With the FIBA World Championship Tournament in Turkey now completing its third day, the US squad squeaked past Brazil to now be 3-0. During the run-up to the tournament, the team had looked better and better as they scrimmaged against other countries. The pitiful looking team that only barely scraped by against a seriously undermanned French team, managed to not only come out strong against co-favorite Spain, but to even maintain their cool and snatch the one-point win when things got tight in the end. Before that game, although bookmakers had the US listed as the favorites, everyone in the know (including many big-time USA supporters) had Spain as the true team to beat. So things look more hopeful now, but there are still 3 big issues to overcome.
And we’re only discussing the issues that they can overcome. For instance, their lack of height has been well-chronicled, but they ain’t about to grow. Likewise, they aren’t a very good at running plays to get wide open looks in the half court. However, with the team’s otherworldly abilities, they don’t need to get wide open. More often than not, someone like say Kevin Durant will make a great shot or finish rather than just completely losing his man and having a wide open look. Rudy Gay seems to only hit pull-up contested jumpers, but no one can stop him from getting it off, so when he’s on, it’s deadly. It’s not great half-court offense, but it’s great abilities overcoming solid defense. So what are the three things to worry about?
The great thing about the Lithuania game being so tight is that it woke the Americans up and they came out hard against Spain. However, I’m concerned that now they may be a bit too confident after that subsequent win. I believe it was Derrick Rose who was quoted as saying that the team feels if they just come out hard they can beat any team out there. That may not be true. Remember, in the 2008 Olympics the Americans beat Spain by 30 points earlier in the competition, before having the gold medal game go down to the wire. Unlike in the NBA, teams hold back plays during earlier encounters to surprise others down the road. When Spain went against us in the scrimmage they actually played more like a pickup squad, doing a bunch of iso stuff, rather than their trademark efficient offensive moves and counter-moves.
Teams have studiously avoided playing much zone against us, keeping their key defense secret. Yes, we’ve practiced it a bunch, but during those times we’re not practicing against a zone defense that’s played together for years that moves as one. Zone is all about communication and rotation, so it’s hard to really push yourself in practice unless you can find a great zone defense team to go up against you. We do have the shooters, but we don’t have the experience.
3. A Set Rotation
Coach Mike Krzyzewski has done a great job staying open-minded and allowing players to earn their minutes. It’s refreshing to see it in a world with many stubborn coaches like the Knicks’ own Mike D’Antoni, the Warriors’ Don Nelson and the Nuggets’ George Karl, who dump players into the doghouse and never fully let them out (see Nate Robinson, Anthony Randolph and JR Smith). Players like Eric Gordon, who was never expected to make the roster, was given the opportunity to show his value. Russell Westbrook who during the first scrimmage was benched (or was it just that he got very few minutes? I forget now…), he was given a chance to strut his stuff and now has gone from being a 12th (or 13th) man to one of the first guys off the bench. Likewise, in just the last few games, Kevin Love has been allowed to prove his worth too, getting double digit rebounds in the team’s last three outings despite never even cracking twenty minutes of playing time. However, the flip side is that due to such fluidity, the lack of 100% defined minutes could get players looking over their shoulder in a tight game. Like on one hand, it could be good ‘cuz if say Stephen Curry is having a great game and Derrick Rose isn’t, then Coach can go with Curry down the stretch. But this can produce a negative effect too. Curry stays in, but since he doesn’t usually close games on this team, he feels extra pressure that he better be good ‘cuz he’s on a short leash and there are plenty of other options on the bench if he doesn’t. So maybe he passes up a shot he should take because he’s so concerned about doing the right thing and not taking bad looks. Or he wants to show how good he is, that he can hit shots, so as soon as he gets a little bit of air, he chucks it up.
Now lemme be clear: these are potential problems, not definite ones. If the team’s confidence helps them believe in themselves and thus win it all, clearly it would be a good thing, not a bad one. Likewise same thing with the inconsistent minutes: if Coach K remains flexible and always has a hot hand to go to, it could work out brilliantly. But as we get towards the elimination rounds, these are some of my concerns. Hopefully none of these prove to be fatal flaws.