Team USA Are Human… And Other Revelations

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The weekend’s Olympic basketball action saw Team USA, god-like against Nigeria on Thursday, transformed back into fallible mortals—albeit mortals who can still win games when stuck in first gear. For other teams, notably Spain, winning while failing to execute on the fundamentals isn’t so easy. The Spanish, a team that in theory has the weapons to challenge the U.S., but who’ve looked below par on more than one occasion in this tournament, suddenly, after the loss to Russia, aren’t such a lock for the medal podium. Elsewhere, there were wins for Brazil, Argentina, France, and, unfortunately from the perspective of a suffering Great Britain fan, Australia. Take a bow, Patty Mills.

With just one round of group games to come, the standings are beginning to take shape. Some teams booked their place in the knockout phase with wins on Saturday, while others were eliminated. Here, in no particular order, are the winners and losers from the weekend.

Loser: China and Their Anemic Offense

After looking fairly competent in their first game against Spain, mainly thanks to Yi Jianlian’s typically selective-brilliance, Team China has gone downhill fast. In their lopsided 98-59 loss against Brazil on Saturday, the Chinese put up just 21 points in the first half. Stagnant would be a compliment. Let’s move on.

Winner: Patty Mills

In the first 3 games of the tournament, Mills was fairly erratic—jacking up a lot of shots and missing a good percentage of them. In fairness to the Spurs point-guard, however, the onus has been on him to provide the bulk of the offense for a team that’s lacking NBA quality personnel.

Against Great Britain, in what was effectively an elimination game for both teams, Mills didn’t disappoint. In-fact, he was awesome—hitting 14 of 22 from the field, and finishing with 39 points—the highest individual score of the tournament thus far. The Aussies needed Mills at his best in a game in which they trailed at halftime by 10 points. At the start of the 2nd half, G.B. extended their lead to 15, but Mills led his team on a massive 30-6 run and Australia led by the end of the 3rd quarter. They didn’t let up in the 4th, putting up 40 points as G.B’s misery continued, and the Boomers emphatically booked their place in the quarterfinals.

Winner: Lithuania

It shouldn’t come as a major surprise that Lithuania ran Team USA so close on Saturday. They always seem to play great basketball against the Americans and actually beat them in 2004. But the Lithuanians had produced a mixed-bag up until that point—poor against both Argentina and France—so their level of performance in the narrow 99-94 defeat against the U.S.A., was as shocking as it was impressive.

Lithuania troubled the U.S. throughout with their great pick-n-roll, intelligent off-the-ball movement, and savvy passing. Once again, Linus Kleiza was the main-man on offense, putting up a silky 25 points, and generally looking like a completely different player than Raptors fans are used to seeing.

The Lithuanians will finish off their preliminary schedule against the Tunisians, a game they should win comfortably, and will likely face Russia in the quarterfinals. If Saturday’s incarnation of the team shows up against the Russians, and not the version that lost to Argentina, they could cause an upset and send their basketball-crazed fans into delirium.

Loser: Team USA’s Leisure Time

After taking Nigeria to the proverbial woodshed on Thursday, and then some, Coach K. cancelled Friday’s practice. That seemed like a pretty fair decision. If beating a team by 83 points, knocking down over 60% of your 3s, hitting 70% of your shots from the field, and scoring the most points ever in an Olympic basketball game, doesn’t justify having a day off to relax, then it’s hard to imagine what would.

Well, unfortunately for those members of Team USA who thought they could take in some Beach Volleyball before their game with Argentina, it’s back to the lay-up line. As great as Lithuania were, the U.S. just weren’t up to their usual high standard. It’s easy to excuse the poor shooting—they weren’t going to replicate the transcendent heights of the Nigeria game (they only shot 30% from downtown against Lithuania)—but it was other aspects of Team USA’s game that were more frustrating.

Team USA defended the pick-n-roll poorly and frequently lost opposition players cutting and rolling to the basket. Their ball movement was equally poor, with one too many isolation plays on offense. Coach K’s boys had only 13 total assists—well below the standard of a team that’s dropped over 30 dimes in games in this tournament. Just as crucially, the free throw shooting was abysmal—just over 60%. Kevin Love missed 5 and later apologized for his Shaq impression.

On a positive note for Team USA, they played their worst game of the tournament by far, against a decent team playing out of their skin, and still won fairly comfortably in the end. That’s what the rest of the world is up against.

But their victory was mainly thanks to the next ‘winner’…

Winner: LeBron James

Because of the 2012 NBA playoffs and Saturday’s 4th quarter against Lithuania, LeBron’s making us all forget that he actually isn’t clutch, and does always shrink in the biggest moments. Oh wait, sorry, that’s the nonsensical perception held by some ill-informed members of the basketball media and general public. If you’ve stepped out of the darkness and into the light, you’ll have realized by now that James is pretty damn good in the big moments. And he had to be against the Lithuanians.

LeBron put up 9 of his 20 points in the last four minutes of the game, after Lithuania had threatened to pull off the monumental upset. Up until the Lithuania game, LeBron had acted mainly as a playmaker—almost in a Magic Johnson type-role. On Saturday, however, he showed that he’s more than willing to rack up the points if his team requires it of him.

Loser: Spain

If the Spanish had looked good in their 3 games prior to Saturday’s loss against Russia, it would be easier to excuse the defeat as simply a bump in the road. Unfortunately, Spain has been far from at their best in this tournament so far. They beat China and Australia with comfortable, but fairly uninspiring performances, and scratched out a one-point win against Great Britain—partly thanks to GB’s inability to realize that putting Jose Calderon at the line is a really dumb idea.

Against Russia they got off to an awesome start—leading 20-2 in the first quarter at one stage. But after the blistering opening they got bogged down on offense, scoring only 25 points in the 2nd and 3rd quarters combined. They would lose the game by 3 points.

Worryingly for Spain, they don’t look 100% healthy. Guard Juan Carlos Navarro is struggling with injuries and Marc Gasol looks like he’s going through the motions after a grueling NBA season. To win gold, Spain would likely now have to go through Team USA in the semi-final—a futile task on current form.

Winner: Russia

Like always, when a team plays below standard it’s at least partly down to the 5-guys on the other side, and not simply due to internal failings. Russia earned their victory against the favoured Spanish with guts, determination and no-little skill—attributes they’ve displayed in all their games so far in this tournament.

After barely scraping through to the Olympics, the Russians have surprised everyone by emphatically winning Group B. Against Spain, they overcame a massive hole early, kept their composure, and fought back to win a huge game. Winning the group now means that Russia won’t have to face Team USA until the gold-medal game—if they get that far, of course.

Against Spain, Vitaly Fridzon reprised his role as team hero, following up his absolutely ridiculous game-winning 3 against Brazil (I’m still not sure how he made that shot), with 24 vital points, on 9 of 15 shooting. Fridzon was given good support by Nuggets centre Timofey Mosgov, who, over this past week, seems to have morphed into a highly skilled big man with great footwork. The ‘putting on the national jersey turns you into an all-star’ phenomenon strikes again!

 

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