The margin of victory was more than twenty points, but there were numerous occasions during the United States–Australia Olympic quarterfinal yesterday when coach Mike Krzyzewski appeared confused and slightly agitated on the sidelines. Despite the wealth of talent on the U.S.’s bench, the Boomers continually cut the lead to single digits; U.S. assistant Nate McMillan prepared the scouting report for yesterday’s game, and while he stressed transition defense, Australia attempted to run seemingly every offensive possession. Coupled with Australia’s willingness to foul — the squad has committed the third most fouls in the games (137) and was ready to transform the U.S. tilt to a rugby match — the Americans struggled to maintain any offensive flow.
The game’s fate was not decided until midway through the third quarter, when Kobe Bryant regained his perimeter touch and LeBron James made history. Over the course of a five-minute stretch, Bryant connected on six out of seven three-point attempts — an eighteen-point swing – and James added four assists to his stat line, ending the night with the first known triple-double in Olympic history (assists were not recorded officially until 1976, so we and USA Basketball are allowing a bit of statistical hedging).
It is still somewhat disconcerting, though, that with the exception of Nigeria, the U.S. has depended on sizable offensive outbursts to pull away from opponents. The Yanks seem content to allow teams to linger, keeping the game closer than it should be. Perhaps this “trend” is the result of overconfidence; there have been some close calls, but the U.S. knows it has the best collection of talent in this tournament and can easily pull away from opposing teams whenever they feel the need. Argentina was only down one point at halftime before Kevin Durant began consecutively connecting from deep, and James took over late in the fourth quarter against Lithuania, using isolation plays to get to the bucket. Even the Americans themselves have noticed their tendency to coast, and we have to wonder if this lackadaisical approach to winning — relying not a consistent grind of points but rather one lump scoring effort — will hurt the U.S. if they can’t summon the energy, pushing the “ON” button, during their final two games.
It is unclear if at Duke, Krzyzewski uses on the statistical guidance provided by Ken Pomeroy, or John Gasaway and the folks at Basketball Prospectus, to identify underperforming aspects of Duke’s gameplan. If he does believe in tempo-free metrics, he has yet to trust the numbers in London; despite overwhelming evidence the U.S. needs to utilize a lineup with at least one big, Krzyzewski relies on a small-ball approach. John Schuhmann of NBA.com has been crunching the numbers since the U.S.’s exhibition slate began, and the lineup without a true five has a plus-minus of plus-eighteen. The U.S.’s plus-minus jumps to plus-308 with either Kevin Love or Tyson Chandler is on the court. We must note that the squad has gone big far more often than small, but the staff believes a small-ball lineup allows the U.S. greater versatility and a more cohesive scoring punch. It’s clear the best strategy is to play the U.S.’s bigs as much as possible: Chandler is a plus-94 on the court. His defensive abilities necessitate his presence in the game, and while some may speculate the squad offensively lags with Chandler in the lineup, his offensive rating is among the best on the team (136.8).
However, because the staff has attempted to go small more frequently since the game against Lithuania, it is interesting that the U.S. has changed their pick-and-roll philosophy. In the aftermath of Lithuania methodically picking apart the U.S.’s defense, rolling to the bucket constantly for easy buckets, the coaches instructed the guards to fight over the screens. When a big is on the floor, they were supposed to hard hedge, or aggressively show, and then back off. Since this strategy caused too many defensive slip-ups, and problems with their help defense, the U.S. now hard-hedges infrequently and more often switches every screen. Even Chandler was forced to guard against Australia’s backcourt (though the results favored the Boomers). To ease the burden on Chris Paul, who often went under screens (leading to open jump-shots) or was promptly dragged to the interior, the former Wake Forest guard now fronts the post. Fronting denies an easy entry pass (and subsequent easier bucket over the six-foot Paul) and allows the help defense more time to recover.
The specter of cheap fouls has haunted Chandler throughout the tournament, but Love has evolved into the most efficient American on the squad. If foul woes continue to plague Chandler until Sunday, perhaps Love will finally earn some recognition stateside, especially since his play was maligned during the exhibition slate. Through six games, Love is connecting on 80 percent of his two-point field goals, 42 percent beyond the arc, and has grabbed 20 offensive rebounds — second-most of any player in the tournament. Though Love’s outside shot is falling, he is essentially needed to crash the boards, providing the U.S. with an interior force. ESPN Insider’s Tom Haberstroh took an in-depth look at Love’s numbers, and Love’s per-minute scoring rate is among the best on the team (29.3 points per 40 minutes). He may not possess the defensive skills of Chandler, but it is revealing that during a two-minute stretch in the second quarter yesterday, a span when the U.S. went small (substituting Love for Deron Williams) and promptly turned the ball over twice and attempted two poor outside shots, Krzyzewski rushed Love back into the game.
The lack of interior height was supposed to hinder the U.S., but as evidenced by Love’s rebounding figures, bigger opponents haven’t been able to hurt the Americans in the paint. The U.S. has grabbed 90 offensive rebounds since July 29 — the most in the games — and to accomplish this feat with only two bigs is noteworthy. Against Argentina and Australia, the Americans highlighted how they have generated second-chance possessions: by tipping the ball out to the perimeter. Love and Chandler are essentially the only Americans attempting to rebound when a shot goes up. To compensate for the lack of depth, U.S. forwards try to get a hand on the loose ball, but when surrounded by two or three opposing bigs, the only way to ensure another possession is to tap the ball up and out. The countless second chances the U.S. has accrued in this fashion have led to wide-open (and converted) threes, but also and-1 opportunities, adding another element to the Americans’ offense.
In our post on Monday, we mentioned the possibility the coaching staff might have to cut Bryant’s minutes in order to bolster the U.S.’s defense, allowing Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala more time on the court. Krzyzewski went just the opposite route – Bryant played roughly 20 minutes versus Australia, and while his six 3-pointers will be a hot topic going forward, the small sample size hides Bryant’s struggles during the games. The Lakers’ guard is shooting just 6-for-27 against opponents other than Tunisia and Algeria, and from the Lithuanian match to the second quarter last night, Bryant’s field goal percentages dropped to a woeful 19 percent (four for 21).
Entering the Olympics, Bryant seemed to understand his time as offensive alpha had passed, and though we hinted at this predicament in our preview, it appeared Bryant was content to fill whatever role needed by the Americans. So far, Bryant’s ‘new’ image has been a mirage; according to Schuhmann’s plus-minus figures, the lineups featuring Bryant are some of the U.S.’s least efficient rotations, and the guard has struggled with the leadership transition. The plethora of stars on the U.S. roster has forced Bryant to occupy the catch-and-shoot role in the offense, but how does Bryant not attack? The guard has been aggressive offensively since he came in the League, and to ask Bryant merely function as a shooter is against his nature. Bryant too often forced the issue against Australia, going against the entire roster while his teammates observed. Forced shots in no-mans land (the area right before the 3-point line), coupled with turnovers, earned Bryant a spot on the bench.
Bryant will likely occupy the lead on “SportsCenter” and will be featured in Olympic highlights after Sunday, for his performance versus the Boomers, but in his final Olympic showing, Bryant continues to insist he is the offensive star when in reality, he is fading.
Team USA’s semifinal game is tomorrow at 4 p.m. ET against Argentina.