August 10, 2008
For those that are rooting for Team USA's first gold medal since 2000, this was about as good a start as you could hope for.
There were definite spots for improvement, but by and large Team USA played a terrific all-around game against a very good Chinese team that keeps getting better and better in every international tournament we see them in. With solid defense as its anchor and crisp passing getting the job done on the other end, Team USA pulled away late in the first half and initiated the blowout early in the second, finishing with a 101-70 win.
The passing was very impressive, because it wasn't your usual All-Star fare. These were tight, efficient, pointed spirals; and very rarely did Team USA fall victim to the sort of overpassing that hurt them last week against Australia, and made life uneasy for its coaches since the implementation of NBA pros into the Olympic system.
This is important, because even against individual defenders that seem a step-slow, Team USA only has a few chances per possession to penetrate that D, because the squad's half court offense has been so dodgy for so long. All it takes is one case of one All-Star passing up a good shot to defer to another All-Star -- something that happens a lot more than you'd anticipate -- and the possession has lost its momentum, usually resulting in a long three-pointer as the shot clock ticks away.
Not this time. Team USA got the ball got to the front of that rim, leaking out in transition when it could, but mainly keeping the Chinese team on its heels with fast (seriously, there was some velocity happenin' in Beijing today) passes that initiated the dunk-fest.
There were weaknesses. Coach Mike Krzyzewski's squad is likely wary of all the back-screening they've had to endure over the last, oh, eight years, and an aggressive Chinese squad took advantage by hitting seven of its first 11 three-point attempts. But things cooled off (China was 3-16 after that), as you'd anticipate, and the rout was on.
Team USA's own three-point touch was off all game, and this sounds like pointless over-analysis, but you have to wonder if the smaller line sort of throws off their shooting rhythm. These tall wing players have to think, "line-drive jumper, like I'm shooting off a hard-dribble, or do I put some arc on this chip shot?" every time they get a look. It's something to think about the next time you see Kobe Bryant pull up for the 25-footer when he could easily take another dribble and shoot an open 20-foot three-pointer.
Coach K's team also had its rebounding edge disappear for a bit in the third quarter, and you really get the feeling this outfit could take an early lead for once if Coach K would just face facts and run the ball through Chris Paul (driving) or Deron Williams (the screenin' and the rollin') as a starter instead of sticking with Jason Kidd, but this is quibbling with a 31-point loss.
That said, the quibbles are legitimate. Chris Bosh had a heck of a game (nine points and a team-leading eight boards in limited minutes), but he's never been anything more than a pretty solid rebounder (if that; he was 27th in rebound rate last season among power forwards), and it's hard to ask him to try and man the boards while imploring him to guard the front of the rim, pay attention to international big men that can shoot, and make up for the fact that he's sharing a front court with two other small forwards. This team needs another big guy besides Bosh and Dwight Howard.
And for a team that struggles in the half-court and is perpetually rusty at the start of the 1st and 2nd halves, starting the rustiest player on your team at point guard makes little sense.
Other than that? Team USA was dominant.
Dwyane Wade didn't miss a shot in seven tries, and finished with 19 points. LeBron James had some jaw-dropping showcases of athleticism (get the block, turn on his heel with no dribble, and fire an 80-foot outlet pass for the assist? And you're still sticking with Kobe?), and finished with 18 points, six rebounds, four assists, and three blocks.
Paul had six assists in limited action. And though Kobe didn't shoot well (6-14, 1-7 from behind the arc) and had only two assists, he was making a difference as a playmaker and penetrator. The shots just weren't falling today. Carmelo Anthony stunk, but he'll come around.
It was a solid start. The actual outcome of the game was about what you'd expect after taking things in on paper, in spite of a Chinese team that continues to impress (and could medal). But it has to be a first step, and not something to assume will happen every time out.