Despite Routs, U.S. Has Room for Improvement
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
International basketball is a shooter’s game thanks to the shorter 3-point line, and if there’s a concern for USA Basketball right now, it’s the inability of its guards to take advantage of that.
Yesterday’s 97-76 win against an overmatched Angola team is another example. While they steamrolled the Angolans in the open court, the starting backcourt of Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant offered up more question marks for what may happen against the far better competition they’re about to face next.
Bryant is an unbelievable one-on-one scorer and has taken on the added burden of being the U.S.’s defensive ace. But he seems uncomfortable taking the catch-and-shoot jumpers that are going to be available to him when defenses sag against the drives of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Bryant was 0-for-8 on 3-pointers against Angola after shooting 1-for-7 against China in the opener, making him a miserable 1-for-15 from downtown in his Olympics thus far. Overall America was 5-for-21, and is now 12-for-45 (26.7%) in two games. That’s not a problem against overmatched teams that can’t stop the Americans from running, but it bodes poorly for how they’ll fare against more disciplined and talented squads.
At least Kobe’s shooting it. Jason Kidd seems terrified of doing so and at this point simply needs to be replaced. Once again he cost the U.S. with his penchant for passing up wide-open shots on the perimeter, giving the ball up on multiple occasions even though the Angolans weren’t even bothering to guard him. Kidd also dribbled straight into a trap in the opening minutes for a turnover and an Angolan breakaway; one wonders what more he has to do to lose his starting job.
It’s not like the U.S. lacks for options. Chris Paul and Deron Williams played well off the pine, and in fact the U.S. side looks much more dangerous with either of them at the controls. That hasn’t mattered against the likes of China and Angola, but it’s about to be put in much sharper contrast because the schedule gets much tougher from here.
The U.S. next faces Greece tomorrow morning, a match that should provide a much sterner test of where these guys stand. The Greeks rolled to an impressive 87-64 win over Germany on Monday, holding Dirk Nowitzki to just 13 points and evening their mark at 1-1 in pool play.
The American side shouldn’t lack for motivation in this one. Greece was the team that ruined the U.S.’s hopes at the World Championships in Japan two years ago with a 101-95 upset, and they return this year with several of the same players.
Their guards are the key. Former Houston Rocket Vasilis Spanoulis scored 23 points against Germany and excels at driving to the basket off the pick-and-roll — a play that killed the U.S. in the loss two years ago. Theodoros Papaloukas is a clever 6-foot-7-inch point guard who will be Kobe’s toughest defensive test thus far, while Dimitris Diamantidis is an elite defender who can shift between either guard slot.
Defense is Greece’s other major strength. They like to slow the game down and play a physical, half-court style, so it will be up to the U.S. to try to pick up the tempo. Tomorrow, there’s little doubt that they’ll pack in the defense and try to make the U.S. beat them from outside, and if Kobe and Kidd are as bad at doing that as they were in the first two games, Greece just might succeed.
However, the Greeks struggle to score — they’re arguably even worse long-range shooters than the Americans, and they get virtually nothing from their big men. As a result, the American side should be able to hold them down enough at that end to hang on for an uncomfortable win — I’ll go with 85-75 as the final.
Win or lose, however, it’s a relief that the U.S. will get some tough tests in pool play. The draw at the World Championships turned out in such a way that they weren’t tested until the Greece game and didn’t know what hit them until it was too late. Here, even if they lose to Greece or Spain, they have time to regroup before the medal round, and should be much better prepared for the games that truly matter.
The U.S. isn’t the only favorite who looked off their game on Tuesday. Spain nearly suffered a shocking upset at the hands of China, trailing by 14 points in the fourth quarter before a furious rally sent the game to overtime. The Spaniards then rallied behind Pau Gasol — helped by the fact that Yao Ming had fouled out — to win 85-75, but their standing as co-favorites with the U.S. was seriously diminished by this result.
Spain committed 22 turnovers against a side that isn’t exactly renowned for its defensive activity, and if not for brilliant play by Gasol (13-of-17, 29 points) and Trail Blazer-to-be Rudy Fernandez (21 points, eight rebounds, six assists) would have suffered a humiliating defeat. The Nets’ Yi Jianlian played nearly the whole game but turned in another indifferent effort, with four points, nine boards, and three steals.
This game was notable also for Spain yanking point guard Jose Calderon of the Toronto Raptors, who struggled, and inserting 17-year-old phenom Ricky Rubio to lead the comeback. He had four steals in 17 minutes and forced a turnover when China looked like it would have the final shot of regulation.
Meanwhile, a former Net is having a whale of a tournament. No, not Kidd. I’m talking about his former backup — Croatia’s Zoran Planinic. He scored 20 points in 19 minutes, including a backbreaking 3-pointer off the dribble late in the fourth quarter, as the Croats upset Russia 85-78 to move to 2-0 in the tournament. In two games, Planinic is 12-of-15 from the field and has 32 points in 35 minutes and — ready for a shocker, Nets fans? — just two turnovers.
With a gimme against Iran left on their slate, Croatia is basically assured of advancing to the medal round, but their surprising play sets up two interesting battles in Pool A on Thursday. Croatia (2-0) will battle Argentina (1-1), who awakened with a 85-68 win over Australia yesterday, while Lithuania (2-0) meets Russia (1-1). These four teams are all but certain to be the group’s four medal-round qualifiers, but earning a spot in the top two is especially important — it’s the difference between facing the U.S. or Spain right away, or avoiding them until at least the semifinals.
That, of course, assumes the U.S. and Spain will take care of business in Pool B. After disappointing efforts by both yesterday, it’s fair to ask whether we can make that assumption so cavalierly.