USA resorts to Plan B: a true team

August 18th, 2006  
Team Infidel

Topic: USA resorts to Plan B: a true team

Now is the time to find out if the basketball world will return to what has long been considered its normal state or if the landscape has been forever changed.

After two years of waiting, a month of training and a five-game exhibition tour, the USA Basketball men's senior team will begin play Saturday in the 24-nation FIBA World Championship in Sapporo, Japan, against Puerto Rico.

If the USA fails to win the World Championship this time, there will be no more excuses, only the realization that it simply wasn't good enough.
"We used to be able to impose our will the way we played, and (opponents) didn't have counters," says Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, coach of the U.S. team through the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"To assume that the world was going to stand pat and not adjust was very foolish on our part. People started using different styles of play to try to beat us. They were smart. Now we need to counter."

At stake is much more than one of the two automatic berths into the Olympics (the other goes to the host country). All other nations must go through qualifying tournaments again next summer.

The way the USA did things in the past from begging NBA stars to play to performing with an "all we have to do is show up" attitude was shelved. It had to be, after a third-place finish at the 2004 Olympics and a sixth-place at the 2002 World Championship.

A new approach necessitating a three-year commitment is in place with a more conventional roster of shooters, defenders, role players and reserves to complement the stars.

Perhaps more important, there is a new attitude. Not only is everyone saying the right things, they are also doing the right things.
"I played on the Olympic team in 2004, and we didn't understand the significance of how big the Olympics were for the U.S," says the Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, one of the stars of the current team. "I think everybody felt like it wasn't as big as the NBA, which is not true. I think every guy didn't have the right mind-set and as a team we didn't come together.

"But it's a new day. It's a new age. And I feel this team has the right ingredients, the right nucleus, and guys are really prepared and know what's at stake to win the World Championship."
The stiffest competition in Japan is expected to come from:

Defending Olympic champion Argentina, led by the San Antonio Spurs' Manu Ginobili.

France, led by the Phoenix Suns' Boris Diaw and the Spurs' Tony Parker, who broke a finger in his right hand Tuesday.

Brazil, led by the Suns' Leandro Barbosa and the Cavaliers' Anderson Varejao.

Spain, led by the Memphis Grizzlies' Pau Gasol.

Germany, led by the Dallas Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki.

Spain had a 9-0 exhibition run leading to the World Championships, defeating Argentina twice. Greece, a dark horse in the tournament, won the six-nation Stankovic Cup in China on Wednesday, beating Germany 84-47 in the final.

Nevertheless and in spite of the last two failures in international competition, the USA is still considered the favorite to win the World Championship. The team cruised to a 5-0 record in exhibition games and was hardly pressed against any opponent other than Brazil, which it beat 90-86.

"They are really stacked," Nowitzki says. "The only guy they don't have is Kobe (Bryant, who is out after knee surgery). But they still have (Miami Heat guard) Dwyane Wade and LeBron and plenty of other guys. After them, everything is open.

"Spain and Pau Gasol will be really strong. But the field is very open, and everybody can beat everybody. But I think the Americans are still the team to beat. They've found a really good mix."

Adjustments to be crucial
They have the most adjusting to do, too. There are rules changes including a shorter court, a trapezoid lane and the allowance of goaltending in some instances and subtleties of the game.
"We all know we've got to pay attention to the little things," the Los Angeles Clippers' Elton Brand says. "Sometimes you start thinking we can do the same things we do in the NBA, but it's a totally different game. That's how the world evens it up with us."

The NBA game is one of isolation plays, one-on-one moves and pick-and-roll plays. Double-team in the post, force a kick out, rotate your defense.
The USA doesn't have a true center on this team, but that can be more of an asset than a liability. The international game, with the closer three-point line, is tailor-made for jump-shooting big men, who can draw the defense from the basket. And with the wider lane and no illegal zone defenses, it is harder for big men to dominate playing with their backs to the basket.

The Sacramento Kings' 7-foot center, Brad Miller, who has that type of skill set, had an impressive exhibition season. Miller was 13-for-18 from the field (6-for-7 from three-point range) in 12.2 minutes a game.
Also in the international game, guards penetrate and dish for open jump shots, as opposed to the NBA game that relies more on individual players creating their shots.

In the last two international competitions, the U.S. team played too much like an NBA team, double-teaming inside and trying to fight through screens. The result: countless open jumpers for opponents.
To take advantage of his team's athleticism, versatility and decided advantage in most one-on-one situations, Krzyzewski wants his players switching more on screens and not double-teaming as much. That makes every opponent accounted for at all times.

The biggest adjustment, however, "is the physicality of play," says assistant coach Mike D'Antoni of the Phoenix Suns. D'Antoni was a successful European coach before coming to the NBA.
"They can touch. They can hold. They can push. They play the game within the game, and we'll have to adjust to all of that because we're not used to being touched," D'Antoni says.

"Guys are going to have to respond to that and understand how to be clever and play within the game like the other teams do."

The officiating is far different, too. Tim Duncan found that out in Athens when he got into foul trouble in every game. That frustration played a part in his decision not to play this time.

"We'll have to adjust to refereeing, good or bad," D'Antoni adds. "Some days it will be bad against you, and you just have to kind of play through it. It's more of a mental game ... and we're going to have to learn to go with it."

Spreading around the offense
Past U.S. teams were composed of 12 superstars relying on sheer individual skill. Teamwork was lacking without role players or defensive specialists. When things went wrong, there were no options. On the current team, defense has been the key and teamwork a priority.
"We all like playing with each other, and there aren't any ego issues here," Wade says. "The goal is to win and to represent our country in a way that makes everyone proud."

The USA won its five exhibition games by an average of 34.2 points and shot 54.0% from the field in beating Puerto Rico, China, Brazil, Lithuania and South Korea.

Depth is what the USA has over the rest of the world, and Krzyzewski will take advantage of that the team wants to go full throttle at all times. The international game is only 40 minutes compared to 48 in the NBA so, theoretically, no player should have to worry about fatigue.
In the exhibition games, everyone played between 10.3 and 19.8 minutes a game and no one averaged near 20 points a game. The Denver Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony was the leading scorer at 16.8 points, followed by James (15.8) and Wade (12.2). James shot 64.6% from the field and 90.9% from the free throw line.

"Our game plan is to keep the ball moving," Anthony says. "We have five guys out there who can score and can shoot from anywhere on the court, so I don't think we have to take a contested shot."

Because of the depth, Krzyzewski has focused on defense, often applying full-court pressure to force turnovers and make it a transition game. That strategy resulted in 25 turnovers a game by opponents in the exhibitions.
Offensively, play has been free-flowing. Krzyzewski has allowed the players to use their creativity, as long as they play defense and rebound.
"Our guys have really grown together as a team," Krzyzewski says. "They're a good group of guys and no ego is bigger than the team. I think we're ready to take the next step."

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