the Great Wall of China last week, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski and his
son-in-law Chris Spatola reacted much the same way. "Chris is a West Point
guy like me," Krzyzewski says, "and we both thought, 'Tactically, this
is stupid. You don't build a wall in the mountains.' We decided some guy must
have really liked walls."
To be tactically
smart is to know the terrain and adapt to it. As they closed out pool play with
five comfortable victories and booked a quarterfinal date with Australia in the
medal round, the Americans had much with which to credit themselves: depth,
defense, balance and, in the words of forward Carmelo Anthony, a cohesion that
had "five guys really kicking." But among the NBA stars' greatest
accomplishments was how well they adjusted to the international rules that
govern Olympics hoops—and in several cases turned them to their advantage.
Three times since
the 2000 Olympics those rules have been the undoing of American men's teams. So
over the past two summers Krzyzewski enlisted Toronto Raptors assistant coach
Jay Triano, who led Canada to a 5--2 record at the Sydney Games, to serve as a
sort of Basketball Berlitz, helping Team USA riddle out tough passages and
learn practical idioms. Here's a handy phrase book to help differentiate
between the NBA's rules and those of FIBA, basketball's international governing
• A SHORTER
FIBA rules call for four 10-minute quarters. Two fewer minutes per quarter may
not seem like much, but over the course of a game they help account for 28 to
35 fewer total possessions, making shot selection and three-point efficiency
even more critical. And of course in a shorter game superior talent like the
Americans' has less time to impose itself. "An international game is
intense and quick and done," says Triano, a consultant for Team USA who is
in Beijing working as a broadcaster. "It's too short to take a possession
• A CLOSER
A shorter three isn't only an easier three. It's a shot that gets launched more
often and thus has disproportionate sway on a game's outcome—especially with so
many fewer possessions. One player can end a team's dreams in a blizzard of
swishes. (Witness Sarunas Jasikevicius, who shot Lithuania past the U.S. with
seven treys in the 2004 Olympic Games.) The U.S. hasn't allowed an opposing
player to get outrageously hot, while eight Americans have knocked down threes
so far, a huge improvement over Athens.
• NO ILLEGAL
"With the illegal defense rules in the NBA, everybody stays outside the
lane," Triano says. "Here, big men are clogging up the middle—so on
offense even the big guys learn how to go outside and knock that shot
down." While his team has no outside-shooting big men, Krzyzewski has his
front-liners playing help-and-recover defense inside the lane (because they are
not restricted by the NBA's three-second rule) as if they were Dukies deep into
an ACC season.
• MORE PHYSICAL
Three years ago—just as the current U.S. players mustered in their quest to
reclaim the gold medal—the NBA adopted rules to ban hand-checking in the
backcourt and bumping cutters through the lane. Yet as American pro ball went
more pantywaist, international rules remained the same. "Like playoff
basketball, all year round," says forward Carlos Boozer, not
For two years no
feature of FIBA play has more obsessed the U.S. team than this one. At the 2006
world championships, Greece schooled the Americans 101--95 in the semifinals by
running a hard-nosed version of the pick-and-roll, the game's simplest and
toughest-to-defend play. "In the NBA, when you set the screen you can't
move," says Triano. "Here you not only can move, you're taught to move.
If I'm screening and you're defending, I can roll into you. If you go under my
screen, I can start my roll early. And a screen that in the NBA gets you this
much space"—Triano indicates with his hands a distance broad enough for a
player to comfortably get a shot off—"instantly gets you this much [his
hands extend two feet farther apart]. The offense has a huge advantage when the
screen creates that much more space."
international guards like Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Spain's Jose Calderon
use that extra space to squeeze off the chippie FIBA three-pointer or, if a big
defender "shows" at the dribbler by jumping over the screen,
dribble-drive into the lane. "They're such good shooters and passers,"
says U.S. assistant Mike D'Antoni. "They carve you up."
The U.S. staff
counted 42 Greek ball screens in that game in 2006. With guards Theo Papaloukas
and Vassilis Spanoulis deftly dishing or keeping like wishbone quarterbacks,
Greece got enough open threes and looks in the lane to shoot 63% while
committing only 10 turnovers. "We kind of laid back and let them run their
offense, let them get into a groove," guard Dwyane Wade remembers. "We
didn't make adjustments at all."