August 05, 2008
This post was originally a lot longer, but I've decided to lay off the knee-jerk reactions following one game featuring a favored-but-hastily-arranged basketball team until later. Like, say, after Sunday's opening round Olympic matchup with China.
The personnel is better, and you can tell that coach Mike Krzyzewski actually deigned to look at scouting reports this time around (unlike the embarrassment that was the 2006 World Championships), but Team USA is still suffering from the same issues that plagued the outfit during losses in 2002, 2004, and 2006. In the order of your choosing, they remain:
1. Poor half-court execution.
1. Poor help-side defense.
1. The overall shoddiness you'd expect from what amounts to a traveling team, despite their best efforts.
This team (and I'm looking at you, Carmelo) just turns its head too much. These guys aren't used to watching for back-picks and defending cuts to the front of the hoop. Back-door screens still kill Team USA, and though the men still have the athleticism to recover and sometimes make up for it, Coach K's crew is still getting beat way too much by teams using Team USA's pressure against itself.
That pressure seems to be a rallying point, both for Coach K, and legions of observers who still think the US can pressure non-stop and bully toward the gold medal. The team racks up oodles of steals, but once those turnovers dry up, this is still a limited defensive outfit.
And it's a limited, three-point happy, offensive outfit in the half court. The team continues to make decisions that were depressing not as an American watching his country being represented overseas, but as a basketball fan in general. A long fadeaway jumper is the easiest shot in the world (and we mean that, "in the world," at this stage) to get, and there's a reason why you're usually open when you take it. Because guys like Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James can make one out of every three, though, they think the next one is going in. And that kills an offense.
But that's enough of the dour take. Team USA still kept the Aussies at bay for most of the contest, even when it was a two or three-possession difference, and it still can rout the rest of the world even playing like the Denver Nuggets (going for steals, running, scoring with either dunks or bombs).
The Australian team played a tremendous game, a few pointless fouls put them behind the eight ball every so often, but it was a spirited run without all-purpose big man Andrew Bogut in the middle. Chris Anstey worked a solid offensive game, while the US had no answer for waterbug guard Patrick Mills at times.
During the BDL Live Blog, one reader warned us against hyping Mills up too much, noting that Carlos Arroyo also had his way with the Team USA defense during the 2004 Olympics. Fair point, but Mills is going to turn 20 next week, and Arroyo was a 25 year-old pro in 2004. And Mills did his damage against Chris Paul at times, a far better perimeter defender than anything the 2004 team had to offer.
On the other side of the ball, Team USA seemed to be at its best in the half-court when Dwyane Wade was working the isolation game on the left elbow-extended. If Coach K can field the right group to provide the right spacing (hint: no 35 year-old point guards), then this could be a very viable option even in an international game that seems to swallow up one-on-one play. USA's options are that good.
This is still the overwhelming favorite, but the first few games have eerily reminded of 2006, and I was hoping for a little better at this point. The team has a few days of practice and an actual medal round to erase all doubt, though, and you'd be a fool not to expect that things can change for the better.