Friday, August 01, 2008

There's no stopping LBJ

Missing the first half yesterday meant that I missed the splendor that is LeBron James in international basketball. We already know that there is no one on the planet that can defend LeBron one-on-one. But what hadn't been clear was how LeBron would play with a number of superstars around him. The answer is: an unstoppable destructive force on both ends of the court. I don't even know if he has an actual position on that team. It's more like he is the designated Whirling Dervish whose job is to disrupt and destroy.

After watching him against Lithuania this morning, no slouch although quite young, I have to say, failing injury, I don't see how the USA doesn't win gold this year. Even if some team out there could stop Kobe, Deron, Redd, et al, there's no way that they're ever gonna have a chance against LBJ. We'll know more after the Russia game, so I will forego further fawning praise for now in favor of a few more observations.

1. I left out Germany from yesterday's breakdown of the preliminary round. No offense intended, just missed 'em on the ESPN schedule. That being said, they have less than no hope. You aren't beating Team USA unless you have excellent guard play and that excludes Germany. But good for them anyway. I've always been a Dirk fan and I'm happy they get to compete.

2. The US athleticism again caused serious problems for their opponent. Our guys came out with energy, quick feet, and jabbing hands and that resulted in turnovers, fastbreaks, and easy buckets. Even with an experienced, NBA calibre point guard (Sarunas Jasikevicius) Lithuania had loads of problems just getting into the half-court in the first quarter (and beyond). The US second team didn't play as well in the second as one would expect, but even with a half-effort from the second team, the US went into halftime "in control" although not with a demoralizing lead (I think it was only 17).

3. Size problems continue. I haven't seen the box score yet but it sure looked like Lithuania was getting a bunch of offensive boards. I counted 3 straight during one stretch in the 3rd. But more than that, by playing Carmelo at the 4 (which they seem to do for long stretches) they have only 2 options to stop an easy post-up score: deny the entry or swipe the ball out of the big's hands once he gets it. That seemed to work for awhile but it also resulted in a couple easy fouls on 'Melo. I'm not saying that's not gonna work against most teams. I mean, the US is great at disrupting another team's offense, but it's risky. Even a young team like Lithuania was able to handle the defensive pressure after awhile and score some easy buckets. I wonder what a team like Spain will do.

4. Pick and Roll defense continues to need work. The US team definitely played the Pick and Roll better than yesterday. But they still need work. Euro teams are great at the pick and roll. So good that I imagine that a typical Euro practice is 2 straight hours of pick and roll offense. So the US will need to defend it better. The good news is that it looks like they're figuring that out. That doesn't mean there weren't some easy buckets given up, but they're reacting quicker to the pick-and-roll, as if they now have it clear that the only real offense most Euro teams have is the pick-and-roll (and junk shooting which we'll get to next). If they continue to get better at defending the pick-and-roll, then this tournament will be a breeze.

5. Junk 3-point shooting is the other staple of the Euro offense. Anyone who's watched Euro Basket or International Ball knows that the only times the Euros don't run the pick-and-roll their offense is essentially crazy, herky jerky dribble drive and kick to a 6'10" guy who can shoot the international 3. Coming out of the break today, that's just what Lithuania did and because our guys were a little slow to pick up on it, Lithuania narrowed the lead to 9 points (4-5 3-PTs to start the 3rd quarter). So I was a little disappointed that the guys weren't realizing that: a) all the Euros can shoot the 3 and b) it's better to give up an easy bucket down low than a wide open 3-pointer.

And while I wasn't ever really worried (the offense was still rocking), I was concerned about what I saw to start the 3rd. But then, Coach K made one small change that irrevocably destroyed Lithuania - he went to the press (at times full court, other times 3/4 court). Once again, our athleticism won the day. Because if you can't reliably get the ball up the court, it doesn't matter how good your flat footed big men can shoot the rock. Suddenly, a 9 point lead went to a 25 point lead and it was over. Spain will handle this better. They have legit point guards. But I wonder about the other teams in the tournament.

6. Dwyane Wade is back. I haven't seen Wade play this good...ever. Whatever injuries he may have had last season, they're way behind him. He was bombing 3's, driving to the hoop, distributing the ball, and doing all the things that make DWade, DWade. He had one ridiculous dunk that just about brought the house down. (The Chinese are excellent basketball fans as far as I can tell, btw). To think that we have a top-5 player in the world coming off the bench must be very scary for the rest of the field.

In sum, the problems the US has are mostly correctable. And it appears like Coach K is working hard to correct them. I have to say, I just don't see this team losing. I have small concerns (being too unselfish, lack of size, etc) but even if you add up all those concerns you still come up with a couple uncomfortably close games, not a loss. This year it looks like we got the right mix of guys and the right coach. If we screw this up, then I don't know where we go from here.

Update: ESPN's Chris Sheridan, who has been doing yoeman's work on international basketball for years now, highlights Kobe more than anyone but also concludes that based on performace so far, Team USA should win the gold going away. This is interesting because he would be considered a basketball "realist" and accurately predicted our failures of the last several years.



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