Won't Be Long Now Before They Tear Us to Shreds
Team USA kept rocking and rolling through the weekend, destroying Canada 113-63 on Saturday and mauling Brazil, the second-best team in the tournament, 113-76 on Sunday night. At this point, it’s clear that no one will come within 30 of the Americans at this tournament, and it’s not even worth pretending otherwise. In a way, this team is now a lot like next year’s Mavs: having established that they’ll be a favorite in the Olympics, Team USA now must focus everything they have on attaining the gold. It might seem silly for the team to focus on something that’s now a year away, but they need to take this tournament for what it is—a bunch of games against inferior, half-strength competition.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the weekend’s games didn’t teach us some important lessons about international and NBA ball. These games didn’t look quite as one-sided as those against Venezuela and US Virgin Islands, but the United States’ ability to dominate shows exactly how much deeper and more talented they are in comparison to the other teams in this tournament. It’s tempting to say that Argentina or Spain could come close to matching the USA at full strength, but Walton’s comments throughout the game today about how no other players in this tournament could even think about trying out for Team USA (Leandro would make the Select Team, though) speaks volumes about the talent gap around the world. Even a team like Brazil, which rotated well on defense for much of the first half and hit some tough shots, still couldn’t make it anything less than a blowout heading into the locker room at the break.
In the Brazil game, many players on both sides took advantage of the curious FIBA rule allowing players to interfere with the ball once it has touched the rim, a rule that both Carter and I find amazingly stupid. For one thing, it seemed to have been concocted by a bunch of stoned FIBA higher-ups playing NBA Jam in their basements. (Note: This scenario could also explain why it’s easier to make threes on the international court.) I know that game wins at life, but did they ever consider how this rule would affect the game? On a very basic level, the Americans will have even more of an advantage if we ever learn how to adjust to the ridiculous rule. Will anyone be able to out-jump Bosh, Amare, or Howard for a tip-in or block (or would it be a rebound?) off the rim? Carter only half-jokingly believes that Coach K should designate the center as a put-back and rejection man on every possession. On offense, his sole responsibility would be to stand at the elbow and swoop in for follow-dunks, while his defensive job would be to stand under the basket and swat everything up court as if he were making an outlet pass.
Much of Team USA’s success against Brazil can be attributed to Kobe Bryant’s typically excellent defense on Leandro Barbosa, who scored just four points (1/7 FG) after being the leading scorer for the tournament in his first three games. Everyone knows that Kobe wants to take the best perimeter player on the opposing team, but his performance here suggests that Phil Jackson made a mistake in not putting Kobe on Leandro during Barbosa’s full-scale demolition of the Lakers in the playoffs. To be sure, Leandro can take on a less noticeable role on a team with Nash, Marion, and Amare than he can on a team like Brazil, causing Phil to have to weigh his options in terms of where to put his best perimeter defender. However, putting that man on Raja Bell seems like a poor choice when a lightning fast guy like Leandro is embarrassing your team in every conceivable way. That would create an issue with regards to putting Jordan Farmar on the much bigger Bell, but I’ll take my chances with the less explosive player.
Dwyane Wade attended Saturday’s game against Canada in a bright red Team USA shirt, bringing to mind questions of exactly how he’ll fit in on this team. The starting lineup has been phenomenally successful and shouldn’t be broken up under any circumstances, which will likely force Wade to the bench. On a purely strategic level, that move would make a great deal of sense; Wade could man the two, allowing Coach K to quit using the bizarre Billups/Deron backcourt. However, Dwyane is far from selfless (we think he idolizes Marlo Stanfield—check the unnecessary lollipop in this Barkley ad) and might not take too kindly to being demoted to the second unit. This probably won’t be a huge deal, but it’s something to watch out for next year.
Way back in July, we said that LeBron might not be the best fit on this team. Well, we couldn’t have been more wrong. For my money, he’s been the third-best player on the team behind Kobe and Kidd (yeah, Melo has scored, but I’ll take LeBron). No small forward in this tournament can match up with his size, and even if that player did exist, Lebron would just drive past him for easy buckets. Most importantly, LBJ’s been able to incorporate himself into the team style with remarkable ease; his trademark 15-second hold-and-chuck isolation plays have been noticeably absent. That shouldn’t really be surprising, though, considering everyone compared him to Magic more often than they compared him to MJ. No team could ever have the talent of this team in the NBA, but LeBron’s performance just goes to show that the surrounding “talent” and system in Cleveland have significantly affected his style of play for the worse. We’ve said it before, but it deserves to be said as many times as possible: Mike Brown is making a serious, serious mistake in not letting LeBron run. Sasha Pavlovic and Tits Gibson aren’t the best wingmen around, but an open court talent of LeBron’s caliber only comes around once per generation.
Assorted notes: Bill Walton toned things down a bit in Thursday’s game, but this weekend had some amazing highlights. They included: an extended endorsement of Festival Express, a documentary about the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and a bunch of other like-minded bands touring around Canada; an explanation of the origin of Brazil’s name; enough praise for Oscar Schmidt to make 50 million Brazilians blush; and a discussion of Nova Scotia’s odd time zone. … The Spurs should be really happy with their pick of Tiago Splitter, who looked very quick for a big man. He could probably contribute this year, if necessary. I’m sure the Spurs will gladly keep him in Spain, though. … Team USA had some rebounding issues against the bigger Brazilian frontline of Nene and Splitter, although some of those troubles could be explained by the lack of effort that attends a commanding lead. … Brazil pressed for one possession, which might be the stupidest idea in the history of basketball. Kobe hit an easy three on the play. … I can’t imagine “Cuarenta Minutos de Infierno” will have much success against a team with significantly more athleticism. Here’s hoping we can score 150 points.