Sunday it gets real.
For the past three weeks Team USA has been training and scrimmaging and playing some exhibition games, getting ready. But Sunday they tip off the Olympics against France and if they can go 8-0 they will have another gold medal. (They could lose one of the first five group-play games and still go 3-0 in the best-of-eight elimination rounds, but it makes the path harder.)
The USA went 5-0 in exhibition games, but those games showed us the road to gold will not be easy. It will take a USA team playing its best (except against Tunisia). There were bright spots in the tune-up games — the last three quarters against Spain — and some not so impressive moments (allowing Argentina to come back, for one).
Here is what we learned.
• The USA needs Tyson Chandler out of foul trouble and on the floor. We knew going into this Olympics — with Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Chris Bosh and LaMarcus Aldridge all out — that size was going to be an issue. Mike Krzyzewski did the right thing and countered by going small (LeBron James and even Carmelo Anthony at the five at times) and just trying to be so quick and so athletic that nobody can match up. It has worked fairly well.
But check out this stat from John Schuhmann of NBA.com: When Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love or Anthony Davis are on the court the USA outscored its opponents by a ridiculous pace of 43.1 points per 100 possessions, when none of them played it was just 14.1 points per 100. The USA is 12 points per 100 possessions better when one of them is on the floor defending the paint. Chandler was far and away the most effective of the big men (although Love played better against Spain).
The USA is better with one real big on the floor.
That could be especially true in a rematch against Spain. After a first quarter where Spain led, their coach rarely used Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka at the same time again. And Marc Gasol didn’t even play. Spain has a better game in them and while the USA’s small lineup overwhelmed them in the exhibition (thank you ‘Melo and your hot shooting 27 points) I’d be careful saying the rematch will be a repeat.
• It’s about knocking down outside shots. No other team on the planet has near the athletes the United States puts out. In waves. In 2008 Dwyane Wade was the freak athlete off the bench who destroyed teams, he’s injured so enter Russell Westbrook in that role. Other teams cannot match up.
So they zone up a lot. And even with that the USA’s pick-and-roll and good ball movement is netting them great outside looks. When they fall, the USA can’t be beat. Against Spain the USA had 23 unguarded threes and made 15 of them (‘Melo was 4-of-4, all in transition), according to ESPN Stats and Data. That was the ballgame. In previous games it was Kevin Durant as the outside marksman, but the impact was the same.
• Bust the zone. Because nobody can match the American athletes, other teams are going to go zone. A lot. The USA struggled against the Spanish zone according to ESPN — in 15 offensive plays against the zone the USA was 3-of-12 shooting, with three turnovers. If you think Spain didn’t notice that and only ran zone 15 out of 78 trips down the court you kid yourself. The USA is going to have to do better in its zone offense, especially against the elite teams that will try to grind the game down that way.
This ties back to the point above — knock down the outside shot.
• Team USA must defend, then get out and run. Do you really need stats for this one? When the tempo is up and the USA’s pressure defense is getting turnovers or forcing misses so the USA can get into offensive plays before the defense sets, it’s all over. They are a force. And they are fun to watch.
It’s this simple — their athleticism and defense let them dictate the terms of the game. When they get away from that, when the other team can grind the pace down like Argentina did, the USA can be beat.
Which means when they get a lead and take their foot off the gas, as they did against Argentina, they can be caught. Especially when the outside shots are not falling. The USA just needs to run teams into the ground.
• The USA’s best lineups. According to Schuhmann’s stats at NBA.com, it is Tyson Chandler, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and either Chris Paul or Deron Williams at the point (the top two five-man units were the same with the interchanged point guards). That is the lineup you close with.
But hopefully it will not come to that because they are running and knocking down outside shots.