Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Calvin Johnson and the Madden Curse (8.28.12)

Thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of people will call in sick today.


Because today is August 28, 2012, and this date marks the release of Madden NFL 13.

Avid gamers all across the world have been waiting for this release date for quite some time. The release of the new Madden gives football fans across the globe a chance to see their favorite teams in action.

Although each Madden essentially serves as a roster update, it's hard to deny the joy of playing that "new" game for the first time. Plus, there's always something different about the game, whether it's the tempo of play, enhanced graphics, or some new features.

Whatever the case, Madden is fun if you enjoy the sports simulation genre.

However, there is a dark side to Madden. Namely, the Madden Curse. The Madden Curse carries a nearly unblemished record. With Calvin Johnson, wide receiver of the Detroit Lions, headlining Madden NFL 13, all of Detroit should prepare for the worst. And if you took Johnson with your first round pick in your fantasy draft, well, you made a mistake.

Simply put, the Madden Curse has been beaten just once, and you definitely don't know who the victor is. Roberto Garza, a right guard for the Chicago Bears, headlined the alternative Spanish version of Madden NFL 09. Garza is the only cover athlete to escape the catastrophe known as the Madden Curse. He hasn't suffered an injury, and his play hasn't seen a serious drop-off.

Some will point to the career best efforts of Eddie George and Garrison Hearst during their time as the cover athlete as being non-affected by the Madden Curse.

As the cover athlete for Madden NFL 2001, George suffered one of the biggest blunders in NFL history when he gift wrapped an interception for Ray Lewis in the Divisional Playoffs in the '00 postseason. The play marred the career best efforts of George that season as the top-seeded Tennessee Titans watched the game slip away in the fourth quarter. The following year, if you discount his final pro season as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, George set career lows in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, average yards per carry, average rushing yards per game, and total touchdowns. Madden Curse.

Hearst also posted career high numbers as the cover athlete for Madden NFL 99. However, on the first play from scrimmage in the Divisional Playoffs that postseason, Hearst suffered a nasty ankle break that kept him out of the NFL for two full seasons. Madden Curse.

As the nineteenth cover athlete of Madden, Calvin Johnson is attempting to make history. Can he become the first marquee cover athlete to defeat the Madden Curse?

If history has any indication of the future, well, that answer is no. Johnson will keep Lions' fans and his fantasy owners on pins and needles all season. Don't expect Johnson to come close to replicating his '11 performance of 96 receptions, 1,681 receiving yards, 17.5 yards per reception, 105.1 receiving yards per game, and 16 touchdowns.

The only career consistent number of Johnson's '11 performance is his yards per reception. So maybe you can expect that one, but the rest will all decline. And if the Madden Curse has its way, the declines will be massive. Even scarier, Johnson now carries a superstitious omen that is calling for his injury.

If you enjoy football, you definitely enjoy watching Johnson play. No one wants to see Johnson suffer the fate of past cover athletes, however, the Madden Curse doesn't care what we think.

Best of luck, Calvin, you're going to need it.

If you are interested in learning more about the Madden Curse, I have written an in-depth book about it. It's titled, The Madden Curse: An Examination of the Biggest Curse in the NFL, and it can be found on the Amazon Kindle Store. Follow this link for a look at it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Team USA Defeats Spain for Gold: The Deep Team (8.12.12)

Team USA can thank Lithuania for playing hard and forcing the team to come together late in the game in order to pull out a close victory. Such experience would prove useful in Team USA's match against Spain in the gold medal round.

With a 107-100 win over Spain, Team USA won the gold and fulfilled great expectations. The win may not have been a blowout, but the close match made it all the more satisfying — the game featured 16 lead changes and six tied scores. Similar to the Lithuania match, LeBron James provided some huge buckets late in order to pull out the victory. With the game up for grabs with just under three minutes remaining, James provided a dunk and a dagger three in order to push Team USA's lead up to nine points. From there, Team USA would no longer have to worry about the possibility of actually losing.

Before I get to the coverage, let me state that this game could have turned out much differently. Marc Gasol picked up four fouls in the first half, thus forcing him to miss about 17 minutes of gameplay that he most likely would have been a part of — about five minutes in the second quarter, the entire third quarter, and the opening two minutes of the fourth quarter. Pau Gasol also missed some crucial minutes in the fourth quarter after a reach from James cut open his eyebrow and forced him out of the game until the blood could be stopped. Both situations clearly had an impact on the outcome of the game.

In particular, the fouls called on Marc Gasol, and many others, were rather ticky-tacky. Marc's fourth foul featured an over the back call as he tried to gather an offensive rebound over Kevin Love. The play wasn't necessarily worthy of a whistle, especially because Love still pulled down the rebound. Following the cheap foul, Marc slammed the ball in disgust before resigning himself to the bench.

While the Marc foul favored Team USA, it was evident that both teams were quite upset with the referees. Team USA ended up shooting 24-31 (77.4%) from the line, and Spain bettered them by making 27-32 (84.4%). In the first half, 33 whistles were blown in just 20 minutes of play. The continuous stoppage in play worked directly into Spain's advantage. With the game slowed down, Team USA struggled to get easy transition buckets due to continuous stoppage and inbounding. The referees absolutely destroyed any sort of rhythm in the game, and the match turned into a boring free throw fest. 26 free throws were shot in the second quarter alone. Off the ball fouls were rampant, and ticky-tack calls destroyed any sense of tempo. For such an important game up for grabs, it was rather disconcerting for the referees to have such an impact. Nobody came to watch the referees, but they seemed to take hold of the game in the first half. Doug Collins summed up the tight refereeing best late in the first half by stating, "I hate to see that [...] I don't mind fouls when it has something to do with the play, where it prevents a play from happening. We've had six or eight off the ball that they could have just let play on."

In the second half, just 21 fouls were called — three of which were Spain intentional fouls at the end of the game in an effort to extend the game and force Team USA to make free throws. The referees clearly backed off, and the play on the court was much smoother. I have a feeling someone told the referees to back off — rightfully so. The game resumed a more normal flow, and Marc was able to actually play the most of the fourth quarter — something that looked near impossible for him early in the game.

Both teams started with a bang in the first quarter. On the first possession of the game, Kobe Bryant fed Tyson Chandler a layup following a drive and dump. Pau responded with a drive and kick to Juan Carlos Navarro. Navaroo sank the three from the top, and he drew the foul on Bryant in order to earn a trip to the line for a four point play. Navarro sank the free throw, giving Spain an early lead right off the bat. Kevin Durant followed with a corner three following a drive and kick from Chris Paul. After Pau hit a sweet running hook in the lane over Chandler, Durant responded with an offensive rebound on his own miss that led to an and-one fade from the block. However, Durant couldn't finish the nice play — he missed the free throw.

The ensuing possession marked one of the lighter moments in the game. After Marc and James ended up diving on the floor to gather a loose ball in the paint, the refs called jump ball and Marc pulled out his mouthpiece. As he pulled it out, a bit of spit must have landed on James, because James immediately had a funny look appear on his face as he looked into Marc's eyes and then down to his own arm. James held his arm out with a look of disgust as he gave Marc a "what the hell" sort of look.

Team USA gathered possession, but Chandler couldn't capitalize in the lane following a drive and dump from Paul. Pau immediately responded with a far block post up that led to a kick out to Navarro for a far side three — swish, giving Spain an early 7-9 lead. On the ensuing possession, Rudy Fernandez and Chandler got tangled up at the top of the key following a Durant missed three. Fernandez locked Chandler's arm up with his and he purposefully yanked Chandler and fell to the ground, bringing Chandler along with him. Fernandez tried to sell the flop, but the refs noticed who the true culprit was and they assigned him a foul. Durant could not capitalize with another attempt from three. Fernandez followed the incident by airballing an open three, but Pau cleaned up the miss and kicked out to Navarro at the top for the three. Navarro sank the shot, giving him three three-pointers in the game. Prior to the game, Navarro had made just six threes the entire tournament.

Bryant responded with consecutive three point makes. First Bryant held the ball in the corner. With his Lakers teammate guarding him, Bryant jabbed twice to back Pau up, and he drilled the three in Pau's face. Then James sent a great outlet ahead to Durant for a potential layup ahead of the pack following another Fernandez missed three. As Durant went up for the shot, Jose Calderon grabbed him by the shoulders and neck to prevent a clean look. Fernandez trailed the play and swatted the ball five rows deep as if he was Dwight Howard, but the foul was called on Calderon, and Calderon was assessed an unsportsmanlike foul. Durant sank both free throws, and Bryant capitalized on the extra possession. Bryant used a James pick at the near wing to circle to the top and hit a three — giving Team USA a 15-12 lead at the 5:29 mark.

Navarro continued his stellar play by pumping in the far corner and getting the fly by from Bryant. After Bryant ran him off the line, Navarro calmly took a step in and nailed the long two. Carmelo Anthony responded with a catch and shoot three from the top following a James drive and kick. Marc responded with a turnaround jumper over Anthony in the lane to make the score 18-16.

Team USA responded with a 7-0 run. First Durant earned free throws following a strong drive to the rim — he sank both. Then James fronted Pau and easily stole the entry pass after Fernandez sent a misplaced lob that was supposed to go over the top. Anthony capitalized by deftly nailing a pull up bank shot from the far mid wing. Then Anthony hit a far side three following a drive and kick from James to stretch the score to 25-16.

Spain responded with trips to the line. After gobbling up an offensive rebound, Pau drew a foul on the putback and he sank both free throws. Then Navarro drew a foul and made both free throws. Deron Williams responded with a pull up three from the top. Fernandez tried to counter with a three of his own, but he missed. Serge Ibaka gobbled up the miss and drew a foul — making one of two from the line. Williams came right back and busted the Spanish 1-2-2 zone by attacking straight into the middle from the top. Williams burst into the lane and dropped off a sweet wraparound pass to Love in the lane for a dunk to give Team USA a 30-21 lead at the 1:53 mark.

Spain immediately took a timeout, and it worked — they scored on three straight possessions. Ibaka sank two free throws after getting fouled on a dunk attempt. Russell Westbrook countered with a pull up jumper, but Pau responded with a jumper at the elbow following a pick and roll with Sergio Rodriguez. Team USA followed with some nice ball movement. Westbrook attacked the lane and kicked out to Anthony at the far wing, and Anthony sent a quick touch pass to Durant in the far corner for a three — swish. Rodriguez responded with a high basketball IQ play. After pounding the ball at the top and looking to probe, Rodriguez noticed Fernandez slipping behind the defense on the baseline, and he sent the lob for Fernandez to throw down a two handed alley oop jam. After falling asleep on the previous defensive possession, Durant atoned for his mistake by swatting Pau's quarter ending three point attempt from the near side. Team USA headed into the second quarter ahead 35-27.

In the second quarter, play stalled, and 24 total fouls were called in just 10 minutes of play. Fernandez opened the quarter with a three. After a Westbrook turnover, Fernandez drew a foul on Anthony by setting a back pick on him at the block. Anthony turned right into the pick and ran him over — picking up his second foul and moving to the bench with two early fouls. Pau capitalized with a strong drive from the mid wing to finish a layup at the rim. Another miscue from Team USA — James and Love tapping the ball away from each as they went for an offensive rebound — allowed Rodriguez to push the floor and draw a foul on a drive to the rim — he sank both free throws to make the score 35-34 at the 8:43 mark.

With Spain playing a more athletic lineup, James capitalized on their switch from a 1-2-2 zone to man defense. A foul on Bryant forced a sideline inbounds, and James finished a play that seems to have become a staple inbounds play for James and Team USA. From the near sideline, James inbounded to Chandler at the elbow. James immediately stepped inbounds, took the handoff, attacked middle, and threw down the one handed dunk. Marc responded with a sweet, high arcing fade in the lane that dropped through nothing but net. Following an errant Paul lob that led to a turnover, Rodriguez nailed a far wing three to give Spain the lead 37-39 at the 7:31 mark.

Following the made three, Rodriguez tried to exact some revenge on Chandler. On the previous Team USA possession, Chandler laid a nice back pick on Rodriguez that gave him a bit of whiplash. Feeling confident after his made three, Rodriguez decided to actually ram into Chandler's chest as Chandler tried to set a pick for Paul at the near wing. After getting rocked back, Chandler recovered and ran into Rodriguez and got in his face. The whistles sounded, and both players were awarded technicals. Following a Bryant missed three, Love followed with a tip in putback to tie the game at 39.

Then the free throws began to rain down. After stealing a Navarro outlet to the top, Durant raced down the court in transition. Durant missed the layup, but he gathered an offensive rebound and drew a foul — making both free throws and giving Team USA the lead. Rodriguez responded with a drive and kick to Sergio Llull for a three from the near side. As the shot went up, Love picked up a foul for holding Marc in the lane. The shot counted, and Spain gained an extra possession. However, Ibaka squandered the possession with a silly turnover. Ibaka attempted a handoff for Rodriguez on the near sideline, but Rodriguez was actually out of bounds when Ibaka let go of the ball, and the ball ended up bouncing out of bounds. Rodriguez immediately gave Ibaka a look of disgust. James responded with a drive to the rim that led to free throws. By making both, James passed Michael Jordan to become second all time in USA Olympic scoring with 258 points — David Robinson holds first with 280 points.

James gave Team USA a 43-42 lead, but Marc countered with a finish in the lane following a pick and roll. Surprisingly, the refs decided not to call a blatant foul on the play. James gave Marc a pretty decent shove in the back as Marc went up for his layup. The foul was obvious, and Marc definitely glared at the refs following the blatant no call. To make matters worse, Durant pulled up for a floater from the near block, and he drew a foul on Marc along the way for the and-one. Following a couple misses from both sides, Marc picked up an offensive foul attempting to gather an offensive rebound over Love. Marc did bang bodies with Love in the air, but Love easily maintained possession, and it seemed like a rather innocent basketball play between two big men. The awarded foul forced Marc to go to the bench with four fouls at the 5:29 mark in the second quarter. With just five fouls allowed in international play, Marc was clearly upset, and he had some choice words for the refs as he threw his hands down in disgust. Love sank both free throws.

The ticky tack calls continued on the next possession. Bryant easily pinned Navarro on the far block, and as Bryant cleared out Navarro to gain the entry in early offense, Navarro flopped to the ground in an effort to prevent the wide open layup. As soon as Bryant caught the ball, the whistle blew, and Bryant slammed the ball to the ground in obvious frustration. Following a missed Navarro three, Felipe Reyes picked up a questionable foul as he and Love crashed into each other going for the rebound. Love initiated the contact, but Reyes was awarded the foul — Love sank both free throws, giving Team USA nine out of their last 11 points from the charity stripe, and a 50-44 lead at the 4:56 mark. Navarro followed with a three at the top, and Fernandez drew a foul on James after getting pushed in the back while going for a defensive rebound — Fernandez sank both free throws to cut the score to 50-49 at the 4:21 mark.

James responded by blowing by Spain's 1-2-2 zone for a floater in the lane. Then Westbrook sank one of two free throws after drawing a foul on his way up the court. Following the play, a horrible offensive foul was called on Reyes. Reyes easily pinned Durant in the lane, and after sealing Durant and opening up for the entry, the whistles blew and Reyes was assigned an offensive foul. The foul was rather phantom, and Reyes immediately threw his hands up in disgust. The Spanish fans in the stadium began to boo rather loudly, and the coach was visibly upset with the referees. Following the commotion, James followed an Anthony missed three with a sick offensive rebound. With Spain in the zone, no one got a body on James, and he soared down the lane to grab the board and finish the putback layin. Navarro responded with a layup in transition following a James missed layup, and Williams countered with a three from the top.

Following the three, Fernandez drew a foul on Durant. Durant grabbed Fernandez as he came off a screen. Following the foul, James went to the bench for a breather. After Fernandez sank his first free throw, James stood up from the bench and began yelling at the referee in order to get his attention. The refs had blundered the number assigned to the foul, and they awarded James the foul instead of Durant. After James and the rest of Team USA's bench had gotten through to the refs, the fix was made. Despite the error, the refs assigned Team USA a warning for their conduct from the bench. After missing his second free throw, Reyes gobbled up the offensive rebound, and Fernandez earned another trip to the line following a holding call on Williams as he came off a screen. Fernandez sank both to cut the score to 58-54 at the 1:22 mark.

Kevin Love responded with an offensive rebound that led to a foul on the putback. Love made one of two. After a Pau missed jumper in the lane, Anthony picked up his third foul as he boxed out and had his arms tangle with Ibaka. This led to Collins' commentary on just letting these off the ball fouls play on, and Ibaka ended up sinking both free throws. Andre Iguodala responded with a strong play near the end of the half by stealing the ball from Ibaka. However, after pushing middle, Iguodala picked up his dribble, and Pau ended up catching up to the play and tipping the ball out of Iguodala's hands from behind. As Iguodala tried to recover the ball, he bobbled it away, and he ended up slightly pulling on Fernandez's leg as he lost his balance going for the loose ball. Fernandez sold the slight pull by acting as if his leg was pulled out from under him and he slammed to the ground. The flop was Oscar worthy, and an unsportsmanlike foul was called on Iguodala. Fernandez made both free throws, but Llull could not get off a shot in time to beat the halftime buzzer.

Team USA entered the half ahead 59-58. Team USA shot 49% from the field, garnered 19 rebounds, shot 8-18 (44.4%) from deep, and committed just five turnovers. Team USA started the game hot from deep by shooting 7-10 in the first quarter, but in the second they dried up and shot just 1-8. The cold shooting allowed Spain to catch up, and Spain won the quarter 31-24. Spain finished the half with 46% shooting from the field. Spain outrebounded Team USA with 21 rebounds, and they shot a higher percentage from deep by dropping 7-13 (53.8%). Spain also committed just five turnovers. With fouls mucking up the game in the second quarter, Team USA could not get out and run. Spain took great care of the ball and did not allow Team USA any chance to blow open the game with a big run.

In the third quarter, the refs decided to let the players decide the outcome. Just eight fouls were called in the quarter. I'm pretty sure Marc was fuming mad as he watched the refs loosen up while he sat on the bench the entire quarter. Paul started things off with a three from the near wing following a James post up on Calderon that led to a double and kick out.

Then the Pau Gasol show started. Pau started things off with a near block post, kickout, and repost. Pau attacked the middle and finished a sweet running hook in the lane over Chandler. Durant tried to wreck Pau's show before it even started, but he ended up missing a thunderous jam down the lane that surely would have been all over SportsCenter. Durant made both free throws with the impressive attempt still buzzing around the stadium. Pau came right back and utilized an isolation at the far block. Pau attacked middle, blew by Chandler, and finished the and-one lefty layup at the rim — and he sank the free throw to make the score 64-63 at the 8:19 mark. Following a missed James fade over Ibaka, Fernandez fed Pau a dunk by running the pick and roll.

With Marc on the bench, Spain played much more man to man defense because they could play Ibaka on James at the four spot. Following Pau's dunk, Bryant posted up Calderon and skipped to Durant for a far side three that clanked. After Navarro and Love traded off missed threes, Pau went to work on Love (he subbed in for Chandler). In an iso from the near block, Pau turned baseline, drop stepped, and finished a one handed layup at the rim — giving Spain a 64-67 lead with 6:35 on the clock. James ended the 7-0 run with a drive by Ibaka for a layup. Following a feed from Ibaka to Pau in the lane, Love attempted to strip the ball, but he got a bit of hand, and Pau sank one of two free throws. With Calderon still on Bryant, Bryant called for the ball at the near wing. Bryant caught the ball, shimmied the ball with a deft swing through, and blew by Calderon baseline for the two handed jam to tie the score at 68. Paul followed with a steal from Calderon that led to an alley oop jam from Durant to James. Spain responded by looking to feed Pau. With Love fronting Pau, Ibaka flashed to the top of the key and sent the lob pass over Love. Pau drew the foul and finished the layup for an and-one — he made the free throw to give Spain the 70-71 lead with 5:02 on the clock. Pau's personal 13 point run was pretty dominant, and as a Lakers fan, I definitely appreciated seeing him play with such aggression.

Following Pau's lead, Bryant and Durant closed the quarter out for Team USA. With Calderon still on him, Bryant once again called for the ball at the near wing. Bryant used a Love pick and he circled to the top to hit a three. The next possession, James pushed up the court and dumped off to a trailing Bryant at the top. Bryant went up for the three and missed, but it definitely looked like he was tapped on the elbow — if that play happened in the second quarter, it would have been three free throws. After Ibaka sank one of two free throws, Durant took a handoff from James to sink a pull up jumper from the free throw line. The shot made Durant the highest scoring American basketball player in one Olympics — Durant: 147 points in London '12, Spencer Haywood: 145 in Mexico City '68, Charles Barkley: 144 in Barcelona '92, Michael Jordan: 137 in Los Angeles '84.

On the ensuing possession, Bryant played some stellar defense on Navarro. After Navarro dropped 19 points in the first half, Bryant asked Coach K for the assignment. Navarro didn't score once on Bryant, and he finished with just two points in the second half. Bryant routinely shut Navarro out of the play with strong denial defense. On this play, Navarro was able to free himself up by coming off of a double screen to the far wing. Bryant battled through, closed out, and then shut off Navarro's drive into the lane. After beating him to the spot and forcing Navarro to pick up his dribble in the lane, Bryant stripped him and pushed the ball the other way. Bryant attacked the rim and dumped off to Durant for an easy layup, but Durant bobbled the ball. Bryant ran down the loose ball to the far corner, and then he attacked baseline and went up for a reverse. Bryant drew a foul and sank both free throws.

Following Bryant's two made free throws, NBC continued it's blunderous coverage of the Olympics. Because this was the gold medal game, the network decided to bring in a larger audience by carrying the basketball game on NBC rather than NBCSP. After Bryant made his second free throw, the camera began to zoom in on the Team USA bench as play continued the other way. It was actually kind of cool to watch all of the guys and see how engaged they were in the play, but then NBC stupidly cut to commercial during live play. NBC showed a 20 second spot for the Mini-Cooper as live play from the gold medal round continued. Seriously, come on!

After coming back to the game, the audience got to see the tail end of Durant hitting a three from the wing. I'm assuming the telecast announcers knew of the mistake, because they gave a quick description of what occurred while America had to sit through a damn Mini-Cooper commercial. A minute later, NBC showed a replay of the missed plays. Pau sent a sweet no look bounce pass to Ibaka in the lane for an easy finish, and then Rodriguez stole a lazy pass from James and he took it the distance for a layup to make the score 77-76 before Durant rained down a three at the 3:10 mark. Following Durant's three, Paul stole the ball from Rodriguez, but he ended up missing the layup in transition, and Rodriguez ended up feeding Pau a dunk in transition the other way.

Following the dunk, Spain went back into their 1-2-2 zone. It immediately paid dividends. Williams attempted to drive and kick, but Rodriguez shot the gap and stole the pass. Ibaka ended up hitting an uncontested turnaround jumper in the lane over Anthony to tie the game at 80 at the 2:15 mark. Following Ibaka, Durant busted the zone with a catch and shoot three from the corner. Team USA would not score in the remaining two minutes. After a missed three from Anthony, Ibaka earned a trip to the line after drawing a foul on Iguodala as he attempted to dunk the ball — he sank both free throws to make the score 83-82 with 27 seconds left in the quarter. Williams tried to send the team out with a banger, but it didn't go according to plan. Williams wound down the clock, danced at the top, crossed up Rodriguez and exploded toward the rim. Williams took off from a pretty far distance, and he cocked back the ball for a hammer dunk, but Ibaka wasn't about to be put on a poster, and he swatted the dunk at the rim. Rodriguez gathered the ball and nearly sank a buzzer beating half court shot. With that block, Team USA was held even in the quarter, 24-24.

With just a one point lead heading into the fourth quarter, Paul gathered Bryant, Durant, Anthony, and James for a huddle on the court before play started. Whatever he said, it must have worked. Team USA scored on the opening three possessions before forcing Spain to take a timeout. James started it off with a layup at the rim. Bryant ran a high pick and roll with James at the far wing, and as Bryant circled to the top, two defenders ran to Durant at the far wing as they confused the switch, thus allowing James to cut to the rim for an easy dish and layin. Llull responded with his own layup. Then Paul pulled off the meanest stepback three I think I've ever seen. Paul broke off Rodriguez with a sick crossover from left to right at the top. Paul accelerated into the crossover as if he was going to blow by Rodriguez to the right. As Rodriguez dropped back to prevent the drive, Paul stopped on a dime and stepped back to the top of the three. Paul pulled up and sank the three as Rodriguez rushed him and actually crashed into him after the ball left his hands. Paul swished the three, and he should have been awarded a free throw for the contact on the body, but the refs swallowed their whistles.

Following a Reyes miss in the lane, Paul performed another sweet little ditty. Paul pushed up the far sideline, got to the far wing, turned his back to the basket and acted as if he was going to use a James pick to circle around and attack the middle. Instead, Paul shimmied his body with a sweet shake, and he exploded baseline to the rim for a layup. Then Durant stripped Reyes in the lane and Paul gathered the ball to get into a fast break. As Paul pushed up the middle, Fernandez lowered his shoulder and plowed into Paul to prevent the break. If any call in the game should have been considered "unsportsmanlike," it was this one. Despite the obvious lack of a play on the ball, the refs called the play a standard foul. Following the foul, Spain took a timeout and Pau reentered the game with his team trailing 90-84 at the 8:13 mark.

James attempted to capitalize with Pau defending him at the wing, but he wound up settling for a three and missing. James made up for it by altering Pau's pull up jumper from the elbow. Then Paul pushed up the court and after a couple of moves he got in the lane and sent a sweet dump off to James in the lane, but James couldn't corral the ball and it flew through his hands and out of bounds. Following the play, Spain ran a high low with Ibaka and Pau, and James ended up rotating into the lane and attempting to strip Pau. Instead, James ended up reaching and swiping Pau across the face. Pau went down, and the cameras showed a pretty good cut across his eyebrow and his nose. The reach marked James' fourth foul, and with Pau forced to head to the bench to get cleaned up, Marc checked back in for the first time since the second quarter. Following a Durant missed three, Marc immediately made his presence felt with a running floater in the lane to make the score 90-86 at the 6:52 mark.

Following Marc's bucket, Team USA went on a 7-1 run. Durant started it off with a three following great ball movement on the perimeter. Facing the 1-2-2 zone, Bryant missed a three from the far side, but Anthony got his hands on the ball and tipped it out. Paul recovered it and began the ball movement. Paul swung to Bryant at the far wing, Bryant sent it back to Paul at the top, and Paul sent it to the open Durant at the near wing for a swish. This would mark Durant's last bucket of the game, leaving him with 156 points in the '12 Games — 11 points higher than Haywood. Following Durant, Paul picked up a steal and this time Fernandez made an actual play on the ball as he took a foul to prevent the break.

In an effort to quell Durant, Spain went into a box-1 defense. Essentially one guy played man to man defense on Durant by face guarding him in an effort to deny the ball. The man to man guy has no responsibilities in help side, his sole mission is to prevent Durant from getting the ball. With the remaining four defenders in a box zone — two at the top and two at the bottom — Bryant capitalized with a far wing pick and roll that led to a pull up three from the near top. Bryant drew the foul on the shot, and he sank two of three free throws to stretch the score to 95-86 at the 6:00 mark. Following a miss from Marc, Anthony tried to bust the box-1 with a three from the far side, but he missed and Navarro fed Pau a trip to the line following a pick and roll — Pau made one of two. Following Pau's bucket, Bryant fired up an open three from the near side after utilizing a flare screen — Bryant missed. Then Anthony took another crack at it and he shot a near corner three. Anthony clanked, but Bryant skied for the offensive rebound in the lane and he hit a fading jumper off the glass from the far block to give Team USA a 97-87 lead with 4:27 remaining. After firing up the three, Anthony came down and landed on the defender's foot, thus twisting his ankle. With Anthony laboring up the court, Spain played five on four, and Navarro hit a pull up jumper at the top of the key to cut the deficit to eight.

With Spain still in the box-1, consecutive Team USA turnovers gave Spain some hope. First Bryant got caught in the air and ended up turning the ball over on an errant pass. Navarro pushed up the court and missed the layup, but Fernandez was right there to follow with the tip in. Then Anthony gobbled up an offensive rebound following a Paul miss. Stuck under the rim, Anthony tried to kick out to Bryant at the near side. Bryant failed to drop to the level of the ball, and Anthony sailed the ball out of bounds. Coach K immediately took a timeout and subbed James back in the game.

With a chance to put Team USA on its heels, Pau missed a shot in the lane that could have cut Spain's deficit to just four points. Instead, James capitalized with a dunk. James stood at the near wing, and as Durant curled up from the near corner, James faked the handoff. As both defenders went with Durant, James unexpectedly had an open lane. It seemed to take James a second to realize that he was wide open, but once he got going, he went straight to the rack for a dunk. Marc responded with a dunk of his own in the lane, but James dropped the dagger on the ensuing possession. With Marc switched onto him as he attacked the middle, James kept his dribble alive and backed out to the top. James danced for a second and then he hit the three from the top over the outstretched hands of Marc. The swish from deep gave Team USA a 102-93 lead with 1:59 remaining.

The ensuing defensive possession, Pau picked up a boneheaded offensive foul as Paul hounded Llull up the court in a one man press. As Llull got off the sideline and began to circle to the middle, Pau leveled Paul with a moving screen. Following misses from both sides, Paul sealed the deal. Paul got Pau to switch onto him in the 1-2-2 zone. Paul danced at the far wing, crossed right to left to attack the middle, and finished an over the shoulder layup off the glass. The shot actually made Coach K jump around like a schoolboy as he yelled "Yes!" — this reaction was probably the most animated Coach K has been in the Olympics.

After seven straight points from Marc, and some split free throws from Paul and James Harden, Spain trailed by six points with 13 seconds remaining. After Paul's trip to the line, Paul, Bryant, Durant, James, and Love checked out to loud cheers and lots of hugs on the sideline. After Harden split his free throws, he left open a possibility for a miracle comeback. With 12 seconds left, Harden headed back to the line. After Harden missed his first shot, the telecast began to seem genuinely concerned as they brought up some of the crazier comebacks in NBA history — Reggie Miller instilled that fear in just about everyone. Despite the worry, Harden sank the second to give Team USA a 107-100 lead. Llull missed a pull up three, and Anthony Davis skied for the rebound and let Paul run out the clock to end the game.

The test against Spain was a great one. The refs definitely placed a stamp upon the game, but in the second half the game was called much looser. I'm sure Marc Gasol will walk away feeling cheated, but he probably should have never been in the game after picking up his third foul. You can blame the ref, but you also have to blame his coach, Sergio Scariolo.

Overall, nothing came easy in this game for Team USA. The first half was bogged down by calls, and in the second half, Team USA never really got out to run in transition — everything was worked for. Team USA finished 34-70 (48.6%) from the field, 15-37 (40.5%) from deep, 24-31 (77.4%) from the line, along with 36 rebounds, 13 assists, seven steals, one block, 10 turnovers, and 27 personal fouls. Spain finished 33-67 (49.3%) from the field, 7-19 (36.8%) from deep, 27-32 (84.4%) from the line, along with 33 rebounds, 22 assists, four steals, one block, 11 turnovers, and 27 personal fouls.

When comparing the numbers, the biggest things to jump out are Team USA's assist numbers, and the lack of turnovers they were able to force. Team USA shot the ball pretty well, so finishing didn't seem to be the problem. I didn't really notice a lot of isolation basketball, but I guess Team USA didn't share the ball all that much — the high number of free throw attempts can attribute to the lack of assists. Also, Team USA's guards were unable to force Calderon, Navarro, and Rodriguez into turning the ball over. In fact, I don't remember the ultimate press man, Westbrook, actually getting up and pressing — maybe this was due to his twisted ankle that he suffered against Argentina.

Leading the way for Team USA was Durant. Durant scored a game high 30 points on 8-18 shooting, 5-13 from deep, 9-10 from the line. Durant also tied for game high honors in rebounds with nine — Love and Ibaka also had nine. James flanked Durant with 19 on 8-13 shooting, 1-3 from deep, 2-2 from the line, and he led the team with four assists. Bryant rounded out the scoring with 17 on 5-10 shooting, 3-7 from deep, and 4-5 from the line. Paul led the game with three steals, and Durant and Ibaka each had the only blocks for their squad. Pau carried Spain with 24 points on 9-17 shooting, 0-1 from deep, 6-8 from the line. Pau also racked up a team high eight rebounds, and he led the game with seven assists. Navarro flanked Pau with 19 points on 7-17 shooting, 4-9 from deep, and 3-3 from the line, but Bryant absolutely shut him down in the second half following his explosive 19 point first half. Marc flanked his brother with 17 points in just 17 minutes as he shot 8-10, and 1-1 from the line. If Marc had gotten more minutes, Spain may have pulled out the victory.

After shaking hands with Spain, most of Team USA huddled up on the floor and began celebrating with dancing and chants. In what must have been a rookie hazing of some sort, Davis ran on the court with a one eyed golden teddy bear of some sort. Most of the team partook in the dancing, but Bryant missed out on the celebration as he shared some words with much of Spain. Bryant also held a long embrace with Pau. I have a feeling Bryant told Pau to carry that aggressive play into the season. After the huddle on the court, some of the guys draped American flags across their backs. Bryant, Durant, and James then held an interview with Craig Sager, and Bryant indicated that this would most likely be his last Olympics. A bit later, Team USA got ready for the ceremony, and they were awarded their gold medals. They guys locked arms and embraced the crowd before receiving their gold medals. Many of the guys bit the gold medal in keeping with an Olympic tradition, and their giddiness was tangible. The guys certainly enjoyed the payoff from all of their hard work this summer.

Since Team USA doesn't have a serviceable nickname, I think I have one for them. Some media have referred to them as the Dream Team, but that's just lazy and unoriginal. Judging off of their play, I think the team should be known as the "Deep Team." The Deep Team utilized their depth and versatility to consistently wear down opponents in order to open up the game. The Deep team also rained down threes in a manner never seen before.

Overall, this team put up some gaudy numbers and set a few records. Durant scored the most points by a U.S. player ever in one Olympics — 156. Durant also set the U.S. competition record for threes made and attempted  — 34-65. The Deep Team set a U.S. Olympic record for three pointers made, attempted, and for three point field goal percentage — 129-293 (44.0%). Also, utilizing length and versatility rather than pure size and bulk, the Deep Team also set two more USA competition team records by grabbing 357 rebounds, and averaging 44.6 rebounds per game. Other U.S. Olympic career records also fell — James is now tied with David Robinson for most Olympic games played at 24, and he is number one with 273 points, 113 field goals made, and 88 assists. Also, Anthony is first in U.S. career three point field goals made and attempted — 39-94.

In a breakdown of the Dream Team versus the Deep Team, both teams are on par with each other.

The Dream Team shot 369-638 (57.8%) from the field, 54-135 (40%) from deep, 146-201 (72.6%) from the line. The Dream Team scored 938 total points for 117.3 points per game, grabbed 288 rebounds for 36.0 rebounds per game, dished out 239 assists for 29.9 assists per game, blocked 47 shots for 5.9 blocks per game, and picked up a whopping 177 steals for 22.1 steals per game. The Dream Team average margin of victory was 43.8 points.

Dream Team opponents shot 214-586 (36.5%) from the field, 57-187 (30.5%) from deep, 103-151 (68.2%) from the line, and averaged 73.5 points per game, while pulling down 22.5 rebounds per game, dishing out 13.6 assists per game, blocking 1.6 shots per game, and picking up 13 steals per game.

The Deep Team shot 329-629 (52.3%) from the field, 129-293 (44.0%) from deep, 137-191 (71.7%) from the line. The Deep Team scored 924 points for 115.5 points per game, grabbed 357 rebounds for 44.6 rebounds per game, dished out 200 assists for 25.0 assists per game, blocked 19 shots for 2.4 blocks per game, and picked up 83 steals for 10.4 steals per game. The Deep Team average margin of victory was 32.1 points.

Deep Team opponents shot 244-537 (45.4%) from the field, 61-184 (33.2%) from deep, 118-169 (69.8) from the line, and averaged 83.4 points per game, while pulling down 35.5 rebounds per game, dishing out 17.8 assists per game, blocking 1.9 shots per game, and picking up 3.1 steals per game.

A couple of things pop out. First, the Dream Team and Deep Team were nearly identical with their shooting. Threes brought down the Deep Team's overall percentage, but they were still pretty close from the field, deep, and the line. Both teams nearly scored the same amount of points. Surprisingly, the Deep Team outrebounded the Dream Team. The Dream Team also slightly won the assists battle. Other than rebounds, the Dream Team won all of the defensive categories. The number of steals they pulled off is astounding. I think it's safe to attribute the gaudy defensive numbers to the level of competition. The Dream Team had some stellar defenders, but they also didn't face anyone better than Toni Kukoc or Drazen Petrovic. Also surprising, the Dream Team did not take care of the ball, coughing up an average of about 14 turnovers (13 steals and 1.6 blocks per game).

Overall, both squads dominated, and with the increase in the level of competition, I think it's fair to compare the two squads. The Deep Team bled out points, and didn't come up with nearly as many blocks or steals, but once again, the world has caught up and athletes from all over the world are playing really well — thus pick pocketing someone every time down the court just isn't feasible anymore.

Great job Deep Team, you guys won the gold and did so in an impressive fashion.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Team USA Defeats Argentina to Advance to the Finals (8.10.12)

Team USA faced Argentina on August 10, 2012, for the third time in just two weeks.

Although Argentina trailed big in their exhibition match, they stormed back and ended up losing by just six points. Then they got blown out by 29 points four days prior to this matchup. Hoping to exact revenge following the physical match, Argentina could not deliver and they were demolished by 26 points in the semifinal matchup — a figure that would have been much higher if Team USA didn't step off their throats with six minutes remaining.

Once again, Team USA was played rather evenly up to the half. Argentina trailed by just five points, 51-46, with 7:16 remaining in the third quarter. But explosive efforts from Kevin Durant and LeBron James allowed Team USA to enter the fourth quarter ahead 75-57. Just like that, the game was put out of reach. Team USA stretched the lead to 29 in the fourth, and they coasted to a 26 point beat down. I touched upon Team USA's ability to wear down teams in my opening comments in the Australia game review, and those same points remained true against Argentina.

With the 109-83 victory, Team USA will face Spain in the gold medal round — offering a great test for Team USA, and a rematch of the '08 gold medal game in Beijing.

Team USA lives and dies by the three, and this game would be no different. Team USA started the game by shooting lights out — dropping 4-5 in the opening four minutes — but they would cool off and finish the quarter 5-12. In the second quarter, Team USA shot blanks, 0-5, and Argentina hung around. In the third quarter Durant finally got rolling and he sank all four of Team USA's threes as Team USA shot 4-13. Despite the poor shooting in the third, Durant was able to open the game up, and Team USA raced out to a huge lead. In the fourth quarter, Team USA rained down threes. Team USA sank 5-5 in the opening three and a half minutes — with Carmelo Anthony dropping four straight — and Team USA finished the quarter 9-12. Overall, Team USA shot 18-42 (42.9%) from deep. Team USA shot the three ball in waves, with makes and misses raining down in bunches. Any time Team USA got hot, they ballooned the lead.

With Argentina primarily playing a 2-3 zone for much of the game, Kobe Bryant started things off from deep. Following a post up and kick out from James, Bryant sank a corner three to get Team USA on the board. Following a missed Bryant three from the top, Tyson Chandler gave Team USA an extra possession, and Bryant responded by providing the viewing audience a flashback to his afro days. Bryant caught the ball at the near side, thought about firing up the three, instead drove baseline, and threw down a 180° two handed reverse dunk at the front of the rim over Andres Nocioni. Bryant may not have soared as high as his #8 counterpart, but the dunk was still impressive. Following that, Bryant fed Paul a wide open corner three to put Team USA up 8-4 at the 7:58 mark.

Following Paul's three, Team USA turned up the heat defensively. After Scola was able to pin Bryant and roll to the basket from the far mid wing, Manu Ginobili sent the pass, and Durant rotated from the weak side to rise up and spike Scola's shot out of bounds. After Argentina inbounded the ball, Chris Paul was able to deflect a Pablo Prigioni behind the back pass. As the ball rolled to midcourt, Bryant raced to it and dove to the floor to force a jump ball. Team USA gained possession, and James capitalized by sinking a step back jumper from the top of the key. Then James fed Kobe the ball at the near wing for another three — swish. On the ensuing defensive possession, Bryant played tough defense on Nocioni on the block, forcing him to kick the ball out, and Durant ended up stealing the swing pass by shooting the gap and racing ahead for a dunk. Bryant capped off the impressive opening with a catch and shoot three from the far side — giving Team USA an 18-6 lead at the 5:48 mark.

Despite watching Team USA rain down threes, Argentina stuck to their guns, and they continued to play a 2-3 zone. In the remaining 5:48, Team USA went cold and shot 1-7 from deep. Following Bryant's three, Argentina rattled off an 11-1 run in three minutes to make the score 19-17 at the 1:27 mark. In that span, James did prevent at least one basket — James performed his signature chase down block on Carlos Delfino. Deron Williams finally dropped a three late in the quarter, but a Ginobili setup for a Juan Guitierrez led to a layup and made the score 24-19 to close the first quarter.

In the second quarter, Team USA and Argentina traded punches. Team USA won the quarter 23-21, but their cold shooting from deep (0-5) prevented them from opening up the game. Team USA attacked the paint, while Argentina hung around and nailed 5-9 threes. Team USA scored just two points in the opening two minutes.

From there, Team USA scored on nine straight possessions. Kevin Love started things off with a putback tip. Then James attacked the basket for a layup in semi-transition. Paul followed with a drive and dump that led to a dunk for Love in the lane. Then Paul ran a pick and roll with Love, attacked the middle, and hit a diving James in the lane for a layup. Following an open corner three miss from Paul, Love kept the ball alive with a tap out, and Paul ended up attacking the lane and dumping off to James for a layup. James followed by attacking the basket and finishing a hanging one handed layup, and-one, and he made the free throw. Bryant got in on the act by dropping a one dribble pull up jumper from the wing. Then Anthony hit a far mid wing jumper over Scola. Then Paul sent a skip pass to James at the near wing, and James sent a quick touch pass to a diving Durant for a layup. Durant's layup would close out Team USA's impressive assault in the paint.

Despite Team USA's strong inside play, Delfino kept Argentina in the game with 11 straight points throughout the nine possession stretch by dropping three shots from deep and sinking two free throws. Delfino's efforts were nice, but Durant's layup put Team USA ahead 43-32 at the 3:29 mark. A powerful two handed jam after a baseline drive from Anthony, and a Love layup following a feed from James served as Team USA's only buckets in the remaining 3:29. Meanwhile, Argentina sank two more threes, with Ginobili sinking a buzzer beating three to end the half, and Scola finished a layup following a drive and dump from Prigioni. Argentina tried to feature Scola on consecutive possessions in an effort to further cut into the deficit, but Bryant did an excellent job fronting him, and eventually forcing him to miss hooks in the lane.

Team USA finished the half ahead 47-40. Team USA shot 5-17 from deep, while Argentina shot 6-14, giving them a three point advantage from deep — an advantage many teams have struggled to gain against Team USA. Argentina also took special care of the ball, coughing up just five turnovers, and keeping Team USA out of transition — just two fastbreak points in the half.

In the third quarter, Durant finally got rolling with the deep ball, and James continued attacking the basket and distributing the ball. But before they would take over, Ginobili started the half with aggressive play. Ginobili opened the half with a three to cut the score to 47-43. Ginobili followed with an and-one, making the score 51-46 at the 7:52 mark. Before Ginobili's and-one, Nocioni sank a three pointer, but it came about a tenth of a second after the 24 second clock went off, and Argentina was assessed a shot clock violation.

After an unforced turnover from Prigioni following a miscommunication, James skipped the ball to Durant at the near wing for a three. Paul followed with a sick inside-out fake crossover that turned around Prigioni and allowed Paul to enter the lane and sink a floater. Later, Durant kicked out to Anthony for a three in the corner, but Anthony missed the open shot. With three Argentina players at the rim, James gobbled up the offensive rebound and kicked the ball out to Anthony. Anthony wisely swing the ball to Durant for a far wing three. Durant swished the shot and put Team USA ahead 59-46 at the 6:28 mark. Later, Anthony fed a cutting James for a layup. Then James utilized a pick from Love at the wing to attack middle and throw down a one handed hammer, and-one. Durant followed with a catch and shoot three in the corner. Then Love ran down an offensive rebound, and James ended up kicking out to Durant at the top for a three. Durant fired up another three on the ensuing possession, but this time he missed — no worries, James skied for an offensive rebound and finished a sweet one handed putback layin to stretch the score to 72-53 at the 1:38 mark. A long two from Anthony closed the quarter, and Team USA headed into the fourth ahead 74-57.

Holding a 17 point lead to start the fourth, Team USA came out and put the game away. Love started it off with a layup following a pass from Andre Iguodala. Then Russell Westbrook pressed Ginobili and forced him to dribble the ball off his own foot for a backcourt violation. Feeling good about himself, Westbrook sank a pull up for three from the top. Then Williams pushed ahead in semi-transition to feed Anthony a three from the far side. Westbrook followed with a pull up jumper from the elbow — making the score 84-60 at the 8:17 mark.

Then Anthony slammed shut any hope of a comeback. Anthony sank three consecutive three pointers to put Team USA ahead 93-64 at the 6:33 mark. Williams assisted on all three shots. Following a drive and kick from Williams, Anthony sank a three from the corner. After Love swatted a Scola shot from behind, Williams pushed ahead and dumped off a pass for the trailing Anthony. Williams acted as a screen man by turning around and facing Anthony as he nailed the three from the wing. Following another miss at the rim, Williams raced up court and performed the same screen and dump off for the trailing Anthony to sink a three from the top.

Following Anthony's hot streak, Team USA coasted to a victory. Durant, Harden, Paul, and Williams sank some threes for good measure. Team USA capped the drubbing with a sick over the shoulder alley oop pass and jam from Paul to Iguodala. Team USA outscored Argentina 35-26 in the quarter on their way to the 109-83 victory.

Team USA finished the game 43-81 (53.1%) from the field, and 18-42 (42.9%) from deep. Argentina finished 31-70 (44.3%) from the field and 11-26 (42.9%) from deep. Team USA dominated Argentina on the glass, winning 40-23, and pulling down 13 offensive rebounds compared to just six from Argentina. Team USA dished out 25 assists on 43 made buckets, while Argentina dished out 22 on 31 made buckets. Team USA racked up five steals and blocked five shots while committing just 10 turnovers. Argentina picked up two steals and blocked one shot while committing just 9 turnovers.

Durant led all scorers with 19 points on 7-14 shooting, 5-10 from deep. James and Anthony flanked him with 18 apiece. James scored rather efficiently, making 8-12 shots, 0-2 from long range. Anthony shot 7-14, and 4-8 from downtown. Ginobili led Argentina with 18 points on 7-15 shooting, 3-7 from distance. Delfino and Scola flanked Ginobili with 15 apiece. James led the game with seven rebounds and tied for a game high seven assists — Paul also dished out seven. Bryant led the game with two steals, and Durant led all with two blocks.

Overall, Argentina played a solid game. They didn't turn over the ball, they shot the ball well from deep, and they moved the ball well to rack up assists. But Argentina simply couldn't keep up with the firepower of Team USA. Bryant dominated the first quarter, Durant and James dominated the third, and Anthony closed things out in the fourth. These stretches proved pivotal in the outcome of the game. After a contentious game in group play that featured plenty of cheap shots from both sides, I'm pretty surprised the match lacked any sort of controversy or scuffles. Argentina probably would have been better served by turning the match into a slugfest. Instead, Argentina played a soft zone all game and allowed Team USA to fire up good looks. Argentina's three point baiting worked for stretches, but once the shots started dropping, they came in bunches.

Now that Team USA has disposed of Argentina, they will face Spain in the gold medal round on Sunday, August, 12. Team USA's match against Spain in the exhibitions was rather one sided, but that contest didn't feature a full, healthy Spanish roster. Although Team USA has relied on small ball, it will be important for Chandler to stay on the court against the likes of Pau and Marc Gasol, as well as Serge Ibaka. Chandler can't afford to get in foul trouble, or else Team USA will truly be tested. I expect a competitive game, but as usual, I expect Team USA to rely on their depth and versatility to wear down Spain and eventually blow the game open with a big run. I fully expect Team USA to win the gold, and I hope they do so in impressive fashion. If Team USA needs another four point play from Bryant late in the game, I'll be disappointed.

Dwight Howard Traded to the Lakers (8.9.12)

The Big Four will be playing 41 dates in Los Angeles, along with select encore shows pushing well into June.

For all of you metalheads, Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth, and Anthrax are awesome, but that's not the Big Four that I am referring to.

No, this Big Four consists of Bryant, Howard, Nash, and Gasol. Throw in World Peace to serve as a sort of Testament (or Exodus), and the Los Angeles Lakers have a hell of a starting five.

Dwight Howard's arrival in Los Angeles is certainly a tremendous event. Howard's next destination has headlined countless hours of coverage throughout the past two years, and now the public have been awarded a definitive answer. The speculation can stop, Dwight Howard is a Los Angeles Laker.

Mitch Kupchak certainly learned from the best. In 1996, Jerry West brought Shaquille O'Neal to Los Angeles. The move was historic — Shaq was obviously the most dominant center in the league (with Olajuwon and Ewing soon to enter their twilight years) and he carried an abundance of magnetic star power. The move essentially shifted the power of the NBA — Jordan would lead the Bulls in the East to close out the 90's — with Shaq and Penny considered the next big thing out in Orlando —  but Shaq would migrate West and lead the Lakers to a three-peat to start the 2000's. Now Kupchak has championed his inner West to once again bring the Lakers the best center in the league... in his prime. Kupchak may have shipped out a budding superstar in Andrew Bynum, but he certainly can't be criticized for bringing in the only center that potentially has a higher ceiling than Bynum.

So much for the lockout huh? Small market owners nearly derailed the 2012 season as they cried foul about the unfair advantages of large markets. LeBron James and the Heat served as the poster child (especially with James and Wade taking pay cuts), and now Howard to the Lakers will probably serve as the definitive "problem with the NBA" in the next impending lockout. The new CBA was supposed to prevent guys like Howard from signing with the Lakers by giving teams a home field advantage — an ability to offer more years and more money to players that resign with their current team.

Well, it seems all for naught now, doesn't it? It took four teams to get the deal done — highlighting the fact that other teams were willing to help the "evil, large market Lakers." Without such heavy assistance, it would have been very difficult for the Lakers to add Howard via trade. Add in the fact that Jerry Buss is going to pay through the nose due to escalating salary taxes, and it all points to what the NBA has always known — large market teams dominate the league. The Spurs and Thunder have challenged that notion, but for the most part, it's all been about large markets. With the Lakers nearly $30 million above the salary cap for the upcoming season, Buss will pay roughly $60 million due to the 1:1 ratio that he will be penalized.

Ironically, Buss will relish the 1:1 penalty as the figures will only look to increase in the coming seasons. Starting in the '13-14 season, teams less than $5 million over the tax threshold will pay a standard tax ration of 1:1.50, while repeat offenders are charged 1:2.50. The numbers only go up from there: $5-10 million over will pay 1:1.75, or 1:2.75, $10-15 million over will pay 1:2.5, or 1:3.50, and $15-25 million over will pay 1:3.25, or up to 1:4.25. The Lakers will certainly pay a large repeat offender tax.

Dr. Buss deserves a large amount of credit for bankrolling this operation. Once again he has opened up his wallet to put a primo product on the court. Buss wants to win, he wants the Lakers to catch and eventually surpass the Boston Celtics in the championship count, and he wants Bryant to get that sixth ring, and possibly a seventh and eighth. With the championship window closing on Bryant's career, Buss performed his own German operation to breathe new life into the team and inject more realistic championship aspirations.

After two straight years of second round knockouts, the Lakers are once again thrust into the championship caliber conversation. People seem unwilling to put the Lakers ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference, but the Lakers weren't even that far off this year — yes they lost in five games, but two games came down to buzzer beating Durant game winners. The addition of Nash made the Lakers a contender once again, and now the addition of Howard cements the Lakers as either 1A, 1B, or 1C. If the Lakers, Thunder, or Heat don't end up in the NBA Finals, the entire basketball world will be shocked.

Overall, the trade speaks volumes about the mentality of Los Angeles. Small market teams don't understand the pressure of playing ball in LA — it's championship or bust in Laker Land. With Howard anchoring the paint, the Lakers will certainly be vying for a championship for at least the next three seasons — assuming Howard resigns with the Lakers. Howard most likely won't sign an extension this season, but that is nothing to worry about. Howard will look to get a max contract deal that can offer him five years and over $100 million dollars by entering free agency. From there, the Lakers can resign him and contend. Howard's arrival also signals the next phase of Lakers basketball. Howard carries enough star power and skill to be the face of the franchise for the post-Bryant era — something that cannot be overlooked when it comes to the decision to deal Bynum.

Overall, I can't say that I'm shocked or surprised about the trade, but there's definitely a giddy feeling inside that can only come from the excitement of something new. I figured Orlando would cave closer to the trade deadline and that Howard would be shipped for pennies on the dollar. Instead, the Magic front office decided to get pennies on the dollar now. Initial reports included both Bynum and Gasol in the trade for Howard. Upon reading that, I adamantly stated that the move would be ill suited. Why give up two seven footers for a 6'11" center that will be available for cheap once February rolls around? Thankfully those reports never came to fruition. By giving away Bynum and a protected 2017 first round pick, the Lakers absolutely stole Howard away from the Orlando Magic.

Ironically, three of the four teams in the trade actually improved, but the Magic aren't one of them. Orlando understood that Howard would leave them high and dry following the '12-13 season, but I figured any Howard trade they signed off on would land them a star, or a guy with star potential. The Lakers gave up Bynum and a draft pick for Howard. The Nuggets gave up Aaron Afflalo, Al Harrington and a protected first round pick for Andre Iguodala. The Sixers gave up Igoodala, Nikola Vucevic, Moe Harkless, and a protected first round pick for Bynum and Jason Richardson. The Magic gave up Howard and Richardson, and will receive Afflalo, Harrington, Vucevic, Harkless, and three protected first round picks.

All along, it would have made sense for a Howard for Bynum swap. Yet, for some reason, the Magic front office did not work the deal out to receive Bynum. So the Magic don't get a combination of Gasol and Bynum, then they lose Bynum, and they even lost a talent like Iguodala. Instead the Magic brought in Afflalo (good wing but not great, and probably never will be great), Harrington (old wing player surely on the decline) and three protected first round picks that will likely be in the mid to high 20's (aka, guys who probably won't turn into superstars).

Unlike the Magic, the Sixers, Nuggets, and Lakers all improved. Bynum makes the Sixers a threat with a young nucleus. Bynum can finally reign as a number one option, and he has a chance to be a real star. Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, and Bynum will definitely be a force to be reckoned with. Losing Iguodala won't hurt this team as much as many may think. Iguodala is an exceptional wing, but the Sixers contain a considerable amount of strong wing play that can be combined to make up for the lack of Iguodala — Turner, Nick Young, Dorell Wright, Thaddeus Young. I'm sure Doug Collins will love his squad heading into the '13 season.

The Nuggets also improved considerably. Iguodala is a higher quality Afflalo. The starting five of Ty Lawson, Iguodala, Cory Brewer, Danilo Gallinari, and JaVale McGee will feature plenty of up and down play. The Nuggets will look to run teams out of the gym, and Iguodala will be on the receiving end of numerous transition buckets. Denver's firepower has certainly increased. Iguodala will give the team an elite wing defender, and his ability to score without needing plays will certainly make Denver dangerous. George Karl will have a wonderful time scheming his blazing fast offense.

As for the Lakers, well they swapped Bynum for Howard. Howard serves as the present and future of the team. Howard offers a significant defensive advantage, along with superior athleticism. Bynum is more polished offensively, but on a team with Nash running the point, Howard's ability to finish the pick and roll will be relied on more heavily than isolation post ups, and Howard is a beast on the pick and roll — over the past two seasons, Synergy grades him as the most effective roll man in the pick and roll (thanks for that tidbit Brian Kamenetzky). Expect many lobs to come Howard's way. Essentially, Howard will be spoon fed dunks, rendering his post game a bit less important for the time being. Howard also brings a considerable athletic upgrade. Bynum may be younger, but his knees have been a problem (whether his own fault or not). Howard will effectively make up for all of Nash's deficiencies on the defensive end. Howard's athleticism will put an end to the day of point guards killing the Lakers with the pick and roll — Howard is quick and agile enough to step out and stymy the guard coming off the screen before recovering back to the big down low. Mike Brown will certainly enjoy having Howard anchor the paint for his defensive schemes.

And then there's the Magic. They got some picks and picked up Afflalo and Harrington. Afflalo could turn into something, but he is definitely not considered the answer for any of the Magic's problems. Meanwhile, Harrington has been in the league since the '98-99 season, and he has some knee problems. Harrington is a solid scorer, but once again, he isn't a franchise altering guy. Simply put, Afflalo and Harrington bring far less worth than Howard to LA, Iguodala to Denver, and Bynum to Philly. Their picks probably won't amount to anything of high value, and it seems like they are destined for a lottery year. I just can't understand how the Magic did not get back a guy with at least the potential to be a star. I thought they were hellbent on receiving both Gasol and Bynum, and then they didn't get either! I know Orlando is rebuilding from the ground up, but damn, where's the foundation?

In a roundabout way, the Lakers traded Lamar Odom and Bynum for Nash and Howard. I think it's safe to say that every team in the league would love to pull that off. Remember when Odom and Bynum were headliners in a potential deal for Howard? Kupchak is certainly a lock for the Executive of the Year award.

I've enjoyed Bynum's vast improvements these past seven years, but it's hard to not like the Howard deal. Bynum has a post game that no center in the league can match, and his hands are as soft as a memory foam mattress. His free throw shooting will also be sorely missed as Howard will harken back memories of O'Neal with brick after brick. Injuries derailed Bynum's early years, but he showed some true grit when he played hurt in the '10 playoff run, and he showed some durability by playing 60 games in the condensed season (suspensions cost him the six missed games). If Bynum were truly injury prone, he would have broken down in the maniacal schedule that the NBA forced upon its players. I will miss Bynum, the kid who showered with his socks on, the kid who was made fun of for still using Myspace, the kid who gave great insightful, intelligent interviews, and the kid who clearly yearned to improve. Bynum definitely has some growing up to do — the three pointer, the ejections due to technicals, the cheap shots, the insubordination, the handicapped parking space, the isolation from the team in huddles (just to name a few...) — but he is a man that is just coming into his own at 24 years old. I believe that Bynum can be the leader of a team, but I don't think he could have embraced that role as a Laker. Bynum needs his touches to play hard, and this Lakers team just has too many guys that need touches. In Philly, Bynum will get plenty of opportunities to score, and I'm sure that his defensive effort will be strong.

Now it's time to move onto Howard. His product, both on the court and off, will certainly elevate the franchise. The Lakers will definitely contend for a championship, and Howard has the opportunity to truly taste what winning is all about. Nash and Howard will run high screen and rolls, along with side screen and rolls, all the time. Gasol will wait at either the elbows or top of the key for open jumpers. Bryant will get numerous opportunities for isolation basketball on the weakside. World Peace will continue to fire up bricks (just kidding Metta). Actually, World Peace came on strong in the final 20 games or so last year, but the Harden incident deflated his momentum. World Peace will get many good looks from the side and corner threes, and hopefully he will knock down the open shots. Overall, the Lakers will carry the highest basketball IQ on the court on every given night. While some may dream of their offense, I believe they will be absolute beasts on the defensive end. Howard is going to own the paint, and Gasol is a terrific help man to clog the lane. World Peace can play hard nosed defense and not worry about his anchor in the paint losing focus and not rotating. Bryant can play solid defense for longer stretches rather than coasting and playing the role of roamer due to a decrease in his usage on the offensive end. Nash, well, Nash can't cover anybody, but Howard will make sure to take care of that problem.

Say hello to the Big Four. I wonder how much smack Bryant put on James and Durant when he heard the news. I have a feeling it went like this, "Well, I gave you young bucks a couple of years to get the job done. I'm sure you thought I was gonna be done real soon, but I'm still here. 'Bron, enjoy that ring, you won't be getting another one anytime soon. Kevin, I'm sorry man, you won't even make it to the Finals." One can only hope, right?

Now it's time to Ride the Lightning because the Lakers have just called upon a War Ensemble, and although Peace Sells, who's buying? The NBA is a Madhouse.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Bryant and James Lead Team USA Past Australia (8.8.12)

Team USA must despise blowing teams out from start to finish.

Maybe they enjoy a sense of competition, the adrenaline rush that comes from a close matchup. Maybe they are cruel ballers who like to toy with opponents and provide false hope just to snatch it away at a later time — like an older brother who plays soft defense all game long and then swats his younger sibling's final five shots. Maybe they didn't enjoy the drubbing they put on Nigeria — doubt it though. Maybe they just struggle to get up for games that they expect to win handily. Whatever the case, it almost seems like Team USA has a rule in place that prevents them from absolutely dominating from start to finish. Maybe they fear that if they win by too large of a margin, David Stern will enact a rule that only allows individuals 23 and under to compete in USA Basketball. 

Or maybe, just maybe, they are a flawed team that is not meant to be leading by 20 points after the first quarter. Depth and versatility are clearly Team USA's greatest strengths, and they may be the reason Team USA can't build a lead from start to finish. Depth and versatility offer strength in numbers over time rather than clear cut dominance in the present mode. Eventually, Team USA always wears their opponent down. 

Other than a scare from Lithuania, Team USA has never really had any doubt about the outcome of their matchups in the summer of '12. In the exhibition matchups, Brazil and Argentina played Team USA well, but I would not describe the games as worrisome or threatening. Team USA forced Brazil into 26 turnovers by pressing full court and picking pockets left and right — highlighting an obvious athletic dominance that would prove fairly difficult for Brazil to overcome. Against Argentina, Team USA opened the game with a 19-3 lead, and they held a 20 point lead late in the third quarter. Team USA was clearly better, but a nice run from Ginobili late in the game allowed Argentina to lose by just six points. Against Lithuania in Group A play, Team USA faced its first moment of truth — and LeBron James responded splendidly by taking over the game in the closing minutes to deliver the five point victory. That marks one actual test in 11 games so far this summer. 

Against Australia, the common narrative would play out once again. Team USA led by just three points at the 9:12 mark in the third quarter following an 11-0 run from Australia to start the second half. Yet, Team USA ended up winning the game by 33 points. After watching Kevin Durant against Argentina, James against Lithuania, and Carmelo Anthony against Nigeria, Kobe Bryant decided it was his turn to take over a game. Bryant would score 20 points in the second half, and his impressive dominating stretch featured four consecutive three pointers in a matter of 67 seconds in the fourth quarter. Once Bryant pushed the lead to double digits in the third quarter, everything was gravy. Australia cut the deficit to single digits just once in the final 15 minutes of play, and that single digit span lasted just 23 seconds.

Speaking of Bryant, it sure was nice to see him playing freely and playing well. Bryant had a miserable first half — shooting 0-4, scoring zero points, dishing out one assist, and committing two turnovers — but his game turned around in the third quarter, and it eventually led to a spectacular fourth quarter. Bryant has had a rather quiet Olympics so far, especially with the performances of Durant, James, and Anthony headlining, but with the game getting out of hand early in the third quarter, Bryant showed the world that he still has it. 

Although Australia has just two guys on the roster who have played minutes in the NBA — Patrick Mills and David Anderson — they certainly played fearless basketball against Team USA. Australia executed sets with precision, and they routinely attacked the basket. Within the first minute, Australia scored on an Anderson layup. In the first half they attempted 16 layups, but they converted just seven — they also drew four fouls on attacks to the basket, making six of eight free throws. After Tyson Chandler picked up his second foul in a span of 23 seconds at the 5:48 mark in the first quarter, Australia punished Team USA with numerous strong takes to the rim. Chandler would finish the game with just nine minutes of playing time — essentially taking away any sort of defensive anchor in the paint. In fact, Team USA did not record a block the entire game. Chandler's second foul also highlighted a major difference between international play and NBA play. Chandler was whistled for an unsportsmanlike foul after he crashed the boards hard for an offensive rebound — I didn't seen anything egregious about the play, I saw Chandler playing hard and banging bodies. The unsportsmanlike foul led to two free throws and possession of the ball for Australia. 

Immediately following Chandler's second foul, Team USA went on a 7-1 run to go up 19-12 at the 4:08 mark. The highlight of the run featured a sweet no look pass from James. After backing down closer to the lane from the far wing, James noticed Anthony flashing under the rim behind the defense, and he sent a no look bounce pass that led to an Anthony layup and an and-one. With small ball as Team USA's modus operandi this Olympics, Team USA continued with waves of athleticism. Russell Westbrook led the charge late in the first quarter, scoring five points during a Team USA 8-0 run to put Team USA ahead 26-16 at the 1:09 mark. This run also featured another no look pass from James. After Kevin Love gathered his first of an impressive eight offensive rebounds, he sent the ball to James in the lane, and James quickly sent a no look bounce pass to Westbrook flashing at the rim for a layup. After a strong drive from Westbrook led to two made free throws. Mills closed the quarter strong and showed the glaring lack of a defensive presence in the paint. Mills ran a high pick and roll, quickly crossed over Durant, and scurried to the rim to finish a layup — making the score 28-21 at the end of the first quarter.

Durant started the second quarter with a pull up three to stretch the lead to 10 points. Deron Williams followed by drawing a foul on a three and sinking three free throws. Following a Bryant missed three, Love gobbled an offensive rebound and finished the putback. Williams followed with another three — this time he pulled up from the top after pulling off three smooth crossovers. A skip pass from Bryant to James at the near wing led to another three, making the score 42-31 at the 5:30 mark. 

While Team USA bombed away from deep, Australia continued to attack the basket. Australia converted 4-5 layups in a two minute stretch. Joe Ingles capped off the fourth made layup by performing a strong drive from the near wing into the lane for a lefty finger roll. Ingles' basket cut the score to 44-36 at the 4:41 mark. 

Just before Ingles' layup, James made a bit of history. From the near wing, James blew by Ingles to attack the rim. James finished the layup and in doing so he passed Charles Barkley to move into third place on USA's highest scoring players in the Olympics — David Robinson: 280 points, Michael Jordan: 256, James (at this point): 232, Charles Barkley: 231.

Following Ingles' layup, Anthony and Williams traded off on scoring duties. First Anthony sank a three from the corner following a Williams drive and kick. Then Williams grabbed an offensive rebound following a miss. The ball eventually got to James' hands, and James drove and kicked to Williams at the wing for a three — swish. Another beast mode offensive rebound from Love led to an Anthony layup as Love sent the pass to a diving Anthony. Williams closed the stretch by recovering a deflected ball and pulling up from the elbow for a swish — making the score 54-38. 

In the final two minutes, both teams struggled to do much of anything. Ingles hit a jumper, and Mills earned four points following trips to the line. Love closed the half for Team USA by battling for another offensive rebound. After keeping the possession alive twice on the possession, James was able to find Love with a no look pass for a dunk. Mills closed the half with two free throws to cut the score to 56-42.

After outscoring Australia 28-21 in both quarters, Team USA looked poised for a breakout run in the third quarter. Such a run would have to wait. Australia went on an 11-0 run of their own to open the quarter and cut the score to 56-53 at the 8:32 mark. With Chandler back in the lineup, Australia began to sink shots from the outside. Mills opened the second half with a three from the corner following a drive and kick from Ingles. Then Mills stole a sloppy pass from Durant in the backcourt to finish an uncontested layup. Following that, Chandler missed an alley oop lob, and Ingles responded with a pull up three from the near wing. Ingles followed that up by sizing up Chandler at the top following a pick and roll — Ingles sank the three with ease. 

After such a disastrous start, Bryant began making plays. First he passed up an open shot to feed Durant an even better one for a far corner three — swish. Then he curled to the near corner on an inbounds pass. After receiving the pass, Bryant elevated and threw a lob to Chandler for an alley oop dunk. Following a Durant steal in transition, Bryant attacked the rim in semi-transition to draw the foul and sink two free throws. A little under two minutes later, Bryant sank consecutive three pointers. First Paul fed him at the wing following a drive and kick. Then Bryant pulled off an instinctive switch to jump the passing lane at the top and steal the swing pass. Bryant deflected the ball so far in front of him that he had to run it down to the far sideline. Once Bryant controlled the ball, he pulled up from deep at the far sideline. The swish put Team USA ahead 70-58 at the 4:44 mark. 

James and Anthony closed the quarter with solid efforts on the offensive end, but a lack of Chandler in the paint allowed Australia to score easy buckets at the rim. James started things off with a nice offensive rebound that led to an and-one putback. Then Anthony drew a foul as he attempted to gather an offensive rebound — leading to two made free throws. Australia countered with a 6-0 run, with all of their points coming in the paint. Mills started it off with a hard backcut into the lane that led to a layup. Then Mills attacked the basket and dumped off to David Barlow for a layup. Then Ingles attacked the rim in transition following a turnover from Williams. Ingles ended up drawing an unsportsmanlike foul on Westbrook, and he sank both free throws to make the score 77-66 at the 2:48 mark — Mills missed a three with the extra gained possession. 

James and Anthony immediately responded. Recognizing a 1-2-2 zone, James held the ball at the near side in an isolation and he wisely sent the overhead skip pass to Anthony on the far side. Anthony drilled the open three. Then James attacked from the top with strong drive to the rim that yielded free throws — he sank one of two. Following the free throws, Westbrook forced a turnover with hounding pressure in the backcourt — forcing Matthew Dellavedova to dribble the ball off his own foot and out of bounds. Durant capitalized by taking a dribble hand off from Love at the top and attacking the rim for a two handed dunk. Dellavedova responded by feeding Aron Baynes an alley oop dunk following a high pick and roll. Following Williams free throws, Barlow fed Ingles on a dive in the lane for a layup. However, another Dellavedova turnover led to a Williams steal and an outlet to Anthony for a layup. Anthony's bucket would serve as the final basket of the quarter — making the score 84-70. 

Due to a strong opening run, Australia tied USA in the quarter, 28-28. Although small ball lineup gave up buckets at the rim, it did effectively force turnovers. Australia committed just five turnovers in the first half, but in the third quarter they committed eight, including three in the final 1:38.

Team USA opened the fourth with consecutive threes. First Paul nailed one following a high screen and roll switch with Anthony. Then James recognized another 1-2-2 zone, and he skipped the ball to Williams for an open three. Despite the hot opening, Team USA could not stretch the initial 14 point lead — score stood at 93-78 at the 6:00 mark. Love gave some maximum effort, picking up three offensive rebounds in less than a minute, but he could only convert those extra possessions into three points.

With Australia still within striking distance to make the game interesting, Bryant got hot and essentially ended any hope of a comeback. Following a missed Mills layup, James grabbed the board and sent the outlet to Bryant at the near side. Bryant pumped to get his man to close out hard and run by. Then Bryant drilled the three — making the score 96-78 at the 5:52 mark. Australia quickly called timeout, but it wouldn't matter. Out of the timeout, Bryant held the ball at the near wing. Bryant jabbed, rocked Ingles back, and swished the three in his face. Following a missed floater from Mills, Love gathered the board and sent an off target outlet pass to James. James hustled to save the ball from going out of bounds, and he sent a touch pass to Bryant as he began to fall out of bounds. Bryant brought the ball up and drilled the three from the near wing. Then Ingles lost his handle and James sent the outlet to Bryant. Bryant caught the ball and pulled up for three from the far top — swish. Bryant's fourth three pointer in just 67 seconds put the lead up to 25 points — 105-80. 

With Bryant out of the game, James Harden decided it was his turn to put up points. First, Anthony came up with a steal by trapping Dellavedova with Paul. Paul pushed ahead and threw a lob for Harden to go up and throw down with two hands. Then Harden fed Andre Iguodala an open three in the corner. Westbrook followed with a steal by shooting the gap from the wing to the top. Westbrook pushed ahead in transition and left the dump off pass to the trailing Harden for a one handed slam. Following the dunk, Harden utilized a pump fake and side step to drill a three from the near side. Anthony closed the game with a series of dribbles that resembled a yo-yo. Anthony then utilized a hesitation move to freeze his man and blow by for a strong two handed dunk. 

On the heels of Bryant, Team USA dominated the fourth quarter 35-16. Hot shooting propelled the score, but defense also came into play. Team USA forced Australia to commit five turnovers in the quarter. In fact, Australia committed four turnovers in a span of 83 seconds. When Australia could hold onto the ball, they were able to succeed attacking the rim. Australia finished 3-6 on takes to the rim, and they also scored another two points on free throws that resulted from a drive to the rim. 

Team USA won the game 119-86. Bryant led the team with 20 points on 6-14 shooting, 6-10 from deep, in 20 minutes of play. Mills led the game with 26 points on 9-20 shooting, 4-9 from deep. Ingles flanked him with 19 points on 6-8 shooting, 2-4 from deep. Williams flanked Bryant with 18 points, including a game high 7-7 from the free throw line. Although Bryant dominated for a stretch, and had a spectacular second half, the efforts of James are more impressive. James finished the game with the first triple double in Olympics history by dropping this line: 11 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists in his 20 minutes of play. James led the game in rebounds and assists. Love must also be acknowledged. He picked up 11 rebounds, eight of which were offensive. Paul led the game with five steals. Team USA committed just 10 turnovers.

Overall, Team USA simply wore down Australia. After just five turnovers in the first half, Australia committed 13 turnovers in the second half. Australia was able to hang around all game long, but once Team USA got rolling in the fourth quarter, it was game over. Team USA didn't necessarily shoot well, but streaky shooting can work both ways. Team USA finished 39-86 (45.3%) from the field and 19-46 (41.3%) from deep — not much better than Australia's 32-71 (45.1%) from the field and 9-22 (40.9%) from deep. Although the game wasn't necessarily snatched away from them in the fourth quarter (because it wasn't close enough to be considered stolen), it was definitely kept out of their reach on a high ledge. Australia was close in the third quarter, but once Bryant sank his threes, the deficit never shrank. 

Team USA may not dominate from start to finish, but as usual with this team, at least one member will always dominate during key stretches of the game. Team USA will look to carry that explosive firepower into their next matchup against their testy rivals, Argentina, on Friday, August 10.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

USA vs Argentina: Bad Blood (8.6.12)

After allowing Lithuania to nearly pull off an upset while shooting 58.5% from the field and 43.8% from deep, many wondered how Team USA would respond defensively against Argentina — a legitimate contender ranked third by FIBA.

Well, Argentina poured in 97 points — 17 points higher than what they scored in the exhibition matchup, and the most Team USA has allowed in any of the exhibitions or Group A play throughout the tournament. Led by Manu Ginobili's 16 points, Argentina shot 33-65 (50.8%) from the floor and 10-26 (38.5%) from downtown. Argentina routinely exposed Team USA in numerous ways, whether it was the pick and roll game, the post up game, or catch and shoot bombs.

Fortunately, Team USA shot even better on their way to a 126 point outburst. Team USA shot 45-88 (51.1%) from the field and 20-39 (51.3%) from distance. Team USA also fixed their free throw shooting woes by sinking 16-20 (80%).

Team USA's finest performance came in the third quarter when they absolutely blew open the game behind a 17 point outburst from Kevin Durant en route to an explosive 42 point quarter. Although Team USA led by just one point entering the half, Durant's hot shooting allowed Team USA to comfortably take control of the game and enter the fourth quarter with a 26 point lead. From there, Team USA never looked back as they maintained their lead and tacked three more points onto it for a 29 point victory.

Due to an absolutely riveting women's futbol match between USA and Canada — one that went to extra time and featured Alex Morgan scoring on a header in the 123rd minute to give USA a 4-3 victory — I happened to miss the first five minutes of Team USA versus Argentina. I doubt that I would have changed the channel, but the NBC Sports Network didn't do that great of a job to inform the audience that the basketball game happened to be on a different channel (MSNBC) for the time being. I finally found the game and tuned in with Team USA leading 19-15 at the 4:35 mark.

Judging by the play by play on ESPN, it seems like the first five minutes featured some sharp shooting from both squads. Following an Andres Nocioni layup, Durant dropped a three pointer to get Team USA on the board. Kobe Bryant followed with a jumper, but Carlos Delfino responded with a three of his own. Then Chris Paul sank a three, and LeBron James finished an and-one to give Team USA an 11-5 lead. Backup point guard Facundo Campazzo (starting due to an injury to Pablo Prigioni) responded with a three pointer, but Bryant countered with a three to put Team USA ahead 14-8 at the 7:26 mark. Following a turnover and missed threes from James and Bryant, Argentina rallied for a 7-0 run (five points by Ginobili) to take a 14-15 lead at the 5:58 mark. James made up for the miss by stealing the ball, and Bryant sank two free throws to restore the lead. James then set up Durant for a three pointer to make the score 19-15.

From this point on, I actually witnessed the game. Paul provided me a glimpse of Team USA's great deep shooting by dropping a pull up three from the top after running a high pick and roll with Carmelo Anthony. The next two minutes would not prove as fruitful — Anthony missed three consecutive shots, and Russell Westbrook missed a three. A strong drive from almost 30ft away led to an uncontested Campazzo layup, and a stepback jumper from Ginobili put the score at 22-21 with 3:16 remaining in the quarter.

Following Durant made free throws, Luis Scola drew the third of Team USA's five fouls so far by cutting hard to the block and forcing Kevin Love to grab a hold of him to prevent an easy entry and layup. Scola sank the free throws, but Love responded by nailing a jumper. Then Ginobili drew a foul on a foray to the rim. Ginobili sank both, but Love responded with a three after gathering an offensive rebound and dribbling out to the perimeter. Scola came right back at Love and finished a nice spin move that led to a scoop layup, and Martin Gutierrez dropped a high arcing rainbow three pointer to give Argentina a 29-30 lead at the 1:04 mark. To close the quarter, Anthony and Ginobili traded free throws, and Durant sank a buzzer beating three from the wing to put Team USA up 34-32 heading into the second quarter.

Team USA shot the ball very well from deep in the opening quarter — 7-15 (46.6%). However, Team USA seemed uninterested in attacking the basket and getting closer looks — 3-8 (37.5%) from inside the arc. Despite the excellent deep shooting, Team USA only carried a two point lead into the second quarter — such contradicting numbers highlight Team USA's lack of solid defense. Seven made three pointers in one quarter should have led to a sizable advantage, yet Team USA's hot shooting failed to translate into a lead. Argentina did an excellent job of remaining in attack mode despite watching Team USA rain down threes. After just four total free throws combined in the opening five minutes, the game turned into a foul fest, and Argentina sank 6-6 while Team USA sank 4-4 in the final five minutes.

In the second quarter, Team USA and Argentina continued trading punches. Team USA came out strong and capitalized on consecutive steals for four quick points in transition — first a steal by Deron Williams led to Westbrook free throws, and then Andre Iguodala threw down a strong tipdunk after stealing the ball and trailing Westbrook on his foray to the rim in transition. Campazzo responded with a three, but Williams came right back down and found Iguodala flashing in the lane for another throw down — giving Team USA a 40-35 lead at the 8:27 mark.

Iguodala continued his strong play by picking up an offensive rebound and feeding Paul for an open three at the wing. Then Iguodala provided a memorable highlight. After Paul stole the ball in the lane, he fed Iguodala on the wing and Iguodala attacked the rim with aggression in transition. Iguodala took off and threw down a one handed slam, but as the ball forcefully flew through the rim it ricocheted off of Iguodala's shoulder and popped back up through the net and rim. The telecast seemed to indicate that the dunk did not count because it never officially went through the net all the way. Live play continued (there was no inbounds), further indicating that the basket did not count, but after ten seconds the scoreboard put two more points on the board for Team USA. The play was definitely bizarre, and the shocked faces on the USA bench was classic — especially James Harden who dropped his mouth in disbelief. With Team USA confused, Argentina came down and Gutierrez sank a three from the far side. Following a James miss, Gutierrez utilized a flare screen to sink another three and tie the game at 45-45 with 5:18 on the clock.

In sequence with the Gutierrez flare screen three, Paul laid the foundation for some future chippiness between the two squads. As Gutierrez fired away his high arcing three, Paul gave Campazzo a shot to the midsection at the far wing as he made sure to get between his man and the ball. Campazzo immediately went down and stayed there as the ball dropped through the net. At first, the play looked rather harmless, but Campazzo actually seemed to struggle breathing as he laid out on the floor. Either Campazzo is an excellent actor, or he really had the wind knocked out of him.

The play seemed to fire up Paul. First he turned on the jets following a Carlos Delfino missed three in order to finish a coast to coast layup. Then he pulled up for a three from the top and swished it to give Team USA a 52-48 lead with 2:43 on the clock. Consecutive threes from Delfino and Ginobili closed the gap and a Delfino layup put Argentina ahead 54-55 at the 1:15 mark. James responded with four of Team USA's next six points (with Paul providing Love an open layup), but he also allowed Ginobili to draw a foul in the closing seconds of the half. After missing an easy layup (set up by Paul), James immediately pogo sticked and tapped the ball in with seven seconds to go on a running clock. In an effort to shut off the whirling Ginobili, James slipped at midcourt, and Ginobili wisely tripped over James in order to draw the foul. Ginobili sank both free throws to make the score 60-59 at the half.

After such a strong opening quarter from downtown, Team USA cooled off and made just 2-7 attempts from deep. Team USA countered their deep shooting woes by attacking the basket and upping their defensive pressure. Despite the adjustment, Team USA actually lost the quarter 26-27.

To open the third quarter, James decided that it was time to establish an inside game. James immediately posted up Nocioni at the near mid wing. James backed down and pounded the ball until he finally turned baseline and hit a fading jumper. Nocioni came right back and nailed a three. Then James went into the same isolation set and he backed down Nocioni from the mid wing. James took almost a replica shot, but this time he missed. However, Chandler fought for the offensive rebound, and he was able to tap the ball out. With Argentina out of position, Durant was able to swing the ball to James in the corner for an open three — swish. Then, a Chandler block on Nocioni led to a Paul drive and dump for James to finish in the lane — making the score 67-62 at the 8:31 mark.

The next five minutes were absolutely dominated by Durant. Effort on the defensive end and the offensive glass also spiked noticeably. After Chandler ripped the ball away from Scola in the post, Durant and Paul played a two man drive and kick game (with each taking a turn), and Durant ended up sinking a three from the far corner. Then, a Chandler offensive rebound and and-one putback put Team USA ahead 73-64 at the 7:03 mark. James followed with an impressive offensive rebound and putback after he soared through Scola and another big. Then Durant stole a pass to the block, sent the outlet to James, and streaked down the sideline. After pushing down the middle, James hit Durant in stride on the wing and Durant threw down a strong two handed slam in transition.

Then Team USA forced Ginobili to throw the ball away on an attempted drive and dump off in the lane. Bryant came down and drew a foul to sink two free throws — making the score 79-66 at the 5:51 mark. Following a Delfino missed three, Paul gathered the board, brought the ball up, and fed the trailing Durant a three from the top in rhythm — swish. Another Delfino miss led to a catch and shoot three from Durant at the top — making the score 85-68 at the 4:40 mark. In the next minute Durant picked up two steals, with the second of the spectacular variety — Durant did his best defensive end impersonation as he jumped up with both hands in the air just past midcourt to steal a cross court skip pass on the break. Unfortunately, after elevating Durant stumbled and lost control of the ball — nevertheless, his go-go-gadget arms were quite impressive.

After a 6-0 run by Argentina cut the score to 85-74 at the 3:01 mark, Durant continued his fine play, and Love got in on the action. However, before this happened, Scola capped off the 6-0 run with a scuffle with Anthony. After finishing a layup on the break, Scola and Anthony got tangled under the hoop. As Scola turned to run back up the floor, Anthony gave him a body check, to which Scola responded with a shove. Then Scola slapped the ball out of Anthony's hands (while both were out of bounds) in order to prevent the inbounds pass. Following the scuffle, Love scored on a putback following a missed Williams layup. On the ensuing defensive possession, Anthony attempted to gather a missed Scola layup, and as he came down he noticeably threw a dirty elbow that nearly clocked Scola in the face. Fortunately, the elbow didn't land. If it had, I'm sure Anthony would have been ejected, and possibly suspended for a game.

Despite the dirty play, the game continued, and Williams pushed up the court to feed Durant a catch and shoot three from the far wing in semi transition — swish. Following a Nocioni miss, Williams once again dribbled up and he performed a dribble handoff with Durant at the far wing. Durant gathered the handoff and fired up a three from about 10ft behind the line. Durant's long bomb was incredible, and it led Doug Collins to effuse, "Are you kidding me! Are you kidding me! Wow!". Durant's three marked his eighth make from distance in nine attempts, and it also marked his 17th point in the quarter. The shot put Team USA ahead 93-74 with 1:54 on the clock.

Love followed Durant with his own impressive moment. After drawing a foul, Love made one of two free throws. Durant pulled down an offensive rebound on the second missed free throw and he decided to fire up a heat check. Durant dribbled out to the top and pulled up for three. Durant missed, but Love pulled off what may be the most athletic play of his career. As the ball bounced up high off the rim, Love skied and threw down a sick one handed tip dunk.

To end the quarter, Campazzo exacted some revenge upon Anthony on behalf of Scola, and in part due to his prior midsection shot from Paul. After Team USA played great defense for the entire 24 seconds late in the quarter, Campazzo fired up a desperate shot clock beating three that bricked. Durant grabbed the board and pushed up the court. Durant fed the ball to Anthony at the far wing, and Anthony fired up the three pointer with less than three seconds left in the quarter. Anthony sank the shot, but as he came down, he immediately fell to the ground. At first it looked like Campazzo undercut Anthony and made him twist his ankle, but upon further review it became evident that Campazzo gave Anthony a nut tap. Yes, a nut tap. With the ball already out of his hands, Anthony came down from his jumper and Campazzo tapped (not gently) his lower man region. Anthony stayed down for a while, eventually laughing to mask his true anger. With the quarter over, Anthony rose up and let out a primal yell — pretty much letting Argentina know that he couldn't be messed with. This led to Scola actually walking over to midcourt and approaching USA's side in what looked like a serious preparation for a brawl. Scola had to be pulled back, and Anthony continued yelling — and probably talking some major smack. Team USA destroyed Argentina in the quarter, winning 42-17.

Despite the cheap shot, Team USA entered the fourth ahead 102-76. Williams opened the fourth with a three following a drive and kick from Westbrook. Then Westbrook let his intentions be known as he destroyed the rim on a vicious slam dunk. After Iguodala gathered an offensive rebound, he kicked the ball out to the cutting Westbrook at the near wing. Westbrook exploded to the rim, cocked the ball back in one hand, and threw down the leaning one handed hammer over the 6'9" Juan Pedro Gutierrez. Westbrook was awarded a technical for staring down Gutierrez following the slam — but how could he not considering the epicness of the jam? The spectacular dunk put Team USA ahead 107-79 at the 8:55 mark. Throughout the fourth, Team USA led comfortably. Anthony Davis got some run and recored two blocks in his six minutes of burn. Two late threes capped the game. Paul sent a skip pass to Iguodala in the corner for a three, and Harden fired up a last second three from the wing in order to avoid picking up a turnover on a shot clock violation. Harden's game ending three gave Team USA a 29 point victory — 126-97.

Overall, the game was very chippy. I'm pretty sure Argentina was not too fond of Harden taking that final shot. Following the ending buzzer, the telecast mentioned that Campazzo did not take part in the handshake line. If Argentina and Team USA take care of business in the quarterfinals, these two teams are destined to meet in the semifinals. It will be interesting to see if this bad blood carries over into that August 10 matchup.

After cooling off from three in the second quarter, Team USA got scorching hot in the third, and stayed consistent in the fourth. Team USA shot 7-9 from deep in the third and 4-9 in the fourth — the play by play count indicates 40 attempts, but the box score lists 39 attempts. Durant led the way with a game high 28 points on 9-12 shooting, 8-10 from deep, along with four rebounds, four assists, and a game high three steals (tied with Paul). James flanked him with 18 points, and Paul poured in 17 (5-6 from deep). Love, Iguodala, and Bryant also reached double figures. Paul tied for a game high seven assists (Campazzo had seven also). Iguodala and Love tied for a game high nine rebounds. Team USA dished out 29 assists on 45 made buckets. Team USA destroyed Argentina on the glass, winning 46-28 — even with Chandler only playing 12 minutes. Team USA pulled down an impressive 19 offensive rebounds that led to 32 second chance points. Team USA picked up 11 steals, blocked two shots, and forced 16 turnovers. Team USA scored 27 points off of those turnovers. Team USA also took care of the rock, committing just eight turnovers.

In summation, Team USA wore down Argentina. Team USA picked up the intensity in the second half, and once Durant got hot, the game blew open. The competitive nature of the first half was intriguing, but Team USA showed that it only takes anywhere from three to five minutes for them to truly blow open a game. Team USA's blistering three pointers certainly helped, but such performances should be expected. Most of these teams are playing switch man to man or a variation of a 2-3 zone. Often times this leaves either a big man playing off of a USA perimeter player following a switch, or a perimeter player getting open catch and shoot opportunities against a zone.

After watching five Group A games for Team USA, the blue print for opposing teams seems to be, "Hope Team USA goes cold." When Team USA does go cold, teams tend to stick around. But, unlike a regular basketball team that can be forced into moving the ball into the hands of a far lesser threat (aka Metta World Peace firing up bricks), Team USA features guys on the perimeter that can all turn into popcorn and just start popping off everywhere. Whether it's Durant, Anthony, James, Bryant (who hasn't necessarily put forth a great game yet) Paul, Williams, Westbrook, Love, Iguodala, or Harden, each of these guys are capable of taking over at any moment. Giving them open looks is not wise, but it's all that opposing teams can truly do. You can't run them off the line because Team USA's athletes will go and dunk on you or drive and kick to the next open guy. As we saw with Argentina, a team can hang around, but often times, it's a matter of when, rather than if, regarding Team USA's penchant for taking over a game.

With group play finished, Team USA will look to continue their hot shooting against Australia in the quarterfinals on August 8, 2012.