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Final Thoughts on Team USA

Watching USA-Spain in the Gold Medal game, several things struck me. 

  1. All the talk of the 37 point win was significantly out of touch.  Blow outs happen.  The Celtics destroyed the Lakers in the last game of the NBA Finals.  It doesn't mean that the Lakers couldn't play them close or beat them on a different day.  If you actually watched that first USA-Spain game, I just don't understand how you could be surprised at a close re-match, especially if Spain did a better job of taking care of the ball, which they did. 
  2. Before the game I said that two things had to happen in order for Spain to have a chance.  They had to take care of the ball (they did committing only 14 turnovers compared to 28 in the first meeting); and the US had to take (and miss) a lot of threes.  Although they cooled off in the second half, a 7-10 first half and 13-28 (46.4%) overall was enough to thwart Spain's upset hopes. 
  3. I mentioned it in a comment, but it was once again apparent in this game – the international referees have adjusted to NBA players, rather than vice versa.  In years past, it was hard not to see a bias against the US, but in the Final, the whistle blew a lot against both teams, with the most questionable calls going against Spain. 
  4. And this is the big one.  I think we can safely state that the best teams in the world have caught up, and are now able to play with the US.  No excuses, no 'the refs helped them', no 'the international game is different', no 'the US team didn't play hard' or 'the US team didn't play well.'  Here we had a superbly talented US team, playing their asses off, shooting the lights out – and it was a 4 point game with 2 minutes to go. 

The US will always field a great team in international competitions, assuming USA basketball and the players continue to take it seriously.  Other teams will rise and fall with specific players or groups of players.  Already Argentina is on the decline – Ginobili, Scola and Oberto have formed the core of the team since 1998, and I haven't seen a group of younger players that seem ready to fill their shoes.  It's not like 19 year old Argentines are getting NBA draft buzz year after year.  On the other hand, one wonders how good Spain will be in four years when Ricky Rubio is 21, Rudy Fernandez is 27 and Marc Gasol is 27 (and Pau will only be 33).  Or maybe Italy – with rookies chosen 1, 20 and 6 in the last three drafts - will be the next international team to catch lightning in a bottle.  And of course China will eventually develop some guards (the Lakers are trying their best to help) and then watch out. 

The depth of talent in the US ensures a great team every year, while other teams will come and go.  But there will always be one or two teams capable of pushing the Team USA, no matter how good they are.  It's basketball – there are only five guys on the floor, and one player can have a massively disproportional impact (as evidenced by Germany's disproportionate success over the years with essentially one top player). It's safe to say that those Nowitzki-type players are out there and will keep showing up, in ever greater numbers, and that some of them will have other talent around a superstar.  So it's rarely if ever going to be easy.

Despite the win, I still can't resist ranting on a couple of subjects, or re-ranting I guess.

One of the most telling plays of the game came early in the second quarter.  With less than a minute gone, a long rebound of a missed Rubio three bounced out to Kobe Bryant, who had leaked out behind the defense.  As he went in uncontested for the crowd-pleasing jam, the Spanish bench erupted.  Here's the thing:  Mike Breen and Doug Collins had no idea what the Spanish bench was complaining about.  They saw them arguing, saw the ref tell them to settle down, and wondered if there'd been a push on the other end or something.  But there's so used to NBA style basketball, they couldn't even see what the Spaniards saw.  Clearly, by the rules in the rulebook and by the way the game is played in Europe, Kobe travelled, taking fully two steps after getting the rebound but before putting the ball on the floor.  This is the kind of incidental, sloppy, no-advantage-gained travel that is NEVER called in the NBA.  But it's fairly obvious from the simultaneous reaction of a dozen Spanish players and coaches that it is called where they come from, and we can all remember it being called in prior international competitions.  An almost identical play involving LeBron in Athens left him embarrassingly committing a turnover on a breakaway - something of a momentum killer.

Those calls didn't happen in Beijing.  Not just on this one Kobe play.  Frequently.  (BallinEurope chimes in on this subject as well.)  Is it a coincidence?  No way.  FIBA clearly made a conscious decision, like the NBA did years ago, to trade off some sloppy footwork for more windmill dunks.  And the Beijing crowds certainly appreciated the decision.  So there you have it.  One of the long time problems for Team USA was that they would have to adjust to international rules and international refs.  But now it seems that particular problem is solved - or rather, it has simply gone away.

Adjusting to the way the refs call traveling?  Not an issue.  The shorter three point line and the trapezoid lane?  Oh, those won't be a problem anymore either, since FIBA is adopting near-NBA court dimensions by 2012.  Ultimately, it's clearly good for the game to have everyone playing with more similar rules across the world.  But it's pretty clear that the power of the NBA had a major impact on these decisions.

Finally, it will be interesting to see what happens in 2010 in Turkey.  When Jerry Colangelo took over USA Basketball in 2006, his three year plan was to get a long term time commitment from players, to hold real try outs, and to put role players on the team.  A Gold medal in Beijing would seem to vindicate his leadership, but the truth of the matter is that his supposedly new approach mattered little - given that he more or less ignored his stated goals.  Improved point guard play (Jason Kidd is STILL undefeated in international competition and Chris Paul is a very different player in 2008 than he was in 2006) and the presence of one Kobe Bryant were the reasons this team finished on top, and none of that other Colangelo stuff. 

Look, I'm not a big fan of Kobe, but the guy can play.  When Spain cut the lead to 2 on a Rudy Fernandez three with 8 minutes remaining, Kobe scored or assisted on the next 10 Team USA points.  None of them came from anything resembling an offensive set.  It was just Kobe creating shots, which he can do better than any player in the world.  And of course there was the four point play a few minutes later.  It was a bad shot - a three with a player close enough to foul you is always a bad shot - but it went in. 

But I keep coming back to the fact that, even though the US played well, even though Kobe was there and carried the team in the fourth, even though they had great pass first point guards to lead the team, Spain could still have won this game.  Ask yourself a couple of questions

  1. What happens if Team USA's second most important player misses this game, instead of Spain's (Jose Calderon)?
  2. What happens if Wade misses his three with 2:08 left, and Jimenez makes his wide open three instead and it's a tie game with 97 seconds left?

That's how close it was people.  Get used to it.