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The Final Four

As of this post, I'm in the Mile High Blogger's club, actually blogging while on the wireless network on my flight to St. Louis.  It's costing me 13 bucks, but it's pretty cool.  It'll definitely make the flight go more quickly.  Of course, I should be reading the material from my seminar or working on the assignment that's due tomorrow, but screw it.  Basketball is more fun.

The Final Four for the World Championships is all set: Serbia, Turkey, USA and Lithuania.  The US qualified by beating Russia today, 89-79, and then Lithuania upset Argentina 104-85.  Team USA meets Lithuania Saturday morning 9 AM Pacific time in their semi-final matchup.  You should double check, but with all the college football, I believe the games are on ESPN Classic.

After falling behind Russia today 35-30 midway through the second quarter, Team USA ended up having a relatively easy task disposing of the erstwhile commies.  But am I the only one who's not feeling great about the way the team is playing?  Russia's size advantage led to a huge first half rebounding edge (though it did even out by the end of the game), and that was with the Russians shooting poorly.  Look at it this way - two of Russia's starters, Sergei Monya and Anton Ponkrashov, combined to shoot 1 for 13, and my impression was that they were missing makeable shots.  Meanwhile, Team USA's offense was predictable and stagnant at times, frequently saved only by the utter brilliance of Kevin Durant.  When you don't have much in the way of offensive sets, it's certainly nice to be able to give the ball to the most amazing scorer in the world.

It just feels like Krzyzewski is playing with fire.  He started the game with Andre Iguodala defeniding Ponkrashov, the 6'7" point guard, which left Chauncey Billups defending 6'9" small forward Monya.  Now, fans of the Blazers and Kings will tell you that Sergei never developed much of a post up game - but come on!  Why the Russians seemingly ignored that matchup baffled me. 

Nor do I see the Americans doing a great job of exploiting mismatches on the other end (other than Durant, who is arguably the biggest mismatch in the tournament, no matter who is defending him).  Taking Lamar Odom.  Some of you may remember that when he came into the league he played small forward, sharing a front court for a time with Michael Olowokandi and Elton Brand.  Odom is the starting center for Team USA, and Timofey Mozgov punished him down low in this game (6 for 9 shooting).  Did Odom use his quickness to abuse Mozgov on the other end, or take him away from the basket to shoot jumpers?  Not so much - LO was an unimpressive 2 for 7, and simply looked overmatched to me.

Now, the ESPN announcers singled Lamar out for praise, and he did grab 12 rebounds, including 5 offensive boards.  And yes, Lamar did work hard and hustle and he came up with a very good game in a situation where he was physically overmatched.  But why is Team USA in a situation where anyone is physically overmatched?  Kevin Love, who's been ridiculously productive in this tournament played 3 minutes, Tyson Chandler played 7 minutes, and the three bigs combined to play 40 minutes total - in other words, Lamar played 30 of 40 minutes, and they never played together, which has been the MO for Coach K. 

Continuing with the minutes math, the other four forwards on the team (Durant 37, Iggy 13, Rudy Gay 8 and Danny Granger DNP) combined to play 58 minutes at the two forward spots.  That leaves 22 minutes, more than half the game, where Team USA was playing a three guard offense against the biggest team they've faced in the tournament.

So part of me says, good for you Coach K.  You're playing your game, not worrying about matching up to the other team, imposing your will on them.  But another part of me says "ARE YOU NUTS?"  With all of the NCAA tournament references flying at this stage of the tournament, I ask you, what teams are playing three guards during March Madness?  Is it the big conference power schools?  Or the mid-major cinderellas, like Valpo and Butler and Southern Illinois (Go Salukis!)?  Team USA is 7-0 in Istanbul so it's hard to argue with success, but it just seems like an underdog strategy to go out there and gamble in passing lanes and press full court.  Sure it's working, but you need to realize that given the level of talent for Team USA, even without the Redeemers, pretty much any strategy will work for most  of the games.  This strategy seems like high risk high reward to me, and in a single elimination tournament where anything short of the Gold medal will be viewed as a failure of sorts, I don't know why you'd take that risk.

One interesting aside about the team is that, although in camp they seemed to have way too many point guards, the reality of the tournament is that Coach K only really seems comfortable with Derrick Rose running the show.  That's understandable to some extent, since Rose is in fact the only pass first point on the roster since Rajon Rondo went home.  What's strange is that Stephen Curry, who has been easily the shakiest of the US guards and has played the fewest minutes, is Rose's primary backup.  Chauncey Billups and Russell Westbrook, who both play the one in the NBA, are playing almost exclusively shooting guard in Turkey.  Weird.

So focusing for a moment on Eric Gordon, I guess it's good for his sake that Coach K has decided to run the three guard lineups out there, because minutes would be pretty tight otherwise.  Of EJ's 14 minutes in this game, I'd guess that 12 of them came in three guard sets.  Gordon did not have his best offensive game, but he made up for it by having one of his most active floor games.  (Bear in mind also that his 2 for 6 looks suspect at first glance, but when you realize that both makes were three pointers, that's a 50% eFG, so there's no problem there.)  His 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block and 0 turnovers, while not jawdropping, would make most fantasy hoops owners (and maybe even Citizen John R) happy on a per minute basis.  I can't resist pointing out that he also had a 'hockey assist' on one of the key buckets of the game, when he deftly found Billups with a sharp cross court look, who then swung it to Durant at the top of the key after the close out.  Durant's three gave the Americans their biggest lead of the game at 79-61 two minutes into the fourth quarter.  As it happens, that three capped a 49-26 run over 17 minutes from midway through the second quarter, and essentially ended the game.

Aside from Durant, who was clearly indispensible to Team USA today, Russell Westbrook was the other hero.  In the first half, he was flying all over the court, completely out of control, gambling on defense and forcing things on offense, and the US fell behind. In the second half, he was flying all over the court, completely out of control, gambling on defense and forcing things on offense, and the US surged ahead.  Perhaps because the Russians were being worn down by the US pressure, perhaps just because, Westbrook's second half gambles paid off, resulting in two crucial steals and dunks in a 45 second span in which he scored 7 points.  Suddenly the US had a 13 point and the game was never really in doubt again.

I did not get to see the Lithuania-Argentina game, but looking at the box score, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised at the result.  Argentina was far from dominant in their first 6 games, winning several squeakers and losing a close one to Serbia.  Moreover, they had required monster performances from Luis Scola game after game in order to get those close wins.  Scola is a fine and probably underrated player, but he's not a 'carry the team night after night' player.  He's not Manu Ginobili or Dirk Nowitzki or Pau Gasol.  He was bound to have an ordinary game, and when that happened, Argentina was going to be in trouble.  That was this game.  Of course, it also didn't help that Lithuania went 12 for 24 from three while the Argentines went 4 for 21.

Hopefully I'll get a chance to write a USA-Lithuania preview at some point.  For now, bear in mind that Lithuanians jumped all over Team USA in the first quarter of their exhibition in Madrid before Team USA settled down and won the game going away.  The key to the game will likely be the way point guard Kalnietis handles the pressure.