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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Team USA Blows Out Tunisia (7.31.12)

After defeating France in the opening game of Group A play, Team USA headed into their matchup against Tunisia on July 31 as 54 point favorites. Team USA nearly lived up to the bill, as they won 110-63 — a 47 point victory. Lacking any NBA players on their roster, Tunisia simply couldn't keep up with Team USA's high tempo, highlight reel performance.

However, for about 17 minutes, Tunisia hung around by sinking three pointers from all over the court. After Tunisia's only point guard on the roster, Marouan Kechrid, dropped a pull up three pointer at the 3:33 mark in the second quarter, the score stood at 35-30 — much closer than anyone would have ever imagined.

Once again, Team USA slowly came out of the gate. I doubt anyone truly believed that Tunisia could pull off the upset, but Team USA's lack of focus early in games is starting to become a trend rather than the exception. After Mourad El Mabrouk earned a trip to the line by blowing by Kobe Bryant, Coach K saw enough of the lackadaisical play and he ordered a full five man substitution — from what I can recall, a first. Mabrouk sank both free throws to give Tunisa a 12-15 lead with 2:39 left in the opening quarter. Up to this point, Tunisia calmly ran their offense and pretty much did whatever they wanted. Tunisia ran their plays without hindrance as they dribbled to their spots, delivered passes to the first option, and got off good shots early in the game. Simply put, Team USA didn't take anything away from them. Instead of forcing Tunisia to work for buckets, Team USA pretty much allowed Tunisia to play with freedom and ease.

I guess we should have known this was going to be a lazy game right off the bat. Team USA clearly entered the game lacking the mindset necessary to absolutely destroy Tunisia from start to finish. Chris Paul started off the lethargic play with a sloppy swing pass that was just a fingernail away from being stolen on the very first possession of the game. From there, Team USA routinely settled for three pointers, which they clanked over and over again. Granted, the threes were wide open, but Team USA could have easily punished Tunisia's rotating 2-3 and 3-2 zones by penetrating, flashing to the middle, running high low sets, and essentially getting easy buckets at the basket. Instead, Team USA directly played into Tunisia's hands by letting them off the hook defensively. Team USA shot 0-8 from deep in the opening quarter, with the starting unit shooting 0-6. Tunisia didn't do much better, but at least they made some threes as they shot 3-9. Every single Team USA three pointer taken was wide open except for a Westbrook buzzer beater at the end of the quarter. If you've ever just shot alone in a gym and kept missing over and over, that's kind of what Team USA did — Tunisia didn't even bother closing out half the time.

After watching a vastly inferior team put Team USA to shame, Coach K pulled the plug on the opening unit. The bench guys promptly came in and turned up the intensity on both ends. Deron Williams immediately attacked into the lane following a high back pick from Andre Iguodala, and he sank a floater. Following the bucket, Team USA went into a full court press. Although they didn't come up with a steal, Team USA forced a lot of time off the clock as Tunisia struggled to advance the ball. Mabrouk ended up forcing a contested three pointer, which he missed, and Russell Westbrook led a break which ended up with Kevin Love laying the ball in. Following the bucket, Team USA continued their pressure defense, and Tunisia ended up committing a turnover due to a shot clock violation. The next trip down the court, Williams penetrated and dished to Love for a corner three pointer. Love missed, but Iguodala crashed the glass as he ran straight down the lane to throw down an impressive putback slam over Makram Ben Romdhane — a surprisingly excellent baller who dropped 22 points on 50% shooting along with 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and just 2 turnovers.

Although Love missed the three pointer, the shot came after Team USA broke down Tunisia's defense, which in turn allowed Iguodala to crash the glass due to holes in the defense. Prior to this point, Team USA just swung the ball around the perimeter and shot open threes, which all bricked and were easily rebounded by Tunisia. The next possession, Iguodala came up with a steal in the lane, and Westbrook attacked the rim to earn a trip to the free throw line. Iguodala stole another pass on the ensuing possession, and Westbrook took it coast to coast to finish a layup in transition. Following this, Team USA forced Tunisia into another shot clock violation just before the close of the quarter. On the heels of strong defense and transition buckets, Team USA finished the quarter ahead 21-15.

To start the second quarter, Team USA finally pulled the cap off of the rim and drilled a three pointer. Williams stole the ball and fed Carmelo Anthony a rhythm three pointer from the top in transition. Williams continued his excellent play by swatting Romdhane from behind following an over the top entry pass. Westbrook calmly came down the floor and sank a jumper from the elbow to give Team USA a 26-15 lead at the 9:13 mark. Doug Collins commented on the great play from the bench by relating a story from his playing days on the '72 squad, "Coach Iba used to say, 'If you don't want to play, your substitute does.' That's the beauty of having competition and such a deep team." Westbrook cemented the statement almost immediately with a drive and kick that led to an open Anthony jumper.

Following an Anthony swat and a Westbrook trip to the line, James and Durant checked back in at the 8:11 mark. James immediately made his presence felt. After Tunisia broke Team USA's full court press with a pass over the top, James turned on the jets to chase down Salah Mejri and swat his dunk attempt. James swatted the shot so hard that the ball stuck to the backboard and the rim. Despite facing solid defense, Kechrid burned Team USA with consecutive three pointers to make the score 29-23. Kechrid gave a valiant effort against Team USA, as he ran the point for all 40 minutes in Tunisia's opening game, and then for every second in the first half, and much of the third quarter until he relinquished his duties facing the blowout. After Anthony earned a trip to the line, Bryant and Paul checked back in to join James and Durant as starters. However, Bryant didn't last long — he picked up his third foul almost immediately and Coach K decided to give him the rest of the game off.

Before Bryant took a seat, James provided the first of many highlight reel dunks for Team USA. After Durant shot the gap and stole a pass headed toward the wing, James trailed the play in transition, and Durant dropped the ball off for James to hammer home. James cocked the ball back and powerfully threw down the one handed slam as the defender was rendered helpless.

Despite the intimidating dunk, Kechrid continued to fire up threes. He responded by pulling up to sink another one, making the score 35-30 late in the second quarter. This would serve as the closest Tunisia got for the remaining 23 minutes in the ball game. Team USA rattled off 11 straight points to push the lead to 46-30. James and Durant punctuated the half following a James steal and a behind the back pass to Durant for a dunk. Tunisia didn't quit however, and Mehdi Hafsi sank one last three pointer to make the score 46-33 at the end of the half. Despite the shot, Team USA won the quarter 25-18.

Three pointers served as Tunisia's saving grace as they shot 7-16 from deep in the first half. On the other hand, Team USA shot a horrid 2-12. When Team USA did attack the basket, they were unstoppable — 17-22 on two point shots. On the other hand, Tunisia mightily struggled to do anything inside the arc, shooting just 2-12.

The third quarter proved to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Team USA absolutely dominated the quarter, winning 39-14. To start the quarter, Coach K sent a message to his squad by starting the second unit — Williams, Westbrook, Iguodala, Anthony, and Love. The reserves made Coach K look pretty intelligent as Iguodala picked up a steal on the first possession of the second half, and Westbrook took the ball coast to coast to finish an and-one layup. This opening sequence would serve as an indication of things to come. A minute later, Westbrook performed a wrap around reach that led to a steal and bucket for Iguodala in transition. Tunisia immediately called timeout, but it wouldn't matter — Williams blocked a Kechrid jumper right out of the timeout, and Love earned a trip to the line following a foul in transition. Love made one of two, giving Team USA a 10-0 run to start the quarter.

With Team USA playing aggressive, Collins gave his nod of approval, "See what I like is, everything is in the paint now, they are going to the basket. This group is not settling for those long jump shots. And the reason they're not is because their defense has changed the game. Now they are in the open floor, they're playing that transition game that Tunisia has no answer for." Collins was dead on with his analysis. Team USA's defense can serve as their best offense — steals and blocks tend to lead to live ball turnovers that Team USA can convert into easy buckets in transition. Early in the game, Team USA ran half court offense because they had to inbound the ball following made baskets by Tunisia. As the game progressed, Tunisia stopped scoring, and Team USA began converting Tunisia's mistakes into highlight worthy dunks.

After eight straight points by Anthony, the lead ballooned to 65-36. A ridiculous putback slam from Iguodala capped off a Team USA 25-3 run midway through the third quarter. Iguodala took a running start down the baseline from the corner, and as Durant misfired Iguodala skied up to throw down a one handed slam to the delight of the bench (shown at 14 seconds). Following Iguodala's impressive play, Anthony Davis got in on the action. Davis threw down three alley oop jams late in the quarter, all of the spectacular variety. His best dunk came off of a Paul lob that he skied to grab with two hands and throw down over Mejri (shown at 17 seconds). His next dunk came as he ran the baseline. Durant attacked the lane and lobbed the ball up for him to slam with one hand. Then Paul set him up for another alley oop dunk following a high screen and roll. Anthony's dunk closed out the quarter and capped off Team USA's excellent shot making — 15-18 from the field in the quarter with many of the dunking variety.

Team USA entered the fourth quarter up 85-47. Davis continued his alley oop dunk fest by catching a late lob from Durant and throwing down a two handed jam on the second offensive possession of the quarter. Late in the quarter, Davis scored his final bucket of the game — obviously, it was an alley oop dunk. Davis finished the game with 12 points on 5-5 shooting, along with 3 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal in his 14 minutes of play. To close the game, Love nailed two three pointers — the first one came off of a drop off between the legs from Iguodala in transition, and the second off of a drive and kick from Paul. Team USA finished the quarter ahead 25-16, and they won the game 110-63.

Despite getting dunked on all game long, Tunisia seemed to enjoy the experience. They hung around with Team USA in the early going, and then they got to watch some of the finest athletes in the world do things the rest of us dream about. In fact, Mohamed Hadidane was able to corral Bryant during the post game hand shakes and ask for an autograph. Hadidane pulled out a sharpie and had Bryant sign his shoe. The moment was pretty humorous, especially because Hadidane didn't ask for anyone else's autograph — much to the chagrin of Chandler who stood there with an almost disappointed look on his face.

Overall, Team USA took care of business as the game wore on. I'm sure Coach K debated whether he should rip into his team following the lethargic start, but a simple mass substitution clearly stated the message. Sporting a 12 deep lineup, the bench combined to score 82 points. Although Romdhane poured in an efficient 22 points while holding his own with the likes of James, Durant, and Anthony, player of the game honors belong to Anthony. Anthony scored 16 points on 6-6 shooting, 2-2 from deep, and he pulled down two rebounds in his 12 minutes of playing time. In the second and third quarters, Anthony spurred the team on and Team USA never looked back. Love tied Anthony with 16 points as well, but he played five more minutes. Durant led the team with 10 rebounds, and Paul dished out a game high seven assists. Westbrook cannot be overlooked either — he immediately increased Team USA's intensity and tempo upon entering the game in the mass substitution by performing strong full court pressure and getting the team in transition.

Team USA shot 43-70 from the field, and 10-25 from deep. Team USA dished out 28 assists on 43 made baskets. After a slow start, and just 10 assists in the first half, Team USA began sharing the ball and converting baskets — leading to 18 assists in the second half. Team USA forced Tunisia to commit 19 turnovers, and Team USA absolutely punished Tunisia by scoring 36 points off of those turnovers. Team USA also finished with 38 fast break points. Team USA outrebounded Tunisia 44-31. Tunisia finished with just 12 assists as they shot a torrid 23-65 — Tunisia did shoot a decent 9-26 from deep.

Although Team USA blew out Tunisia, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Another slow start plagued the team, and inconsistent shooting once again cropped up. However, Paul said it best when he uttered the sentiment "We can't all be off." Paul is probably right, but against a quality team like Spain, if half of the guys struggle shooting, that could spell trouble. The starting five finished 2-10 from deep. Imagine if the starting five struggled like that against Spain — would you be comfortable watching the bench rack up important minutes in a medal game? The bench is great, but Paul, Bryant, Durant, and James — Chandler not included because all he does is dunk — need to find their stroke. I suggest they stop shooting from the international line and just start launching NBA three pointers — take a step back and hit that familiar 23'9" fellas.

Team USA will look to right the ship against Nigeria on August 2.


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