Thursday, August 9, 2012

Game Recap: USA vs. Australia, Olympic Quarterfinals

What, me struggle?
     After watching the Russians, Spanish, and Argentinians advance to the semifinals, the US men’s team went out and took care of business against Australia, a repeat of the chippy quarterfinals in 2008. On paper, it was a 119-86 drubbing where the US dominated with 22 threes, 13 steals, and 18 forced turnovers. In reality, however, it was the third straight game where the Red, White, and Blues played only sporadically with the requisite focus and let their opponent hang in the game well into the second half. Thanks to LeBron’s steady triple double and the Black Mamba’s 2nd half explosion, the game never felt as close as the scoreboard indicated. 

     The first half was an ugly slugfest, with 19 fouls against 13 total field goals at one point in the second quarter. At half time, LeBron’s precursor to a triple double (7 points, 10 boards, and 6 assists) and big halves from KD/D-Williams were the only reasons the US had a lead. Although they were defending with energy and holding Australia to a low FG percentage, the Aussies shot well from 3 and had a huge first half from the criminally underrated Patrick Mills. Although down 14 at half, they closed to 6 in the first 2 minutes of the 3rd quarter and hung around until the US surge.

     As a Lakers fan, these Olympics are interesting to watch. I wonder if Pau Gasol is relearning how to be assertive on offense, but, more importantly, I’m watching Kobe react to lower minutes and not being the primary ballhandler. For the Lakers to be successful, he’ll have to accept a diminished role with Steve Nash, which means settling for the fact that he may need to save his days of heavy usage and ball domination for the times when he’s going off or that’s what the defense is giving them. To his credit, that’s exactly what Kobe has been doing for Coach K, while serving as a leader and Elder Statesman. Throughout the Olympics and prelim games, his defensive energy, ability to draw fouls, and passing have been great. He hasn’t forced it on offense, but the Black Mamba has not been scoring efficiently either and isn’t getting his usual number of shots.

     A few minutes into the 3rd, he had 3 turnovers and was 0-4, missing some makeable shots. That said, he drew a few nice fouls and had passes that weren’t converted on before finally throwing a huge alley-oop to Chandler. After that, Kobe got hot and that was the game. He drilled a three, stole the ball, and drained another three, extending the lead to 12. In the fourth, he drained four more, with three coming in rapid succession to singlehandedly put the game away. All the sudden, USA’s energy level was reinvigorated and a few steals led to easy transition buckets. The lead was 30, human victory cigar Anthony Davis was in the game, and garbage time commenced for Team America. Similar to Argentina, a spurt broke the spirits and backs of their opponent to restore order to the game.

     It’s great that the Team LeBron (11/14/12 and first Olympic triple double ever) can rely on his excellence, but this team has its blind spots. Love has started to play well and I have been consistently impressed with Paul, Deron Williams, and Carmelo during these games. With the NBA’s greatest scorers in one place, you never count them out, but they have enough lapses in defensive intensity that I’m a bit worried. Regardless of who they have on the floor, there’s no question that this team’s defense fuels its offense, with steals and transition buckets serving as the core of these epic runs. With Tyson Chandler trying to set an Olympic record in foul rate, they lack a shot blocker controlling the paint for huge stretches and don’t have the floor general to rally them to play hard on defense for 40 minutes.

     Looking ahead to their semi-final against Argentina, there’s symmetry to the matchup, which will likely be areal test for the Red, Whites, and Blues. In 2004, Argentina sent the wake-up call to the US, inspiring the Redeem Team and this year’s Stream Team by serving notice that the world had caught up. It’s tough to beat any team 3 times in 20 days, much less a team with Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola, and a lot of pride. Aside from their deadly outside shooting and world class playmaker, Argentina is great at working the officials, flopping (they learned from the soccer team), and can be incredibly irritating to deal with for four quarters. You can count on them bringing their effort and their A-Game for the right to play in the gold medal game.

     I think that Team USA will win, as they have the most talented team and are starting to put the pieces together. I’d just like to see them do it for forty minutes and gather momentum for Spain/Russia, who are both tough opponents. Many teams have thought they could simply flip the switch and failed to over the years. It’s especially dangerous for a team like this that over-relies on jump shots and lacks the low post scoring/interior defense that a healthy Dwight Howard might have provided. Team USA has the closers to win games and the absolute brilliance of LeBron James in the clutch has been the story for America. His complete game and ability to read the floor has provided whatever America needs time after time, showing he is the best player in the world like Kobe did in Beijing in 2008. Here’s hoping we’ll see Anthony Davis instead in the fourth against Argentina.

It'd be great to see this in the 4th against Argentina

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