Saturday, August 05, 2006

Since the sports media is starved for stories before football season starts up, there's been an article almost every day about Team USA basketball. And all of those articles are exactly the same: "Man, the U.S. squad went 5-3 in the Olympics and got a bronze medal because it was a team of superstars not equipped for international play. Good thing this time we have Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo putting together a bunch of unselfish role players. Now we're going to win again. That was close." Then there are always a bunch of quotations by someone affiliated with the team who will echo those sentiments as if he were the first to think of them. That's the best part. Bron Bron will say something like, "I think this group of guys is a little more focused and unselfish. I mean, last time, we didn't--I don't want to say we didn't take it seriously--but we didn't put the team first. Now we have a little more time to jell as a team. Hopefully that'll translate into a gold medal. It's an honor to be here." Wow. LeBron James is smart.

After months of deliberation over the roster, which was still uncertain as of yesterday--Amare Stoudemire ended up going home just before the game--we finally got a chance to see the revamped team Thursday night in an exhibition against Puerto Rico, to see if that lip service rings true.

Turns out the final score was 114-69, so the talk was mostly accurate.

However, at one point Puerto Rico was up by four. During the first quarter, the full court press Coach K implemented seemed to open up the lane for Carlos Arroyo, and the US kept getting beaten for open threes off really simple ball movement. It looked as if Carmelo had never played man-on-man defense. Plus, P. Rico got all kinds of easy buckets from Peter John Ramos and Danuel Santiago, who was sporting the Oakley prescriptions and looked like a cross between Scott Storch and Antoine Carr. Ramos has bad hands and awareness, but he’s 7’3”, which is good enough to get him a spot on the Raptors as part of their European/Puerto Rican/anything un-American renewal. (What are the odds that Chris Bosh acknowledged him in any way?)

I’d like to say that the U.S. coaching staff made adjustments that slowed the Puerto Ricans down and closed off their penetration, but that’s not really how it happened. First off, I don’t think anyone is really coaching this team. Jim Boeheim looked as if he were trying to figure out that morning’s Jumble from the newspaper, and Mike “Wispy” D’Antoni looked as if he were thinking of pick-up lines to get people into his van. No sign of fellow assistant coach Nate McMillan, who probably never made it out of the Fremont Street Experience. Gotta love those ninety-nine cent shrimp cocktails. (More on the whole Las Vegas thing later.) But I don’t say that just to be funny—I really wonder how much leadership this staff espouses.

"Dance, Spider, dance!"

People love to talk about how much of a leader Coach K is, but I don’t see what he actually does that is so special. During halftime, there was a featurette about, you know, the same thing everything related to the national team is: Now we’re focusing on teamwork, role players, etc. And he didn’t impress me at all. He was showing LeBron how to inbound a ball and then jump back in for a give-and-go, which I’m sure the best player in the world has no idea how to do, and it just looked so high school. He speaks in these five-to-seven word sentences, full of platitudes, and we’re supposed to think it’s all profound, just because he speaks softly and recruits well. Sure, I’m not being fair. There’s a reason he’s in the hall-of-fame and has won three championships, but do you really think Wade isn’t making fun of him while he’s at the Wynn in the Caramel Club? The guy could say anything—he could be like, “Gentlemen, rape is always bogus,” and Bill Walton would still be talking about what a great court general he is. Over-rated.

Anyway, I questioned Coach K’s starting lineup, which was small, and I think that accounted for a lot of the easy buckets Puerto Rico threw down. He started Paul, Wade, James, Anthony, and Bosh, which is a pretty gully starting five. But I wonder if Dwight Howard could have better defended some of those teardrops and runners if he had started at the four. And I really wonder what would have happened if Puerto Rican coach Julio Toro had the foresight to put Santiago and Ramos in at the same time. We kind of lucked out on that Twin Towers action. Although, granted, Danuel Santiago and Peter John Ramos aren’t exactly Robinson and Duncan or anything. They’re probably not even on the level of Bryant “
Big Country” Reeves and Lorenzen Wright.

But Toro—who was completely out-of-his-element—couldn’t do that because he had no depth. In the end, that’s why the U.S. gained some momentum, started forcing turnovers, and jumped out to a huge lead. We had so much more energy and help from the bench that Puerto Rico had no chance of hanging with us for the long haul. (I keep saying we. Sorry if you’re Puerto Rican. If it’s any consolation, I really liked your Burger King-sponsored jerseys.) After a few easy dunks, Puerto Rico was so intimidated that they began to miss open jumpers and get tooled around on the glass. At one point, we had four offensive rebounds in a row. It wasn’t so much that the U.S. adjusted to the international game, as so many people insisted we had to do. Instead, by always shifting matchups and creating a few isolation plays, we forced them to play our way. It was a beautiful thing to watch against Puerto Rico, but I’m not so sure it will work with a deeper team. Say, China, whom we play next?

Second only to T-Mac in the NBA's contest for Dumbest-Looking Eyes

More interesting than any of that though, the game was played in Las Vegas, and the players stayed in Vegas for a few weeks as they were training. Instead of reading articles about teamwork, I would have preferred for Sports Illustrated and ESPN to have placed spies in all the major hotels and casinos and reported back to me with stories like this:

Kirk Hinrich and Brad Miller are walking down the Strip and run into Dwyane Wade, who is being followed by several scantilly-clad women.
HINRICH: Hey, D-Wade! Over here!
Wade ignores them at first.
HINRICH: Hey, Dwyane! It's me and Brad.
WADE: Oh. Hey. What's up?
MILLER: Not much, man. K-Hin and I were just down at the Aladdin. They've got some great action in their poker room. And we're thinking about checking out some Cirque de Soleil later.
WADE: (answering a text message) Yeah...uh...LeBron and I were going to head out to Pure. They have a good V.I.P. room so...
MILLER: Is that my mom standing behind you? Behind that blonde one?
WADE: Anyway, see you later.
HINRICH: Dwyane? Can we come with you?
WADE: Man, sorry. I think it's only reservations for three. If I had known I would have hooked you guys up though. Teamwork and all that. Have fun at uh...whatever you're doing.
MILLER: Reservations for three?
WADE: Shane Battier. Pace.

"I'm not going back to Cheetah's for at least a week."

Final note: Did anyone else have a problem with the national team adopting the Mile High Salute from the ’98 Broncos? After big plays, the squad would salute each other. Is that supposed to be cool again? Congratulations, guys, you're stealing your celebrations from the likes of Ed McCaffery. I’m afraid I can’t get behind anything that maudlin.


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