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Monday, August 4th, 2008 at 11:54 am  |  38 responses

Russia No Match For Team USA

NBA Legends, Andrei Kirilenko and another easy win.

by Alan Paul

I attended the USA/Russia basketball game in Shanghai Sunday afternoon. My report for NBC.com can be seen here. It includes a pretty extensive straight game report, but of course SLAMonline readers need to know more. Much more.

Last year I walked into a mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and saw three or four story signs featuring LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and it truly struck me just how much these guys are international superstars. That fact blew me away again on Sunday. Even after living in China or three years and being fully aware of the NBA’s popularity here, the intensity of the fans’ passion amazes me every time I experience it in person.

An hour or more before the game, the early arrivers in the slowly filling stadium were enthralled watching the American team warm up, loudly cheering every made three pointer and every dunk thrown down. Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh were the last guys on the court, enjoying the attention and playfully launching three pointers to great applause. Before walking off the court, both faced the crowd and waved their arms drawing huge applause. They were clearly enjoying the moment and why not?

Still, the undisputed two kings are LeBron and Kobe, in that order; KB consistently draws the largest cheers. Any time either of them touched the ball during the game, there was an audible level of excitement, and they both came through with some spectacular moves, though Kobe had a far more consistent game. Twenty seconds into the game, he was fouled and when he went to the line, he was met with chants of “MVP.”

After the game, he told a throng of Chinese reporters how appreciative he was of such support. “It feels like home away from home. I think it’s great to be this far from the Staples Center and still feel like I’m home and have so much support. Fans here have been terrific and it’s greatly appreciated. And the feeling is mutual.”

USA came outplaying well, executing with ease but not hitting shots. They never tailed but the score was tied 9-9 when DWade checked in for Carmelo, who never seemed to find his groove. DW immediately buried a three, followed up by a sweet drive and off balance finish. He looked great all game, smooth and effortless and his entry really changed the game. Then Chris Paul checked in for JKidd and the transition was complete. He split the defense and created openings. Soon, Deron Williams entered and the dual point guard offense clicked beautifully. Expect to see more of this in coming weeks.

Two gorgeous dunks highlighted the first half, certainly for the fans on hand. One came when LeBron grabbed a defensive rebound, teetering on the baseline right in front of me and looked all the way down court for Kobe. He threw a court length football pass, which landed in KB’s hands, a little too far under the basket The crowd was oohing the pass and catch but they hadn’t seen anything yet. Kobe took his defender along the baseline backed him away with his body, and then leaped from standing for a 180 jam. A few minutes later, Wade stole the ball at midcourt and raced down for a smooth, gliding tomahawk.

Watching the game from so close it was really apparent how much quicker the USA team was. The Russians were big, strong, physical and well coached, but all but two players lacked a level of quickness. Andrei Kirilenko and point guard J.R. Holden, an American—actually my Pittsburgh homeboy!—playing on a Russian passport were the only two players on their team with the same level of athleticism as their opponents.

At half time NBA Legends Willis Reed, Sam Perkins, Glen Rice and Dominique Wilkins were on hand to present a signed ball and hats to a youth group. They were standing in the hallway waiting to go out when the team starts returning. Many players went over to pay their forebears, especially Reed. Ex Lakers teammates Rice and Bryant greeted each other with a big hug. Rice, one of the best three point shooters ever, greeted Michael Redd, one of the best today, with a simple message: “Let that thing fly!”

And he did—checking in at the end of the third quarter and burying two threes in two minutes. That was after Kobe had put an end to a Russian run by scoring 12 quick points. It was his biggest offensive explosion of the first three exhibition games, as he had concentrated on D and distribution.

“I take whatever the defense gives,” Redd explained after the game. “And it’s not just me, its everybody. It just varies from game to game. Some games you have open shots, there are opportunities present themselves, you have gaps you penetrate. Other things open up for your teammates, you give it to them. You kind of let your opponents determine that.”

Kidd never got off the bench in the second half, with Paul starting and splitting the minutes with Williams. Afterwards, Coach K brushed that off, saying it didn’t mean anything, he was trying different combinations of players and Paul needed more minutes to get ready. But the team definitely looked better with CP on the floor. For one thing, Kidd could not keep the slippery Holden I front of him. Kobe spent a lot of time guarding the 6-2 pg.

Holden, 31, has starred in Europe for years now and he proved without a doubt that he can hang with anyone. He finished with 17 points and played a solid game, never backing down and giving as good as he got.

“It was a little weird during warm-ups to look over and see USA on their chests,” Holden said. “That was eerie, but then the ball goes up and they’re trying to tear your head off so you can’t hesitate or ponder. Kobe guarded me the most ad I guess that’s a compliment I don’t feel like I really have anything to prove, but it’s about respect. Those are the four or five best guards in the world and to go out there and compete with them was a great feeling.”

After the game, Coach K and the USA players all talked about what a tough game it was – perfect for training – and how happy they were with their defensive effort. Concerns included Carmelo never really seeming to be fully involved and LeBron and Dwight Howard both struggling with fouls. But the team should have enough depth to continue compensating.

One possible answer to the lack of big man depth—they only carry three real bigs in Howard, Bosh and Carlos Boozer—was displayed in the fourth quarter when they field a team of LBJ, Kobe, Wade, Paul and Carmelo. After the game, Coach K rejected the notion of LeBron playing center: “We don’t have 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s and 5s. We have basketball payers. He wasn’t playing center. We’re just trying different combinations.”

But Kobe sitting by his side, just shrugged and said, “He’s 6-9, 260, so its not like he’s a small man.”

Lebron looked completely befuddled when he was called for traveling on a drive, after being wrapped up by a defender and expecting to go to the line, but he’ll have to get used to such calls.

“That’s probably the biggest difference they are going to have to get used to,” Holden told me later. “They call traveling by the book in international play.”

The USA plays Australia Tuesday in a final exhibition game before coming to Beijing. Their first game is a much-anticipated matchup with China. Yours truly should be featured as part of a halftime NBC piece on China basketball. Let the Games begin!

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  • Ken

    I’m enjoying these write ups as much as the games.

  • http://www.neworleansnation.blogspot.com Toney Blare

    whoa, i had no idea you were from the burgh, too, alan. alright! great stuff, too.

  • Allan

    Thanks for this article, I look forward to reading some more. USA will adjust and adjust in time to hone their games against opponents who have fully prepared for them. The Zone we saw employed by Russia will be studied just as the slow down tempo will be talked about by the coaching staff. Take note, Afte coach K you have D’Antoni, Boeheim and McMillan as his assistant coaches. Players too will provide inputs on how to improve before the Beijing game. Let us put our faith and trust on this team. Let’s go USA !

  • http://hibachi20.blogspot.com DP aka D.Polo

    they blew Russia out…and this was their off night. Yi and Yao will have to score 30 a piece if they stand a chance of beating USA. don’t see it happening.

  • http://www.lkz.ch/basket Darksaber

    What Allan said.

  • Solito

    I don’t see that Duke “spread the floor” offense work against Spain or Greece. They match up and rotate much better then Russia and will challange the perimeter shots harder. The US forced jumpshots over the mediocre Russian zone defense most of the time. Aganist good rebounding and fast breaking teams like Spain, it will be a liability.

  • http://slamonline.com Ben Osborne

    SLAM>NBC

  • http://sdfjkl.com Jukai

    Did we watch different games…? In the last two games, whenever Chris Paul has been on the floor, the game pretty much stops at the half-court. Paul can’t seem to work anything against the zone. Not to mention even though against Canada and Turkey it didn’t seem to be an issue, he was bullied the last two games and it took away some of his killer mentality. Deron has pretty much been the superior point guard so far.

  • http://sdfjkl.com Jukai

    I expect to get lots and lots of hate for that last one.

  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com Eboy

    Alan, great work. Thanks for the D-Wade love too.

  • WhaHuh

    Your not alone Jukai, I have seen other comments that say Deron splits the zone alot better than Paul- probably why they normally play together

  • http://www.shawn-kemps-offspring.blogspot.com Eboy

    Jukai, you are a dope. Chris needs to be a scorer/slasher/distributor to be the CP3 the fans fell n love with this season. It’s doubtful he’ll score 20 in a game, any game, (it’s a big guard, forward driven offense the USA runs) and the zone’s the world teams run are made to be broken down for the drive and kick game so Redd, Melo, Kobe can get off on the perimiter. I’m sure the world teams would take that strategy any day against the US to try and get wins, so Kidd’s time will became lesser, CP3′s will stay consistent and yes, you are correct Deron’s time on the floor will expand as the tournament goes on. If Coach K was smart, he’d put Bron at the PG for portions of the game too, like a modern Magic against the small guard most of the world teams employ.

  • Solito

    Both, Boozer and Deron played well against the zone. Boozer catches the ball in the post for easy buckets. Wade was nice, too. Howard is ineffective against the zone, he tries to be to fancy. LeBron did not take smart shots againts the zone. He kept falling out to the right side of the zone, throwing bricks. So only three guys can play against the zons (well Kobe maybe). But that is not enough. Work on it guys or you might be in trouble.

  • riggs

    E: if lebron is put in as PG, you will see a lot of “no look” ‘bron passes.

  • http://sdfjkl.com Jukai

    You didn’t really address what I was saying Eboy. Paul just didn’t look good out there against Russia. He was being bulled down low and was having a very hard time creating against the zone. Now PARTIALLY the problem was because the USA wasn’t hitting their spot-up jump shots (and that’s one of Paul’s big things… draw in and kick out). However, if the fast break isn’t going, and the US isn’t shooting, Paul looks as inneffective as Kidd. Deron, because he mostly plays at the half-court anyway, looks spectacular against the zone. Kidd will be in the game when Lebron/Melo/Dwight/Kobe are in the game, because you don’t need a dominant point guard when you have those guys balling.

  • http://sdfjkl.com Jukai

    What really should happen is that Deron should get the large chunk of minutes against zone oriented teams, and Paul should get the chunk of mintues against one-on-one oriented teams. Kidd should be playing during the beginning (I’m all for Kidd starting, he dictates a good tempo) and during some transition phases. However, knowing Coach K, they’ll get similar minutes no matter what is happening.

  • Solito

    The problem is that Greece and Spain are also better 1 on 1 defenders. That means the zone will not shift as much, because it can’t be penetrated as much. Thus creating less space for the spot-up shooters (same goes for man2man). And PLEASE one of these refs call a charge on CP3 when he creates space with his elbow in the paint for that little step back floater of his.

  • http://sdfjkl.com Jukai

    Wha…? The majority of the Euro teams and Argentina do the exact same thing, Solito…

  • ancarr

    U-S-A!, U-S-A!

  • http://www.shawnkempsoffspring.com Tariq

    Sam Perkins and Glen Rice had nice careers, but they aren’t legends. Nique and Reed are.

  • http://www.shawnkempsoffspring.com Tariq

    Does anyone think Rice will ever make the Hall?

  • http://www.shawnkempsoffspring.com Tariq

    GRW (Glen Rice’s Wife)–Now THAT’S a legend.

  • B. Long

    Sam Perkins was the first player to ever rock a do-rag in an actual NBA game. That deserves legend status right there. Look it up.

  • http://www.shawnkempsoffspring.com Tariq

    Oh, then Mookie Blaylock is a legend for having an awesome name. Other “legends”:

    Brian Scalabrine — For maintaing popularity despite irrelevancy
    Chris Gatling — For having the word “gat” in his name
    Billy Owens — For doing diddly squat with his talent

  • B. Long

    @Tariq:Now your getting it. 8)

  • http://www.lkz.ch/basket Darksaber

    Jukai, no hate here. Deron is Team USA’s best chance at beating good fundamental teams who slow the game down and keep the score in the 80′s. As i said in earlier posts, Chris Paul looks unsure, and he’s hogging the ball too much. Guess he’s not as effective a PG when he’s not getting all the touches on Offense, but he isn’t even breaking down inferior defenders in these warm up games. Something’s wrong with this Point “god” of the moment. Deron is smoother, better at stopping penetration into the zone and plain better at the moment.

  • http://www.lkz.ch/basket Darksaber

    And i really detest that whole tuck your elbow into the defender’s hip to get around him thing that CP13′s beeing lately. Where’s the speed? Hope he’s reading all this “hate” and getting mad, and ready to show us all what fools we are. Till then, stick Deron in Coach K (oh and get something for your eyes G, puffy and red don’t look nice on HD)

  • ohio

    we know what the usa is doing. but we are not following the opponents well-dat scares me

  • http://www.ravingblacklunatic.blogspot.com Allenp

    Deron Williams is the best point guard in the world. Yep, I said it.

  • http://www.lkz.ch/basket Darksaber

    And just to add insult to injury, Lithuania (who beat greece for third place in the Euros last year) didn’t even play some of their best frontcourt players that much last week. Kleiza hardly did a thing. and they emptied their bench in the fourth quarter (the most time those cats are going to see this olympics), so yes, the US team is good, but no, the world is not afraid. At all. Greece, Lithuania, Spain and the Argentines, watch out for them.

  • The Promise

    Go get the Gold.

  • LA Huey

    So why is Team USA having so much trouble with zones? Don’t Coach K and Boeheim deal with this thing regularly with their other job? Or is it just that we don’t have enough offensive types built for attacking zones?

  • http://slamonline.com Alan Paul

    I agree that Deron was the best pg. I should have said that. But the O worked best when he, CP and Wade were all in at the same time.

    The ultimate zone buster still should be Wade or Kobe penetrating, collapsing it and kicking out. Yes, better teams will defend it better, but they should be able to overcome that.

    DW and KB both looked like they could do exactly what they wanted. Either could have scored 30 easy if they had tried. I think th tricky balance will be when those guys need to start taking over and how to pull back.

    Dwight Howard did not look god against the zone.

    Boozer was solid but didn’t play enough for me to have an impression. Bosh did a very nice job on D, tying up their bigs and not letting them get clean looks or the ball close in. He did nothing on offense. But he didn’t really try to. Nothing moved through him so can’t judge.

  • davezorz

    Russia made their run in the third quarter when our offense stagnated, in part because Paul couldn’t get the offense in rhythm, and in part because players like Carmelo and Kobe love shooting awkward jumpers in isolation even when they’re on a team with spectacular teammates. Fortunately, enough of Kobe’s shots went in to keep the margin respectable, and when Deron got back to run the offense, the US instantly started getting easy shots, and we put the game away.

    While Kobe has probably gotten the most press of any player so far, my sense has been that the two best Americans on the court have been Wade and Williams. The team just performs radically better when either of those players steps on the floor.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=627550406 KA

    hey alan, i’m from malaysia (ive linked my facebook as my ‘site’), if you ever come down to KL, malaysia, try and hit me up. i could try to get you the hook up on the bball scene here. the rise of bball together with hip hop here has been developing for the past decade and its an interesting angle considering (like singapore and philipines) english is a second language here.

  • http://slamonline.com Alan Paul

    KA, I really dug KL. Cool, interesting place. Had some good friends from BJ move thee, too. Would love to make it there but doubtful cause I am moving back to NYC area in December. Which is too bad, because I love Asia.

  • KA

    just thought I’d give u a heads up is all. philipines has an establish league featuring foreign players but English speaking places like Malaysia, Indonesia n Singapore have benefited from the hip hop explosion as a sort of cross cultural promotion. we even have events here headlined by the local and1 agent so you’d be surprise how much places like us have assimilated the whole basketball as a cultural phenomenon.

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