40 Minutes from Gold

Perhaps it’s because I’m so NBA-centric and the Olympic team from Argentina has so many quality NBA pros on its roster (Gibobili, Scola, Nocioni, Oberto), but I always thought today’s semifinal would be USA’s toughest game of the tournament. And it probably was. After racing out to a huge lead that was 30-9 with six seconds left in the first quarter, Kobe Bryant and company were suckered by a zone, started clanking from three-point territory, and were a bad call away from leading by just six, after one half. (The whistle on Melo Anthony’s trey–giving him three successful FTs just before the half, was questionable at best, and meant as much to the psychological flow of the game as Deron Williams’s half-concluding trey did versus Australia on Wednesday.)

But two folks I’ve been hard on thus far this tournament–Jason Kidd and Coach Mike Krzyzewski–re-established the low-post play that was the first important step in overcoming Argentina’s mediocre zone D. I counted four assists for Kidd in the pivotal third quarter alone, and all of them fed the low block–three times to Dwight Howard. It was patently obvious that Coach K had stressed banging the rock into the paint, and purposefully installed Kidd at the point to get it done in the second half. If anything, Kidd overdid it, with two or three forced and disrupted passes into Howard mixed in with the dimes. But Kidd’s seven assists were five more than any other teammate, as the USA squad seemed determined to deviate from their strengths, which are athleticism and interior passing off penetration. It ain’t three pointers. As Doug Collins frequently pointed out, the Red White and Blue shot from behind the arc for more than half of their attempts in the first half, and most of those came in the wretched second quarter, when Argentina outscored them 29-19 despite the fact that their star, Ginobili, was already done for the game with a bum ankle, and that Nocioni was clearly hobbled by a bad knee.

Let’s name names. Kobe Bryant’s disappointing tournament continued today, as he went 2-9 from beyond the arc and 3-5 from inside it. Melo likewise jacked up most of his shots from outside, going 2-8 from beyond the arc and 1-6 inside it, with the latter total mitigated by his 13-13 performance at the line (ten of those generated by tough rebounds, shooting technicals, and fouls on two-pointers). Throw in a decent 3-6 3ptFG performance by LeBron, and the USA’s top three in minutes today were 7-23 from three point land, leading to the team’s 10-31 from trey overall. By contrast, the squad was 22-37 from two-point range, just a whisker under 60%.

I know that shooting threes is the international game. But for the USA, it is the lazy way out. When they constantly push the tempo and look for each other underneath, good things almost always happen, and there is no team in the world talented enough to stop them merely with a packed-in zone. Did everybody see what LeBron did to the Magic, Pistons and Celtics off the dribble in the playoffs? Does anyone think Deron Williams can’t get inside of the toughest zone D, either by passing or penetrating? (So why were all of D-Will’s four shots from trey today?) When the USA is zipping the ball and taking it off the dribble, it naturally peps up their pressure defense by creating a predatory rhythm and flow. And that in turn leads to transition fast breaks, of which there were precious few today, despite the absence of Ginobili and the fact that Argentina committed four more turnovers than their tournment average of a dozen.

Another, related, reason for the USA second quarter doldrums was the absence of Dwyane Wade due to foul trouble. Unlike Melo, Kobe and LeBron, Wade hasn’t fallen in love with the trey this tournament–he’s taking it to the rack like in the vintage games of 2006. His 4-7 FG (with just 0-1 from trey) actually lowered his FG% a fair bit for the tournament.

Let’s face it, Kidd is the captain in name only. I would say LeBron carries the most weight of anyone on this club, but Kobe is a close second, and outside the confines of the team, Kobe is the most prominent face of the USA Olympians. That’s what makes his mediocre tournament so desultory. I’m a reformed Kobe hater. Last year’s regular season turned me around on the guy. But thus far in these games, half of his shots are treys: He’s made 14-45 three pointers (42 points) and 27-45 two pointers (54 points). I mean, it’s not like this guy is Michael Redd, best utilized pulling up and jacking. Only Kobe Bryant can make Kobe Bryant shoot just 9 FTs in 161 minutes of Olympic action. Kobe is second on the squad in minutes and 7th in FTA, plus 9th in FG%, and 6th in assists. But he’s way way ahead in three point attempts, with 15 more than Melo’s second place 30. This is a guy who can usually do pretty much what he wants with the ball in his hands. And what he apparently wants to do in these Olympics is miss three-pointers.

There is some talk that Spain will naturally try to duplicate Argentina’s success and deploy a zone in the Gold Medal Game on Sunday. Well, Spain has played more zone than Argentina, and, with all the injuries Argentina was dealing with, has more overall talent at its disposal. If the USA plays as stupidly Sunday as it did today, it might be a ballgame for awhile.

But I suspect that Coach K and Kidd have demonstrated to Williams and Chris Paul that attacking the zone with quickness off the dribble and interior passes is the way to go, especially since all of Spain’s bigs are relatively slow. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kobe and Melo keep jacking from outside, because they’re ultimately alpha guys who don’t want to admit mistakes or concede supremacy (which helps explain their postseason failures, by the way). It also wouldn’t surprise me if one or the other got hot and the final game was a blowout, akin to the first USA-Spain tilt. But if there is one thing we all have learned thus far, it is that Coach K’s crew doesn’t need the three pointer to florish. No, it is superior depth, athleticism, and defensive tenacity that makes them the greatest squad ever assembled since (and perhaps including) the original Dream Teamers.

Two final thoughts: For all the talk about what a classy makeover the USA Team has done in terms of its image, all it took was one relatively close game for Melo to get in people’s faces and talk smack after a hard foul on Dwight Howard. For anyone who remembers Melo’s back-peddling paddycake in his last "fight," it really reinforces his punk credentials.

As one who called Luis Scola the Rookie of the Year in the NBA last season (and it was close only with Atlanta’s Al Horford), I will close with my own punkish, "I told you so" in light of Scola’s monster 28 point, 11 rebound performance without Ginobili to take the pressure off. We’d seen similar grit and depth of effort throughout the 2007-08 season in Houston by Scola. He was far superior to ROY Kevin Durant, a scattershot gunner on a terrible team, and will be better for the next 2-3 years to boot. The reputation of Durant, inflated by Sports Guy Bill Simmons’ constant advocacy and those multi-shirted NBA ads last year, may be greater than Scola’s, but if you want to win basketball games, take the Argentinian.