason Kidd spearheading the perimeter defense in the 2008 Olympics, Spain was not an easy opponent for Team USA, and Spain was an even more challenging opponent for Team USA during the 2012 Olympics. This Team USA squad lost two exhibition games to vastly inferior opponents, and then lost a  preliminary round game to France, which is not as highly ranked in FIBA play as Spain. Can Team USA control the paint versus Spain without giving up wide open three pointers? Can Team USA force enough turnovers to fuel their transition game so that they do not have to rely on their sometimes balky half court offense? Maybe Team USA has been scared straight and will now waltz to the gold medal, but the choppy first quarter against the Czech Republic would give me a lot of additional confidence if I played for Spain; I would think, we can play the same way that the Czech Republic did, and we have the necessary talent/depth to maintain that style and level of play for the full 40 minutes.

Before Team USA's previous game, several Iranian players took pictures with Vince Carter. I doubt that Spain will be so awestruck that their players will be seeking photo opportunities with any current or former U.S. players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:27 AM



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