Friday, September 01, 2006


Well, Team USA got bounced in the wee hours of the morning today, losing to Greece 101-95. The score alone should tell the story: a Greece team known for slowing the pace and grinding it out with size and physical defense found a way to light up the scoreboard for over 100 points in 40 minutes. By all accounts, the Greeks played the game of their lives. However, that won't be the slant in the media coverage. No, the stories will focus on Team USA's inability to play team basketball, how they couldn't stop the pick and roll, and other things that we did wrong. While those criticisms may or may not be true, those weren’t the reasons we lost. What are the reasons? I'm glad you asked.

1. The Nature of the Game. No matter what anyone tells me, I firmly believe that the biggest reason for this upset is that upsets happen in basketball. When you play a one-and-done tournament and the teams are even close to being equal, you simply can't win them all. This is why the NCAA Tournament is so riveting, because George Mason can beat UConn on any given day. There is no way you can ensure victory all the time and when a Greece team that supposedly can't shoot straight starts burying 25-foot fadeaways against the shot clock, well, these things can happen.

(While we're here, I just want to note how irresponsible, negative, and pedantic ESPN's Chris Sheridan has been during his coverage of the event. I normally don't take shots at specific writers, but this guy is a joke. He hammered out 1,500 words today about how no one likes him, how he is "yelling into the wind" regarding international basketball, and other things that absolutely no one cares about. Then, after his self-indulgent wrap-up column about, well, himself, he decided that because Team USA is going to finish third or fourth in this tournament, that America is the third or fourth best basketball-playing nation in the world. Sure, that makes sense. Just like UConn is somewhere between the fifth and eighth best college basketball program and Duke is somewhere between ninth and 16th, because they lost in the Elite Eight and Sweet 16, respectively. I think not. We all know that Duke and UConn have the two strongest college basketball programs and that their finish in any particular tournament does not automatically change that standing. For Sheridan to make that inference shows how little he knows about basketball. Either that, or how much he hates his own country’s basketball team.)

2. Chris Sheridan. Okay, just kidding. But who knows? Negative thinking produces negative results. How would you feel if you were on Team USA and the primary writer from your country's largest sports media engine was tagging along asking you scathing questions, calling you out in print, and basically rooting for Spain and Argentina? I'm guessing it would be more than a little annoying. Thanks for doing your part, Chris.

3. Luck. This kind of goes with “nature of the game” above, but you should have seen some of the breaks in this game. Team USA was throttling Greece early when two horrendous fouls were called on three-point shots. Boom, six free points that kept them in the game. There was also a banked-in three with the shot clock expiring, a missed dunk by Wade (when he was clearly fouled) in a crucial situation, and a terrible intentional foul call on Hinrich with the score 91-86 (and all the momentum on the side of the red, white, and blue) that probably cost us the game. Throw in some of the blatant offensive fouls (apparently, leading with your off-arm is perfectly acceptable in FIBA play, as long as you are not American) that Greece got away with and I'm conservatively estimating that they lucked their way into between 15 and 20 points. And that doesn't even account for a poor shooting team somehow making 14 of 18 shots in the third quarter, many of which were contested heaves from behind the three-point line.

4. Free Throws. If there is one thing that Team USA did that was truly blame-worthy, it was the brickfest at the line. LeBron missed like four in a row at one point, Melo missed three in a row, even guys like Paul and Shane Battier seemed to happy with hitting one of two. It was awful. Team USA allowed too many layups and missed way too many free throws. Even I will admit that. In fact, my only lingering criticism about the contruction of this team (something I'm sure people will rail about in the coming days) is that somehow, someway, not enough attention was paid to shooting ability. Again. Considering the bricks we threw up in Athens, it seems impossible that we could turn a blind eye toward shooting, but it sort of happened. Not a single guy that finished in the top-30 in three point percentage last year was part of this team. How is that possible? I still find it unacceptable that Mike Miller was not on this team. The constant clanging was a problem from outside, a problem from the line ... it is just a problem. And it is the one armchair quarterback element of team construction that is totally valid, even for those pundits that were drooling all over themselves for the last three months.)

5. Not Enough One-on-One Play. I know this sounds weird, especially because everything you are going to read is about the fact that there was TOO MUCH individual play. However, there are a few important things to note. First, this team doesn't have years of experience playing together. Not only is this one more reason why we should employ my All-Duke idea for international play, but it also means that we can't and shouldn't try to play like the other teams. We're not going to look like Spain or Argentina with magical ball movement and total synergy, so why fight it? (Although I have to tell you, I watched Argentina and Spain play as well, and either one of them would have lost to Greece today by 20 points. Just so you know. Don’t tell Chris Sheridan though, I wouldn’t want his feelings to get hurt by criticizing his precious favorite teams.)

Team USA should be spreading the court and allowing our superior athletes to take these scrubs to the rim. If you saw the end of the game, you watched LeBron destroy people with great ease, getting to the hoop for layups and monster dunks at will. I know Greece was guarding against the three-pointer and trying not to foul, but I find it hard to believe that they could have stopped him. Ever. Early in the game LeBron faked a handoff and glided to the rim for an easy layup like there was no defense at all. I think Team USA tried so hard to play like Euros that they accidentally negated their biggest advantage, which is that we have quite a few players that simply can't be stopped. They should have just taken turns running isos at the top of the key and putting on highlight shows.

The bottom line is that we are still learning to navigate the new international landscape. There are half a dozen teams that can play at a high level now and while Team USA is always going to be one of the favorites, there is no way to ensure victory every time out on the court. The key is to stick with the system, embrace our advantages, work to mitigate our disadvantages, and just go out and play hard. I am proud of our team and thought they played hard and for the most part played well. They just ran into a decent team that played great. And in one-and-done, tournament basketball, those things happen.

Oh, and it doesn’t mean that we are any less of a basketball-playing country, no matter what Chris Sheridan tries to tell you.

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