In a way, I'm happy that I didn't get a chance to write a post after Team USA's game on Saturday. Eric Gordon's performance was just too good, and I would have blathered on and on about him. But of course, it was only one game.
He followed up Sunday with one of his worst games in a Team USA uniform. He missed his first seven shots and turned the ball over three times as well. It's worth noting that he had the confidence to keep shooting, and made two threes in the final quarter, salvaging his scoring line to some extent (2 for 9 with 6 points is a salvage job as compared to 0 for 7 with 0 points). However, because he shot so well in the first game, his averages for the tournament are still fine. He led Team USA on Saturday with 16 points (on only 8 shots!). For the two games, he's averaging 11 points, and he's a combined 8 for 17 with 6 made threes - that's still great, despite his struggles Sunday.
But here's what's interesting about it all - it didn't seem to impact his place in the rotation one bit that he was missing shots Sunday. After a scoreless first half, he still came in midway through the third quarter. The coaching staff seems to have him solidly in the first group off the bench at this point.
Prior to the tournament, in praising EJ Jerry Colangelo said that when he shoots, you're surprised when the ball doesn't go in. That's certainly what it seemed like on Saturday. He was 'on' on Saturday, just as he was 'off' on Sunday. Even his makes on Sunday didn't look as good - they sort of rattled around and went in. On Saturday the ball went and the net barely moved. It was pristine.
When we were trying to pick apart the substitution patterns during the exhibition games, we were constantly second guessing things. Maybe Coach K was giving so-and-so extra minutes to get a longer look at him, maybe he was just resting so-and-so. Well, more often than not the was no ulterior motive. When Jeff Green and JaVale McGee sat out the China game, they were off the team the next day. When Rajon Rondo missed the game against Spain, he was off the team the next day. So it turns out that by and large, the patterns have been the patterns, and there's no need to second guess.
And one of the things that's interesting now that games have started is that invariably Russell Westbrook and Gordon enter the game together, one at the shooting guard and the other at the small forward. Now, it's difficult to say which one is which. When they're in the 2-3 zone, it's Gordon up top and Westbrook down low (no doubt owing by Westbroook's better rebounding). When they're in the man-to-man, Gordon usually has the bigger player, but even that appears to be specific to the opponent. The bottom line is that Coach K's tendency to play small in exhibitions appears to be here for the entire tournament - Croatia is one of the bigger teams they'll see, and yet they played the three guard unit quite a bit. Westbrook, who appeared last week a likely cut and who I insisted was the logical final cut, has been nothing short of magnificent, by the way.
Team USA has been impressive in their first two wins, against two teams that are not bad, that will undoubtedly advance to the round of 16. Meanwhile, Spain has a loss, Argentina has struggled twice, and Greece has struggled twice (though in the case of Greece, they're probably happy to be back at full strength after the suspensions without a loss). After two games, you'd have to call the US the heavy favorite based on the results so far. Then again, Spain looked terrible in the first round of last year's EuroBasket and then destroyed all comers when things got serious. They seem to have a team personality that allows them to turn it on when the games really count.
Monday's Team USA opponent, Brazil, is also 2-0 so far in Group Play. Of course, Brazil's two wins were against Iran and Tunisia while the US beat Croatia and Slovenia. There's a slight difference there. If Team USA's overall lack of size is ever going to be a problem, it will be against Brazil. We'll see. Will Coach K have to actually put two bigs on the court at the same time?
Speaking of bigs, it looks like Kevin Love is edging ahead of Tyson Chandler on the depth chart, and why not? The guy continues to get every rebound, and he's even scoring. His one-handed rebound and putback - not a tip, but a rebound, gather, and go back up, all while the Slovene had his left arm locked up - was one of the most amazing plays I've ever seen. Love needs to be the first big off the bench when the games get close, or rather if the games get close.
Last thought for now - Fran Fraschilla is doing a disservice by talking about the FIBA officials not being used to Team USA's quickness as a means of explaining traveling violations. For one thing, it's not true. Those travels in the second quarter against Billups and Iguodala? They were good calls. That's a travel in FIBA, and it's actually a travel in the rule book as written. It doesn't happen to be a travel as it is called in the NBA, but we're not in the NBA. This is not on the refs - this is on the players. If they catch the ball on the run, they have to put it down sooner they they're used to; it's just that simple. The idea that they're somehow 'too quick' doesn't even make sense. I mean, why would the refs tend to call more against them if that were the case? Like Dash putting a thumbtack on his teacher's chair, wouldn't they get away with more if they were so super-humanly quick? And why should this quickness only apply to their feet taking steps, and not to their ability to start their dribble? If they're so quick, they should start their dribble that much quicker, right? Bottom line is, if they can adjust to that particular rule, they can eliminate about five turnovers a game. And that may be crucial in a game next week some time.