Longtime readers of my blog are no doubt confused by the fact that I've remained (relatively) quiet on the subject of Team USA and the Olympic basketball tournament so far. There are a few reasons: I was in Costa Rica for the start of the games, Citizen Mikey P has been doing a solid (if maybe a tad jingoistic for my tastes) job covering the subject. Probably the biggest factor is that the team has been pretty successful. Let's not mince words - I've been a critic of the team in the past, and it's usually easier to criticize what's WRONG than it is to praise what's RIGHT.
But with the Spain-USA gold medal game all that remains, it's time to end the silence.
Today's semi-final win against Argentina will hopefully put an end to any invincible talk. Let's face facts - the US built a 21 point first quarter lead, and ended up losing the rest of the game to a team playing without it's best player.
There is a formula for beating this team, and everyone knows it.
- Take care of the ball.
- Play a zone and turn the US into a jump shooting team.
Of course, both of these things, and particularly number 1, and easier said than done. (Chris Sheridan provides more detail on the game plan for beating Team USA at ESPN.com.)
Spain turned the ball over 28 times in the first meeting. They also played almost exclusively man-to-man against the US. But don't count on a repeat of either of those.
Pool play matters little, and I think Spain understands that better than the US. I'm not saying that they turned the ball over on purpose in that game, but I am saying they will use a different game plan in the gold medal game, and their intensity level will be entirely different. As it happens, the first meeting between these two teams could not have gone worse for the Spaniards. 28 turnovers, and the US made 12 of 25 three point attempts. If either of those stats are anywhere close to the same, the US will win the game easily.
If on the other hand we see the US go 10 for 31 from three as they did against the Argentines (including 2 for 8 from Melo and 2 for 9 from Kobe) then it could be a very different story. This may also be where Coach K's short rotation comes back to haunt him. Zone buster Michael Redd has played sparingly, and is 5 for 17 from beyond the arc in the tournament - only 2 for 10 since making 3 against China in the first game.
As for forcing turnovers, I love the pressure defense the US team has applied throughout this tournament. But it's worth noting that the objective was the same at the 2006 World Championships, and when it worked (forcing Slovenia into 25 turnovers, China 23, Germany 24) the US tended to win easily. But they barely squeaked by against Italy and Puerto Rico in pool play when the were only able to force those teams into 15 turnovers, and in the fateful loss to Greece they forced only 11. When I compare the 2006 roster to the 2008 roster, I don't really see any major reasons that this team should be significantly better defensively. Then again, I've never been a big believer in Kobe as stopper.
If forced turnovers are indeed the divining rod of the Redeem Team, the trend is not good. After averaging almost 23 per contest in pool play, they forced only 11 against Australia and 16 against Argentina in the quarters and semis. Of course, they still won both of those games, but I do think it's safe to say that Spain has more talent than Australia, and I'll mention again that Ginobili played only 6 minutes today.
The health of Jose Calderon may play a huge part in this game. If Calderon is able to play, he's Spain's best option for protecting the ball. As promising as Ricky Rubio is, handling withering defensive pressure with a Gold medal on the line at the age of 17 is a tall order.
Let's be clear. The US should win this game. If I were betting, I'd pick the US. If these two teams played 10 times, the US might well win 8 or 9 of them. But having said that, that still leaves that 1 or 2 in 10 where Spain prevails. Lots of things have to go right for Spain. Beyond protecting the ball, they also need to make shots, and they need their big players to play big. Pau Gasol has to be the best big man on the floor, and by a wide margin. Rudy Fernandez has to showcase the skills that made him the best player in Europe last season. And Calderon (or if not Calderon then Rubio or Raul Lopez) needs to play exceptionally well at that point. And even if they do all these things, they still need the US to settle for jump shots, and then miss those.
It could happen. The team has not faced a lot of adversity, and when they saw some against Argentina today, they did not handle it as well as Coach K probably would have liked. Ask yourself this question: what does this team do if the first and second quarters are reversed? What happens if they fall behind by 15, as opposed to allowing a 21 point lead to fall to 6? It's a straw man of course: they didn't trail by 15, and losing a lead is not the same thing as falling behind. But if Spain comes out inspired in the first quarter, and the US comes out flat, it will be interesting to see how the team reacts. It's uncharted waters, and there's reason to suspect that it could be perilous. Both Carmelo and Kobe got testy in today's game. Not to mention that it's a team of superstars, where multiple players have (supposedly) had to keep their egos in check. In a close game, will Kobe be content to be the defensive stopper and let the offense go through LeBron? We may have gotten a partial answer in the closest game they've played so far - Kobe 14 shots against Argentina, LeBron 11.
Overall, I remain unconvinced in the make up of this team. Yes, they are better than the other teams and are well on their way to a Gold medal. But by they have exploitable weaknesses, and there's really no reason that they should. If Dwight Howard gets into foul trouble, they become disturbing small. Thankfully Chris Bosh has played terrific, but Boozer has remained on the bench for the most part so it's hard to know how he would respond if called on. And despite the inclusion of Redd on the roster (not to mention Mike Miller in Las Vegas), Coach K has mostly eschewed pure shooters in this tournament. The irony of course is that a USA Basketball program that was in disarray after missing out on the Gold medal in the last three major competitions, supposedly because of an over reliance on athleticism, a glut of wing players, and an absence of roll players, is on the verge of an impressive sweep in Beijing with a team made up almost exclusively of athletic wings.
So I guess it helps to just have the most talent.