Now This Was a Superior Machine
Team USA blew out Venezuela 112-69 Wednesday night in their opener to the Tournament of the Americas, but the margin of victory and box score do not begin to explain the important on-court issues and great moments that populated this contest. With that in mind, here’s Plissken’s rundown of what transpired on the court and in the broadcast. (Note: I don't want to take all the credit for this one; Carter and I worked on this post together.)
In our breakdown of the Team USA scrimmage last month, we talked at length about the intensity that Kobe brought to the proceedings, and nothing seems to have changed with regards to his mindset over the last few weeks. From the opening tip, it became clear that he’s taking this competition more seriously than just about everyone else involved (at least among those on Team USA). Honestly, he’s like the guy who takes your pickup game way too seriously and Ds up everyone hard, except he’s also the best player in the world. Kobe terrorized Venezuelan standout Greivis Vasquez on defense throughout the first half, easily justifying his request to guard the opponent’s best scorer in every game. Maryland’s Vasquez isn’t an NBA player yet, but he didn’t notch a triple-double in the ACC as a freshman by mistake. Kobe effectively bottled up the player most capable of embarrassing this team, which, for an outfit that's struggled with that recently, is nothing to sneeze at. It’s also worth mentioning that Kobe brought his Pilates instructor to Vegas with him, suggesting that he’ll unveil his most impressive shit in the fall.
Kobe’s contributions show up in the box score, but those of the game's second-most impressive player do not. Jason Kidd attempted no shots, dished four assists, grabbed three rebounds, and probably didn’t even hold the ball for more than 90 seconds combined, but he completely controlled the game’s tempo with a number of full court outlet passes off of both makes and misses. Without having looked at game tape, Kidd never seemed to hold the ball for more than one second; he had every move planned out well in advance of the defense. He’d be the perfect point guard for this team even if Nash were American, because no one can control tempo like him without dribbling. On a team with so many talented scorers, his skills cannot be talked about enough.
The backup point guard situation is a little less defined. We both believe that Kirk Hinrich should have made the team ahead of Billups; Hinrich’s a better defender right now and not too much worse of a distributor or shooter. Additionally, Billup’s greatest asset, his size, is essentially a non-issue on a team with Kidd and Deron Williams. Billups didn’t play poorly on Wednesday, but it’s frustrating to see him get minutes at Deron’s expense.
Another curious roster choice involves the decision to keep both Mike Miller and Michael Redd. The primary reason that this choice should be questioned is that the international line is close enough that players like Carmelo Anthony (who doesn’t exactly light things up from outside in the NBA) can become solid shooters. Three-point shooting was more of an issue when Melo, LBJ, and Dwyane comprised the primary wing rotation, but substituting a terrific shooter like Kobe for Wade nearly solves that issue. At that point, the decision becomes one of whether to keep Miller or Redd. For the sake of argument, let us assume now that Miller is the better shooter of the two. Even under these circumstances, Miller still misses shots (six misses from outside today), and it’s not like Redd is too far behind him. Additionally, Redd has a much more well-rounded offensive game than Miller, particularly off-the-dribble. Why not keep Redd, who’s still a terrific shooter, and put Kevin Durant in Mike Miller’s place? Lord knows Durant can get hot from long-range, and his complete offensive game and defensive length make him an asset at both ends of the court.
The shooter situation seems even weirder given that Miller and Redd play together on Team USA’s thoroughly bizarre second unit. The Billups/Miller/Redd backcourt is theoretically a zone-busting one, but they played very tentatively today. You can kill a zone by hitting outside shots, but stagnancy isn’t the best way to get those looks—penetration gets the defenders moving, thereby causing the zone to become frenzied and late-to-recover. I’m all for creating cohesive first and second units due to the fact that these players mostly haven’t played with each other before, but those units need to make more sense. However, it’s likely that the second unit will seem like a better five against a team with a quality zone—Venezuela played one of the most porous ones I’ve seen in quite some time.
In the frontcourt, all this talk about the injury to Chris Bosh potentially leaving the team dangerously thin inside looks like hogwash. It's an unfortunate injury, to be sure, and he would have been unbelievably awesome, but we still have Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire—uh, and Tyson Chandler, if Coach K ever decides to use him for more than mop-up duty in the fourth quarter. Let’s be real here: we're honestly worried about not sizing up against Samuel Dalembert? Nene and Tiago Splitter are solid, no doubt, but I think I'll take my chances with the manfreaks.
We were a bit worried that Kobe, Melo, and LeBron would have trouble meshing, but one look at them on the break completely ended that fear. Watching those three work together with Kidd makes the situations in LA and Cleveland that much more difficult to take. It’s ridiculous that Mike Brown won’t let loose the best open-court player in the league (ever?), and Kobe would do wonders with competent finishers.
Bill Walton can be a polarizing figure in the booth, but only the biggest Dead hater would give him poor marks for his work on Wednesday. Some of the highlights: opening the game with a detailed explanation of the origins of Venezuela’s name; not knowing what a fade haircut is (“so you go in and ask for a fade?”); comparing LeBron’s best dunk to Angel Falls, the largest waterfall in the world (and in Venezuela); telling us not to underestimate the importance of Scot Pollard in Boston; and, my personal favorite, praising Hugo Chavez for educating poor Venezuelans. Can you imagine Mark Jackson talking about how Hugo Chavez doesn’t govern “the right way”?
Before we leave you, some assorted thoughts from the game: Outside of Walton, the best broadcast moment came during halftime, when they showed part of a Coach K pep talk. The reactions said it all. Kobe was way more interested than everyone else, Carmelo looked like he realized exactly why he left college, Chandler looked like he knew why he never went, Amare didn’t seem to understand how anyone could take it seriously, LeBron chewed on his lip and seemed to be thinking about his favorite SNL sketch ideas, and Mike Miller looked furious that anyone would condescend to him like that. … Given his strength, there’s no reason for Carmelo to get blocked inside as often as he did. Missing five “twos” against a defense that awful is uncalled for. … Someone will burn the USA zone very badly at some point during this tournament or next year’s Olympics. On one possession, two Venezuelans made three consecutive passes to each other and beat the zone easily. … After about a quarter-and-a-half, Hector Romero, who looks vaguely like Etan Thomas, clearly decided he’d had enough of the blowout and started focusing on nothing but trying to block every shot. He was our favorite player on Venezuela.