With day one of the 2014 FIBA World Cup in the books, here’s a look at some of the notable games of the day.
USA 114-55 Finland
The story in this game was the stifling US defense. Finland certainly was overmatched, but the Americans’ execution defensively was excellent. It was not just pressuring for steals with superior athletes—USA consistently executed to deny the screen to pick and roll ballhandlers (known as icing, downing or bluing the pick and roll in various systems) and prevent Finland’s guards from getting into the middle of the court. The most encouraging aspect for Team USA was how well they defended with DeMarcus Cousins on the court as the backup center behind Anthony Davis. He did well executing the scheme and taking up space inside.
The result of that defense was absolute carnage in the first half for the Finns. At the half they had managed 18 points on 50 possessions, a mere 36 points per 100 possessions. They had only one less turnover than points, good for a 34 percent turnover rate. The shooting was no better, at 6/36. The capper was an 0/17 second quarter in which they managed a mere two points. It was never expected that Finland would challenge the Americans, but it was still a disappointing result for a team that pulled some big upsets in EuroBasket 2013 with wins against Turkey, Greece, Slovenia and Russia. As many Finns noted, the squad appeared a little starstruck against the US. They badly bricked many of the few open shots they got, missed layups and fumbled passes out of bounds.
Nevertheless, it was stifling defense from the Americans. It looks like Tom Thibodeau might be the most important addition the US team has made. If only he had been an assistant eight years ago against Greece.
- Cousins played extremely hard and provided solid defense (including getting out on shooters at times), but he is not right physically after the knee injury he sustained a couple of weeks ago in practice. In addition to his issues finishing passes inside, he was limping around the court and barely able to dunk on one breakaway he had. Nonetheless, the influence this team could have on him, particularly his defense, means it is probably worth it to the Kings that he keep playing. This may be damning with faint praise, but he has looked by far the best defensively of the three backup centers on the roster.
- Team USA’s biggest issue appears to be the offense, particularly the shooting. They had a healthy 114 points on 90 possessions (127 point/100) for the game, but relied extensively on the Finns’ massive turnover rate to score. Of particular concern was the three-point shooting, as they were a mere 6-18 from downtown. That is not enough attempts to really run an efficient halfcourt offense, but playing relative non-shooters Kenneth Faried and Rudy Gay at the four has limited the bombing from outside that made the 2012 team so effective. It does not help that Stephen Curry continues to pick up bad fouls on the perimeter, limiting his court time. He also needs to get the ball more often as the handler in pick and roll.
- Overall the squad has to make quicker decisions, with James Harden, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and Gay all guilty of holding the ball too long. Gay in particular needs to just trust his shot and fire away when open or move the ball when he gets it with an advantage on the perimeter. At one point Derrick Rose drew the defense with a beautiful crossover and hit an open Gay in the corner for a three which he passed up, earning a talking to from the Bulls’ point guard.
- Rose looked just fine, throwing a number of bullet passes around the floor and flashing explosion to the hoop on a couple of occasions. He did lose his dribble a few times and also struggled to finish at the rim. The hope is those are vestiges of rust rather than a new baseline for him. Nonetheless, it was a bounce back game for Rose after a desultory effort in Tuesday’s friendly against Slovenia, and he finished a team-high plus 45.
- Davis showed off his burgeoning face-up game, using quick rip-throughs to get to the basket or splashing jumpers when the defense laid off.
- Davis and Cousins both made concerted efforts to knock the ball off the rim or tip home balls that were already in the cylinder, an encouraging sign under FIBA rules.
- I still don’t think I’ve seen Erik Murphy make a three-pointer since college.
Brazil 65-63 France
As most would expect, this 71 possession game was a defensive struggle, as neither team eclipsed a point per possession. French coach Vincent Collet had a rough go at game management down the stretch. His tactics started auspiciously enough, as he properly called for France to foul with 40 seconds left down four. He got the result he wanted as Brazil made one of two, after which France got a quick two to get within three points with 33 seconds remaining. The French were then in perfect position to just play defense. With a stop they could obtain possession with a chance to tie the game, which is the goal of any late-game strategy when trailing.
Instead, Collet ordered an immediate foul of Marcelinho Huertas, who drained both free throws to put Brazil up five. He then compounded the error by using his last timeout—to call a play for a not very quick two in which point guard Thomas Heurtel (who was awful all game) threw up a very low percentage floater which missed. Down five, that shot needed to be a three. Game over.
- Boris Diaw was excellent for the French as their only effective playmaker and best scorer in this game. But one hilarious moment came when his Spurs teammate Tiago Splitter guarded him in the post. Splitter knows Diaw goes to his left shoulder every time and just wouldn’t let him get there, resulting in a very rarely seen right shoulder fadeaway from Diaw that clanked.
- France really missed injured Nando De Colo in this one, not to mention Tony Parker. Point guards Heurtel and Antoine Diot managed one assist between the two of them all game and Brazil shut down seemingly every pick and roll. Before a late flurry when the ball was in their hands to just chuck up shots during the comeback, they scored little as well. Meanwhile, Nicolas Batum, with a great size advantage over the Brazilian wings, took only 10 shots. Even more unaccountably, Evan Fournier only played eight minutes and took one shot. He has not played well during the exhibitions, but with the French so clearly hurting for playmaking and shooting he could have gotten more of a look.
- The French defense was solid though, as Rudy Gobert showed off his ability to move his feet against the pick and roll and protect the rim. The problem with Gobert though is he still kills the offense due to the lack of spacing, which is why he ultimately sat down the stretch.
- Brazil coach Ruben Magnano also had a few odd strategic decisions. Brazil was absolutely shutting down the French pick and roll game with normal coverage, so Magnano decided to change up to a switching defense in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t totally ineffective, but it at least gave the French a chance to get something going with Diaw postups on guards after the switch. It did not make much sense.
Slovenia 90-80 Australia
Don’t let the generally slower pace of international ball fool you; this was a high-scoring game. Slovenia managed 90 points on 74 possessions* (122 points/100), while Australia managed 80 on 73 (110 points/100). Goran Dragic led the Slovenians with 21 points on only 13 shooting possessions and added four assists. He and the other Slovenian guards drove to the basket with near impunity, as the Australian help defense was ineffectual. Slovenia is really a tough guard, as seven players hit three-pointers.** Aron Baynes led the Australians with 21 points on 15 shooting possessions.
* The US usually plays its games with about 85 possessions, which is usually 10 or so faster than games between other international squads.
**This is why holding Slovenia to only 83.5 points/100 was such an accomplishment for the US.
Australia gave most of the minutes at the four to David Andersen, but he may not be the best fit for what this team needs. He was never an athlete at the best of times, and now at age 34 his help defense is nonexistent. The Australian scheme also called for quite a few switches on pick and rolls if the ball defender is beaten, after which Andersen proved rather helpless matched up against guards. Andersen’s main advantage is his shooting, but the Boomers’ system does not seem set up to take advantage of that ability. He spent little time spotting up on the perimeter or running pick and pops from the top. The majority of his work was performed via side pick and rolls and handoffs which had him rolling to the baseline or posting up afterward. Neither helped much with floor spacing. Andersen is a capable if plodding post player, but that is likely not the most efficient option. Andersen had 14 points, but was only 4-11 from the field and took only one three. He was a team-worst -13, a performance he earned with his defense as Slovenia paraded to the basket with little resistance.
Instead of giving Andersen so many minutes, the Boomers would be better suited to go with more mobility at the four. Brock Motum played well in his 18 minutes, providing greater activity defensively. But the Australians should give more of a look to playing Brad Newley and Joe Ingles together at the forward spots. This was not tried at all, as the Boomers had two traditional big men on the floor at all times.
Going small would facilitate more switching defensively and faster help defense. Ingles can space the floor with his shooting at the four, while he won’t be any worse defending the rim or defensive rebounding than Andersen. Unless the opponent features a solid postup four who could punish Ingles on the block (and few do on this side of the bracket) a small lineup should provide better defense and more versatility than playing Andersen at the four. This alignment would also clear more playing time for ace shooter and former Valparaiso star Ryan Broekhoff. He is really the only truly dangerous long-range threat on the squad. This lineup would also give Aron Baynes (a postup monster in this game) more room to work on the block or in pick and roll.
- Dante Exum did little today, going 0-2 with a turnover and tallying a -9 in only 11 minutes. However, he did not play poorly. He did not have any huge defensive lapses, had a couple of nice passes and generally did not mess up. It seems that the edict from the coaches is to take it easy and move the ball, as he eschewed several chances to attack. But it was not at all a bad performance from him. The only thing he could stand to work on from this game is throwing passes a little more crisply; that ability should come as he adds core strength.
- Australians should not necessarily fret about this loss, as winning Group D may always have been a tall order. Instead, they should angle for third place. First and third place in the group would keep them from the US (the likely winner of Group C) until the semifinal. If the Boomers can win the rest of their games aside from against Lithuania, that result is likely. With the Americans’ presence looming, we may see quite a bit of gamesmanship as the group stage winds down. Similar jockeying is likely to occur in Group B to avoid playing Spain, the likely winner of Group A. First and third place are the prized positions to avoid the top seed in the other group until the semifinals. Meanwhile, the race will be on for 2nd and 4th places in Groups A and C, which would similarly allow teams in those groups to avoid Spain and the US until the semis.