The United States men’s basketball team has only matched up twice against Argentina in Olympic competition since the 2000 games, but the atmosphere at last night’s contest was reminiscent of an NBA playoff game. Argentina was the final Group A obstacle for the U.S., and though the Yanks had essentially sewn up the group’s top seed entering quarterfinal play, nothing was definite — if the U.S. lost by seventeen or more points, the rankings could’ve shifted and the squad would have to face Brazil (rather than Australia) in the first quarterfinal game.
Nicknamed the “Golden Generation,” the Argentina core of Ginobili-Scola-Nocioni-Delfino is well-known to the Americans; all four have played extensively in the NBA, and though the two squads haven’t often faced off at the games, there have been countless international tilts between both groups. Perhaps the familiarity was one reason for the physicality and chippy quality of Monday night’s game. It felt like Game 3 of a playoff series; there was no desperation in the air, the teams would potentially meet again, but each team still wanted to play aggressively and perhaps set a tone for any future matches. Should both squads meet again later in these games, there will be countless talk of Facundo Campazzo’s below-the-waistline punch of Carmelo Anthony (and his subsequent refusal to apologize to the Knicks star), but the U.S. took a few cheap shots of their own. Chris Paul knocked the wind out of Campazzo with a single blow to the abdomen, and LeBron James carved out defensive space with a forearm to Ginobili (though the San Antonio star’s acting made the play look much more dramatic).
After the first half, though, there were concerns of another possible upset; Ginobili and Scola — anchors of Argentina’s offense — had played sparingly during the first two quarters, yet the U.S. was only up by one point. However, a 42-point barrage in the subsequent quarter, coupled with Kevin Durant connecting on four three-point attempts in a roughly three-minute time span, eased any concerns about the U.S. faltering in the opening round. The Americans will play a sneaky-strong Australian squad — Patty Mills earned a few Robert Horry points with his last-second three-point field goal to defeat Russia — in the first quarterfinal tilt (at 5:15 p.m. Eastern tomorrow), but there is a chance the U.S. will have to face Brazil, Spain, Russia, or Lithuania to achieve gold on Sunday. The road to the final was expected to have some bumps, but after a relatively easy early portion of the schedule, the back half could be dicey. There is also the possibility of a rematch with Argentina — the deciding Fame 7 — where more tangle-ups (a CP3 term) could ensue.
We have analyzed the first five games and have devised a primer of sorts for the final three tilts, looking at five aspects of the U.S.’s game plan that need to be executed if the squad wants to leave North Greenwich Arena with gold medals hanging around their necks.
Go big. We have consistently written about the size of the U.S.’s lineups during the games. While coach Mike Krzyzewski deemphasized the small ball lineup against Tunisia, Nigeria, and France, the rotation — one without a true five — has seen more minutes in the last two contests. Relegating both Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love to the bench, however, has proven to be ineffective. The squad has a significantly higher plus-minus with at least one big on the floor, and while a lineup with Anthony and James as the de facto “bigs” provides an offensive boost, the small ball roster has defensive consequences.
Without someone in the perimeter capable of altering opponents’ shots, the U.S. has to take chances on the perimeter. Against Lithuania and Argentina, the U.S. was forced to close out hard on shooters, which left the defenders vulnerable to hesitation moves, head and ball fakes. The U.S. often yielded easy baskets without the presence of a true big, and since the squad has been inconsistent with help defense, late rotations compounded their defensive woes.
If there are so many negatives, why does Krzyzewski continue to go small? Because it affords the U.S. the best possible offensive lineup. James is versatile enough to handle opposing fives, and both he and Anthony front the post well and make it difficult for guards to enter the ball to the interior. Though Love has been offensively efficient in London, he is unable to create offense for himself off the dribble, and going small allows Anthony, James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant to take the floor at the same time.
With quarterfinal play looming, it appears unlikely Krzyzewski will stop going small. The U.S. relied on this lineup during key moments in the past two games — when the U.S. overtook Lithuania late in the fourth quarter, Love had just been subbed out of the game — and the matchup problems and offensive advantages outweighs the defensive deficiencies, at least in Coach K’s eyes.
Does the U.S. have a consistent pick and roll game plan? Over the course of the U.S.’s five exhibition games, the squad stressed the importance of defense so much so that one would think the phrase “Defense First” became the U.S.’s mantra. However, the squad’s defense has fallen off recently; while the first three Group A opponents connected on 48 percent of their attempts within the arc, both Argentina and Lithuania converted 61.4 percent of their two-point field goals. The use of the small roster does not help, but another reason for the squad’s defensive failings is the inability to consistently defend pick and roll situations. Krzyzewski is against switching and wants his guards to fight over the top of screens while his bigs to hard hedge. Despite the presence of numerous NBA all-defensive selections on the roster, the team is struggling with quick ball reversals and diving bigs, both hallmarks of pick and rolls.
Yesterday’s victory over Argentina might indicate how the squad intends to defend P&Rs in the knockout rounds. When Love or Chandler is on the court, the squad will continue to aggressively show on screens while the rest of the defense helps on the rolling big. Once the U.S. goes small, though, they will switch everything. This strategy was evident midway through the third quarter. Argentina attempted to back and cross-screen the U.S. defenders, probing for an opening, but the Americans continued to switch and eventually forced a contested (and missed) three.
The U.S. may set a unique three-point shooting record. The Yanks have attempted 168 three-pointers so far in the tournament, but while the consistent story line has been the U.S.’s offensive explosion — which included shooting 63 percent from deep — versus Nigeria, it is worth noting 43 percent of the U.S.’s total field goals have been beyond the arc. Nearly half of their attempts are treys, an eye-opening stat. Based on their play, it’s clear the U.S. either tries a three, or attacks the basket; the mid-range game is an endangered aspect of the U.S.’s offensive repertoire. Tom Ziller of SBNation compared the Americans’ number of attempts with the top five long-range teams in the NBA last season, and the U.S.’s percentage of threes taken was the leader by a wide margin.
More playing time for Russell Westbrook. Russell Westbrook is making 50 percent of his twos in just sixteen minutes per game, and while those figures may not seem impressive, the Oklahoma City guard is the only member of the team (not nicknamed “King,” anyway) capable of attacking in both the half and full court. No matter whether the opposing team is playing zone or man defense, Westbrook’s explosiveness and speed allows him to continuously get to the bucket and either score or draw a foul. The guard is similarly skilled in the open court, using the Euro step — sidestepping the defender in an effort to avoid a charge — effectively.
Westbrook is a solid member of the U.S.’s second unit, but whom Krzyzewski pairs with the guard going forward will be interesting. One possible pairing is Westbrook with the small rotation; despite overwhelming statistical evidence, the coaching staff will employ the small lineup and adding Westbrook to the mix would boost the unit. Even though Westbrook is six-foot-three, he can guard multiple positions, and placing him in the backcourt with either Paul or Deron Williams would allow Westbrook to guard the off-guard or even the three. At one point versus Argentina, Westbrook was guarding six-foot-ten Antanas Kavaliauskas and was able to force a turnover (and engineer a fast-break bucket).