By: Mike Moreau
Team USA can't lose in these Olympics.
That doesn't mean they won't lose; it means that after all of the planning, preparation, and commitments from our nation's best basketball minds and our best players, they absolutely, positively cannot afford to lose.
Can you imagine this team playing for the bronze medal? After all of this? Or losing in the quarterfinals? That would be the train wreck of all train wrecks.
After four exhibition games in China, there are plenty of reasons to think this won't happen and Team USA is primed and ready to bring home the gold.
But, it's the chinks in the armor - some we've already looked at in previous reports - that will be the focal point for our coaching staff and that of our opponents over these next two weeks.
Does Team USA have to go 8-0? Not necessarily. But, this team has begun to restore some of that "Big Bad Wolf" reputation, and if we stumble in pool play, all of that will be gone. Every remaining opponent will see us as vulnerable. That will make each next step more difficult.
They could survive that, but must get to the medal round, and then must go 3-0. No NBA "Best of 7's" here. Let's see how to get that done.
Defensive Keys / Concerns
The steals and blocks get all of the attention, but defensive field-goal percentage is the name of the game here, and Team USA has been impressive in this area. Against Turkey, Lithuania and Russia, our defensive field goal percentage went from 43.9 to 41.0 to 39.7 – great numbers and moving in the right direction.
Australia did shoot a very respectable 47.5, which is a concern. Hopefully, this was a hiccup.
However, as teams have now had a chance to prepare opponents' turnovers will probably drop, which means steals and easy baskets will diminish. Just hounding the ball and going for steals will backfire against the better opponents.
Solid, possession by possession defense is the key for this team, and mixed in with a few flurries of steals and easy baskets makes them a gold medal defensive unit. The steals and dunks will be a byproduct of that consistent pressure and position. Although they may get fewer of them, Team USA will be better and more consistent on each possession.
Team USA has been excellent on the ball and in the passing lanes, but not so good off the ball and in rotation situations. The first rotation has been good – reacting and arriving at the spot quickly – but they have been consistently late or even a no-show on the second rotation.
Better teams will make those extra passes to force multiple rotations, and if we don't get early steals and turnovers, then our ability to defend this action will be tested against the good teams.
This is especially a concern in our high pick-and-roll defense. NBA teams use the high pick-and-roll mostly to free up the penetrating ballhandler, and try to get the ballhandler to the open side of the floor so he can create – either with a shooter in the corner for "penetrate-and-kick" action or with that side cleared out for an isolation for the guard coming off the screen.
Many of the international teams run this action exactly opposite – with the ballhandler trying to free up the screener by dribbling off the screen toward two of his teammates on the perimeter.
This allows the screener to roll or pop into a more open area in the middle or down the lane. This means there is only one defender to help. If he is late, it's a basket.
It also means there is a left-over offensive player on that side of the court, which requires another defender from the ballside to fly at him from across the floor to prevent the three-point shot. Not an easy cover.
Team USA prepared for some of this with the selection of their roster, choosing to go smaller and more athletic, allowing them to switch in many of the situations to avoid drastic mismatches.
There are a lot of interchangeable parts, which is the whole point. This was a smart move – if everyone executes the plan faithfully.
They have also tried to force ballhandlers away from the screen, forcing the guard to become the creator and taking the screener out of the play. However, this gives the ballhandler a slight head start on a drive into the lane, which can create problems of its own.
Again, off the ball rotations become the key; not just to stop the ball, but to get to the second and even the third pass. So far, they haven't been very good at that.
And although the US team may be at a size disadvantage up front, they have a more versatile and mobile defense to make these plays. We also make up for any size deficiencies on the front line by have rebounding advantages at the other positions.
Defensive Bottom line: If they defend with good effort, position and communication on each possession, mixed in with an occasional flurry of steals and easy baskets, and everyone rebounds their position, Team USA will be fine. That's the path to gold.
The minute they start hunting steals, gambling, getting out of position, and leaking out on the break – they are in trouble.
Offensive Keys / Concerns
Offensively, the numbers tell another story – one that is of great concern. Team USA's offensive field goal percentage has gone from 69.5 to 64.0 to 57.1 to 50.8 in these last four exhibition games – that's the wrong direction.
Part of that is due to fewer easy baskets in transition, as teams are taking care of the ball much better, scheming for the pressure, and also getting back in transition more effectively.
It also means teams are seeing tendencies and preparing for what they do, putting a premium on decision making and shot selection.
That means Team USA is going to have to execute much more efficiently in the halfcourt offense - a totally different game in international basketball.
The shorter three-point line decreases spacing, as players use the line as a point of reference and spot up closer to the basket. Offensive players tend to creep closer to the basket and help defenders can camp closer to the lane, or set up shop right in the paint.
Quite simply, they are operating in tighter quarters – like running a sweep in football to the short side of the field. The NBA defensive rules and points of emphasis open up the floor for the offense; international basketball does not create the rules to cater to the stars.
This is why we are seeing players like Kobe, D-Wade and Deron Williams drive into crowds and take shots with a high degree of difficulty or turn the ball over. They aren't used to seeing all of those defenders down there in the paint, and they are trying to make tough plays in a traffic jam.
The triple somersault with a double twist will get us the gold medal in diving. It will get us beat in basketball.
The adjustment to this must come quickly. Passes have to be made when the crowds arrive – not after the player is surrounded. Penetrators must kick the ball earlier to open shooters and not get stuck in traffic or caught in the air.
With isos and forced shots – either Wade driving into his own teammates or Carmelo facing up, jabbing and firing air balls – USA will strangle its own offense. There will be more matchup type zones, which is essentially a helping, switching man-to-man.
If they stand around, hold the ball, or force the action, they are playing right into their opponents' hands.
The forced forays to the basket we have seen by many of our players are exactly what opponents are counting on. With better and quicker ball and player movement, they will eventually open up the driving lanes and take advantage of their athleticism. The international opponents don't think Team USA is smart enough to figure this out.
They also must eliminate the unforced errors and playground turnovers – lobs to nowhere and sloppy passes trying to force the pace. Most of their turnovers have been just poor decisions, not the result of good defense.
Trying to get oohs and aahs from the crowd or groove on your teammates dunk is not the recipe for gold. The more we see of these silly, downright stupid plays, the more we should be concerned.
Although Team USA shot 24-52 from behind the arc in the first three games in China, they shot a miserable 3-18 from the three-point line against Australia. It only takes one stinker of a shooting game to turn out the lights on the gold medal.
An even greater concern is free throw percentages in the last three games of 61.9, 69.2 and 60.6. 80% foul shooters going 5-8, 0-2 or 3-5 is troubling, and Dwight Howard's 0-6 performance against Australia was horrific.
If Howard is on the floor at the end of games, the "Hack-A-Dwight" strategy comes into play. This means Team USA must play Chris Bosh, and they gain a better foul shooter but lose their best rebounder, shot blocker and intimidator on the defensive end.
As stated in our earlier report, three-point shooting and foul shooting could be a concern for this team. Until the game with Australia, it wasn't a factor. Now it is lurking in the shadows.
Offensive Bottom Line: Offensively, if they move the ball, make the extra pass and make good decisions, their opponents can't really keep them from scoring or take them out of what they want to do. They should be fine. All opponents can do is try to limit Team USA, frustrate them, and get them to beat themselves.
Unfortunately, I began to see some of the cockiness and arrogance in the last game or two that we had not seen before with this team: facial expressions, body language, chippiness. The character of some of our teams, and of some of the players who have represented us in international competition, have been a source of embarrassment to our nation.
I certainly think those days are over. These guys have made us proud.
However, the true character of this team will be revealed when they are in a close game, nothing is coming easy, the calls are going against them, and they are in a fight. And quite frankly, we don't know how this team will react.
And this is the real elephant in the room.
The rest of the world is betting that if they can stay close, put Team USA under enough pressure, they will implode. That's what most overwhelmingly talented teams do when the going gets tough; they don't know how to handle things when they don't come easy, so they self-destruct.
Team USA can't count on the games never getting that close. The question is, can we count on our boys to handle the storm when it comes? And keep in mind, the storm only has to come once in the medal round.
There has never been this much focus, preparation or commitment on the part of USA Basketball to put an Olympic Team together that can win the gold medal. These players have devoted their offseason to representing the United States, and have done so with class, dignity and honor.
This is truly a team that we can be proud of.
I say we can count on our boys. I say we will win the gold.
And I say we go 8-0.
Let the Games begin.