Forgive the corny Hope/Crosby headline, but the USA looks like a lock to go to the 2008 Olympics â€” and first and foremost this is what had to happen in this Tournament of Americas weâ€™ve all been glued to. (Well, maybe glued isnâ€™t the right wordâ€¦.) After watching all four USA games plus a little here and there from other games, and I think we can safely say the USA is the class of this tournament.
The numbers back that up. Look at some key stats from the top four teams in the tournament.
(A quick key for those of you new here: eFG%: Shooting percentage combining two and three pointers; Pace, possessions per game; Off. Rating, points scored per 100 possessions; Def. Rating, points given up per 100 possessions.)
The USA not only has its expected best offense (although they still revert to the one-on-one game too quickly), it has been playing the best defense as well. Now, what they have done has not totally eliminated my defensive concerns from last year in Japan â€” there has been no change in philosophy, they have just put out better defenders and upped the pressure (great story by Eric Neel about the new USA attitude). Thatâ€™s been more than good enough here, will it be good enough next summer is the question.
The numbers suggest that even without all their best players, Argentina is the second best team, although I think Brazil is pretty close. (Remember, those stats are from just four games, and one of Brazilâ€™s games was against the USA while Argentina has yet to play them.) My guess is that these two teams could meet in one of the semi-final games next Saturday, with an Olympic berth on the line, and that will be quite a game.
After that, the talent drops off pretty far. Uruguay is 3-1 and in second place in their division, but look at their numbers and they should be a .500 team (one of their wins was in overtime against Panama, a team that also took Argentina to overtime). They are a one man crew â€” Estiban Batista is leading the entire tournament in points and rebounds, averaging 23 and 15. Curious to see him against the USA front line.
The best way to get into what the USA is doing right is to get into a breakdown of the plays that helped them pull away last night against Brazil.
As we pick up the action it was a two-point USA lead with 8:10 left in the second after Barbosa outran the entire USA team down the court, caught the long-heave and laid it in.
USA up 2: After trying a couple other things the USA goes with the pick and roll out on the wing with LeBron handling the ball and Howard throwing a nice elbow into the LeBrons man to slow him, but Nene switches well and handles LeBron, who kicks it back out top of the key to Billups. Chauncey surveys the situation and whips it back into the corner to LeBron, but this time Nene has laid off him, so LeBron drains the three from the corner.
USA up 5: Brazil runs Barbosa off two screens (much like UCLA used Afflalo last year) but Kobe does a good job fighting through them and stays with him. Barbosa is the heart of the Brazilian offensive machine and Kobe put the lockdown on him in this game â€” Brazilâ€™s other players picked it up for a while but they couldnâ€™t sustain it. Anyway, Barbosa gets the ball as he curls by the free throw line but Kobe is there and Kidd sags down on him, so Barbosa kicks out to Marcelo Machado for a good look three, and while heâ€™s shooting 35% from distance for the tourney he misses this one.
Kidd gets the outlet and pushes the ball up, draws three defenders in the key so he passes to LeBron baseline, who gets trapped by two defenders but makes a nifty bounce pass to Carmelo under the basket. Carmelo misses the first reverse layup but fights to get the ball back, and hits a five-foot fade away using the glass.
USA up 7: After working the ball around a little bit and finding nothing, USA draft legend Tiago Splitter gets the ball out by the three point line just left of the top of the key, and proceeds to blow by Carmelo Anthony and get the layup. Splitter impressed me in this game, he can play. And, not shockingly, he is a good international player who is the property of the San Antonio Spurs.
USA up 5: Off an out of bounds pass (Billups drew a foul from Nene), Kobe comes out on the side to set a pick for Carmelo, but Carmelo goes away from the pick and right at Splitter, and draws the foul while shooting. He hits both free throws.
USA up 7: Brazilâ€™s Joa Paulo Batista gets the ball out by the three point line and shows scouts why he should not get the ball out by the three point line, looking confused and almost making a turnover. Brazilâ€™s Garcia (who is trying to pick up the Barbosa slack as creator) runs up to bail Batista out, gets handed the ball and then blows right past Mike Miller for the layup. (Redd has been great in this tournament, Miller should plan his family vacation next summer in Europe, heâ€™ll have the free time). That would be the last field goal of the half for Brazil.
USA up 5: Kobe quickly gets the ball on the wing and does something very Kobe â€” destroys his man driving past him baseline, draws two defenders near the basket, and still nearly makes the reverse layup while drawing the foul. He hits one of two.
USA up 6: Batista gets the ball down on the right block and shows scouts why he should gets the ball down on the block, making a neat little bounce pass in the lane to the cutting Garcia, who is fouled while shooting. He hits one of two.
USA up 5: Good recognition of the match up by team USA, Garcia is tasked with covering Kobe, and even the slimmed down version of Kobe is way too much for Garcia on the block, so the USA gets him the ball in the low post (Carmelo steps out on the wing to allow Kobe to post up, then makes the entry pass). Kobe backs Garcia down and scores with a finger roll.
USA up 7: After Amare almost steals the ball from Bastista out by the three point line (what did we say about him away from the block?), Brazil gets a second chance but this time Kidd does get a steal, knocking the ball free from a driving Garcia. This leads to a fast break the other way, where Kidd draws the foul but only hits one of two from the line.
USA up 8 (5:09 left): Brazil calls a timeout, then runs a nice out of bounds play that has Kobe trailing Garcia behind a pick, but while Garcia gets a good look at the three heâ€™s only shooting 20% from distance in the tourney, and true to form he misses. So Kidd pushes the ball up again, but Brazil is back and picks up everyone. Well, everyone but the trailer LeBron, who gets in deep then hits a high archer over the closing defender.
USA up 10: Still not enough shots of the hot Brazilian women you know are in the crowd for this, instead (after a ball knocked out of bounds) we get to watch Valter Da Silva made a nice drive from the top of the key and draw a foul on Kidd. Donâ€™t know much about this guy, but nice free throw stroke.
USA up 8: Brazil decided to press full court and tries to trap Billups, something they tried a few times during the game â€” trapping the USA guards. It failed just about every time because the USA guards were taller and just passed over the top of it. In this case Billupsâ€™ pass out is tipped but still gets to LeBron, who drives from half court into the lane and once every defender is on him he kicks to Kobe for a wide open three from the wing.
USA up 11: Brazil tries the USAâ€™s no-motion offense, apparently just intimidated by the USA pressure defense. When forced to do something with the shot clock winding down they throw the ball out of bounds.
At the other end Brazil chooses do double-team/trap Billups again and with some quick passing around the perimeter Michael Redd gets a good look at a three. Heâ€™s shooting 51.6% from downtown for the tourney, but this was part of the other 48.4%.
Brazil comes down with the intention of getting the ball to Nene on the block, but Amare overplays him so the guard moves his entry pass away from Nene a little â€” out of bounds â€œa little.â€
Back at the USAâ€™s end, LeBron and Amare Stoudemire run a highlight pick and roll â€” both defenders go to LeBron so he passes for an impressive Amare slam.
USA up 13 (2:53 to go): Brazil wants to go to Nene but Amare is just way too much for him and playing intense defense (and, Nene just looks tired and a little heavy). After Amare knocks one ball out of bounds he eventually forces Nene to take an ugly runner that hits the side of the backboard.
The USA pushes the other way and Redd ends up with the ball in the left corner for a three, but the defender is closing, so he puts it on the floor baseline and as he draws defenders near the basket kicks out to LeBron, who holds it for a second then passes back to Redd, who just continued running through to the opposite corner. His defender did not, Redd gets an open look and buries the three.
USA up 16: Out of a timeout, Brazil is still not coming up with anything good offensively against the USA pressure, the result is a horribly wild three, however Da Silva is under the basket and catches the air ball, then gets fouled trying to shoot. De Silva still has a pretty stroke from the line, I bet that guy could hit 50 in a row.
USA up 14: LeBron draws every Brazilian this side of the Wynn, so a quick pass and Billups gets an open look at a three but misses. At the other end it looks like Brazil is waiting for their playmaker, Barbosa, to shake free of Kobe but he canâ€™t, so De Silva drives, passes near the basket to Nene, who moving toward the rim shoots up into the bottom of the rim (did I mention Nene looks tired?). Ball bounces to the USA, and at the other end itâ€™s LeBronâ€™s turn to play one-on-one NBA-style ball, both inside and out, but Nene plays him well, so LeBron ends up missing the three.
Barbosa looks like heâ€™s got the rebound but before he can take two steps Kobe knocks it free and the USA sets up another possession. They work it around to Redd who shows he can drive the lane too, and scores the layup.
USA up 16: After a foul by Redd that led to an out of bounds play, Marcelo Marchado makes a horrible pass in a crowded lane that LeBron picks off, launches ahead to Kobe, who wants to make the fancy no-look, behind the back pass but misses badly. Fortunately he gets bailed out by the foul. Kobe hits two.
USA up 18… and I could go on, but why bother. Well, there was LeBrons running three to end the half, that was pretty fun. But by that point the game was over.
And pretty much the tournament as well.