After a team so thoroughly dominates a game the way the United States thrashed Nigeria yesterday, scoring 78 points through the first two quarters and winning by a margin of 83 points, it is inevitable coach Mike Krzyzewski would be asked if his squad ran up the score. And, of course, the Duke coach said that line of questioning — the Yanks wanted to embarrass the Nigerian squad — has no merit. As Coach K explained after the game, he benched both Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the second half, and after Carmelo Anthony scored his 37th point (a made three-pointer) he too was taken out.
Yesterday’s romp over Nigeria confirmed the U.S. was very fortuitous to find itself placed in Group A. To borrow a phrase from Grantland’s Sebastian Pruiti, there are pretenders and contenders for the gold medal in the XXX Olympiad. The only contender in Group A is the Yanks. In Group B, Russia, Spain, and Brazil all have a realistic shot of playing at 3 p.m. London time next Sunday in the title game. Up until this point, the relative ease of the U.S.’s schedule has allowed Krzyzewski to tinker with his lineup, use roster formations he may not have planned to unveil if his squad wasn’t matched up against Tunisia or Nigeria. Despite the handful of opponents who could give the U.S. a decent game, there is still a sizable gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world.
While some have focused on the bevy of team records broken versus Nigeria — most points scored in a half, a game, and most three-point field goals attempted and made — it is necessary to dive deeper. For the second straight game, Bryant’s minutes were closely monitored; the Lakers’ star only played eleven minutes, and though he scored sixteen points, Bryant was relegated to the sidelines long before halftime. The squad’s staff similarly held James back, playing him just ten minutes, and it’s clear why Krzyzewski is meticulous controlling both players’ playing time. For Bryant, he will turn 34 years old after the games, and he needs extra rest. He can still offensively take over a game — he scored fourteen points in the first ten minutes — but more downtime means a more effective Bryant when group play ends. Even though the squad was given Wednesday off, Krzyzewski has gone a step further and canceled practice on Friday: in effect, ensuring a very relaxed Bryant.
James is experienced in international competition (James, Anthony, and David Robinson are the only Americans to play on three Olympic teams), and he is the U.S.’s most versatile player, equally capable of matching up with a 1 as with a 5. That versatility is rare, to say the least. The depth of the U.S. allows Krzyzewski to selectively choose his spots to bring James on the court, and the coach doesn’t want to an untimely injury or exhaustion to weaken the Miami star.
Against Nigeria, the U.S. broke out of a mild three-point-shooting slump. Before the contest, the squad was connecting on 36 percent from beyond the arc — an efficient rate, but nothing spectacular. Led by Anthony’s ten made threes, the team converted a whopping 63 percent of their long-range attempts versus Nigeria. Shooting from the perimeter, however, was not truly a concern for the U.S. Entering the games, there was discussion of whether the team’s three-point-shooting troubles would follow from Beijing, and while the shooting has been irregular, there are certain plays the squad has perfected.
One of those plays is the trailer three, which Anthony may be the best on the squad at executing. Krzyzewski wants his team to push the pace; both Deron Williams and Chris Paul are skilled decision-makers when handling the ball, and as we mentioned in Wednesday’s post, there is no guard in the games who can stop Russell Westbrook in the open court. The U.S. has used roughly 80 or so possessions per contest (which is a fairly quick pace), and when a opposing team hustles back to cut Paul or Williams off, there is a good chance all five opposing players are crowded within the paint, leaving a trailer — like Anthony — wide open for an in-rhythm three. Several of the Anthony’s long-range attempts yesterday were the result of a guard probing the defense and then passing back to the three-point line.
It is startling to watch Anthony during international competition because he is clearly a more relaxed and offensively brilliant player during the Games. On the Knicks, Anthony has to shoulder the burden of being the man. He is the focal point of the team’s offense, commands isolation plays, and really the only Knick capable of breaking teams off the bounce and creating for himself. However, he appears much freer during the Olympics. If the team needs a rebound, he crashes the glass; if the U.S. wants to go small (though Krzyzewski is limiting this lineup, just 4.1 minutes per game in London), Anthony can guard opposing 4s and 5s. Or if he feels like torching a defense with a really good shooting night, he can do so. There are so many alphas on the squad that, like James, Anthony can pick and choose which role he wants (or is instructed by Coach K) to fill. Per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, Anthony has the lowest plus-minus per possession on the squad (plus-65 in 123 minutes), but the rate should jump after his performance versus Nigeria.
We mentioned the effectiveness of the U.S.’s second unit while recapping the win over Tunisia. Specifically, the squad’s bench excels at defensive stops, and the backcourt duo of Williams and Westbrook are capable and willing to pick up ball handlers just over the half-court line or press at full or three-quarter court. Nigeria’s Tony Skinn was no match for the defensive pressure of either guard, and it will be interesting how much (or if) the U.S. presses further into the tournament. If Argentina’s Pablo Prigioni ultimately misses the rest of the games — he is suffering from kidney stones and his status is in question — look for the Yanks to challenge Argentina’s guards. Emanuel Ginobili (as he has been referred to in the Olympics) is better off the ball, but without a true point, the Spurs guard may be forced to facilitate Argentina’s offense if they face stiff U.S. pressure. An aggressive press, however, may only work until the quarterfinals. Both Russia (Alexey Shved) and Brazil (Marcelo Huertas) have solid ball handlers, and Brazil’s press-break has already given the U.S. fits during their exhibition game. One injury to watch is the foot injury of Spain’s Juan Carlos Navarro; the guard has missed the last two games and despite the team’s frontcourt heft, Spain is vulnerable without Navarro.
The U.S. next faces Lithuania, a team that has been somewhat of a disappointment so far during the games. The squad’s best offensive player is Linas Kleiza. The former Missouri star, Kleiza is a matchup problem for certain teams owing to his size and touch from the perimeter. Against the U.S., Andre Iguodala will likely draw the defensive assignment. Although the U.S. is off the day before the contest, don’t expect another record-setting offensive display. Nigeria wasn’t exactly concerned with defense, and Lithuania should show a bit more defensive fortitude (though they will not be able to trade baskets with the U.S.).