Sunday, August 29, 2010

2010 FIBA Worlds: After Day 1, Advantage USA Over Spain

Um, so, yeah, about that pick of Spain to win the gold medal.... Just one day into the 2010 FIBA World Championship, the landscape looks mighty different as the United States efficiently dismantled a decent Croatia team 106-78, while Spain was shocked 72-66 by a French squad which was assumed to be merely decent as well.

It may sound funny, but to me, the most impressive thing about the United States' performance was that they forced only 12 Croatia turnovers and scored just 19 fast-break points. This wasn't a game in which the U.S. overwhelmed the opponent by running them out of the building - performances which we've frequently seen vs. lesser opponents, and which can be difficult to sustain against better teams (as Kevin Pelton astutely pointed out on Basketball Prospectus).

No, this was easily the best display of half-court offense that we've seen from this edition of Team USA, as they shot 55%, hit 12-30 3s (40%), and committed just 7 turnovers. Everyone on the roster contributed to the balanced attack, led by Eric Gordon's 16 points on 6-8 FG/4-6 3PT. The Thunder tandem also had it going on Saturday: Kevin Durant posted a 14-8-3 in just 21 minutes, while Russell Westbrook went 10-3-4 on 4-4 FG in 16 minutes, including a couple spectacular plays.

Much like the 2006 Worlds team, Team USA broke the game open in the second quarter, outscoring Croatia 26-6 in that frame.

After playing erratically all summer right up through the game vs. Lithuania a week ago, the U.S. squad has looked increasingly comfortable and improved with each game - of course, a big credit to Coach Mike Krzyzewski.

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A note on Croatia's 7-2 center Ante Tomic, a top European center for Real Madrid, whose rights are held by the Utah Jazz. I continue to be lukewarm on Tomic's prospects as an NBA player. He's skilled for sure, but I worry about post players who lack lower-body strength, as Tomic does. I think it's tougher to add/more important for a big than upper-body strength.

On Saturday, Tomic operated effectively early in the game when matched up vs. a smaller player in Lamar Odom. But when a true center in Tyson Chandler came in, Tomic struggled to hold his position and was repeatedly pushed out away from the basket. Croatia's game vs. Brazil on Thursday should offer another good opportunity to see Tomic against quality NBA-level defensive bigs.

As far as the idea that Tomic might be a "young Pau Gasol", note that Tomic is 23 years old, while Pau was productive from the moment he stepped into the NBA at age 21 in 2001-02, and averaged a 19-9 on 51% FG at age 22 in 2002-03. Pau is a different kind of cat. I see Tomic as a bench scorer on the NBA level.

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As locked in as Team USA was, that's how lethargic and sloppy Spain was in losing to France.

The story of the game was the superior defense played by the French, as they limited Spain to a paltry 36.4 FG%, including just 35.5% on 2-pointers. Ian Mahinmi, Ali Traore and Florent Pietrus were stout on the interior while Nic Batum and Mickael Gelabale were outstanding on the perimeter.

France is easily the most athletic team in the tournament other than the U.S., and they used their athleticism to strong effect on Saturday in applying their tough, physical D.

Batum also erased four points with two spectacular chasedown blocks, including a key one on Sergio Llull, down two in the fourth quarter. Batum also scored 14 points and it seemed like France could have stood to call his number more often.

Gelabale was an NBA player with Seattle for two seasons, and the 27-year-old looked like one on Saturday, with a team-high 16 points and 6 rebounds on 6-10 FG and 2-4 3PT in addition to his excellent D.

We have to wonder if Ian Mahinmi might end up being Luis Scola 2.0 for the Spurs, in terms of an effective player whom they inexplicably let slip away to a division rival. The athletic 6-11 Mahinmi, still just 23, sure looked good today as part of the tough defensive effort which stymied Marc Gasol & friends inside on Saturday. Mahinmi, who signed with the Mavericks as a free agent, had 5 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals and an outstanding block in 16 minutes.

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Spain seemed to have the game under control several times, always relinquishing their edge, and collapsing for good in the fourth quarter. They missed 6 of 8 FT during one key stretch in the 4th (and were just 17-32 overall).

Trailing 60-54, Spain saw the wheels come off as Rudy Fernandez was whistled for a foul and then called for a technical. In FIBA play, techs are also charged as personals, and they're two shots and the ball. As a result, Fernandez fouled out, and France got an extra four points to go up 65-54 with 1:18 left.

It's worth noting that it was a bad call on Rudy, as he got all ball, one of many horrible calls in a game which had truly awful officiating, though it didn't seem to handicap one team over the other.

Marc Gasol had a nightmare of an opener, limited to just 20 minutes due to foul trouble, and scoring just 8 points on an inefficient 3-7 FG and 2-6 FT.

The loss of Jose Calderon to injury may be more a factor than we had anticipated, mainly because two players who need to step into bigger roles - Raul Lopez and Sergio Llull - were truly horrendous.

Llull was 1-5 from the floor with 2 turnovers in 13 minutes, and had his shot rejected another time in addition to the chasedown seen above.

Lopez was the victim of the unsung player of the game, athletic French backup PG Yannick Bokolo, who had 5 assists in just 10 minutes of play. During one key stretch which spanned the 3rd and 4th quarters, Bokolo's penetration created 4 assists on 5 possessions, plus another play in which he set up Alain Koffi for 2 FT.

Essentially 5 assists in 5 possessions vs. Lopez, which is really saying something in FIBA play, where assists are awarded much more conservatively than in the NBA. This series of possessions cut a 41-34 Spain lead to 48-47. Calderon is far from a stopper, but even he could have done better than this.

Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, and Ricky Rubio were all fair-to-middling in the game. The perimeter trio was certainly far from sharp, but they weren't the guys who were really killing Spain - the 5-18 combined FT by bigs Gasol, Reyes and Vazquez took care of that.

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As good as France's defense was, and as bad as the officiating was, Spain still should not have lost - they blew it. Frankly, we still have our reservations about Sergio Scariolo as the Spanish head coach. Spain rarely took group play for granted under previous coaches. They would roll through inferior teams like they were supposed to. Now, for the second year in row, Spain has started group play with general indifference.

As Jay Aych wrote in his Group A preview:
    "Spain just needs to avoid the complacency that plagued them at the start of EuroBasket last summer. Spain played with half-hearted effort in the first four games. Then, midway through the Lithuania game, Spain decided to flip the switch and they rolled the rest of the way. In its first four games, Spain had a total point differential of +4. In their last five games: +96."
We remember some grumblings from Spanish players last year early in the EuroBasket that they were not high on Scariolo. Not only should Scariolo be questioned about Spain's lack of urgency, he needs to called out for game strategy. Why Spain did not go with more zone? We're really not sure.

Why even expose them to driving lanes at all? France did a pretty good job getting past Spanish defenders. A zone tends to lessen the amount of fouls and possibly could have kept Gasol and Reyes out of foul trouble. As it was, France got to the foul line 27 times.

France has improved its perimeter shooting somewhat over the last few years but that doesn't mean they're great. Would consider them a mediocre shooting outfit, at best. They shot 6-for-18 on 3s in this game and really missed some shots badly. Why would you want entice their athletes to drive the ball? Make these guys jump shooters as much as possible.

Also, give credit to France for winning the FT shooting battle. France normally has major issues on the FT line, but they shot 74% at the charity stripe, including 12-14 in the final 3:19.

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Games of interest for Sunday:
1) USA vs. Slovenia (9:30 am EST)
2) Puerto Rico vs. Greece (11:30 am EST)
3) Serbia vs. Germany (Noon EST)
4) Turkey vs. Russia (2 pm EST)
5) Argentina vs. Australia (2:30 pm EST)

American fans looking for a preview of Slovenia can check out our Group B preview.

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