A Beautiful Game

Do you love basketball?
Do you like basketball?
If so, then you owe it to yourself to watch the US team play in the FIBA World Championships. Yeah, the games are at bad times, but set your TiVo (get one first, if you don’t. You MUST have a Tivo.) and thank me later. Our boys have played twice so far, wins over Puerto Rico and China, and have three more games before they move on to tournament play.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’ve seen the US play in past years and have been underwhelmed and maybe a bit disgusted. I’m with you. I felt the same way. Ever since the Dream Team in 1992, we’ve been putting out worse and worse teams filled with disinterested players. There was nothing worse than watching a team full of NBA All-Stars get drubbed by Puerto Rico by 20 points in the last Olympics. It was disgraceful.
But that’s the past. This team is awesome. They way they play is awesome. The things they do on the court are awesome. Mike Krzyzewski has successfully installed his Duke system, not just in the style of play, but in the attitudes of the players. This team gets out on the court and gives it their all on both ends of the court. The best way I can describe it – and coming from me, this is the ultimate compliment – is that it looks like a college game played with NBA talent. There’s all the passion, defense and hustle of the kids, but played with the unimaginable size and skill of the NBA’s best young talent. I’ve yelled out loud with glee at some amazing play at least a dozen times in each game I’ve watched.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at the points we’ve scored in our first two games. The international game the same length as the college game, 40 minutes, but we’ve scored 111 and 121 points in the two games. 121 points! That’s three points per minute. In the NBA, that would be the equivalent of 144 points!
If you haven’t seen the games, you might look at the points we’ve scored and the totals we’ve given up and assume that the games look like some sort of high school all-star game; all offense, no defense. But you’d be wrong. As I mentioned above, our guys are playing a Duke-style pressure defense. The goal is to put some pressure on the ball and then jump the passing lanes, taking a team out of their offense and hopefully creating a lot of fast breaks. This style of defense can (and has been) very effective, but it does tend to be susceptible to guards who can penetrate. Puerto Rico has that. Their guards were great at attacking the rim (because they had no other choice, as there was no one to pass to) and when they got outside looks, they were ridiculously hot. The eleven point margin should be seen as a huge success by our island neighbors (who are ranked #11 in the world). China got their points in a more traditional international style – a lot of threes and post ups. They got to 90 because the game was out of hand early and our guys let up a bit. The other reason for so many points on both sides is the US has completely controlled the tempo so far, and we’ve pushed the pace. Higher speed = more possessions for both teams = more points. We have the most talent, so it just makes sense to try to increase the number of possessions. Over time, talent almost always wins out.
So what about when we play the better teams? Aren’t we just being set up for disappointment? I don’t think so, and that’s for several reasons:
1. Our defense. The top Euro teams tend to play – and play against – a lot of zone defense. Their guards don’t penetrate. Their offenses are predicated on lots of crisp cutting, passing and outside shooting – often from the big men. Our defense is designed to completely wreck a passing offense. Sure, the really good teams will still have some success, but they’ll also turn the ball over a lot. Our pressure is going to tempt their guards into driving, and that’s not what they do best.
2. Our offense. The zone defense has killed our teams in past tournaments. It still might in this one, but one of the best ways to beat a zone is simply to beat it down the court. A zone doesn’t do much good when the ball beats three of the defenders down the court. And we’re going to beat you down the court. Our defense forces turnovers and even on rebounds, we get the ball out. It’s just gorgeous to watch. As soon as our hands are on the ball, two or three guys are streaking down the court. Chris Paul or Kirk Hinrich (or even LeBron, Carmelo or DWade) get the ball and jet down the court, producing countless 3-on-2s, 4-on-2s, 2-on-1s, etc. You can’t zone when you aren’t back yet, and you may not want to zone when you get down 10 early due to fast break dunks.
If we do get mired in a tight game against a zone defense, we have more shooters than in previous years. This is still probably our Achilles heel, but Joe Johnson has been shooting lights out and Shane Battier, Anthony, Hinrich, Paul and Jamison can all hit the the three as well.
3. Our hustle. This team is simply trying harder than we have since we sent the college players. And when you have guys like Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwight Howard playing as hard as they can, who’s going to beat them?
So, I’m telling you. Hop on the bandwagon. Watch some games. It’s possible we won’t win the gold – upsets happen – but I can guarantee you that you’ll enjoy the basketball.

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