American Conquistadors

People averse to redundancy will cite the USA men’s basketball team’s sudden accuracy from the three-point line (12-25, after shooting 29% in the previous three games) and free-throw stripe (19-24, after going 69% before) as noteworthy factors in its 37-point rout of defending World Champion Spain, 119-82, on Saturday morning. But if accuracy is what you’re after, the most significant reasons for this thrashing are no different from the previous three this team has administered: Bloodhound defense that is quick, smart, relentless, opportunistic and synergistic. And unselfish, improvisational, transition-oriented offense that only very rarely opts for flash over efficiency.

Saturday’s performance was so thoroughly sublime I can’t even criticize Jason Kidd, who had his best 13 minutes of the tournament by staying with Jose Calderon on the perimeter. Defensive quickness and aggression in transition have made Deron Williams and Chris Paul better options than Kidd in the backcourt, which is why both rank among the top five in minutes-played. But Kidd turned back the page a little bit with his lateral movement guarding Calderon. And he also was forced to take a shot, wide open for a layup on a breakaway.

The performance that is likely to affect rotations in the near future was the play of Tayshaun Prince, who got some non-garbage time and drained three of four treys in addition to stolid defense. Not only does this push Michael Redd further into the background, it gives Coach K more length without backsliding on the team’s most significant virtue: the ability to extend crushing man-to-man defense out to the perimeter and still guard both the paint and the wings. For most of the tournament, LeBron has been the best inside-outside defensive guy, capable of both filling passing lanes and blocking shots attempted off the dribble. Prince brings a similar dynamic, and if he can also load up the three, opponents are going to have yet another matchup nightmare and yet another tough decision about how to defend this collection of superstars. The best three-point shooters for the USA through four gamesĀ are Melo and Prince.

Thus far, the USA has destroyed every team that has tried to pressure them. Their successful responseĀ has been an utterly simple formula: Paul and Williams need to avoid picking up their dribble (check) and get the ball to one of the swingmen like LeBron or Wade or Kobe (check), who either drive for a score, shoot an open jumper that usually scores, or, most often, dish down low to a man left unguarded by the manpower loss from the trap. LeBron had 8 assists Saturday, and it was probably his most careless game with the ball (he also had 4 turnovers).

Meanwhile, at the other end, the USA’s defense forbids transition hoops. On a day of amazing stats, the jaw-dropper was zero fast break points for Spain, versus 32 for the USA.

Aside from Prince, and general improvement from relative laggards like Kidd and Dwight Howard, there is a clearcut pattern developing on this team, as roles and identities are beginning to gel. And it contains a few surprises. Essentially, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade have switched identities, relative to expectations going into the tournament. People imagined that Kobe would be everywhere, getting the key steal, the crucial bucket, and generally being the one to nip negative momentum in the bud. For D-Wade, people imagined there would be flashes of brilliance but also periods where he’d bite off more than he could chew, either trying to stick the dagger in with a shot or getting too antsy or just trying to figure out how to mesh his ball-dominant game in with a plethora of superstars. But Wade has played like people thought Kobe would perform, and vice versa.

The lineup that Coach K counts on to generate separation is Williams and Paul in the backcourt, Wade and LeBron as the swingmen and Bosh in the pivot. After four games it is obvious that the Bosh-Wade-Paul-Williams substitutions improve the team. That’s not to denigrate Kobe or even Melo, Howard and Kidd, but the others are quicker defensively and just seem hungrier out on the floor. They–and especially Wade–demoralize opponents.

A few more quick takes:

* Horrible officiating in the first half. What happened to "letting them play" in the Olympics? The refs were especially protective of the 17-year old point guard Ricky Rubio, who went to the free throw line if he was breathed on during his first few stints.

* The best opponent, by far, against the USA thus far has been burly forward Felipe Reyes, who shot 9-12, grabbed five offensive rebounds and also played decent defense. By contrast, I was shocked at how poorly Calderon played, but not at the lousy performance by Juan Navarro. The former is a future all star in the NBA; the latter was a clanking gunner during the games Memphis played the Wolves last years. Navarro also doesn’t play defense.

* Finally, I’m going to use a comment by Strib writer Rachel Blount on Sunday to air a pet peeve of mine regarding writers who obviously either don’t like pro hoops or don’t understand pro hoops feeling free to parade their ignorance. Blount is hardly the biggest offender. In fact, in her piece, titled "U.S. stars also are slam-dunk ambassadors," she made the salient point that the Olympics benefit from the absence of the pro sports sideshow (she calls it NBA, but all major team sports have it); the stupid skits and contests and announcers and film clips and ads ads ads.

But then Blount wrote: "They are playing a brand of ball far more entertaining than most NBA games." Well, if you lean on the side of jingoism and enjoy watching Americans outclass the world, yes, it is thoroughly enjoyable. And simply from an aesthetic standpoint, the USA men’s games have been things of beauty. But is this really preferable to the NBA? Would you want nothing but all-star games in all the sports that are played? Do we want to see Canada vs Russia or the Czech Republic in hockey, or a Red Wings-Stars finals?

Blount elaborates, saying "The real appeal of this group shines when Chris Paul dishes off to Carmelo Anthony on the baseline for a jam, when Dwyane Wade strips the ball away to start a fast break, when Tayshaun Prince lofts a pass over the rim for LeBron James to throw it through." Well, wait a minute. Did Blount watch Chris Paul during the regular season or playoffs at all last season? Because he dished for more jams per game in those contests than he has in the Olympics. And why Wade stripping the ball from a hapless Angolan is somehow preferable to James Posey stripping Lamar Odom in the Finals, for example, is beyond me.

Yeah, I know, she said "most" NBA games. But it still amounts to "Olympics are better hoops than the NBA," and is part of what has become stupid conventional wisdom among the general public over the past 20 years. It happens to the NBA far more than other team sports. How many times have we all heard–"I don’t watch the NBA until–insert either "second half," "fourth quarter," or "final few minutes" here–because that’s when they really start trying." That’s like me saying I don’t watch baseball until the 9th inning because that’s when the teams insert their best pitchers, or I don’t watch football until the final few minutes because that’s when teams really start trying to score with long passes and less time between plays.

Long long ago, Rachel Blount covered the Minnesota Timberwolves as a beat for the Strib. She wasn’t terrible but she didn’t distinguish herself and didn’t last long. She went and found things that were more enjoyable for her to write–like the Olympics.