Archives For International/Team USA

Over in Lithuania, at the EuroBasket Tournament, Pau Gasol is rolling. He’s playing efficient basketball and again showing why he’s considered one of the best players in the world. In Friday’s Spanish drubbing of Serbia, Pau was the leading scorer with 26 points in only 23 minutes of action, missing only 4 combined field goals and free throws (going 8-10 and 7-9 respectively), while grabbing 8 rebounds, dishing 3 assists, blocking 2 shots, and committing only a single turnover. Needless to say, this is the Gasol we’ve grown to love and appreciate in his Laker career.

But more than the numbers and his overall stellar production, it’s the role in which he’s being asked to play while still producing these statistics that has me encouraged. Simply put, Gasol is being asked to be the man for his home country and he’s delivering in spades.

Gasol is notorious for being one of the game’s most unselfish players and often adapts his game to try and play within the team concept. Even when he speaks out to the press about wanting the ball more it’s nearly always within the context of wanting more touches rather than wanting more shots. When expanding on this idea he’s always speaking within the terms of how to best utilize not just himself, but the rest of his teammates in order to produce the best results. Some view this as a passive-aggressive way of complaining about his teammates (cough, cough Kobe) but I’ve always taken these statements at face value and to mean that he wants everyone (including himself) more involved while not putting anyone above the team’s success.

However, when playing for his home country, Pau is taking on a different role than the highly skilled #2 to Kobe’s #1. He’s being asked to do more; he’s being asked to be the focal point of his team’s success. It’s no coincidence that Spain lost its only game this tournament when Pau sat out nursing a sore ankle or that Spain pulled away from Germany in the 2nd half of their match up when Gasol asserted himself on offense and raised his game. Pau is thriving as the driving force behind his team’s success. If you’re a Laker fan, this is a great development and the biggest reason to be encouraged about Pau bouncing back when the NBA season resumes.

You see, Gasol may be the number 2 behind Kobe, but his value to the Lakers’ success is equal to that of #24. In the Lakers’ recent championship seasons Gasol has come up huge and it’s that level of contribution that will lead to another chance to claim the Larry O’Brien trophy next season. Of course there will need to be a balance to his game as he will be returning to a roster that not only has Kobe, but other talented teammates that deserve the ball and opportunities to help the team. But it’s undeniable that Pau will also need to channel that part of his game that puts him up front as a focal point of the team for the Lakers to win it all as they did in 2009 and 2010. And in order to achieve that level of individual play, Gasol also has to embrace his role as a co-conspirator to Kobe, not a guy that stands behind him.

And make no mistake, Pau is getting that chance as Spain’s leading man this summer. The fact that he’s embracing it and succeeding  is why I’m feeling good about Pau Gasol. And why you should be too.

I didn’t get a chance to catch this game live, so I watched the replay on ESPN3.com while I was at work and documented Pau’s progress during the game. As the title suggests, Pau finished with 29 points and (an unofficial) six rebounds. This is broken down by quarter with each note ending with how many points and rebounds he had when I made said notes.

1st Quarter

– Pau wins opening tip. Sprints to the right block to post up, Marc Gasol travels on his way to the basket. 0 points, 0 rebounds.

– Can’t tell whether or not Pau’s first shot is a long two or a three pointer. It’s a miss either way. On Spain’s next possession, Pau gets the ball in the paint on an out-of-bounds play from the baseline and gets fouled. Makes both free throws. 2 points, 0 rebounds.

– Pau’s 1st rebound of the game comes after a Rudy Fernandez miss. He misses the put-back, but another Spanish ORB leads to Juan Carlos Navarro getting into the paint and finding Pau, who is fouled again. Pau misses the front end, but makes the second. 3 points, 1 rebound.

– Pau gets the ball in the post for the first time about three minutes in the game. After a couple dribbles, he kicked it out to Jose Calderon for a three-point attempt. After the miss, Pau grabs his second offensive rebound and puts it in with is left while being fouled. Basket counts, free throw made. 6 points, 2 rebounds.

– Pau’s second look in the post ends with a lefty hook in the lane. He’s been very patient in the paint thus far. 8 points, 2 rebounds.

– Pau’s 1st defensive laps comes with about five minutes left to play in the quarter. Poland’s Lukasz Koszarek drove the lane toward Pau who failed to step over and help, allowing a wide-open layup (cue Dallas series memories). 8 points, 2 rebounds.

– Pau gets the ball on the left block for the first time. Again, he’s very patient. With his back to the basket, he looks over his left shoulder for available cutters. With no one open, he takes one dribble and makes an awfully decisive move to drop step with his right foot and finish with the left hand off the glass. Fantastic footwork, great patience and he finished while being fouled for the second time. So far, Pau has not been double-teamed. At the 4:45 mark, Spain has 13 points, Pau has 11 of them. 11 points, 2 rebounds.

– Pau takes his first break with about 3:30 left in the first. Very solid first quarter.

2nd Quarter

– Pau re-enters game at around the 7:10 mark. 11 points, 2 rebounds.

– Pau receives a great entry pass from JCN and what appears to be an open lane to the basket. Instead of taking the layup, Pau passes the ball immediately, which results in his first turnover of the contest. 11 points, 2 rebounds.

– Pau was fouled away from the ball while trying to come off a screen to get to the weak side block. With Poland in the penalty, Pau gets to put in two more free throws. 13 points, 2 rebounds.

– Pau records his most interesting basket of the game as he brings the ball out to the perimeter with no numbers on the fast break. He gives the defender a few crossover dribbles before starting to back him down from 15-feet in. Then he picks up his dribble, gives the defender the drop step with is right again, reverses it, then goes back toward the basket to finish while he’s fouled. He misses the subsequent free throw. 15 points, 2 rebounds.

– Spain goes into the half with a 44-31 lead largely due to the efforts of Pau and Juan Carlos Navarro (11 points). Pau also finished the half with two blocks on the defensive end of the floor, where he did some nice things. Spain’s defensive philosophy revolves around getting ball handlers to the sidelines and keeping them out of the paint. For the most part, Pau is doing his job, showing on the high P&Rs, and keeping penetration at a minimum. However, I don’t recall one defensive rebound from Pau, just the two offensive boards from the first quarter. It would be nice to see him get a little more active on the glass in the second half.

3rd Quarter

– Poland goes to a zone defense to start out the second half. Pau catches the ball at the left pinch post (where he’s spent a lot of time in the Triangle), and attempts a touch pass to Marc Gasol who is on the left block. The pass is high and goes through Marc’s hands. This is Pau’s 2nd turnover by my unofficial count, both from quick passes. Considering Poland is in a zone, this might be an opportunity for Pau to take advantage of some backside rebounding. 15 points, 2 rebounds.

– Right on cue, Pau picks up his 3rd offensive rebound on Spain’s next possession. It was a long one on the back side after a Navarro three pointer. Looks as if Pau is going to be working solely in the high post as long as Poland is in a zone. Pau hasn’t even taken a step closer than 15-feet in these two possessions. 15 points, 3 rebounds.

– On the same possession, Pau gets a 2nd offensive rebound that just happened to fall into his lap right next to the basket. He puts it in immediately for the easy deuce. 17 points, 4 rebounds. Still no defensive rebounds.

4th Quarter

– Pau left about midway through the 3rd quarter with Spain holding a comfortable lead. He comes out to start the fourth with Spain only leading by nine. 17 points, 4 rebounds.

– Pau gets the ball on the left block. He turns, faces up and knocks down a smooth 12-footer. 19 points, 4 rebounds.

– Pau spots up and knocks down a three pointer. The announcers say that he has 20 points, but I have him at 22. I don’t know where I added an extra three points, or why they’re behind two, but I’m hoping to figure this out before the game ends.  22 points, 4 rebounds.

– Pau grabs his first defensive rebound that I can remember with just under eight minutes left to play in the game. 22 points, 5 rebounds.

– Pau gets the ball in the low post with an extremely undersized defender guarding him. The announcers wonder why Pau doesn’t take the ball to the basket instead of kicking it out to Rubio who ends up traveling. Pau, however, makes the right decision. There were two defenders waiting to double once Pau made his move, depending on which direction he decided to go. Even though the results don’t agree, Pau made the right decision here.

– After Poland gets the deficit down to five points, Spain goes right to Gasol, who gets fouled. He knocks down both free throws with 3:30 left to play in the game. 24 points, 5 rebounds. (In case you’re wondering, my score now matches with what the broadcast has.)

– With only a six point lead, Poland’s Thomas Kelati drives right by Pau to cut the lead to four. Another horrible display of help defense, this time in a much worse situation. Pau grabbed a defensive rebound on an earlier possession. 24 points, 6 rebounds.

– On the ensuing possession, Pau catches the ball at the three point line, straight away. He dribbles a few times between his legs while moving toward the basket. He’s fouled and heads to the free throw line. He misses the front end, makes the second. 25 points, 6 rebounds.

– After Poland cut the lead to three, Spain went right back to Pau who made himself big on the inside. Caught the ball and finished in the paint while being fouled. He knocked down the free throw. 28 points, 6 rebounds.

Pau would go on to knock down one more free throw with just a few seconds left on the clock. Overall, Pau had a great showing in Spain’s opening EuroBasket game. The thing that stuck out the most was Pau’s ability to finish with contact in the paint. Spain looked to him on possessions when a basket was crucial, and he delivered more often than he didn’t. I’d like to see Pau attack the glass more and play better help defense as this tournament goes on. There aren’t too many negative things you can say about a guy who finishes with 29 points and an unofficial six rebounds.

Everyone loves some home cooking, right?

Well, if you don’t, Pau Gasol certainly does. While he may not be playing in his native Spain, he is putting on his national colors to compete in EuroBasket 2011 in Lithuania to help his home country qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. And in Spain’s first contest leading up to the tourney, it was Pau that led the way in helping his team down France in yesterday’s “friendly” match up. From the game report:

Spain reminded France they are a very different team when Pau Gasol is in the line-up. Gasol, the EuroBasket 2009 MVP and the player the French couldn’t stop in the teams’ Quarter-Final showdown two years ago that Spain won 86-66, had a game-high 19 points to lead his country to a 77-53 romp over Les Bleus in Almeria on Tuesday. Playing alongside his brother Marc as twin towers in the starting five, the elder Gasol dominated. He skipped last year’s FIBA World Championship to take a well deserved break but has returned to the national side and looked as good as ever as Spain won their first friendly of the summer.

After the game, I asked Sebastian Pruiti of the fantastic NBA Playbook to send over his thoughts on the Lakers’ Gasol from the match with France and he obliged. Below are his brief thoughts:

Gasol looked really confident in his jumper.  He started out playing away from the rim with Ibaka and his brother sharing the inside duties.  As soon as he caught it, if he was open, it was going up.  (He) knocked down two threes in the 1st quarter and a long two with his foot on the line. He was also running the floor well, getting ahead and getting the ball and finishing.  Had 3 or 4 fast break buckets where he beat either Turiaf or Noah down the court just with his speed. As always he was comfortable in the post, drawing fouls and getting the rest of his points from there.

All in all, it was a very solid performance, where Pau Gasol looked extremely comfortable, and that is before you consider how uncomfortable he looked in the post-season with the Lakers. I don’t know if it is the fact he’s like the elder statesmen with that team or if the freedom with the Spanish team is helping, but he looks a hell of a lot better, like the Gasol who started the year with the Lakers (though slightly more outside oriented with Spain).

Based off these observations, it’s very encouraging to hear that Pau is back to playing well against solid competition. Noah and Turiaf are both NBA quality bigs (with Noah being one of the better defensive bigs in the game) and it speaks well about Pau that he was able to run the floor well (check out this clip of him changing ends well and then finishing off a sweet dish from his brother) while also being assertive on offense.

One tidbit that is particularly noteworthy is that Pau was decisive with his offense and looking to score with little thought about what he should do once he made the catch. One area in which Pau struggled towards the end of the season and into the playoffs was his decision making, often seeming unsure of what he wanted to do with the ball after he’d receive a pass. Too often he would hold the ball only to get himself into a position where he wasn’t getting a good shot or end up making a pass with little accomplished towards progressing the team’s offense. The fact that Pau was looking for his shot – be it a jumper, in the post, or when running the floor – and not over-thinking possessions is a good indicator that he’s mentally in a good place on the court.

Whether this trend continues into the actual tournament remains to be seen but these early returns are exactly what I’d like to see from Pau this summer. Be it fatigue (mental or physical) or some other issue, Pau clearly was not the same player in the recent playoffs as he’d shown during the rest of his tenure with the Lakers. If Pau can use his time in Europe to find his groove and come back as the confident player that many hailed as the most complete big man in the game, all of the fixes we’re discussing with this team become less important. Pau Gasol is that good a player and can make that type of an impact when at his best. Here’s hoping we see more of that Pau for the rest of the summer and into the season.

In Praise Of Team USA

Darius Soriano —  September 13, 2010

ISTANBUL, TYRKEY. SEPTEMBER 13, 2010. USA's Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom (L-R front) hold up the trophy as the US team celebrate their 81-64 victory over Turkey in the final of the 2010 FIBA World Championship at Istanbul's Sinan Erdem Dome. (Photo ITAR-TASS/ Roman Kruchinin) Photo via Newscom

Yesterday, Team USA did what many thought they could or would not do – they won the FIBA World Championships Tournament and cemented their status as the best basketball playing nation on the planet.  The American team defeated host nation Turkey 81-64 and cruised to the title by playing the type of pressure team defense and Kevin Durant fueled offense that carried them the entire tournament.  A hearty congratulations to the U.S. team.

This is a team that earned our respect for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost is the fact that many actually picked a different nation to claim this title.  With the U.S. not returning a single player from the 2008 Olympic gold medal team, many saw a young, inexperienced team, that lacked size and leadership.  Many labled them the B-team.  But, as Kevin Durant tweeted after the game: “B-team huh?? Haaaaa we got it done…US, seat pleasant, dc, oklahoma city…we did it for yall..GOLD MEDALIST”. 

Secondly, they played a brand of team basketball that many were unsure they could actually play.  Guys that many may see as second (or even third) tiered players that are asked to carry their NBA teams on most nights, abandoned any selfishness and contributed to wins by playing to their individual strengths that can sometimes be dormant when they put on their NBA jerseys for their respective teams stateside.  I mean, watching Andre Iguodala become a defensive and rebounding force while eschewing taking shots for the betterment of the team? Rudy Gay doing the same?  Eric Gordon hustling on defense to the point that he caused shot clock violations almost single handed?  Sure these players have shown in flashes that they are capable of playing this way, but to show a nearly complete committment to playing the role(s) that the coaches envisioned for them on a nightly basis was a great treat.  The fact that their perseverance was rewarded with the ultimate payoff only reinforces what the U.S. is capable of doing in international competition – regardless of the make up of the roster.

Below are a few notes on some of the players with some random thoughts gleaned from the gold medal game and the tournament as a whole:

*Kevin Durant is a monster.  I suppose you could say that we knew this already and that this is no revelation.  However, his performances in the elimination portion of the tournament were exceptional.  Not only was his scoring fantastic (99 points combines in the final 3 games) but his defense and rebounding were top shelf too.  Plus, his ability to raise his game in the big moments was just fantastic.  It seemed like any time the U.S. needed a big bucket, Durant was there to put the ball through the hoop.  Whether by driving to the hole, showing off his impressive handle and mid range game, or by bombing away from long distance, Durant continued to prove he’s as dynamic an offensive player we have in the world while also showing a great understanding of “the moment”.  Some players that show that they’re the former never quite prove to be the latter, but Durant is both.  What a talent.

*As far as explosive guards go, I don’t know if there is one better than Russell Westbrook right now.  Sure, there are more complete PG’s (Paul and Williams immediately come to mind) and there are better floor generals (Nash, Rondo) but Russell is the type of guard that can get you out of your chair in an instant.  His quickness, strength, and athleticism combination is unmatched (even by Derek Rose) by any other point guard and measuring these traits for a “pound for pound” argument, I would say he’s right up there with some of the best athletes in the entire league (yes, even Lebron, Wade, and Howard).  And sure his jumper needs some work and he can be a bit out of control at times, but focusing on the things he struggles with means you’re missing the point with this player.  Westbrook is just a fantastic young player that will only continue to grow and get better.  The sky is the limit for him.  (On a side note, you notice the first two players I’ve mentioned play for the Thunder? Yikes.)

*I already mentioned Iguodala, but he deserves even more praise.  His rebounding and defense were top notch the entire tournament and the self-less way he played deserves recognition.  And while his size and physique (you saw his Karl Malone arms, right?) sometimes had him miscast as a defensive stopper against some of the smaller, quicker guards in this tourney, his overall play on that side of the floor was stellar.  Add that to the fact that he willingly moved the ball and really only looked for his shot in transition situations and off hard penetration showed me that he’s also extremely coach-able and understanding of what winning basketball is.  I know when he goes back to Philly they’ll ask him to be the do it all scorer/playmaker for his team, but I shudder to think of what he could be playing next to an elite scorer like Durant where all you asked him to do defend, rebound, and slash off the ball.

*Quietly, Lamar Odom did exactly what he was asked to do and did it well, overall, for this U.S. team.  Yes he showed that his inconsistencies can be as great as his talent level, but in the end he battled hard in the medal round and once again proved his worth to a winning team.  The man just does all the little things well and it was very nice to see him step up in the second half of the gold medal game to help turn a semi-contested game into a contest that wasn’t that close down the stretch.  Whether it was rebounding, bodying up bigger offensive players, starting the American’s fast break with pin point outlet passes, or slashing into the open space for either finishes or to make the extra pass on offense, the man filled a bunch of roles for this team and deserves his credit as a World Champion twice over (FIBA and NBA) in the same year. 

*On a not so positive note, I was not that impressed with Chauncey Billups in this tournament.  While he showed good presence as a floor general by aligning his teammates in the half court offense, he also often broke off too many possessions to fire up long range jumpers early in the shot clock.  I know that Billups has long been a fan of the “dagger” three pointer that can salt away the hopes of the opponent, but in the last few games I thought he went for these shots too often and did so in situations where it was not required.  I thought his defense was good, but that it wasn’t to the level of Westbrook and Gordon. 

*Lastly, on a confused note, I’m not sure why Kevin Love didn’t play more.  Without a representative (be it Coach K or anyone else) commenting on it, I would assume it had to do with the want to always have the most athletic team on the floor at all times that saw Love’s minutes decrease.  But, for a guy that rebounds and passes very well while also having some range on his jumper to only see one minute of game time in the gold medal game?  I just don’t get it.  When Turkey was really giving the U.S. fits in the first half with their zone defense, I really thought a Love/Odom front court with Durant, Westbrook, and either Billups or Gordon would have been a great line up to try out.  But alas, Coach K kept the T’Wolves’ big man glued to the bench.

Team USA Live Blog

Phillip Barnett —  September 11, 2010

USA's Lamar Odom (C) shoots under pressure from Angola's Joaquim Gomes (R) as Angola's Carlos Morais (L) looks on in the first quarter during their FIBA Basketball World Championship game in Istanbul, September 6, 2010. REUTERS/Jeff Haynes (TURKEY - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

Team USA tips off against Lithuania at 9:00 a.m. PT. Lamar Odom, Kevin Durant and co. need one more win to play in the title game. I’ll be updating the blog as the game unfolds. Feel free to add comments of your own during the course of the game.

— (8:30 1st Q) Team USA has come up empty on their first three possessions and have given up two layups. I can tell you now, if they’re going to beat Lithuania, they’re going to have to move the ball much better than what they’ve been doing all tournament. Lithuania plays a pretty unforgiving zone.

— (6:45 1st Q) It looks like Andre Iguodala will have the defensive assignment of taking on Linus Kleiza, who has had a great tournament thus far.

— Kleiza has been stripped on 2 of his 3 post-ups. Once by Billups, once by Iguodala. (via @johnschuhmann)

— (4:33 1st Q) Kevin Durant has things going early, scoring 12 of Team USA’s first 14 points.

— (1:30 1st Q) Lithuania was very efficient their fist few possessions, but Team USA seems to have figured out how to play their S&R offense. They’re currently on a 12-0 run.

— (End of 1st Q) 23-12 Lithuania’s offensive efficiency has really came to a stand still during the second half of the first quarter. Team USA got their hands on a lot of balls, creating deflections and getting into transition. Kevin Durant finished the first quarter with 17 points, Lithuania really has no answer for him.

— (7:40 2nd Q) Lamar Odom picks up his first points of the game on a tip in after a missed layup.

— (5:35 2nd Q) Team USA finally got some really good movement against Lithuania’s zone which led to Odom feeding a cutting Iguadala. Beautiful basketball.

— Lamar Odom doing all the little things that he never gets credit for. Great pass led to an easy dunk. (via @JonesOnTheNBA)

— (3:50 2nd Q) Lithuania has weathered the early storm and seems much more comfortable against USA’s athleticism. They’ve cut down their turnovers and have taken away a lot of Team USA’s fast break points. They’re only down eight points: 33-25.

— (2:10 2nd Q) Lithuania guard Martynas Pocius has been good thus far. Nine points and four rebounds. Most importantly, no turnovers.

— (End of 2nd Q) Team USA extended their lead back out to 15, going into the half 42-27. Kevin Durant, as always, has been brilliant with 24 points at the half. Lamar Odom has been doing a lot of really good things. He has six points, five rebounds, an assist, a block and no turnovers. He’s been great defensively sliding to help side on the S&R and closing out on shooters. He’s having one of his patented all around nights, doing a lot of things you won’t find in box scores.

The first half has gone pretty smoothly for Team USA. They have 12 turnover, which is way too many. They’ve also missed a lot of shots around the rim, something that I talked about in their preliminary games. @jose3030 posted Russell Westbrook’s missed dunk late in the first quarter, something that he’s done all tournament:

Team USA really just needs to keep the pressure on Lithuania on both ends of the ball. If they keep the ball pressure at a high level, they’ll be able to continue to score in transition.

— (8:31 3rd Q) Andre Iguodala’s offensive rebound started a sequence of five passes finishing with Lamar Odom scoring and getting fouled. They came up empty in their first two possessions. Iguodala’s offensive rebound was huge. Don’t want to come out of the half cold.

— (5:30 3rd Q) Eric Gordon missed a dunk on a fastbreak leading to a Lithuania three pointer. The  five point swing cut the US lead to 10.

— Odom has been huge. Hopefully he’s exhausting himself for the NBA season. (via @celticshub)

— (1:40 3rd Q) Lithuania’s shots are starting to fall and have picked up their intensity. They’re on an 8-0 run. Timeout USA.

— Kevin Durant has 27 points on 16 shots. 74.2% True Shooting. Yeah, he’s been pretty good. (Via Darius; @forumbluegold)

— (End of 3rd Q) It was an up and down half for Team USA. Lithuania was finally able to knock down some shots, but they weren’t really able to pick up too much ground on the Americans, down 12 going into the fourth quarter: 65-53

— (8:15 4th Q) LO with a great sequence there. Instead of forcing a bad pass while trapped underneath the rim, he was patient and hit a cutting Chauncey Billups. He didn’t give up on the play, and tipped in Billups’ missed layup for his 12th and 13th points.

— (4:26 4th Q) This game has been much closer than what the score board shows. Outside of that huge first quarter, Team USA has only outscored Lithuania by two points. 77-64.

— (2:20 4th Q) Kevin Durant sets the USA scoring record in international play with his 38th point. He’s 14 for 24 from the field and has added seven rebounds. Fantastic individual performance.

— (End of 4th Q) Team USA remains unbeaten in the 2010 World Championships after beating Lithuania 89-74. Kevin Durant paced everyone with 38 while Lamar Odom was second in scoring for Team USA with 13 points, eight rebounds and three blocks.

Team USA will play in the title game tomorrow against the winner of the Turkey/Serbia game, which promises to be a very good basketball game. Turkey and Serbia tip off at 11:30 a.m. PT today on ESPN Classic. Tomorrow’s bronze medal game begins at 9 a.m. PT and the Gold Medal game tips off at 11:30 a.m. PT.