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Team USA is no lock to win FIBA title
Team USA’s going undefeated in the preliminary competition of the World Championship tournament comes as no surprise. Actually, the most unexpected development thus far is the two losses already suffered by Spain, the highest-rated of the 24 squads that qualified for this year’s international hoop-dee-doo in Turkey.
This turn of events has led most observers to establish the Americans as the favorites to cop the gold.
However, Team USA’s five victories in Group B have demonstrated both the excellence and the inadequacies of the squad, making their fate in the knockout round extremely uncertain.
Here’s what the Americans have done well:
Run circles around slower teams.
Bedevil handle-challenged teams with quick-handed perimeter pressure that generates steals and breakaways.
Play terrific wing-deny defense.
Ambush passing lanes.
Prevent skip passes.
Stifle opponents’ low-post play.
Dominate their defensive glasswork.
Finish at the rim against virtually everybody.
Play one-on-one half-court offense.
Establish Chauncey Billups and Kevin Durant as particularly effective go-to scorers.
Prove to be loaded with good, but not great, perimeter shooters.
Demonstrate that they are by far the quickest, fastest, most athletic team in the tournament.
Wear out the competition with their unparalleled depth.
On the other hand, here are the revealed aspects of Team USA’s game plan that need drastic improvement:
The baseline rotations on screen/rolls defense. Even the S/R offense of a decidedly inferior team like Iran created too many open shots — 17 by unofficial count. While Iran, Croatia, and Slovenia converted a relatively low percentage of these uncontested shots, the better teams will routinely knock them down.
The top-notch opponents will also attack this flawed S/R defense with more quickness and precision than the Americans have experienced in group play, and will therefore generate an abundance of in-the-lane shots.
If the perimeter on-ball pressure fails to produce turnovers, then even the most lead-footed guards can bring the ball deep into the paint. Not to mention the damage done by Brazil’s quicker guards and wings.
The significance of the nail-biting win over Brazil was seriously diminished when Leandro Barbosa and his teammates were later beaten by Slovenia.
The interior defense of Lamar Odom, Tyson Chandler, and Kevin Love has yet to be fully tested by top-of-the line post-up scorers like Luis Scola and Marc Gasol.
The absence of a coordinated half-court offense has limited ball- and player-movement. The Brazilians were able to load up their defense and force the Americans into an abundance of turnovers when they resorted to one-on-one play.
The anti-zone offense has been dangerously inconsistent.
There have been too many unforced turnovers — even against Iran.
Intensity has been a sometimes thing.
Shot selection has been uneven. The motto of too many Americans has been “When in doubt, air it out.”
The young Americans are playing young.
Still, besides their awesome upside, Team USA also has several other reasons why they are likely to win the last game of the tournament. Just consider the respective absences of Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Tony Parker, Andrew Bogut, Sean Marks, Jose Calderon, Pau Gasol, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Chris Kaman, Andrei Kirilenko, Nene, Steve Nash, Rasho Nesterovic, Mehmet Okur, Mickael Pietrus, Darius Songalia, Beno Udrih, Sasha Vujacic, and Rodrigue Beaubois.
In other words, if Team USA is deemed to be the NBA’s B (or even C) team, then most of the other countries still in the mix are similarly short-handed.
So, a win by the Americans (which is probable) would be cause for a minor celebration. But a loss (which is entirely possible) would be a major embarrassment.