Team USA edges Spain by a single point, but claims their most significant victory yet

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usa_durant_rose_iguodala.jpgBoth Team USA and the Spanish national team were reluctant to reveal
their full arsenals, but today’s friendly between the two FIBA
powerhouses was easily the Americans’ most entertaining exhibition yet.
Neither squad was flawless in their execution, but Team USA’s quality
performance against their top opponent in the World Championships (even
if Spain wasn’t giving it a proper go) leaves a far sweeter aftertaste
than yesterday’s bitter win over Lithuania.

Spain isn’t going to shoot 22.7% from three-point range very often.
They’re also not going to fumble so many passes out of bounds. Yet Team
USA’s defensive success overall was no fluke, as the Americans’ length and
athleticism caused all kind of problems for Spain both inside and out.

Marc Gasol, as expected, got his. He finished with 17 points for the day. But Gasol only shot 41.6% from the field. His turnaround jumper
will be there against Lamar Odom and Gasol can really work the high
post against Tyson Chandler. Still, Team USA can live with that. As
long as Gasol’s production remains reasonable, he doesn’t offer an
unmatchable advantage. The Americans can utilize their size on the
wings and their quickness in the backcourt just as Spain can utilize
Gasol, and the give and take of those positional match-ups is just part
of what makes a USA-Spain collision course so intriguing.

The
slim point differential (Team USA won by a single point, 86-85) shouldn’t be too concerning. Spain is just that
talented of a team, and they’re understandably both the Americans’ most
feared and most respected opponent. It showed. Team USA looked truly
prepared to play against Spain. Not against an international opponent
using FIBA rules, but against Spain. They played the screen-and-roll game well, knew where to cut off passing lanes, took
away a pet play or two, and showed the impact or proper preparation.

I’m honestly not sure what the game plan was against Lithuania, but the
Americans took a double-digit lead against what could be the top team
in the tournament, all while letting Rajon Rondo and Danny Granger
cheer from the bench.

Rondo is clearly a central part of Team
USA’s plans at this point. That leads me to believe that Mike
Krzyzewski was holding him back rather than “benching” him, and the
same could possibly be true of Granger. While Spain’s coaching staff
chose to play the entire game man-to-man rather than turning to their
vaunted zone defense, Coach K opted to sit one of his top perimeter
defenders and playmakers in Rondo, and a skilled shooter in Granger.
Having both of those guys available for full-time duty changes the
overall feel of the team (which I imagine is why Krzyzewski chose to
sit them against an opponent he’s sure to see again later), even if allocating some of Rudy Gay’s minutes to Granger doesn’t seem like a tectonic
shift.

For the first time in Team USA’s pre-tournament exhibitions, Kevin
Durant looked like the star that he is. KD has had a rough stretch,
shooting-wise, against China, France, and Lithuania, but he dropped 25
points on 56.3% shooting from the field this afternoon. Like it or not,
this is about how dominant Durant will need to be for Team USA to put
away their more competitive opponents.

Not that he didn’t have help. The burden of being his team’s primary
scorer was lifted from Durant’s shoulders, as Derrick Rose took over on a
pair of high pick-and-roll sets. Rose’s speed was lethal off the
screen, and he was able to drop a bucket and draw a foul to score just
enough for a USA victory.

The Americans’ clutch play on the other end, however, came down to two of
their leaders: Kevin Durant and Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K called for a
zone look — the only zone Team USA played in the entire game — on
Spain’s final offensive possession out of a timeout, which completely
shook Spain’s prescribed set. Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez were left to take heavily contested jumpers off of failed penetration, the second of which Durant swatted
out of bounds as time expired. Leaning too heavily on the zone would
undoubtedly come back to bite Team USA, but credit Krzyzewski with
knowing exactly when to unveil it in this game.

The exhibition W may
technically mean nothing, but Coach K has shown he’s willing to shake up
defensive coverage to get the jump on other teams, and that’s valuable.

Closing thoughts:

  • Traveling violations continue to be a thorn in Team USA’s side. Some of
    those travels are legitimate (Durant seems to have a problem with
    taking a step before dribbling off the pump fake/hestitation), and
    others just a typical byproduct of FIBA officiating. The refs are bad. Really bad.
  • Ricky Rubio is 19 years old, and he’s fantastic. You take the bad with
    the good when it comes to Rubio; was it necessary to make a no-look
    pass on Spain’s final possession? Hardly. Did he really need to attempt
    the around-the-back-pass-turned-turnover that led to a key Team USA
    layup? Definitely not. Yet for each of those moves he had a beautiful
    find or a terrific on-ball steal, and then some. He’s so talented
    already, and we can only hope he makes his NBA debut sooner rather than
    later.
  • Lamar Odom got the start at center over Tyson Chandler, and played
    rather well. Odom was probably the Americans’ top screener, and Team
    USA’s squadron of point guards did a great job of finding Odom around
    the rim. He finished with 12 points and nine rebounds in 29 minutes. 
  • Juan. Carlos. Navarro. He should still be in the NBA, but the
    basketball gods so rudely stole him away from us to hide him overseas,
    his floaters and jumpers never to be seen again by most NBA fans.
    Navarro was Spain’s top scorer with 20, and it’s clear that when these
    two teams meet again in the elimination rounds, Navarro will be a point
    of emphasis for Team USA’s defense. Iguodala did a good job of
    defending him, but I’d love to see Rajon Rondo have a crack at him as well.

Cavaliers’ Kendrick Perkins not into “all that new stuff” like Chewbacca

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Chewbacca was at Game 3 in Cleveland Saturday. Sitting courtside.

Why? Because growing up on Kashyyyk he played a little hoop and admires LeBron James‘ skill? Because Drake gave him the tickets? Maybe. I mean, it’s not like that was just a clever little publicity stunt for a movie.

After the Cavaliers’ win, Kevin Love decided to make a little joke of it with noted humorist Kendrick Perkins, and it went over as well as expected (with Dave McMenamin of ESPN catching it).

That’s vintage Perkins.

Celtics’ Terry Rozier on Game 3: “We needed to get our butts whooped”

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Cleveland dominated Game 3 Saturday night. They played harder, to start. The Cavaliers’ defensive pressure on the ball was better, they were sharper rotating out to shooters and covering passing lanes. Cleveland’s role players stepped up and helped LeBron James.

Boston, meanwhile, wilted in the face of that pressure Saturday, something it has done a few times on the road these playoffs. The Celtics got away from the things that got them to the Eastern Conference Finals. Guard Terry Rozier put it more bluntly, via A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston:

“I feel like we needed this (loss) to get us back … to get us ready for Monday,” Rozier said.

Rozier later added, “We needed to get our butts whipped. Come back to reality and take care of business on Monday.”

Cleveland is a championship team — from LeBron James on down through the core guys, they all have rings. They have been down before, and heading home it was expected they would play with force. Cleveland’s back was against the wall and they responded.

From the Celtics’ perspective, they also got a little too fat and happy and were not ready for what the Cavaliers came with in Game 3.

Now the pressure is on Boston to push back, to get back to their level of execution and do it under pressure. Make the Cavaliers prove the improved defensive effort was not a one-off game. The Celtics must move the ball and play with some pace, then see if the Cavaliers can keep it together in the face of crisp play.

When this series heads back to Boston Wednesday, it will either see the Celtics in control up 3-1, or the series will be a best of three (with the Cavs still having to figure out if they can win on the road). At home, the Cavaliers are going to play with force again and have some depth. We’ll see if Game 3 was enough of a wakeup call for Boston.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Cavaliers cruise past Celtics in Game 3, change complexion of Eastern Conference finals

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The Cavaliers were heavy favorites over the Celtics entering the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron James has dominated the East for years, and Cleveland appeared to hit its stride in a sweep of the Raptors last round. Boston was shorthanded and inexperienced.

Were the Celtics’ two wins to open the series, as impressive as they were, really enough to override everything else we knew about these teams?

The Cavs walloped Boston in Game 3, 116-86, Saturday. Cleveland now has four of the NBA’s last five 30-point playoff wins – two against the Celtics last year, one over Toronto last round and tonight. (The Cavaliers lost the league’s only other 30-point game between, to the Pacers in the first round.)

Boston still leads the series 2-1, and teams up 2-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 80% of the time.

But the team up 2-1 is usually the one seen as better entering the series. That isn’t the case here, not with LeBron on the other side. And the leading team usually isn’t so woeful on the road, which will remain a major storyline entering Game 4 Monday in Cleveland.

The Celtics bought themselves margin for error, but they blew a lot of it tonight.

It’d be an oversimplification to say the Cavs just played harder, but they did, and it went along way. They chased loose balls, tightened their defense and moved more off the ball offensively. Cleveland jumped to a 20-4 lead, led by double digits the rest of the way and spent most of the game up by at least 20.

LeBron (27 points, 12 assists, two blocks and two steals) dazzled as a passer and locked in as a defender. He received help from several players:

In a low-resistance effort, Boston didn’t goon up the game at all.

The Cavaliers still have plenty of work ahead to reach their fourth straight NBA Finals, but tonight, they showed a path to advancing. Climbing out of their early series deficit now looks far less intimidating.