In general, two styles of defense have dominated the always-evolving NBA over the last half-decade. Successful teams in San Antonio, Cleveland and Orlando, all inspired by Gregg Popovich, stressed a conservative approach of containment — help and rotate against the pick-and-roll as the scheme requires, but return to your assignment, avoid gambling for steals, force mid-range jumpers and clean the defensive glass.
The Celtics and Bulls, both Tom Thibodeau teams, introduced a more aggressive philosophy built around communicative and mobile big men like Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah. Those teams sent more players and were more aggressive to the strong side of the floor, hoping to contain the ball there and steal it if an opponent tried to swing things back to the other side. The system generated more turnovers and (for Boston, anyway) more fouls. It was still a help-and-recover scheme at heart, with an added dose of ferocity; there wasn’t any rampant switching, and the gambling was always responsible.
Team USA does not play defense either of these ways, one reason it is so interesting to watch at the London Olympics during these NBA dog days. The Americans play the passing lanes like the cockiest NFL cornerbacks, occasionally even allowing a cutter on the perimeter to sneak a step or two by them — bait for a pass upon which they could pounce with a sudden acceleration. They rush into passing lanes for steals, sometimes overrunning their assigned player or wrong-footing themselves. They switch assignments all over the floor, though not as much when center Tyson Chandler is in the game.
This style involves embracing mistakes with the confidence that you and your teammates can make up for them immediately, on both sides of the ball. The U.S. will switch itself into mismatches, so that a guard is defending someone like Argentina power forward Luis Scola in the post. The Americans do so in hopes that the smaller player can deny Scola the entry pass, and with the knowledge that if he can’t, help defenders will swipe at the ball, create a steal or force Scola to kick it out to an inferior player who is less capable of making a play. The coaching staff understands that all the switching will result in miscommunications, with two players running at the same opponent and leaving someone else open. When that happens, the U.S. is banking on a third defender to fly over for help, and on the fact that the rewards of playing with such aggression — turnovers, fast breaks and more overall possessions to let the talent gap take hold — outweigh the inevitable risks.
Even when the defense has leaked, as it did against Lithuania and in the first half of the next pool-play game against Argentina, the U.S. still had enough to win. And upon a second viewing today, it was clear the U.S. did not bring its best intensity in that matchup with Lithuania, a game littered with lazy transition defense and hands-down close-outs on shooters.
In the last vestiges of Argentina’s Golden Generation, the U.S. will meet perhaps the smartest team in the tournament in the semifinals on Friday (4 p.m. ET). Argentina is old and shallow now, and unlike the Gasol brothers-led Spain, a potential gold-medal game opponent for the Americans, it has only one low-post threat (Scola) and not the kind of inside scoring tandem that might force a major adjustments to Team USA’s defense.
The Argentines, however, are smart and they will run a patient, motion-heavy offense designed to get all five Team USA players moving as much as possible, increasing the odds of a botched switch, a miscommunication and an open shot. And like any smart team, they’ll tailor their stuff based on the personnel on the floor. They run lots of screens at the foul line and under the rim for Scola, designed to get him moving into deep post position — and, if they’re lucky, get him switched onto a smaller player.
On this play from Team USA’s 126-97 victory against Argentina on Monday, two separate picks — one at the elbow, one under the rim — result in the U.S. passing Scola (No. 4) from Carmelo Anthony to Kobe Bryant, and finally to Kevin Durant on the left block:
Note that Carlos Delfino, No. 10, sets the final screen for Scola under the rim and then pops out toward the foul line to take yet another pick from Andres Nocioni. This is standard flex-offense stuff, and the U.S. switches yet again, with Bryant sticking on Nocioni and calling for Anthony to leap from Nocioni to Delfino. There appears to be a split second in which Anthony does not understand his job — or the job Bryant has asked of him anyway. Defino looks to have daylight but Anthony closes it quickly, and the Argentine swingman misses a tough three-pointer. This is part of the U.S. philosophy: We know there will be gaps but we believe we can close them pretty fast, and we’re not all that scared of you anyway.
But Scola will get some easy looks this way, and he even scored over point guard Chris Paul on Monday when the Americans made a switch very late in the shot clock that they wouldn’t make earlier in the shot clock.
Argentina, of course, has several other tricks in its bag. It’ll run guards Manu Ginobili and Pablo Prigioni off mammoth two-man staggered screens designed to confuse the two U.S. players defending the screeners: Who jumps out on Ginobili, and who stays home? It’ll run many plays in which a big man sets a pick for Prigioni or Ginobili, and instead of rolling down the lane as usual, he moves into a pick for another player on the wing. That kind of rapid-fire screening creates more potential for confusion — more switches, more head-turning, more split-second decisions.
Once that kind of tendency is established, a team can use it as a sort of decoy on plays like this:
Argentina starts a lot of plays like this, with a guard handling the ball and two big men stationed on opposite sides of the foul line. This one is pretty simple, with Facundo Campazzo — who, incidentally, is in silver position for the groin-punching title at these Olympics — running a pick-and-pop with Leo Guttierez (No. 12). Gutierrez rumbles in the direction of his fellow big man (Federico Kammerichs, No. 15), and Gutierrez’s defender (Andre Iguodala) runs at Kammerichs instead of just chasing Gutierrez — evidence that Iguodala perhaps expected another pick, or for Chandler to jump out on Gutierrez.
On about a half-dozen occasions during its 99-94 loss to coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team, Lithuania managed to get two U.S. defenders chasing one offensive player when such pursuit wasn’t really mandated. Lithuania was especially good at having Linas Kleiza set a pick for a guard while handing the ball to that guard (a hand-off pick, as it were) and then immediately cutting to the corner to set another off-ball pick there — two chances to draw a switch or a mistake in a span of just a few seconds.
Another one: Lithuania and Argentina both use pick-and-replace actions, a fancy name for a pick-and-roll in which the screener rolls to the rim and the team’s other big man loops up behind the play to spot up near the three-point line, right by the location of the initial pick. The U.S. has misread this play on a few possessions and had both its big men chase the shooter, leaving the roller free under the hoop.
Another thing we know: Argentina will attack Kevin Love relentlessly on the pick-and-roll whenever he is in the game. Ginobili is a master at baiting so-so big-man defenders into switches, as he does here:
And he nearly does it here, too:
The U.S. is all discombobulated on this play. Love lunges at Ginobili, taking his momentum in the wrong direction and allowing Scola to roam free to the hoop. Love and guard Russell Westbrook sort of linger behind the play, in potential passing lanes, forcing Anthony (on the left wing) and forward Kevin Durant (on the right) to crash into the middle. Anthony slides off Nocioni on the left sideline, which is why Ginobili passes there; the slower Nocioni is able to use the momentum of Anthony’s recovery to drive by him. Durant is waiting, and Argentines appear open all over the floor. But Nocioni misses a tough scoop shot, and if you freeze the clip the moment of release, you’ll see the U.S. clogging most of the useful passing lanes.
There’s also this: Nocioni just isn’t that good, and the Americans know it. They can live with Nocioni’s taking a running scoop shot or trying a tricky drop-off pass. Ginobili and Scola are in a different league and will punish the U.S. for mistakes made directly against them. These other guys? The U.S. is confident it can contain them, even from a position of weakness. That confidence comes from their athleticism advantage, their willingness to help each other and their understanding of smart positioning. And it has been enough to win, usually by a lot. It should be enough Friday, and on Sunday.