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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.

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