With Another Rout, Team USA Is Looking Better and Better

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The New York Sun

If the U.S. was looking to restore its intimidation factor in international basketball, yesterday went a long way toward accomplishing that goal. With all the teams assembled in one location for the first time — the Saitama Super Arena just outside of Tokyo — the U.S. served notice that it’s the team to beat with a 113–73 thrashing of Australia.

The impressive win marked another step in the U.S. team’s progression. Since the American side has the least international experience and had the least time playing together before the tournament started, one thing it had to count on was being able to improve as the tournament went on. This result is strong evidence the team has done just that, playing what was easily its most impressive game to date.

The U.S.actually had a fairly lackluster first quarter, leading only 27–23 after the first stanza, but hammered the Aussies further down and under than they ever imagined in the second. The U.S. held them without a field goal for nearly eight minutes and held them to only six points in the quarter.By the time it was over, the U.S. had a 30-point halftime lead and the rout was officially on.

The defensive effort from the U.S.was awesome, and it showed a further development in what’s been an increasing trend for the team: staying at home.The U.S. gambled far too much for steals in its first few games, most notably in the 111–100 opener against Puerto Rico.All that gambling was actually helping their opponents, creating openings and easy looks for players who would normally have trouble scoring consistently on the U.S. in the halfcourt.

As a result, the U.S. dialed back the pressure quite a bit, starting in the second quarter against Slovenia, and the results have been vastly improved. The irony is that the U.S. can create just as many turnovers with a conservative defensive approach, because it forces opponents to go one-on-one off the dribble and try to get shots off against superior athletes. This was proven true yesterday, as the U.S. forced 24 Australian turnovers yesterday despite rarely pressuring in the backcourt.

An important subplot to the rout was the resurgence of Chris Bosh. Relegated to the bench for nearly the entire opening round, Bosh had a strong game against Senegal in the final contest that most people discounted because, hey, it was only Senegal. But in the Australia game he played just as well and served as the catalyst for the U.S. in its big second quarter run.

Bosh’s final line was excellent: 12 points on 4 of 4 from the field, a gamehigh nine rebounds in 18 minutes, and no turnovers. But what really stood out was his defensive activity. Bosh was far and away the most interested and involved U.S. big man on rotations and help plays, and for his efforts it appears he’s moved ahead of Antawn Jamison in the U.S. frontcourt food chain.

The other strong bench effort came from Joe Johnson, who scored 18 points in 17 minutes and closed the first half with a personal 7–0 run. Johnson had been struggling with his shot of late, so getting him back in form was a big development. USA basketball selected him primarily for his shooting, and he’ll need to deliver in that department when teams like Greece and Spain play in a zone against the U.S.

The one concern with Johnson is that his outside stroke hasn’t completely come around yet. He made only 2 of 6 from the arc yesterday, and on the tournament as a whole he’s just 8 of 27. While we’re ripping on shooters, Chris Paul’s reluctance to shoot in the first quarter no doubt caught the attention of opponents’ scouts too, and the U.S. can expect to keep seeing zone defenses when he’s on the floor.Paul has made a decent percentage of his 3-pointers (4 of 10),but taken them rarely.He’ll need to pull the trigger more readily in future rounds.

The win advanced the Americans to the quarterfinals, where Germany (6:30 am, Wednesday), doesn’t figure to pose any more of a threat than the Australians did. Like Australia, the Germans have one big-time NBA player (Dirk Nowitzki) surrounded by four players with far less talent. The German side barely outlasted Nigeria 78–77 yesterday to advance and figures to have little chance against a team with the depth and talent of the U.S. However, Big East fans will recognize one other name on the German squad — forward Johannes Herber, who played collegiately for West Virginia.

As for the rest of the tournament, all of the favorites advanced in the opening round with one exception — Lithuania beat Italy in a mild upset. This game had one of the more bizarre conclusions you’ll ever see to a basketball game: The two sides took nine free throws in the final eight seconds and missed all of them. The final insult came when a Lithuanian player inexplicably fouled Italy’s Gianluca Basile while he was trying a desperation 3-pointer with 0.6 seconds left, giving Italy a chance to tie. But Basile missed all three shots, and the Lithuanians were 71–68 winners.

Lithuania will play Spain on Tuesday while Turkey meets Argentina in the opener. The Turkey-Argentina contest figures to be the better of the two games, as the Turks will be far and away the toughest team Argentina has played thus far. Although Turkey is without NBA stars Mehmet Okur and Hedo Turkoglu, they’ve had much better chemistry than in previous competitions and received a strong tournament from shooting guard Serkan Erdogan, who plays professionally in Spain.

Prior to the U.S. game on Wednesday, France will meet Greece, with the winner facing the U.S or Germany in the semifinals. U.S. fans should pull heavily for France in this one, as the French side is much diminished without Tony Parker and shouldn’t pose a serious threat. Alas, this is why Greece probably will win, setting up a battle of two unbeatens in the semifinals on Friday – and the first real test for Team USA.


The New York Sun

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