UPON BEHOLDINGthe Great Wall of China last week, U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski and hisson-in-law Chris Spatola reacted much the same way. "Chris is a West Pointguy like me," Krzyzewski says, "and we both thought, 'Tactically, thisis stupid. You don't build a wall in the mountains.' We decided some guy musthave really liked walls."
This is an article from the Aug. 25, 2008 issue
To be tacticallysmart is to know the terrain and adapt to it. As they closed out pool play withfive comfortable victories and booked a quarterfinal date with Australia in themedal round, the Americans had much with which to credit themselves: depth,defense, balance and, in the words of forward Carmelo Anthony, a cohesion thathad "five guys really kicking." But among the NBA stars' greatestaccomplishments was how well they adjusted to the international rules thatgovern Olympics hoops—and in several cases turned them to their advantage.
Three times sincethe 2000 Olympics those rules have been the undoing of American men's teams. Soover the past two summers Krzyzewski enlisted Toronto Raptors assistant coachJay Triano, who led Canada to a 5--2 record at the Sydney Games, to serve as asort of Basketball Berlitz, helping Team USA riddle out tough passages andlearn practical idioms. Here's a handy phrase book to help differentiatebetween the NBA's rules and those of FIBA, basketball's international governingbody.
• A SHORTERGAME
FIBA rules call for four 10-minute quarters. Two fewer minutes per quarter maynot seem like much, but over the course of a game they help account for 28 to35 fewer total possessions, making shot selection and three-point efficiencyeven more critical. And of course in a shorter game superior talent like theAmericans' has less time to impose itself. "An international game isintense and quick and done," says Triano, a consultant for Team USA who isin Beijing working as a broadcaster. "It's too short to take a possessionoff."
• A CLOSERTHREE-POINT LINE
A shorter three isn't only an easier three. It's a shot that gets launched moreoften and thus has disproportionate sway on a game's outcome—especially with somany fewer possessions. One player can end a team's dreams in a blizzard ofswishes. (Witness Sarunas Jasikevicius, who shot Lithuania past the U.S. withseven treys in the 2004 Olympic Games.) The U.S. hasn't allowed an opposingplayer to get outrageously hot, while eight Americans have knocked down threesso far, a huge improvement over Athens.
• NO ILLEGALDEFENSE
"With the illegal defense rules in the NBA, everybody stays outside thelane," Triano says. "Here, big men are clogging up the middle—so onoffense even the big guys learn how to go outside and knock that shotdown." While his team has no outside-shooting big men, Krzyzewski has hisfront-liners playing help-and-recover defense inside the lane (because they arenot restricted by the NBA's three-second rule) as if they were Dukies deep intoan ACC season.
• MORE PHYSICALPLAY
Three years ago—just as the current U.S. players mustered in their quest toreclaim the gold medal—the NBA adopted rules to ban hand-checking in thebackcourt and bumping cutters through the lane. Yet as American pro ball wentmore pantywaist, international rules remained the same. "Like playoffbasketball, all year round," says forward Carlos Boozer, notdisapprovingly.
For two years nofeature of FIBA play has more obsessed the U.S. team than this one. At the 2006world championships, Greece schooled the Americans 101--95 in the semifinals byrunning a hard-nosed version of the pick-and-roll, the game's simplest andtoughest-to-defend play. "In the NBA, when you set the screen you can'tmove," says Triano. "Here you not only can move, you're taught to move.If I'm screening and you're defending, I can roll into you. If you go under myscreen, I can start my roll early. And a screen that in the NBA gets you thismuch space"—Triano indicates with his hands a distance broad enough for aplayer to comfortably get a shot off—"instantly gets you this much [hishands extend two feet farther apart]. The offense has a huge advantage when thescreen creates that much more space."
Smartinternational guards like Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Spain's Jose Calderonuse that extra space to squeeze off the chippie FIBA three-pointer or, if a bigdefender "shows" at the dribbler by jumping over the screen,dribble-drive into the lane. "They're such good shooters and passers,"says U.S. assistant Mike D'Antoni. "They carve you up."
The U.S. staffcounted 42 Greek ball screens in that game in 2006. With guards Theo Papaloukasand Vassilis Spanoulis deftly dishing or keeping like wishbone quarterbacks,Greece got enough open threes and looks in the lane to shoot 63% whilecommitting only 10 turnovers. "We kind of laid back and let them run theiroffense, let them get into a groove," guard Dwyane Wade remembers. "Wedidn't make adjustments at all."
In lastThursday's 92--69 defeat of Greece, the U.S. did a much better job ofcommunicating as the Greeks set their screens. For the final two minutes of thesecond quarter the Americans gave Greece a different look with a switchingman-to-man, and once even sprang a trap. Meanwhile, across the back line theU.S. big men took advantage of the freedom to linger in the lane, clogging upthe middle with a zone that flummoxed the Greeks on those rare occasions whentheir guards could turn the corner. "We made them run their offense 30 feetfrom the basket," says Chris Bosh, the post man who at times seemed to beguarding dribbler and screener at the same time.
Krzyzewski hadwarned his players that "you can't take the ball from these guys"—thatinternational guards are too big, poised and experienced to be fleeced. TheU.S. nonetheless had 25 steals against Greece. Two nights later, in what wassupposed to be their toughest pool play test, the Americans made 28 steals in a119--82 rout of Spain. To their dominance in the open floor (a 32--0 advantagein fast-break points) the Americans added the first evidence that theyappreciate how easy a shot the international three-pointer is, as they sank 12of 25 attempts. The U.S. coach isn't quite ready to declare his team"fluent in FIBA." But, Krzyzewski says, "we can get by. We can geta good meal and find out where the restroom is."
THEIR TEAMMATESagree that two reserves, Wade and Bosh, have so far stood out, and neitherwould have topped any pre-Olympics predictions for that honor. After injuriescaused him to miss a third of each of the past two NBA seasons with the MiamiHeat, Wade wasn't even a certainty to make the U.S. team. "In the middle ofMay we said, 'You're on the team, whatever,'" says Krzyzewski, "but wejust weren't sure where he would be."
Last week no U.S.opponent could be sure where Wade would be either. "My role is to be anattacker at both ends of the court," says Wade, who at week's end led theteam in points (17.8 per game) and steals (2.8), with the latter usuallyleading to the former. During the second quarter against Greece, the RedeemTeam's finest 10 minutes of the Games so far, Wade chased down a loose balland, while falling out of bounds, sent an alley-oop to Kobe Bryant for a flush.Wade has competed with the enthusiasm of someone grateful to be healthy again."He's playing off the charts for us, coming off the bench, giving usenergy," says guard Jason Kidd. "He looks like a rookie outthere."
Along with DwightHoward and Carlos Boozer, the 6'10" Bosh is one of the team's three postplayers, a position nitpickers had identified as a weak spot. Although he'sshooting 15 for 18 and leading the team in rebounding, stats hardly reflect whyteammates rhapsodized about him last week. "He's doing a great job of beingup the court, talking, communicating, getting back to the basket, protectingthe paint, rebounding, keeping balls alive, getting steals," says forwardTayshaun Prince, in a kind of stream-of-consciousness that approximates thespectacle of Bosh's hyperkinetic presence. It's only a slight simplification tocall Bosh the player whose role on the team was to beat Greece. "He's solong, and he has perimeter skills," says Krzyzewski. "Ball-screendefense is one of the reasons he was chosen."
A Chinese sayingholds that a man is not brave until he has been to the Great Wall. Last weekthe Chinese newspaper Titan Sports took note of Bosh's visit there under aheadline that read, AFTER SCALING THE GREAT WALL, BOSH IS AN EVEN BRAVERMAN.
If that visitaccounts for Bosh's increasingly intrepid play, Krzyzewski might have toreconsider: Perhaps the Wall has some tactical utility after all.
Get reports fromAlexander Wolff on the U.S.'s quest for gold in men's and women's basketball,at SI.com/Olympics.
Top scorer Tina Thompson has taken Candace Parkerunder her prolific wing
WITH A ROSTER split between veterans and newcomers—andthe ballyhoo over WNBA rookie sensation Candace Parker's Olympic debut—somesort of generational torch-passing figured to occur on the U.S. women's teamduring this fortnight. But a funny thing happened on the way to the medalround, which the Americans entered with a 5--0 record: Thirty-three-year-oldworking mom Tina Thompson, playing some of the finest ball of her career, wasleading the U.S. in scoring with 15.2 points per game. Parker, her fellowforward and prize pupil, was playing well enough, averaging 10.0 points on 59%shooting. (It's hard to play poorly when your team's average victory margin,43, matches that of the 1992 U.S. Dream Team men.) But Thompson and the othervets had been quicker to meet coach Anne Donovan's defensive expectations.
Parker is fine deferring to Thompson, if only becausethe first woman player to become a regular in-game dunker has been a fan fromchildhood. When Parker was a 17-year-old senior at Naperville (Ill.) CentralHigh, her mother, Sara, spotted the Houston Comet at the 2004 Women's FinalFour and embarrassed Candace by hooting, "Hey, Tina, I want you to meet mydaughter—she thinks you're the best!" Two years later Parker and Thompsonbonded as teammates on a national team trip to Australia, and they've kept upby phone or with in-person tutorials ever since. Thompson sees in Parker theflash, fundamental foundation and potential impact of a LeBron James. "Ather talent level there aren't many things I've had to tell her," saysThompson. "If I'm a student of the game, it's because in instances I've hadto be. The difference is, genetically, she's very talented."
Last month, when the Comets invaded the Staples Centerto play Parker's Los Angeles Sparks, the pupil sprang for 40 points in an82--74 L.A. victory while the teacher committed three fouls in a one-minutestretch of the first quarter. But leaving home and facing savvy internationalscan turn the tables. "Tina's like a big sister who tells it to mestraight," says Parker. "Sometimes she has to pound it in my head to goto those old-school skills instead of being fancy and futuristic. You're young,you want everything right now—she preaches patience and positiveenergy."
In Beijing, Thompson has also served as safety net fora 22-year-old making her longest international trip. "I forgot my adapter,my computer charger and my nail polish," Parker says. "Basically, Iwouldn't be functioning if not for Tina."