LeBron James glides in for two of his 28 points (Getty Images)
Tuesday's "friendly" match between Team USA and Spain was supposed to be the toughest haul of them all, a possible gold medal preview between the two squads that squared off in Beijing to decide the men's basketball title that Team USA eventually won. In several ways, this was a chore for coach Mike Krzyzewski's crew, as Spain began the contest with a flurry of quick screens and smart passes to accommodate the outfit's long arms and good touch. Team USA, behind its usual combination of individual brilliance and defensive acumen, eventually rounded itself into blowout mode in the end.
Not without wrinkles, though far less than Team USA's relative struggle against an experienced Argentinean squad in a win on Sunday. Spain's zone, at times, gave Team USA pause as it attempted to hit the sorts of long-range daggers that can either turn a strong lead into a dominant advantage, or combustion enough for the counterpart's comeback. Carmelo Anthony was brilliant in the first half with 23 points, but most on a series of feast or famine shots that could go terribly wrong in a game gone pear-shaped. And Kevin Love fell down before seconds later guarding a guy (or, "NBA All-Star Pau Gasol," whatever) on the wrong side of his body in the same possession.
This is all a trifle, for now. Team USA has the talent and matchup ability to stick with all comers, even if foul trouble reared its ugly head and the worrying (despite his strength and length) potential for LeBron James to have to guard Pau Gasol down the stretch. Coach K, to his credit, influenced some terrific spacing in the second and third quarters, and Team USA was able to run a modified screen and roll game during those quarters to at first establish a lead and then eventually pull away.
LeBron James was the biggest part of that pull away, managing 28 points with most of his damage coming in the second half. The defending NBA champion, like Anthony (who finished the game shooting 5-8 from long range) did a goodly chunk of his damage from behind the arc, which is a bit of a worry for a Team USA squad that you'd like to see work to put together lay-ups in the face of extended zone defenses. The other worry was the sound first-half play from Congo native and current Oklahoma City, Oklahoma-resident Serge Ibaka — the naturalized citizen of Spain walked all over a smallish Team USA front line in the first half.
Of course, USA center Tyson Chandler had to play "smallish" for most of the game because of foul trouble that would eventually end his night early. The work of the referees, and I write this as someone who is going out of his way not to appear jingoistic, was awful. One would hope that this could be a clarion wake-up call for Team USA as it takes to the Olympic stage, but it's hard to imagine getting over potentially dodgy referee work like this midgame in London no matter the breadth of Team USA's international experience.
[ Photos: Team USA vs. Spain ]
No matter, because the victor's spacing was good enough to give us warm feelings as Team USA heads into London, seemingly not amused. Though the overreliance on pick and roll basketball and long-range shooting leaves a slight worry, there needn't be any consternation if the movement sustains, the decisions on offense are made this quickly, and the esprit de corps remains. This really is a team that seems to dig playing international basketball, which truly is a great leap removed from the NBA style.
Practice, a flight, an Opening Ceremony, and then off to work following the 5-0 run through the practice circuit. After taking its exhibition schedule by an average of 26.6 points per game, Team USA has done all it can feasibly do to prepare for these Olympic Games. And, in an upshot that frankly hasn't been in place since 1992 with the possible exception of the 2008 games, they're making it a fun watch along the way.
Cheers to that, and see you in London.
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