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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.

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