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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Team USA Defeats France (7.30.12)

Team USA Basketball faced off against France to begin their play in Group A of the Olympic Basketball Tournament this past Sunday, July 29, 2012.

Looking at the final box score, one might assume that the game was never even close. Team USA won 98-71, but as was the case in the exhibition matches against Brazil, Great Britain, and Spain, Team USA got off to another slow start — disappointing considering this time the game actually counted.

Cold shooting, shot selection, and turnovers especially plagued Team USA in the opening quarter. France, sporting eight NBA players, and led by Tony Parker, started five NBA players — Parker, Nicolas Batum, Mickael Gelabale, Boris Diaw, and Ronny Turiaf. For his own safety, Parker sported some nifty goggles due to the club brawl between Chris Brown and Drake that nearly took out his eye and ended his career. As bottles started flying, Parker got caught in the melee — doctors told him that the shard of glass that stuck in his eye was just millimeters away from rendering it useless. Due to the incident, Parker was unable to train for the Olympics — Parker was forced to stay in his hotel room and lie in darkness for over a week. Parker didn't get a chance to practice with his national team leading up to the games, and he was noticeably heavier and less explosive. Despite Parker's rust, and sluggishness, France capitalized on Team USA's cold shooting and executed their game plan by slowing down the game with post ups and numerous aggressive plays that led to free throws.

After picking up a steal on the first possession of the game, LeBron James came down and fed Tyson Chandler a lob for an alley oop finish. The strong inside play continued until about midway through the first quarter. Durant scored seven early points, with four points coming off of dunks and three points coming off of free throws that followed aggressive attacks to the rim. Durant's finest dunk came off of a beautiful outlet pass from James. James picked up the ball following a Parker missed layup in transition. With Durant streaking down the court, James held the ball with two hands over his head and he fired a perfect bounce pass that traveled about 3/4 of the court. Durant finished the dunk in stride, and-one. Following this, Kobe Bryant utilized an isolation to blow by Batum and draw a foul on an aggressive attack to the rim. Bryant sank the free throws, giving Team USA a 13-7 lead at the 5:44 mark.

Following Bryant's free throws, Team USA began jacking up three pointers and committing turnovers. Prior to this point, Team USA shot 0-2 from deep and committed one turnover, but they successfully capitalized on inside play. Subsequent to this point, Team USA shot 0-5 from deep and committed three turnovers in the remaining five minutes of the first quarter. Parker turned up his play by having his hand on eight straight French points, including two and-one plays and a dump off that led to a Turiaf dunk. Following Parker's second three point play at the 2:58 mark, Team USA scored just two points as they shot 0-8. As the game turned into a foul fest, and with Team USA playing sloppy ball, particularly Deron Williams — 0-2, 0 points, 2 turnovers, and 2 fouls in a two minute stretch — France closed out the quarter strong with a buzzer beating three pointer to make the score 22-21. The buzzer beater led to a glaring Coach K, who absolutely held a death stare on Russell Westbrook as Team USA walked over to the bench following a blown assignment on the final play of the quarter.

The first quarter featured some rather atypical moments. Chris Paul had a turnover due to a carrying violation on a transition opportunity, Williams traveled twice, and Parker slammed hard to the court as he went for an offensive rebound, yet Carmelo Anthony took the time to help him up as live play continued. The wackiest moment featured the officials and the scoreboard crew. After Chandler was fouled going for an offensive rebound with 43 seconds left in the quarter, the clock continued to run as Chandler stepped up to the line for free throws. The refs noticed the blunder and sought to fix the clock issue. After letting the clock run all the way down to zero, the officials decided to put 55 seconds on the clock. With an extra 12 seconds, who knows if Yannick Bokolo would have knocked down that buzzer beating three pointer to end the quarter. Doug Collins, the man at the forefront of the '72 USA squad that was absolutely robbed by the officials during a Cold War bout with the USSR in the gold medal game, made sure to point out the incorrect calculation on the clock.

To start the second quarter, NBC continued its series of blunders by coming back late to the telecast. Instead of seeing James hit a three pointer, the audience had the pleasure of watching a promo for Costas Tonight. James' three ignited an 11-0 run that pretty much signaled the impending dominance of Team USA. Following James, Bryant scored five straight points, and Paul capped off the run with a corner three following a drive and kick from James to put the score at 33-21. France climbed back in the game with deliberate post ups for Diaw that slowed down the tempo of the game. Batum capped off a 5-0 run for France following a post up from Diaw that Durant spiked away all the way to mid court. Batum ran down the ball and heaved up a desperate shot to beat the buzzer. Westbrook stupidly fouled Batum on the shot, giving him three free throws, but Batum only sank two to make the score 33-26.

James responded by going into Magic Johnson mode. James used his stellar vision to feed James Harden following a back cut for an easy layup. Then he ran a side pick and roll to force France into a switch. With Parker on him, James posted him up until the double came. James easily passed out of the late double, and Durant nailed a wide open three pointer from the wing. Then James altered a Diaw shot, grabbed the board, pushed up the court, and fed Kevin Love a wide open three pointer from the wing — swish. James' three assists within 90 seconds pushed the score to 43-28.

After starting the game cold from deep — 0-7 in the first quarter — Team USA began knocking down treys with ease — 6-11 in the second quarter. With Team USA stroking the deep ball, France struggled to keep up in the second quarter. Despite receiving strong post play from Ali Traore — 6 points and 3 rebounds in the second quarter — France could not slow down the freight train of Team USA. James punctuated the quarter with a strong two handed dunk following a dump off from Harden in the paint, and then he stripped Parker in the lane and sent an outlet pass that led to made free throws for Durant — making the score 52-36 to close out the first half. Team USA followed up their disappointing first quarter with a dominant second quarter, winning 30-15.

To start the third quarter, Durant and Bryant dampened any hopes of a strong opening to the second half for France. Durant nailed an open three following an offensive rebound and kick out from Chandler, and Bryant sized up Batum from the far side to nail a three pointer in his face. Then James fed Chandler a pick and roll alley oop for a dunk, making the score 60-38 at the 8:15 mark. Team USA didn't score for the next two minutes, but France didn't do much better — totaling just three points. Despite shooting just 39% at this point, Team USA held a dominant 19 point lead.

James ended the drought with a baseline turnaround fade that looked right out of the Jordan/Bryant handbook. Then James provided the highlight of the night — unless you prefer his awesome outlet bounce pass. As Williams walked the ball up the court, James calmly walked up to the far wing before making eye contact with Williams and swiftly performing a back cut to the rim. As Diaw trailed him, James skied up for the lob and threw down a nasty two handed slam. James effortlessly glided through the air and seemed to almost levitate at the height of his jump. Following the dunk, Collins provided the biggest understatement of the night: "Normally Boris Diaw as a four, either adds some quickness, or mobility, or a size advantage — not with LeBron, LeBron has every advantage here." In a roundabout way, Diaw is kind of a poor man's James — it's pretty funny to think about considering Diaw usually carries an edge in at least one of the categories Collins mentioned. James followed his magnificent dunk with a no look pass that led to an Anthony dunk, ballooning the score to 66-45 at the 4:27 mark.

Following some nice plays by Batum and Kevin Seraphin that cut the deficit to 16 for France, Team USA closed the quarter on a 10-0 run in the final 2:50 of the quarter. Anthony, Williams, Durant, and Love got in on the action, and Westbrook dished out two assists in the stretch as Team USA closed the third quarter with a 78-51 lead. Team USA won the quarter handily with a 26-15 advantage.

With the game out of hand, France conceded and sat Parker the entire fourth quarter. Team USA stretched the lead out to 29 on multiple occasions, and France never got closer than 23 points in the closing 10 minutes. Team USA only scored four points (all off of free throws) in the opening three and a half minutes of the quarter, but France failed to capitalize on the drought. Anthony Davis provided three nice highlights in the quarter. The first was a Russell-esque block on Traore (who was actually quite solid on the block). Davis recognized Traore's impending turnaround hook, and he easily blocked the shot and controlled possession of the ball with one hand. Then Davis nearly threw down a nasty one handed slam following a pick and roll lob from Paul. Davis slammed the ball off of the back of the rim as he attempted the leaning one handed throw down. Davis responded on the next possession with a solid two handed throw down following a pick and roll lob from Williams.

Harden provided his own memorable highlight on the very next possession. Following some solid defense from Andre Iguodola, Harden took Iguodala's outlet and took off about one full stride inside the free throw line. Harden cocked the ball back with his left hand and threw down a gorgeous, thunderous dunk to put Team USA up 89-62 at the 4:34 mark. Westbrook closed out the game with seven of Team USA's next nine points, and Team USA wrapped up the match with a 98-71 victory. After a short huddle, every member of Team USA, including the staff, walked over to the stands and either hugged or shook hands with a Michelle Obama.

Overall, the game was not Team USA's finest, yet they still won by 27 points. Team USA shot just 31-72 from the field and just 8-25 from deep — with six of those three pointers coming in the second quarter. Shooting just 43.1%, and 32% from distance, Team USA clearly did not overwhelm France with hot shooting — other than the second quarter. Instead, Team USA relied on their defense, and they received an assist from France's inability to knock down jumpers. France had some good looks, but they shot just 26-66 from the field, as well as a horrid 2-22 from deep. By holding France to 39.4% shooting, and 9.1% from deep, Team USA did an excellent job on the defensive end. Team USA forced 18 turnovers, which led to 20 points, and they picked up 10 steals and five blocks. Team USA dominated the paint by out rebounding France 49-33. With bricks aplenty to gather, Team USA did a decent job gathering defensive rebounds — France gathered eight offensive rebounds.

After utilizing some isolation ball in the opening quarter, which often did not lead to good shots or points, Team USA shifted gears and shared the ball. Team USA finished the game with 27 assists on 31 made baskets — quite impressive. Following an isolation forced jumper by Anthony late in the first quarter, Collins stated, "The United States has so many offensive weapons, I don't think there's any reason they need to take contested shots. This is a tough fading jumpshot by Carmelo Anthony. Move the basketball to the open man and get uncontested shots." Collins hit the nail on the head, and I'm sure Coach K implored more ball movement as Anthony's shot came just before the extended break due to the clock malfunction.

Although Durant led the way with 22 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks (all game highs), player of the game honors surely belong to James. James finished with this line — 9 points, 8 assists (game high), 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and just 1 turnover. James ran the point forward to perfection, and he controlled the action with ease. Chandler and Anthony tied Durant with nine rebounds each. Love flanked Durant with 14 points — by far his best offensive performance for Team USA 2012.

Traore provided an unexpected post punch to lead France with 12 points. Traore had his way with Love on a couple of occasions, and he displayed an effective post game. Team USA cannot afford to allow big performances from the opposing team's post play. Fortunately, Traore was unable to truly dominate the game. Team USA did an excellent job bottling up Parker — 10 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, and 4 turnovers. Obviously, Parker was not at full strength or conditioning, but France's only hope rested upon his shoulders, and his 26 minutes of play were rather underwhelming. Turiaf tied for game high honors by pulling down nine rebounds. De Colo led France with just three assists.

Traore and Turiaf's efforts continue to highlight Team USA's biggest weakness — lack of size — but they weren't dominant enough to truly strike fear into Team USA. Team USA eventually wore down France and were able to blow the game open with big runs in the second and third quarters. Team USA will look to dominate Tunisia on Tuesday, July 31. Tunisia doesn't have a single NBA player on their roster, and I'm sure Team USA will win in a huge rout. Hopefully Team USA will right their first quarter woes and stomp Tunisia from beginning to end.

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