Five thoughts from USA-Spain
Team USA trailed Spain by nine early, but Carmelo Anthony things turned around
It was a different game in the second quarter when the U.S. turned up the tempo
LeBron James' elite ability to do more than just score is a big key for the U.S.
Five thoughts from Team USA's 100-78 victory over Spain in its fifth and final exhibition game leading up to the London Olympics ...
1. The U.S. stared adversity in the eye and didn't blink -- Team USA got the test Mike Krzyzewski was hoping for Tuesday. The U.S. coach called Spain "the toughest game that we could play" in preparation for the Olympics -- and he was right. After edging Argentina by six points Sunday, the U.S. found itself in a nine-point hole midway through the first quarter.
Outside of Marc Gasol, who sat with a shoulder injury, Spain didn't appear to hold anything back in the much-anticipated showdown between the FIBA's No. 1 and No. 2 teams. They quickly got Tyson Chandler into foul trouble, sending Team USA's only rim-protector to the bench and allowing Serge Ibaka to explode for 16 first-half points that were comprised mostly of uncontested dunks.
It was a scary start for a team that likens itself to the '92 Dream Team. At least until Carmelo Anthony checked into the game. While the U.S. felt Chandler's absence on defense, it was rejuvenated by the Knicks' trigger-happy star on offense. Anthony wasted no time by quickly draining two three-pointers and rattled off 23 of his game-high 27 points in the first half, including 13 of Team USA's first 25.
LeBron James nailed a three-pointer with seven minutes left in the second quarter to give the U.S. the lead for good. Team USA stretched it to eight by halftime and 22 by the end of the game, proving at least for one night that it's still the superior basketball power. But don't forget Spain's strategy at the 2008 Olympics. The Spaniards lost by 37 in group play before giving the U.S. all it could handle in the gold-medal game. Team USA passed its test Tuesday, but it's unlikely to be the last one it faces.
2. Team USA is at its best when running -- Even if it takes wholesale line changes, Krzyzewski plans to run opponents ragged in London. Not only does the U.S. boast some of the best transition players in the world, but it also suffocates opponents with its trapping, helter-skelter defense. Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook can put an incredible amount of pressure on the ball and LeBron, Kevin Durant and Co. can utilize their length to fill up passing lanes and disrupt offenses. Maybe Spain would be the exception if Ricky Rubio was playing, but he's not.
It became a different game in the second quarter when the U.S. turned up the tempo, something Krzyzewski likely noticed. Much has been made about how the U.S. will struggle against Spain's bigs, but the Spaniards face just as daunting of a challenge in keeping up with the speedy Americans.
3. To win the gold medal, the U.S. needs Kevin Love -- Or Anthony Davis. Or Christian Laettner. Or really anyone to give Tyson Chandler a little relief. As mentioned before, Spain quickly got the Knicks' big man into foul trouble, which led to LeBron shifting over to center. That's a fine strategy in spurts, but not entire tournaments. LeBron, Durant and Anthony can't check the Gasol brothers or Ibaka in a half-court set, meaning the U.S. needs to play at a fervent pace or unleash Love or Davis on opposing teams
Davis has played extremely well in garbage time during Team USA's five-game exhibition tour, but Krzyzewski has said he is reluctant to play the Kentucky product in the Olympics. He might have to change his stance if Chandler gets into foul trouble again or Love continues to struggle to keep up with Team USA's high-octane offense. Davis might be 19, but he's also USA's best shotblocker outside of Chandler.
4. LeBron should lead Team USA -- but not in scoring -- In fact, it's better if he doesn't. Team USA has a trio of All-Star point guards in Paul, Williams and Westbrook, but they only have one player who can do what LeBron does. No one collapses defenses and finds the open man like LeBron. No one can facilitate on offense and dominate on defense like him, either.
The U.S. has plenty of scoring options. Durant is a three-time NBA scoring champion. Kobe has scored the fifth-most points in NBA history. And Anthony, as he reminded us Tuesday, is as capable as anyone on Team USA with the ball in his hands, pouring in a game-high 27 points off the bench with staggering ease.
The last thing Team USA needs is another guy who feels like he has to score 20 points per game for his team to win. Which is why LeBron (who had 25 on Tuesday) should, and likely will, embrace his role as an All-World facilitator. He catches flack in the NBA for not shooting enough (see: fourth quarters), but when it comes to Team USA, LeBron is at his most effective when focusing on facilitating on offense and clamping down on defense.
5. These two teams will meet again -- International basketball has never been more competitive, but the U.S. and Spain will easily be the best two teams in London. Spain's starting lineup not only features NBA players, but elite ones, especially when featured in an international setting. Toss in Marc Gasol, a player few big men on Team USA can match up with, and they're even more dangerous.
Team USA begins play in Pool A against France on Sunday, followed by Tunisia, Nigeria and Lithuania. They'll then face capable Argentina before entering the elimination stage -- but don't be surprised if the U.S. coasts to the gold-medal game via double-digit margins.
The U.S. beat Spain by just one point in a heated exhibition before the 2010 FIBA world championship and that was only after Rudy Fernandez's game-winning attempt was blocked by Durant at the buzzer. The next time they meet, the margin will be a lot closer to one than the 22-point victory they cruised to Tuesday.
The potential gold-medal showdown will be as enticing as any in London. If only the winner could be decided by a best-of-seven series.
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