Watching the first half of Team USA’s exhibition game against France, I had one main thought: uh-oh. They were tied at the end of the first quarter, and only had a nine point lead at half (and when France scored the first basket of the second half, they cut the lead to 7). Yes, eventually it turned into a blowout, with USA winning 86-55, but this game shouldn’t have been as close as it was for as long as it was. Not only is France not one of the better international teams, but they were also missing many of their top players in Tony Parker, Roddy Beaubois, Ronny Turiaf and Mickael Pietrus.
Granted, our team hasn’t been together that long, so it’s highly likely they improve significantly during the nearly two weeks remaining before the World Championship. The fact is, we just don’t have the talent we did in the Olympics. Many of them Redeem Teamers visited our current crew, but none of ‘em are gonna pull a Willis Reed and surprisingly show up. So first, two general comments, followed by four things that we can do to improve:
1. Who will be cut?
With JaVale McGee and Jeff Green being cut before the game, the team is down to 13 players, but only 12 are allowed to be on the roster. Since the final roster doesn’t need to be in until almost the last minute, the team is bringing all 13 players abroad. This gives players more of a chance to show their stuff, plus provides insurance in case someone gets hurt beforehand. The consensus had been that it was down to Stephen Curry versus Eric Gordon for the final spot, with Gordon likely being the odd man out. After yesterday’s game, that’s not the way it seems to me. Russell Westbrook barely got into the game. He may be a “better” player than Gordon, but it seems Coach Mike Krzyzewski has correctly realized that Westbrook’s skills duplicate others, while Gordon has something unique to offer. As amazing as Westbrook is, what does he bring that say Rajon Rondo or Derrick Rose don’t? On the other hand, Gordon’s the only one who plays shooting guard in the NBA and he has a strength to his game that Curry lacks. So I’m betting both Gordon and Curry make it, with Westy as the odd man out.
2. Oh no, we’re small!
Much of the worry about this team has been that we lack height. Tyson Chandler is our only true center, plus like half the team is under 6’4″. However, that didn’t seem to be too big an issue in this game. And maybe it’s just ‘cuz France doesn’t have great low-post players beyond Boris Diaw, but I don’t think so. People forget that the Redeem Team usually just sported say Dwight Howard at center, and then a small forward (often LeBron or Melo) at power forward, so we were technically undersized then too. One could point out that Chandler’s no Howard, but the truth is that we actually often looked better in the Olympics when Chris Bosh was center rather than Howard. Bosh was better at moving and defending the pick-and-rolls, which is more the international style of play. Howard is better at protecting the paint should anyone try to drive to the hoop, but that’s not as frequent an occurrence abroad as it is in the NBA. Rudy Gay, Kevin Durant and Danny Granger should be fine as power forwards once they get a bit more used to it. And Lamar Odom’s had enough seasons of grabbing near-double digit rebounds that he was able to easily slot in as backup center.
THINGS TO IMPROVE:
1. More pressure on the ball
Sure, we pressured the ball like 70% of the time, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be 100% of the time. One, steals will lead to easy buckets, something that’s particularly important ‘cuz we seemed to have a tough time scoring in the half-court. Two, even if we don’t go for the steal (which can sometimes lead you vulnerable if you miss and they get past you), if we put minimal pressure on the ball as it’s being brought up, we can cut precious seconds off the shot clock. If we make them take six seconds to cross the half-court line and then two more seconds just to get to the three-point line and start to initiate their offense, we’ve just made them use up a third of their time. That’s pretty good D. Our long arms and athleticism should then be able to shut down their first few moves, leaving them hurrying to avoid the shot clock. Plus, with us having 58 point guards on the roster, there’s no fear that the guys doing the pressuring will tire out.
2. Pass the ball ahead
Several times there were steals or long rebounds that a point guard, like say Rajon Rondo, snared where they were the second person up the court. However, rather than passing it ahead to the lead guy who might be Chauncey Billups (a pretty good point guard himself!), Rondo instead would dribble it up himself. He’d go quick to see if he could catch the D off-guard, but then he’s got to get past his guy and Chauncey’s (plus he’s given more time for other defenders to arrive). If he passes it ahead, Chauncey just has his one guy to get past, and most of our guys can get past their man one-on-one no problem. Or if Rondo’s man turns to help stop Chauncey on the side, Rondo runs to the basket for the easy pass back. The problem is that most of these guys don’t play fast-break ball, and they’re used to being the sole person who brings it up in those instances. Rondo often runs a one-man fast-break, but he pretty much never passes it ahead to a Paul Pierce or Ray Allen (unless it’s a wide-open breakaway). Again, this team needs easier scoring opportunities, so every little bit counts. The Redeem Team did this a ton (particularly passing it ahead to a Kobe, Wade or LeBron, and then Melo trailing right to the basket all alone for the easy dunk. Except for Tyson Chandler (and maybe Kevin Love) all these guys can handle the ball, even backup “center” Lamar Odom, so there’s no reason not to pass it up to the lead guy and allow him to probe the defense before it’s set.
3. Better half-court ball movement
The team’s defense was actually pretty good, it was on offense that we sucked poop. When we passed the ball around it was rarely crisp passes intended to make the defense play catch-up, but rather a gentle pass saying, hey, you wanna give it a shot? So the next guy gets it, stands still for a second sussing up the defense, maybe calling someone over for a pick, but nonetheless giving the D plenty of time to reset. The problem is that we know we can get past our individual defenders any time, however due to the different international rules, the help defenders are just camped out in the paint. And with the shorter three-point line, there’s less space to maneuver. To counter that we need constant ball-movement, swinging the ball from one side to the other, probing and penetrating, almost treating their man defense the way one would a zone defense.
4. Better shot selection
This goes hand-in-hand with the better ball movement. France, like most teams, will play a step back to encourage us to take jump shots. All our guys are such great players that if you give them just a little bit of space, they know they can get their shot off no problem, so that’s exactly what they did. And many of those shots went in. But we can get better looks. A huge amount of our attempts are what I’d call “Kobe shots” where we just do a little dancing and even if we’re not wide-open, we put up the shot. That’s fine when there’s no time left on the shot clock, but earlier on it can be deadly.