Tuesday, August 31, 2010

U.S. flashes lack of fundamentals

By John McMullen

If you want to talk about race, gender or ethnicity with a friend or colleague, be prepared to battle through a series of stereotypes.

In fact, you may be hard-pressed to address any topic - even the subject of basketball - without first addressing the speed-bump that is stereotypes.

Team USA survived in Istanbul Monday, clawing out an exciting 70-68 win over a Brazilian team without Nene and missing Anderson Varejao, thanks to 27 points and 10 rebounds from Kevin Durant along with a strong defensive effort in the second half. Despite the win, the common characterization of the American squad as being less than fundamentally-sound reigned supreme.

For his part, USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski described it as a "character" game, as the U.S. improved to 3-0 in Group B at the FIBA World Championships, and put itself in excellent shape to earn the group's number one seed.

The Americans need just one win over Iran or Tunisia, the bottom two teams in Group B, or another Brazil loss to earn the top seed from the group and three full days off before meeting the No. 4 seed from Group A on Sept. 6.

Monday's contest proved to be a tale of two different halves. Brazil shot the lights out before intermission, while the defenses clamped down in the second half as the two teams managed to score just 49 points combined.

"We only allowed 22 points in the second and when your offense isn't going very well, to still play great defense shows that you have character," Krzyzewski said.  "Both teams still played with great heart. I think it showed the character of each team.  When that happens, to me, a team can show its character in a bad way or a good way.  I thought both teams showed it in a good way. I found out something about my team tonight."

A master of motivation, Krzyzewski was trying to spin a poor performance by the Americans, one that most certainly shook up his young team as it moves forward.

Point guard Derrick Rose looked especially shaky down the stretch and failed to take care of the basketball on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom, one of the few battle-tested veterans "Coach K" can lean on, was often trying to do too much, forcing things again and again.

But the biggest disappointment was Team USA's set offense. Brazil came into the contest intent on choking off the fast break and did exactly that for much of the game. When the U.S. was forced to grind it out in the half-court, things broke down more often than not as the team relied on Durant to bail it out with one-on-one play.

"It's just slowing the ball down, calling out plays, making sure people were at their right spots before we start anything," Rose said of the team's garbled half-court sets.  "I think tonight, I'll put it on me, I didn't really
get into the ball in the beginning.  I guess it was fatigue or something like that but I'll guarantee you it won't happen again next game."

Which brings us back full circle to those ugly stereotypes. To the rest of the world, the Americans lack fundamentals. They think the U.S. has been weaned on too much SportsCenter and would rather make the highlight-reel play than the safe, fundamental one that results in two points.

Watching Monday's game, it's hard to argue with that assessment. Whether it was Rose trying to make the lob instead of the sure pass on the break, or Odom using his vaunted ball-handling skills to try and break down the Brazilians without the help of his teammates, the U.S. looked like a bunch of individuals
playing a team, albeit one with far less talent.

Truth is often subjective and stereotypes are often built on unhealthy combinations of shared perception and knowledge. Some carry some truth at the core, however. And when you deconstruct the stereotypes about USA Basketball, it's sad to say some truth is there.

It's now Krzyzewski's job to recognize that fact and convince his team to rely on each other.

"It's tough out here," Rose said. "You got us playing against a whole bunch of professionals that really know how to play.  It's very tough, but every game we learn something different and our hope is it prepares us for the next game."
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