Why Team USA Almost Lost….
Defense: Going into these Olympic games, there were a few basic concerns for Team USA on the defensive end. How would an undersized US team defend the post with only one and a half centers (Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh) and how would they effectively defend the perimeter against hot shooting European or Latin American teams? In the gold medal game against Spain, Team USA’s defense was horrific. While it seemed this team had gotten progressively better defensively throughout the Olympics, Team USA allowed Spain to shoot over 60% from the floor in the first half. Marc Gasol was having his way on the inside. Spain repeatedly ran alley-oop, pick and rolls which the U.S. was unable to stop. Juan Carlos Navarro scored at will with running jump shots, breaking down whoever was covering him. And future NBAer Rudy Fernandez, 7-13 from the floor, looked like he could have started for the Americans. In the final game, rather than rely on their defense, which to date had been their staple, Team USA counted on their offense to bail them out.
Kobe Bryant: Kobe Bryant, arguably the greatest player in the league, was saddled with foul trouble, picking up two fouls in the first quarter against Spain. In the second half with the game on the line, Kobe, rather than driving the lane, more often than not relied on his perimeter jump shot. While Kobe’s box score might not necessarily reflect a poorly played game, there were several times late in the game when Kobe settled for ill-advised jump shots. Long ones. While he ultimately proved to be the hero by hitting key baskets late, those could easily have gone the other way.
Size/Rebounding: Late in the game, Coach K opted to play Chris Bosh over a relatively ineffective Dwight Howard. Late in the second half, Marc Gasol shoved the considerably lighter Bosh to the ground like a rag doll without a foul being called. Team Spain easily out-rebounded the Americans 37-31 and was much more effective on the interior. Going in to the games, the U.S. knew size would be a problem. Dwight Howard, who looked like the second coming of Patrick Ewing in this year’s playoffs, was held scoreless in the first half against Spain.
Jump Shooting: As noted earlier, Kobe Bryant often took some ill-advised jump shots. LeBron James did as well. Despite a shorter three-point line, Team USA was relatively ineffective from the perimeter in the Olympic Games. When the US drove to the basket, a la Dwyane Wade in the gold medal game, then kicked it out, they shot a much higher percentage. Team USA had 28 three-point attempts in the final game. Had they made any fewer than 13 of those, Spain would have been breathing down their necks more than they already were. The three-pointers were much more effective off dribble penetration, not off isolation play.
Isolation: Team USA relied upon their athleticism to best their opponent. While the Spaniards ran a more motion-oriented offense, setting pick and rolls, resulting in easy baskets, the Americans would go possession after possession after possession without even setting a screen. Their final game was in many ways emblematic of what’s wrong with the NBA. Too many isolation, take-your-man-off-the-dribble plays, too little passing and too few pick and rolls. The Americans’ one-on-one game nearly cost them the gold.
Spain: Team Spain was good. Very good. And although Bill Walton pointed out that of the seven NBA players on Team Spain would not have made the US roster, Team Spain was still loaded with talent. They played as good as could be expected, almost good enough to beat Team USA. Rudy Fernandez will add a nice element to an up-and-coming Portland Trailblazer team and 17-year old Ricky Rubio will eventually be an welcome addition to whatever NBA team drafts him when he becomes eligible. Team Spain’s coaching staff had a great game plan against the Americans. With Jose Calderon out to do injury, their backups repeatedly broke down Team USA’s perimeter defense. They narrowed the American lead to only two points in the fourth quarter.
Why Team USA won…..
Dwyane Wade: One blogger (mistakenly) listed Wade as one of the top five most overrated players in the league. This is the same Dwyane Wade who only years ago won Finals MVP in leading the Miami Heat to a title. Coming off the bench, Wade kept Team USA in the lead when Bryant and James were on the bench in foul trouble. Wade drove the lane allowing that to set up his perimeter game. He is arguably the third best player on this team. While Bryant received much of the glory with his late-game performance, it was Wade who led the team in scoring with twenty-seven points. When it mattered most, Wade kept the Americans in the game, scoring on his first seven attempts. Saddled with injuries for much of the 2007-8 season, Wade proved he’s back to form and one of the toughest covers in the league. Miami will gladly welcome him back this year as he proved he’s one of the best players in the game.
Coaching: While Coach K and staff may not have been overly effective in encouraging his players to run the pick-and-roll, they did preach team unity. Coach K openly ranked the honor of coaching USA basketball over his three national titles with Duke. As Wade pointed out, the coaching staff reminded them that the name on the back of the jersey was not as important as the three letters on the front. He convinced Team USA to put their egos aside, not an easy thing to do among NBA athletes. His rotations and substitutions were consistently appropriate. While Chuck Daly led the original Dream Team to a gold medal without ever calling a timeout, in 2008, international talent has clearly caught up to the modern American game. Coach K was unquestionably the right man for the job.
Unity: Seeing Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo, Wade and Dwight Howard giggle gleefully after the victory told fans everything they needed to know about the makeup of this team. They put aside NBA team rivalries, understanding that they were on the court as one nation, eager to prove that the NBA’s brand of basketball was the best on the planet. Seeing them all step up to the gold medal podium, arms intertwined, is a credit to both them and the coaching staff. They kept their eyes on the prize and represented their country with class, pride and dignity.
Composure: Team USA knew Spain (and Argentina) would stoop at nothing to get inside their heads. Spain was extremely physical. Marc Gasol was a terror on the interior. The game got chirpy to say the least. While Spain did their best to disrupt the American’s game plan, Team USA maintained their composure and it paid off in gold.
Depth: In what world would Dwyane Wade and Deron Williams come off the bench? Not even on the interplanetary team would Chris Paul not start at point guard. While international teams went to their bench to inferior talent, Team USA simply reloaded. It showed when Wade came in and scored at will while James and Bryant were forced to sit against Spain. When Carlos Boozer and Michael Redd get limited minutes, rest assured that was a deep team.
Kobe Bryant: While Kobe may have settled for ill-advised jump shots late in the game, he ultimately showed why he is the fiercest competitor in the NBA. Kobe’s late game heroics were largely responsible for US gold. Throughout the games, Kobe defended the opposing teams most skilled guard. His four-point play against Spain simultaneously fouled out Rudy Fernandez while sealing the gold medal. He scored 20 points and added six assists in the final game.
Determination: Dubbed the ‘Redeem Team,’ these twelve Americans were not going to be denied. They wanted to put USA basketball back on the map as the best in the world. After a loss to Spain, the NBA would have lost a great bit of luster. Team USA would not let that happen. So Kudos to all those who committed to USA Basketball for the past several years for reminding all us basketball jones that we proudly boast the best players on the planet.