- It’s clear USA’s shooters will carry the team at the Rio Olympics, but the emergence of its big men will be a major storyline against some of the tournament’s better teams.
To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Team USA beat Venezuela 113–69 on Monday (except for in Vegas, where Venezuela covered). I’m not in Rio, but I have a television and a couch. Let’s get into it.
• So, the line coming into this game was Team USA by ... 49.5 points. Talk about soft power. Whew. The Americans still won by 44, but slogged through some ugliness. Venezuela prodded the U.S. into sloppy play in last week’s exhibition and did more of the same here, starting things off on an unusually quiet note—as Marv Albert and Doug Collins so eloquently put it, “mucking up the game.” Side note: The best part of not being in Rio is far and away the beautiful reunion of Marv Albert and Doug Collins. I would listen to Collins color a Pee Wee basketball tournament over most things.
Not crying wolf here whatsoever, but IF Team USA were to lose a game in this tournament, Venezuela showed the world one piece of the blueprint. Force the Americans into a packed lane, swipe at the ball, eat the clock, pressure the ball-handlers and hope you don’t get burned from three. Yes, that’s a lot of things to do correctly. But it did most of that effectively in the first quarter, and managed to do it with Kobe Bryant’s cousin John Cox (Venezuelan Mamba) and enormous ex-Creighton star Gregory Echenique as its two best players.
The game was 18–18 after the first 10 minutes, and Team USA had six turnovers and nine team fouls. Venezuela continued to do this for most of the second quarter, with the only real semblance of American offense coming from guys bullying their way to the foul line. It got better but not aesthetically, with mostly iso-looks turning into free throws and eventually a 48–26 halftime lead.
The second half was much better. In a sentence, the All-Stars played like All-Stars. But after assisting on 31 of 38 field goals against China, Team USA did get away from that a bit. It’s a small sliver of hope for everyone else, emphasis on small.
• Let’s talk about the centers. DeMarcus Cousins got into foul trouble matching up with Echenique’s frame in the first quarter, then picked up another foul in the second. USA briefly tried Draymond Green at center to open the period and then went with DeAndre Jordan. Such a lack of quality options, right?
It didn’t affect the end result, but that particular revolving door is going to be quietly important as the tournament continues. Mike Krzyzewski has three very different options here. Cousins has been monstrous on the offensive glass and acts as a nice safety valve on the block when things stall. He occupies space both ways and looks motivated. That said, opponents are going to take note of his early mistakes when met with a little physicality. He got a fourth foul early in the third. Even international refs seem to hate Boogie, and it won’t be shocking if teams try to bait him a bit and take their chances.
Taking Cousins out of the game didn’t matter much in this one, because Jordan was at his best. Jordan’s activity on the glass and in the lane was a huge reason this game swung. He obviously struggles at the line, and China and Venezuela have both done their best to send him there, but that matters less when you’re flanked by Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. But he does hurt the offensive spacing a bit, and the international game is all about space. All things considered, you’d rather deal with DeAndre than Boogie in most situations.
Draymond at center is the last-ditch option, which is humorous but also warranted. He’s as effective there in international play with less room on the court to operate, and Team USA hasn’t optimized him yet. He was a bit loose with the basketball at times, and the Americans aren’t leaning on his playmaking off the screen and roll like the Warriors do. And similar to Golden State games, opponents will usually live with his open shots, mostly because those are shots his teammates aren’t taking.
Needless to say, none of this should be cause for alarm. But how Coach K staggers these minutes against NBA-quality bigs will be worth watching. No disrespect to Echenique, but the best teams in the tournament all have a lot more size.
• Next up is Australia, which has looked like one of the best teams in the Olympics after convincingly beating France and Serbia. The Aussies have six NBA players on the roster, which is six more than China and Venezuela combined. Andrew Bogut looks healthy and Aron Baynes looks like he wants to fight you in a dark alley. The Boomers pass it well, defend well and have been a pleasure to watch so far. It will be a better test, and we should all live for the red-hot Kyrie-Delly action. All of us.