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Play by The Rules
Alexander Wolff
August 25, 2008
Frustrated in the past by the international rule book, the U.S. team, led by reserves Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, has shown the ability to adapt—and to dominate
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August 25, 2008

Play By The Rules

Frustrated in the past by the international rule book, the U.S. team, led by reserves Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, has shown the ability to adapt—and to dominate

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UPON BEHOLDING 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 body.

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 off."

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.

"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.

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 disapprovingly.

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."

Smart 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."

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