USA 111, Puerto Rico 101

by Lang Whitaker

Did you stay up? Did you make it? The USA’s opening game in the World Basketball Championships in Japan ended at 3:00 a.m. last night, but I managed to stay awake. The first half was relatively close, and Puerto Rico held a few leads, but the US just kept bringing in fresh bodies and were able to outrun PR.

A few random notes…
• The best lineup for the USA was when they started the second half with Chris Paul and D-Wade at guard, LeBron and Carmelo at forward, and Dwight Howard at center. Those guys led a big run coming out of the half and really sealed the game for the US.

• Puerto Rico opened the game in a zone defense and stuck to it through the first half, and it seemed to be very effective. Not only was the US missing jumpers, but they weren’t getting solid looks at the basket.

• The defensive play of the game was when Dwight Howard came soaring in to block a shot and ended up jumping completely over Puerto Rico’s Larry Ayuso, landing on his feet on the other side. And of course, no replay of it from ESPN. I had to rewind the Tivo a few times to catch it. Really amazing.

• Weirdest play of the game was when, during the first quarter, the US was assessed a techincal foul for reasons nobody could figure out. Coach K was yelling at the ref, “You gave him the ball!” As it turned out, the techincal came because, following a timeout, Melo was standing by the US bench. The ref handed him the ball, so Melo inbounded it. They actually played for about 15 seconds before the refs realized what had happened and whistled the foul on Melo.

• Worst announcer of the game was ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla. You know, this game was on in America starting at 1:00 a.m. on the East Coast, so you figure the people watching it are probably pretty into basketball — not a lot of casual fans just accidentally tuning in. Yet, Fraschilla was announcing it like ESPN’s guy did the World Cup. My favorite quote was when he explained how the US likes getting into transition because it’s easier to score baskets. No! Really?

• Snoop Ramos Ramos gets the worst line of the game: 15 minutes, 5 points, 2 turnovers, 5 fouls.

• The big run for the US came in the third quarter, when Coach K inserted the lineup I alluded to earlier, and then Melo got hot. It helped that Puerto Rico went away from their zone defense and into a matchup zone that worked more like a man defense. The US spread the floor, found advantageous matchups and scored on about a dozen straight possessions.

• The final score is a little misleading, because the US was ahead by as much as 20 in the fourth quarter.

• Confession time: I had no idea how smart Shane Battier is. There’s a lot of stuff he can’t do — shooting the ball, for one — but he’s fundamentally perfect at almost everything else. Watch him play away from the ball, and you’ll see him thinking a pass or two ahead. There was one play late last night where someone drove in and Chris Bosh tried to take a charge, which left Bosh’s man open. Battier rotated around just in time to get the steal.

• I thought the most impressive US guys were Battier, Chris Paul, Kirk Hinrich (played the best defensive game he’s had yet, and scored 15 points) and Dwight Howard, who really asserted himself. The worst US player was probably Antawn Jamison, who played 5 minutes, didn’t score and never got going. And once again, Chris Bosh did not look like the Chris Bosh we see playing for the Raptors.

Next game is at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow morning against China. It’ll be on live on ESPN2, and I’ll be up live watching them play. I’ll post something on that game tomorrow. Later…