Improved shooting, Spanish NBA star puts U.S. in position for win
Posted: Wednesday August 25, 2004 12:35PM; Updated: Wednesday August 25, 2004 5:00PM
After a little more than a week of Olympic competition, the U.S. men's basketball team now -- amazingly -- appears to be the underdog heading into Thursday's matchup with Spain. Pau Gasol, Spain's best talent, is also an NBA player, and may be an all-star for years to come. Spain plays, according to U.S. coach Larry Brown, an "NBA style" with terrific athletes at every position. It has shot 18 more free throws than the U.S. and made 23 more. It has two defenders, Jose Manuel Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa, who are among the Olympic leaders in steals. Spain's defenders (including the 7-foot-0 Gasol) are also tall enough to put a human cage around Tim Duncan, who can't get a break from the officials no matter what he does. And to say that Spain shoots 3-pointers more accurately than the U.S. is a given -- so does your neighborhood YMCA team.
Still, I think it was a break for the U.S. to slip to fourth in Group B and draw the top team in Group A for Thursday afternoon's first-round medal game. Maybe I'm suffering from the effects of the blazing Athenian sun -- nobody told me we were coming to a desert -- but I think the U.S. will beat Spain and remain in the medal hunt for the following reasons:
Gasol gives the U.S. a reference point. The U.S. is at its worst when it plays against a bunch of guys it doesn't know and doesn't respect. And though no one would say it publicly, the U.S. players consider Gasol undeniably talented but a little soft; in Gasol, they see a guy they can go at.
Spain is due for a fall. They are the only team that breezed through the pool round -- Lithuania was also 5-0 but faced tougher games -- and they're not that good.
The U.S. has officially reached the point where it is expected to lose, and no humans play the nobody-gives-us-respect card better than NBAers. I can almost hear the Greek chorus if the U.S. wins the gold: "Nobody gave us a chance. You guys said we stunk. We always thought we could do it."
The U.S. began to turn around its egregious 3-point shooting during the 94-90 loss to Lithuania last Saturday. Going into the game, the U.S. had made just 10-of-62 shots from the 3-point arc; if you removed Allen Iverson from the equation, they were just 3-of-40. That's my favorite stat from all of the Olympics: 40 attempts, three makes. Against Lithuania, however, the U.S. made 8-of-23 three-pointers and followed that up with 3-of-6 against Angola. Richard Jefferson, who wouldn't have been given more space had he been diagnosed with leprosy, has at last found some semblance of a touch from the outside, and is now 4-of-17 from the arc, a poor percentage, but not a catastrophic mark.
When the U.S. hits from the outside, there are two major effects beyond the obvious one -- scoring more points: Duncan, by far the best big man in the tournament, gets much more room to operate if defenders have to leave him to guard the perimeter. And, secondly, if the U.S. is hitting its shots, it will be in position to set up its pressure defense; misses result in weird caroms, airballs and disorganized transition defense. "Eventually, we've got to start making shots," says Brown, "and that changes everything."
Prediction? This is perilous ground, but I think the U.S. will move on with an 85-80 victory.