Monday August 4th, 2008

At every major international tournament, the competition finds one chink in the Americans' armor and tries to exploit it.

At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, it was perimeter shooting. Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Argentina packed five guys into the lane and practically dared Team USA to beat them from the outside. Stephon Marbury and Co. couldn't do it, losing to all three teams, and the United States went home with a bronze medal.

At the 2006 world championships in Japan, the United States appeared to have constructed a juggernaut. It steamrolled through its early opponents, hammering the competition by an average of 25 points entering the semifinal game against Greece. But with an opportunity to regain some measure of international pride, the Americans were victimized by the simplest play in basketball: the pick-and-roll.

Running it with Stockton-to-Malone-esque efficiency, the Greeks scored 101 points (on 62.5 percent shooting) in a victory that relegated Team USA to another bronze medal game.

USA Basketball has gone to great lengths to address those problems. It added a sharpshooter/zone buster in Michael Redd. It put together arguably its most athletic team ever and spent extra time in practices working on pick-and-roll defense. Coach Mike Krzyzewski went as far as to solicit advice from his players (particularly point guards Jason Kidd, Deron Williams and Chris Paul) on how they prefer to defend it.

But there is a new threat looming, one that will likely be pointed to should this group come up short in its quest to reclaim Olympic gold.

Tempo. The United States likes to push it, and the rest of the world is doing everything within its power to slow it down.

After watching the Americans' first three exhibition games in China, against Turkey, Lithuania and Russia, you can see their offensive strategy. Run. Run on steals. Run on missed shots. Run on made shots. Run out of the huddle before the other team takes the court.

OK, we made up the last one. But you get the idea.

"If you take a look at past games," Russia forward Andrei Kirilenko said, "the most points they score are on the fast break."

He's right. The United States has fielded what is probably its most aggressive defensive team to date, a ball-hawking group of players that creates turnovers in bunches to set up transition opportunities. Team USA forced 19 turnovers against Turkey, 23 against Lithuania and 17 against Russia.

The leader of the group is Kobe Bryant, who gave himself the new nickname the Doberman. The moniker is appropriate: Bryant has aggressively defended the top perimeter player on each team, including Lithuania guard and former NBA player Sarunas Jasikevicius (who committed three turnovers and shot 2-of-8 from the field in a 120-84 loss to the Americans) and Russia's J.R. Holden (who had five turnovers in an 89-68 loss on Sunday).

The question now is, Can Team USA maintain this type of tempo throughout the Olympics? And if not, how effective will it be in the half court?

If the game against Russia is any indication, teams may be willing to roll the dice and find out.

Using a methodical offense that would have made Dean Smith proud, and dropping into a zone defense, the Russians made it a priority to a) limit the Americans' offensive possessions and b) keep the fast-break points to a minimum.

The strategy was effective. Against Turkey, the United States had 82 offensive possessions. Against Lithuania, the number jumped to 86. In both matchups, Team USA had 28 fast-break points and turned the game into a Harlem Globetrotters-type exhibition.

But against Russia, the tempo slowed considerably. The USA had 74 possessions and finished with only 15 fast-break points.

"They did a good job of calling timeouts or substituting when there was a free throw," forward Carlos Boozer said. "Usually on a free throw, we get the ball and take off and run."

Slowing the game down, however, only works when you are executing on the other end, and with Turkey, Lithuania and Russia each shooting no better than 44 percent, there wasn't much chance for an upset. Still, better offensive teams might have more success keeping the game close and forcing the United States into a half-court game, where its love of isolation plays can be detrimental in international competition.

"I think that's why they schedule these games," Dwyane Wade said. "Russia is a team we could see in the gold medal game and a team that's been playing very well of late, so it was good competition. They made us run some sets, slow us down a little bit, but I think overall we played good defense."

A sampling from readers in response to my column about referee Scott Foster, who reportedly exchanged 134 phone calls with disgraced referee Tim Donaghy during the 2006-07 season.

Just because one is cleared of criminal activity, it doesn't mean that he is competent enough to remain an NBA referee. If Donaghy called Foster 134 times and asked him the same questions over and over about players' status, shouldn't he have become suspicious at some point and mentioned it to the league? At the least, he should have asked Donaghy to stop calling him after, say, 20 of these calls. It is no crime to be friends with a guy, but even if his only crime is incredible naiveté, then the punishment of unemployment seems to fit the crime. -- Jim, Delaware

Without an NBA investigation, will Scott Foster be able to go on refereeing? I have to assume every call he makes will be scrutinized by players, coaches, media and fans, and I don't know how he can ever command any type of authority on the court unless a public investigation has definitively cleared him. -- Malcolm, Ontario

I know this is Oliver Stone-ish, but try this explanation on regarding this strange story: What if Foster was a mole/informant for the FBI, even prior to the NBA's finding out about Donaghy? It would explain why Foster is still in good standing with the NBA, even refereeing during this year's NBA Finals. -- Bob, Michigan

Scott Foster, the NBA's Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero? I think that might be a stretch, Bob. But the fact that wild conspiracy theories like that are floating around only underscores my point that the NBA made a huge mistake (and continues to compound it) by steadfastly refusing to offer up any meaningful explanation/comment about the Foster-Donaghy relationship. Perhaps the NBA is waiting to reveal the findings of the Pedowitz report, an investigation named after former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz, who was hired to commission the NBA's investigation in the wake of the Donaghy scandal. But league sources say that report is probably a month away from being released.

I refuse to demonize Foster just because he had a relationship with Donaghy. The man was clearly a qualified referee, having officiated two Finals games last season. And just being friends with a crook doesn't make you one. But by ducking the questions, the NBA is looking exactly the way it doesn't want to: like it is hiding something.

You're not going to find too many bigger fans of Paul Pierce's game, but even I was a bit taken aback by his recent comments that he is the best player in the word, a notch above Kobe.

While Pierce is a fantastic offensive player -- he has LeBron James' physicality and Bryant's shooting touch -- he is nowhere near the defensive player Kobe is. Pierce has proved he can play defense in spurts (witness his stellar job against Bryant in the Finals), but he has not shown he can do it consistently over the course of an 82-game season.

Kobe is a lockdown defender. In 12 seasons, he has been named to the NBA's All-Defensive team eight times (including six first-team selections). Pierce has never been chosen in his 10 seasons. That fact alone gives Bryant a decisive edge in my book.

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