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How Argentina will attack Team USA

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Manu Ginobili (5) will draw plenty of defensive attention from the U.S. on Friday. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

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.

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  • Published On 5:14pm, Aug 09, 2012
  • Tanking comes to the Olympics (again)

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    LeBron James

    LeBron James and Team USA pose a matchup other Olympic teams would be wise to avoid until the last possible moment if they hope to go home with a medal. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

    The sports world is still recovering from the news that four badminton teams have been booted from the Olympics for attempting to throw preliminary round matches in order to draw a more favorable opponent in elimination play to come.

    Badminton, like a lot of other sports in the Olympics and elsewhere, uses non-elimination preliminary matches to determine which teams advance to the knockout rounds and where those teams are seeded. As The New York Times reports here, teams from China, South Korea and Indonesia, already assured of spots in those elimination rounds, were blatantly attempting to lose their final (and meaningless) prelim matches to avoid specific opponents locked into various seeds in the elimination tournament.

    This might be a scandal in badminton, but it’s a familiar form of tanking to fans of any number of team sports — including the NBA and professional basketball in general. For as long as leagues have set up postseason seeding systems in which teams can look ahead to potential playoff opponents, teams have sought to cozy into a bracket spot that better suits them. Memphis pulled this at the end of the 2010-11 NBA season, happily sitting several core players with “nagging” injuries in its last two games in order to drop to No. 8 and draw the top-seeded Spurs — a team that the Grizzlies had played well during the regular season, and one that did not have the kind of front-line bulk required to stop the Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph duo. And in 2005-06, the Clippers out-tanked the Grizzlies down the stretch, resting star players in a head-to-head loss that helped Los Angeles “win” the “race” for the No. 6 seed — and a date with the 44-win Nuggets, slotted into the No. 3 seed ahead of the 60-win Mavericks (No. 4) under an antiquated set of seeding rules the NBA abolished that offseason.

    These kinds of shenanigans have popped up in several international competitions, including the (gasp!) Olympics. In the 2008 Beijing Games, Serbia’s water polo team allegedly threw its final group play match against Italy in order to draw an inferior set of elimination-round opponents, including the U.S.; the aquatics gods punished it with a thrashing at the hands of the angered Americans in the semifinals.

    Keep your eye on Group B of the basketball tournament in these Olympics. Barring a shocker, the U.S. is going to win Group A, and you can chart Group A’s full elimination path to the gold medal game right here. Read it carefully, and you’ll notice the team that finishes third in Group B can avoid facing Team USA until the gold-medal match, while the second-place Group B team would have to face the U.S. one round earlier. The easiest way to avoid Team USA until the final possible moment is to “control your own destiny” and win Group B, but Russia and Brazil — the latter looking very shaky so far — would likely have to upend Spain to do that. If your overriding goal is to avoid Team USA as long as possible — and it should be, if you want a medal — the system has incentivized someone among the Spain/Brazil/Russia crew to dive for third place. Read More…

  • Published On 12:13pm, Aug 01, 2012
  • How Olympic opponents will attempt to exploit Team USA’s small lineup

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    Tyson Chandler (right) is Team USA’s only reliable big-man defender. (Harry E. Walker/MCT /Landov)

    It’s been beaten into the ground by now that Team USA’s only major weakness is a lack of size. No team has been able to exploit this liability consistently in exhibition play and the Olympic opener, though Spain (Marc Gasol) and France (Joakim Noah) were each missing players who might have made the Americans’ life more difficult over the last two games.

    It’s true that the U.S. has only three true big men, including one (Anthony Davis) who doesn’t play until garbage time. Kevin Love is an average defender on good days, though fairly solid in the post, leaving Tyson Chandler as the team’s only reliable big-man defender. Chandler has been prone to foul trouble, an issue for many previous U.S. power forwards and centers in international play. We tend to think of the size issue as one that would come up mostly in post play, such as Spain’s Pau Gasol shooting easy hooks over Carmelo Anthony as U.S. help defenders swipe at the ball, leaving Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez open somewhere around the arc. But the problem, to the degree it exists, pops up in other ways on defense.

    Wing players are forced to do some unaccustomed things like patrolling the back line while Chandler defends a pick-and-roll up top, or jumping out on a high pick-and-roll when an opponent uses Anthony’s man (or LeBron James’, or Kevin Durant’s) to set the screen. The lack of bigs also means that the U.S. has several similarly sized players on the floor together, encouraging coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team to switch on screens all over the floor. That’s a nice thing to be able to do because switching screens on and off the ball prevents any opposing player from using a pick to get a head start.

    But it also brings downsides, especially for a team learning to play together on the fly. There will be occasional communication breakdowns, with one Team USA player assuming he and a teammate will switch, while the other teammate assumes they are sticking to their original assignments. And even a wing-wing switch can create mismatches. For example, Kobe Bryant is not nearly as capable as James of defending France’s Boris Diaw down low.

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  • Published On 1:53pm, Jul 30, 2012