Only for Those with True Grit

So much for my comment yesterday that nobody would come within 30 of Team USA. The Americans had another successful game, topping Mexico 127-100, but were unable to create a mindblowing lead due to the Mexicans’ tenacity and confidence. The final result was never in doubt, but this game said a lot about Team USA’s players and tendencies.

The epic first quarter (45-23 in ten minutes!) had the look of most of our outings in this tournament, with excellent ball movement, ridiculous alley-oops, and all the other details that signify full-scale annihilation. I was all set to write an entire post about how these games have ceased to resemble competitive basketball and that they’re really just superior all-star games in which the incredible plays arise from real situations instead of a desperate entertainer’s desire to “put on a show.”

Shreds of that concept showed up throughout the rest of the game, but Mexico announced that they weren’t going to quit with a terrific second quarter in which they actually out-scored Team USA 28-20. The Mexicans weren’t able to top Team USA in any other quarter, but any time things looked seemed to be on the verge of getting out of hand Romel Beck, Anthony Pedroza, Adam Parada, or Victor Mariscal made make a basket or two to keep the deficit in the teens or 20s. The outcome was never in question, but Mexico’s performance was easily the most impressive of any of Team USA’s opponents in this tournament. The simple facts that they never gave up, executed their cuts extremely well, and got into triple digits say a lot about their resolve and the coaching of Nolan Richardson. Honestly, if they had some legitimate players in the paint, I think they could have made this a real game.

While Mexico deserves the bulk of the credit for their play, Team USA should also shoulder some blame for failing to turn this game into an epic blowout. Given the success Kobe’s had defensively during this tourney, it seems weird to criticize his play at that end tonight. However, he let his inability to shut down Romel Beck affect his play offensively, resulting in the return of some of Kobe’s worse tendencies. Instead of playing the selfless team basketball that’s typified his play with Team USA, Kobe forced some questionable shots and drives. Some of those plays worked because, you know, he’s Kobe Bryant, but you would have thought he were playing with Sasha Vujacic instead of LeBron James. It’ll be interesting to see how he responds against Puerto Rico.

Coach K’s decision to start Chauncey Billups in place of Jason Kidd made absolutely no sense to me. I understand that Kidd needs more rest than any other player on the team, but he hasn’t played a great deal of minutes in this tournament in the first place, and it’s not as if the coaches can’t limit his minutes in the second half. The first quarter was obviously a success with Billups running with the first team, but things didn’t really get kicking until Kidd entered the game. Additionally, Billups had some trouble keeping Team USA from getting three-happy during some of their worst stretches. Kidd fits with that main lineup quite perfectly; his lack of a need to shoot works beautifully with three guys (plus Howard) who can finish easily. Billups, on the other hand, spends more time dribbling and fits much better with the second team, where his shooting makes him a nice addition to a lineup without great creative ability. Placing Billups on the first team gives Team USA two great lineups instead of one phenomenal lineup and one very good one.

Dwight Howard had yet another tremendous game, scoring 19 points on 9/10 shooting (I’m pretty sure all but one of those attempts was a dunk). Howard obviously won’t have the opportunity to be the fifth option in Orlando, but watching him with players of this caliber suggests that the Rashard Lewis signing will help him a great deal. Yes, the Magic overpaid a limited player, but Rashard’s scoring ability should take some pressure off of Howard, allowing him to freelance in a way he’s never experienced. Now, if only they could trade Jameer Nelson for Kidd.

Other notes on the game: FIBA rules continue to boggle the mind. Why do teams not get to carry over victories to Round Two involving teams that did not make that round? Aren't they completely different rounds with completely different consequences and situations? Teams shouldn’t be punished for beating the teams they were scheduled to play. I’m starting to think the FIBA bigwigs consult a Ouija board whenever they meet. … Mike Miller has turned into the Mark Madsen of Team USA. He could challenge Sarunas Jasikevicius’s 2007 record for “most times shown after a teammate’s dunk.” … Not Walton’s best game, but he still had some amazing moments. For instance, his love for the Baja Peninsula made it clear that it’s his favorite place to get stoned in Mexico. The highlight of the day, however, was his reference to “UCLA legend Lorenzo Mata.” I know that he uses that term for anyone with even a tangential relationship to the school, but I never expected to hear that phrase in my life.

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