Team USA not guaranteed gold in London
Consider it another timely clinic presented to the basketball planet by the men's edition of Team USA.
Well, sure, a measly 80-69 victory on Monday over a pretty good Brazil squad still seems a bit sobering, but the Americans provided a couple of important lessons in their second, pre-Olympic friendly.
Lesson No. 1: Lack of ball and player movement -- abetted in its dastardly nature by the lure of that international 3-point line -- can be a great equalizer for the rest of the world.
Lesson No. 2: Extending defensive pressure makes it difficult for robust opponents to exploit their size advantage over Team USA inside and creates turnovers that generate scoring opportunities while making Lesson No. 1 less painful.
For the record, the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. offered an interesting stage during an important dress rehearsal for Coach Mike Krzyzewski's defending gold-medal winners. It also provided a swell TV opportunity for first fan President Obama, who -- like Team USA -- is seeking his second huge triumph in the last four years.
We even have a presidential scouting report, rendered with the Americans holding a 37-32 edge at intermission.
"There's no reason," the President declared, "we shouldn't bring home the gold."
Actually, there's no good reason.
But the practice skirmish with Brazil did suggest the presence of a couple of bad reasons. As mentioned earlier, Coach K's team of perimeter superstars is smart enough to know that standing around and watching teammates either squeeze off 3s or go And 1 Tour with the dribble is a recipe for international disaster.
LeBron (30 points against Brazil), for gosh sakes, led the Miami Heat to the O'Brien Trophy by embracing the rewards of attacking the basket to supply easier points, free throws, opponent fouls and wide-open looks for the likes of Mike Miller.
Although Jerry Colangelo and Coach K do some serious big-thinking while putting together what certainly seems like a terrific roster, the best American NBA players usually aren't great at shooting from distance. What works in the NBA is the ability to take an opponent off the dribble and either hurl the ball through the rim or punish the collapsing defense by throwing the ball to less-celebrated teammates who can really shoot with nobody guarding 'em.
Team USA does have a couple of guys named Kevin who are wonderful deep shooters, but every perimeter player on this roster is in the habit of pounding the ball to create a shot. Put several of these guys on the floor at once, and the odds of witnessing stagnant offense go through the roof.
With this on full display against Brazil, Team USA exited the opening quarter trailing 27-17.
It also should be noted the Brazilians do have four current NBA employees and two others with time spent in the world's greatest professional league. Three of those four are really large fellows -- Nene of the Washington Wizards, Andy Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Tiago Splitter of the San Antonio Spurs -- who probably weren't unhappy that most of the really large American post players are either recovering from injury (Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin), old (Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett) or Andrew Bynum.
Brazil also has a painfully crafty point guard named Marcelinho Huertas, who is so Steve Nash-like in his craftiness that ESPN broadcast analyst Fran "Mr. International" Fraschilla became dangerously close to passing out. Just kidding. Probably.
Anyway, with Huertas (12 dimes on the night) spending much of the second quarter on Brazil's bench and Coach K taking this opportunity to tighten the defensive noose, Team USA won the second quarter 20-5. By switching every ball screen and off-ball screen (a blessing created by having several similarly-sized players on the floor at the same time), forcing ballhandlers away from the middle of the floor, sending second defenders to trap and rotating in advance, the Americans forced 12 turnovers in the period.
With more open-court opportunities, Team USA was able to pile up some paint points in transition. But the tempo-goosing properties of pressure defense also encouraged more ball and player movement in dead-ball situations. And the 3s that were taken did arrive via an inside-out action.
We also should point out that Brazil coach Ruben Magnano -- who has vexed American basketball while coaching the national team of Argentina -- kept his zone defense tucked away for all but one possession (well, that I noticed). He may have wanted to test it a bit more during the second quarter, but his team's turnover party made it difficult to force the Americans to run half-court offense.
The second half was a fairly mind-numbing exercise in not showing too many tactics during a game that means nothing.
Team USA never reached a blowout-level cushion, but -- even with Huertas on the floor -- the lead could have gotten there had Krzyzewski pushed the defensive-pressure button.
It'll be interesting to see how frequently he ratchets up the pressure, trap, rotate, repeat strategy during the games in London. Perhaps he'll pick his spots, possibly assuming the world's more elite guards will figure out ways to beat pressure if given more opportunities to see it.
I think that might be a mistake.
Those paying close attention to the gold-medal run in '08 probably noticed that almost every wide American advantage was created during flurries launched by extended defensive pressure. And that's what separates Team USA from the rest of the basketball world. American basketball is defined by quick, skilled and smart players who can cause discomfort in ballhandlers, read where the escape pass is going and be there when or before it arrives.
When the pressure is turned up, it won't be any secret to the players and coaches who must deal with it. With fewer rim protectors on Team USA this summer, it probably wouldn't hurt to sustain tempo with defense; even it this means giving up a cheap bucket or two.
But very few coaches will embrace the notice of victory by attrition. Using superior speed, quickness and depth to wear down the opposition often is considered something less than playing basketball the cerebral or "right way."
From an American perspective, the international game, however, is begging (on American terms) for a game that's fast and relatively nutty. FIBA officiating is historically loose, magnifying Team USA's challenge in defending the paint in a grind-out game against the likes of Spain and the Gasol brothers, or underscoring American potential to beat up opposing guards in a full-court battle.
By the way, my faith in taking full advantage of an American speed/depth advantage doesn't mean Coach K such deploy a reckless, full-court press. There are times when that will work, but trapping out of the half-court man defense would leave less area to rotate and cover, while giving the opposition a smaller operating space.
The team's versatility should be its greatest strength as the Games roll on.
Fortunately for fans of Team USA, versatility also is an asset we attach to its head coach and his staff.