Last night the USA Men’s Basketball National Team found themselves in a close ball-game with Brazil during an international friendly to prepare the teams for the Olympics that begin later this month. In front of a packed Verizon Center in Washington D.C. (including an appearance by President Obama), Coach K’s boys held off Brazil 80-69 in a game that appeared even closer than that score line. After demolishing the Dominican Republic 113-59 last Thursday night in Coach Calipari’s final game with the Caribbean squad, last night’s game was a tougher test facing the #13 ranked nation according to FIBA’s latest tabulations. Unfortunately, it was also a game that exposed some of the USA’s weaknesses and showed that while the Americans will by far the most athletic team in the Olympics, they can be beat by countries that have more established team, and especially an interior presence with skilled big men. Even with a mostly lackluster performance there are a few items to take away from this game, and I know for certain that this team will learn and grow from it. At the end of that the day that’s why you play these practice exhibition games.
This game versus Brazil did not start off too well for the Americans. Maybe it was the players being awestruck by President Obama being in attendance (especially Kevin Durant and Deron Williams, who both looked like they’ve never been happier in their lives), or maybe it was just that they took their opponents a bit lighter than they should have, but Brazil jumped out to an early 27-17 lead after the first quarter. For those that don’t know, the teams play 10 minute quarters during the Olympics, and the game is a lot more physical than the NBA game since its played by FIBA rules. It is more a tournament about the actual teams and not focused on star players like what David Stern’s Association has turned into. The refs not calling every little touch foul with the “superstar” rules will hurt the USA team as they adjust to playing, you know, real basketball but they aren’t the only team with NBA players. For instance, the Brazil team has six players who have NBA experience (including Nene, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao who are currently on rosters, and Leandro Barbosa who will be signed to another team soon). The toughest competition that the USA will face in the Olympics is the Spanish national team who feature the Gasol brothers (Marc and Pau) and almost every other nation also feature a couple players currently in the Association.
In the second quarter of last night’s game the USA started playing the basketball we expect from them. After starting 0-8 as a team from beyond the three point line, Kobe finally hit a corner trey late in the second quarter, the only three of the first half as the team finished 1-13 for the 20 minutes. The Americans also started pounding the paint more as well. Sparked by a late 20-5 run, the USA took a 37-32 lead into halftime and never looked back, though they didn’t put their foot on the accelerator either. LeBron James led all USA scorers with 13 points in the half. To survive a 39% shooting half, the Americans used a 15-5 turnover advantage (including 17 points off those turnovers), and that was the real difference in not only the half but in the entire game.
The third quarter was another closely contested quarter, with the US finishing with a 59-51 lead after three. The game was played closely throughout the fourth quarter as well, with the Brazilians hanging in there until the final 4 minutes or so. Anderson Varejao had a tip-in to pull the game within 65-59 with 6 minutes left, but a couple minutes later the USA started pulling away with a couple huge LeBron baskets. LeBron, who has been ridiculed excessively for disappearing in the 4th quarter of many games before finally winning his first NBA Title this past season, was the United States most clutch player last night, scoring 14 of his game high 30 points in the final frame. There’s no question that this is LeBron’s team, he was the starting small-forward last night (Chris Paul, Kobe, Carmelo Anthony, and Tyson Chandler the other starters) and also remained in the game to anchor the second unit consisting of himself, Kevin Durant, Deron Williams, Andre Iguodala, and Russell Westbrook.
The USA held on for the 80-69 win. LeBron had 30 points, while Kevin Durant had 11 and Chris Paul 10. No other player scored in double figures. The 30 rebounds the USA had last night were also spread around to several different players, with LeBron leading the way with 6, Iguodala with 5 off the bench, and Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul with 4 each. In the assist department, Chris Paul had 3, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook with 2, and no other player with more than 1. As you can tell, the American offense will be spread around throughout the Olympics and games like this where one player gets hot and takes over while the rest of the team spreads the ball around will be the norm.
USA won this game defensively. After the game Coach K said “If we win the gold medal, it will be because of how well we played defensively”. While this may be pretty obvious, and coach-speak, when it comes to this USA team it’s not as apparent as it may be for a team with lesser talent. Theoretically this team should be able to outscore every team in the Olympics and just play an up-and-down frantic tempo, but Coach K knows that his guys will need to compete just as hard on the defensive end of the court if they want to take home the gold medal that everyone in this country expects. The USA was outrebounded 38-30 last night, and that’s something that can’t happen when the games become more intense and meaningful.
The team left for London after last night’s game. Their next game-day appearance is Thursday evening against Great Britain at Manchester Arena. It should be another easy game for the team (Great Britain is ranked #43 in the world) before they head to Spain for a couple final tune-ups against Argentina (#3) and Spain (#2) next week to get ready for Olympic Pool Play that commences Sunday, July 29.