Posted: Saturday August 19, 2006 11:43AM; Updated: Saturday August 19, 2006 11:43AM
With the exhibitions over and the preliminary rounds of the 2006 FIBA World Championship under way, some ardent hoops observers seemed ready for Team USA to start piling up the points, laying waste to the opposition, running up the score and waltzing their way towards the gold medal. After all, the team boasts its finest set of talent since the 1992 and 1996 Olympic runs, they have a flexible coach, a deep roster and a better understanding of what it takes to win on the international stage.
Well, if Saturday morning's 111-100 conquest over Puerto Rico proved anything, said observers better be ready to wait this tournament out. It doesn't mean the U.S. won't waltz and win -- far from it -- it just means that the Team USA vs. The Rest dynamic we've seen in years past just doesn't work that way anymore. And there's no shame in that.
Anyone tuning in to see this group (average age: 24) suddenly click and flow in a manner that reminds us of the 1992 Dream Team should just give up now -- this is a young group that should be credited for representing the newest version (now, with self-awareness!) of Team USA in its larval stage, and nobody should expect anything more than a few spurts and flashes of steadied team play.
This isn't to say that this team, as presently constructed, isn't doing just about everything correctly, and to the best of its abilities. This group of youngsters is interested in ball movement, pressure defense and terrorizing the glass. They look for the open man (sometimes to their offense's detriment), push at every given instance, and don't fall back on bad habits when things don't go their way. This was evident at times during the win over Puerto Rico; when scorers like Carlos Arroyo and Elias Ayuso forced shots and got lucky, Team USA responded with a series of solid offensive sets, never letting Puerto Rico trim the deficit to anything fewer than eight points in the second half.
What Went Right
Team USA's patience on offense was admirable, but the Americans still looked to attack the front of the rim at any given instance. This is in stark contrast to the 2004 Olympic team, one that seemed incapable of getting within 25 feet of the hoop without picking up a charge or launching an off-balance jumper. The spacing was superb, and with so many deft passers taking in big minutes, everyone got their touches. Even with the steady pace, Team USA still poured in 111 points in just 40 minutes of action.
Coach MikeKrzyzewski's small lineup -- usually featuring LeBron James at undersized power forward alongside greyhound starters like Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade -- is a sight to behold for a basketball fan, and a welcome sight for Team USA backers. This and other versatile lineups (with multi-position guys like Joe Johnson, Shane Battier, Elton Brand and Kirk Hinrich) should be able to match up with just about anything the opposition has to offer. Though Puerto Rico held its own for some stretches on Saturday, it was slower and less athletic than Team USA at every position, even when Krzyzewski went to his bench. This figures to continue throughout the tournament.
Denver coach George Karl has to love what he's seeing out of Carmelo Anthony (21 points against Puerto Rico) so far in international play. Facing zone defenses and usually working in an up-tempo offense, 'Melo has been forced yo make quick decisions once he's given the ball -- and even if his shot or drive ends in a miss, at least he's attacking quickly, and putting the defense on its heels.
What Went Wrong
If LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony are to play power forward for the duration of this tournament, they're going to have to contribute much better help defense. LeBron was continually caught going for the steal or block while helping off his man, usually when just sliding his feet and taking the charge will do. Dwight Howard may be one of the better rebounders in the NBA at age 21, but he has a ways to go before he'll grow into a strong help defender. And, with LBJ's quickness, he shouldn't have to because James should be the one cutting off penetration while Howard waits for blocked shots or rebounds. Though a frontcourt of Howard, James and Anthony may be Team USA's best option at this point, there is always the chance that they'll be pick-and-rolled into submission.
Good things can come of this, however. LeBron, Howard and Anthony all held their own on the glass, showing effort and a willingness to secure the ball before leaking out in transition. But their defensive mistakes were so distinct that Coach K will have an easy time pointing out what needs to improve as Team USA makes its way through these preliminaries. The group was considerably better defensively against Puerto Rico with Brand and Hinrich on the floor, and though Battier made some curious defensive choices, he's sure to regain the form that served him so well in exhibition play.