Weeks before the start of the 1992 Olympic games, Chuck Daly, head coach of the U.S. Senior Men’s Basketball team, arranged a practice scrimmage for his squad. Daly had invited the best college players to travel to southern California to face off against his team, which was already being referred to as “the Dream Team.” The opening action was not pretty, but as recounted in Lang Whitaker’s oral history of the ’92 team for GQ, the pros — not the collegians — were shocked after the initial 20 minutes of action. During the second scrimmage the following day, however, the pros engineered a swift role reversal. According to Chris Webber’s GQ retelling, the college all-stars were completely blanked, failing to score a single point.
In the months leading up to the XXX Olympiad, the ’12 team has been labeled the Dream Team for the 21st century. An easy comparison considering the plethora of stars dotting the U.S.’s roster, but also an unfair one; discounting the complete undressing of Nigeria, the U.S. is a very good team but one that simply cannot reach the heights attained by the original DT. International basketball has dramatically changed in twenty years, and the Yanks play more quality opponents than Magic, Michael, and other members of the ’92 squad ever faced. While Lithuania has historically matched up well with the Yanks — the last four contests have been decided by ten points or less — one could consider Saturday’s closer-than-expected victory an iteration of that college scrimmage. Seven minutes remained in the game, and former Missouri star Linas Kleiza had just converted a three-point attempt, edging Lithuania past the U.S. and evoking flashbacks to the 2004 games, a moment when Lithuania defeated the Yanks in group play.
The individual dominance of LeBron James helped carry the U.S. to the win this weekend, and after blowouts against Nigeria and Tunisia, coupled with consecutive canceled practices, there are lingering questions for tonight’s game versus Argentina. Is the U.S. finally ready? Is the U.S. complacent, or has the team found a level of energy needed to carry the squad to Sunday’s gold medal match?
Despite the competitiveness between the two teams, Lithuania should not have been offensively able to keep up with the U.S. Key defensive mistakes, in addition to spurts of effort best described as lackadaisical, allowed Lithuania to take the lead late in the game.
Throughout the games, we have consistently written about the U.S.’s lineups. During the exhibition slate, Krzyzewski tinkered extensively with the rotations, trying to find a small-ball match that could contend against some of the bigger Olympic squads. Once it mattered, though, the U.S. was content to use a lineup with at least one big on the floor. Before London, the U.S. went small 14.1 minutes per contest, but since the games began, the average dropped drastically. On Saturday, Krzyzewski returned to the small ball formula, using a rotation that included James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and a combo of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, or Russell Westbrook. The reason? The prevailing belief that the U.S. is stronger offensively without a center. Even though Kevin Love may be the most efficient player on the squad — in just 67 minutes, he has connected on 80 percent of his two-point field goals and 50 percent beyond the arc — he is not capable of creating for himself off the bounce. Krzyzewski thought the best U.S. lineup was one in which each player had the option of breaking opponents down off the dribble and either scoring or getting to the free throw line. Despite Love’s effectiveness on offense, the Minnesota big isn’t that skilled in the halfcourt.
However, the U.S.’s continued adjusting of the lineup — the Duke coach used ten brand-new five-man rotations on Saturday — disrupted the squad’s defensive efficiency. John Schuchmann of NBA.com broke down the points per possession data following the contest, and with either Love or Tyson Chandler on the floor, a stretch that lasted roughly twenty minutes, the U.S. played 46 defensive possessions and allowed Lithuania to score 41 points … .89 points per possession. Minus a true 5, though, and the rate skyrockets: 53 points on 42 possessions (1.26 PPP). This defensive liability was evident during one stretch late in the second quarter; Krzyzewski used a lineup consisting of James, Paul, Westbrook, Anthony, and Williams — the first time in either the games or the exhibitions that the U.S. had been so size-deficient. Employing Westbrook as a pseudo-small forward, Krzyzewski wanted the quickest lineup possible to counter Lithuania’s constant cutting and moving on offense. Almost immediately, Lithuania began to take advantage — for the remaining two minutes in the half, Lithuania converted on four consecutive possessions.
While it has been difficult to involve Chandler on offense — the Knicks’ big and reigning defensive player of the year is strictly an ally-oop recipient during the Games — he would be have helped on Saturday. Too often were the Lithuanians able to use head and ball fakes, and hesitation moves, to go around the U.S. defenders, getting to the bucket with ease. Chandler played a scant eight minutes, and while he languished on the bench, Lithuania converted 63 percent within the arc. Once a Lithuanian player got behind the U.S.’s defense, there was no one capable of altering the shot. The lack of a center also forced the U.S. to close out aggressively on the perimeter, and Lithuania took advantage, often waiting a beat after receiving a pass and then either quickly swinging to a teammate (and further shifting the U.S.’s defense) or going around the defender. When Love or Chandler were in the game, the Lithuanian squad had its big set a screen on the ballhandler’s defender, freeing the interior and drawing the Yanks’ size away from the basket.
One aspect of the game plan the U.S. should alter is pick-and-roll defense. Monday’s contest versus Argentina will test the U.S.’s ability to effectively contain the ballhandler, and perhaps more importantly, the big who rolls off the screen. Per Grantland’s Sebastian Pruiti, a large percentage of Argentina’s offense — 11.1 percent — consists of pick-and-rolls. Following an initial screen, Argentina likes to pass to a diving Luis Scola, and will set multiple screens to free up players during a typical offensive set. Against Lithuania, Krzyzewski had instructed his team not to switch on screens; he wanted his bigs to hard-hedge, and his guards to fight over the top. However, this plan did leave the Lithuanian screener wide open, and the bigs continually dived immediately to the basket.
Some members of the U.S. are skilled help defenders — James in particular — but others struggle, and Lithuania was thrilled to match up with Chris Paul. The Los Angeles guard played 28 minutes — second-most on the squad — and there was no communication between Paul and his teammates on defense. Paul too often would gamble for a steal, leaving him out of position and putting the defensive onus on his
teammates, and without a legitimate center, Lithuania’s mobile bigs took advantage. After picking up his third foul in the second quarter, Andre Iguodala — one of the NBA’s top defensive talents — did not leave the bench for the rest of the game. Westbrook did play fourteen minutes, but the Oklahoma City guard is an aggressive defender who can use his length and speed to consistently pressure opponents … traits Paul does not share. If the U.S. does not want another close match in group play, Westbrook should see more time.
Much will be made of the U.S.’s struggles from the three-point line; the long-range display against Nigeria was fun to watch, but it must be noted Nigeria rarely closed out on shooters, and their defense was porous. Early in the first half, Lithuania made a decision to forego a regular zone and play a man-to-man defense that switched on screens, a pseudo zone. The switching confused the U.S., and rather than swing the ball, moving the defense and turning the Lithuanians’ heads, the U.S. was content to take contested threes. Again, Lithuania was delighted with Paul’s presence; the guard is in the midst of a shooting slump — 27 percent from deep — and Lithuania could sag off Paul, packing the interior and forcing the Yanks to settle for jump shots. Until August 12, 3-point shooting will be a concern for the U.S., but the bigger concern is the lack of any movement on offense. Prior to Saturday’s contest, the U.S. had accumulated 96 assists in three games, or 32 per tilt; the Yanks only shared the ball thirteen times versus Lithuania. It was the first time during group play that the U.S. settled on offense, allowing the big-name stars to go isolation. One-on-one is fine, but it has to occur after the defense has shifted; if the defense is allowed to remain in place, any iso play is moot.
Though Saturday’s game may have introduced doubt — is this team good enough for gold? — into the minds of the American public, the squad should beat Argentina today. (5 p.m. ET start.) Another historically tough opponent for the U.S., Argentina does not have the depth to contend with the Yanks. The oldest team in the Games, the first half will likely be close, but a reinvigorated U.S. squad, slightly chagrined with their effort over the weekend, will be difficult to top.
Matt Giles is writing about Olympic basketball for The Sports Section. E-mail him at email@example.com