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Dunc’d On: Not Time For USA to Panic

Team USA’s difficult first half against Turkey does not necessarily portend future struggles. Here’s a breakdown of today’s game.

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The Team USA critics are out in force again after what is apparently the most disastrous 21-point win in basketball history, a 98-77 victory over Turkey.  Nevertheless, I will admit to feeling that little ball of ice grow in my stomach as Turkey took a five-point lead into halftime and Team USA looked rather discombobulated. They scored a mere 35 points on 40 possessions in the first half, while Turkey managed a point per possession.  The US malaise continued as Turkey made three straight threes to lead 51-45 midway through the third quarter.  But the US took over from there to lead by 20 midway through the fourth quarter.  Overall, they scored 63 points on 44 possessions in the second half, holding Turkey to 37 points on the same number of tries.

Nevertheless, the story was that Team USA had been exposed by Turkey’s first half strategy, which was derided as little more than using a basic 2-3 zone and slowing the game down.  The implication was that this game proved the US had major problems, but a rewatch of the game proved this simply is not the case–at least based on this game.

First off, Turkey deserves more credit than simply dismissing their efforts as a basic 2-3.  Turkey alternated between man-to-man on misses and matchup zone on makes and dead balls.  The zone was extremely confusing, and Team USA’s lack of player movement (not necessarily such a bad thing) made it difficult to see exactly what defense the Turks were running.  A tipster indicated that coach Ergin Ataman was running 2-3 and 1-1-3 matchup zones developed by David Blatt.*

*Also, part of the reason it was so hard to figure out what defense Turkey was in was the fact they didn’t seem to know themselves a lot of the time.

It all fits into the story we’ve heard for years, of the wily international coach zoning NBA players who are not used to playing against it with the defensive three second rule in the league, and keeping the US out of the fast break.  Unfortunately, it isn’t really true.*  The US did struggle to score in the first half, managing only 35 points on 40 possessions.  But the zone was not the culprit, as the US largely had good possessions.  I counted only five possessions that were suboptimal from a process standpoint, i.e. possessions that ended badly due to a poor decision or inability to get a good shot.  Instead, the US was done in by factors of their own making. There were three completely unforced turnovers where they simply misthrew passes to wide open shooters.  And those shooters, in large part Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, missed a lot of open shots, especially in the first quarter when the US was 1-9 from distance.  The US also had a couple of unforced travels, resulting in a total of nine first half turnovers.

*The one part of the traditional narrative that was true was the US getting FIBA’d by the referees.  Anthony Davis picked up two phantom fouls in the first half, and the US big men could not buy a call.  A number of other suspect calls plagued the referees as well, including calling a ball off Stephen Curry when he clearly was hip-checked out of bounds after a steal and calling an unsportsmanlike foul on Kyrie Irving as he went for a garden variety strip of Omer Asik down low.  Nevertheless, Ataman went on a rant afterward about favoritism for the US.

The story was that the US struggled offensively because Turkey “slowed the game down,” but that was not particularly the case. Turkey did succeed in stymieing a few fast breaks with the de rigueur international fouls. But the 40 possessions in the first half was right about where the US typically is in international play.  That said, the possessions numbers were misleading because the US slowed the game down with rampant fouling of its own, leading to 18 first half free throws from Turkey.  These fouls meant the US was constantly facing a set defense.  Indeed, the biggest recurring problem for Team USA to date has been over-aggressiveness putting their hands on dribblers. This has been a particular problem for Curry and Thompson, although Derrick Rose, Kenneth Faried and Rudy Gay also got into the act on Sunday.

Once Team USA cleaned up the fouling, stopped turning the ball over and started hitting open shots, the game opened up offensively.  Of particular note was the fact the US only had three turnovers in the second half.

But the most encouraging sign for the US is that the defense has held up.  In the few games they have been threatened or lost under the Mike Krzyzewski regime, the defense has deserted it.  And while it briefly looked ugly as Turkey drained five threes in the third quarter, most of those were reasonably contested with the exception of one vintage Houston James Harden effort that left his man wide open in the corner.*  The broadcast crew compared the issues to the USA’s last loss in the 2006 semifinals against Greece, but this was nothing of the sort.  In that game, Greece scored 101 points on only 77 possessions.  Theo Papaloukas (“number 4,” as Coach K knew him then) carved up the squad to the tune of 12 assists.  The pick and roll defense was so bad that the Americans went the last 15 minutes of the game with no big man at all because switching every pick was the best option they could come up with.

*Other than that play and a couple of missed rotations, Harden has been fine defensively in the first two games.

Coach K and his staff have come a long way since then.  Tom Thibodeau’s defense has held every opponent to less than a point per possession, despite the excellent job Turkey did dribbling to the middle of the floor before running their pick and rolls to counter the ICE strategy.  The Americans still forced 28 turnovers on Turkey’s 77 possessions, an astronomical 36 percent rate.* And Krzyzewski and company also made the necessary adjustments in this game. When Turkey went zone, they paired Thompson and Curry.  When DeMarcus Cousins, Rose, and Gay were ineffective in the first half, they pushed Davis and Faried in the second half, with Davis only getting a brief rest until the game was out of reach.

*The NBA average is typically around 15 percent.

Do not mistake this post as an overestimation of the Americans, who I believe only have about a 60 percent chance of defeating Spain should they meet in the gold medal game. This is not a great Turkey team, and as we have noted previously this is not a perfect USA team.  They lack the overwhelming wing athletes of previous editions.  The ability to get to the basket at will is somewhat compromised, and players like Harden and Curry struggled to crash the lane on the pick and roll and still close out on shooters against Turkey due to their limited length and quickness at the two and three positions.  And the lack of a backup center who can protect the rim is also a major concern.  Cousins looked better physically than against Finland, but he still managed a team worst -11 to go along with his 11 points in 13 minutes.  Sample size caveats apply with plus/minus, but Cousins has consistently been much worse than Davis going back to the exhibitions.

But it is inaccurate to say that Turkey exposed the US.  Instead, the biggest lesson to take from this game is how short a time 20 minutes of basketball really is.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst, salary cap expert and attorney. He has also written for Sports Illustrated & ESPN, and a host on #NBACast

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