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August 14, 2008
Olympic Recap
Round Robin, Day Three (Complete)

by Kevin Pelton

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United States 92, Greece 69

Possessions: 78.5
Offensive Ratings: United States 116.7, Greece 86.7

Mike Krzyzewski and the USA coaching staff had two years to prepare for their rematch with Greece, looking to avenge their semifinal loss in the 2006 World Championships. NBC color analyst Doug Collins reported that he had heard Krzyzewski had watched the tape of the game 40 times since that September day two years ago. Clearly, all that preparation paid off. The USA defense was night-and-day different, particularly against Greece's efficient screen-and-roll and the result was an easy 23-point victory that demonstrates how far the U.S. men have come in the last two years.

The numbers are staggering. The U.S. allowed 136.2 points per 100 possessions in the 2006 loss to Greece. In this matchup, that was shaved down by a half a point per possession, with Greece averaging 86.7 points per 100 possessions.

It all started with the defense on the pick-and-roll, which Greece famously ran 42 times in the 2006 victory. Because of that, I started charting how the USA defended pick-and-rolls early in the game, ultimately stopping midway through the fourth quarter when the game was well in hand. Overall, I counted 23 pick-and-rolls in that span that led directly to offensive action. On those 23 opportunities, Greece scored four times for a total of nine points, or 39.1 points per 100 possessions.

I don't know if it's possible to put into context how good that is, because it is unthinkable for a team so talented to struggle so much in a key area of the game. The loss in the World Championships may have overstated Greece's pick-and-roll ability; Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who shredded the U.S. defense for 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting in that contest, has been only a bit player most of these Olympics as Greece has attacked in different ways. However, for any team to be so ineffective on screen-and-rolls is remarkable.

The biggest difference for the USA was having Chris Bosh to step out and defend against guards. Late in the first half, the U.S. switched on three straight pick-and-rolls at the top of the key. (Overall, a switch was the most common U.S. strategy defending the screen-and-roll, though the team also extensively had a big man show or hedge to slow down the ballhandler and occasionally sent both defenders in a trap. For more on these definitions, see this column.) Bosh made three straight brilliant defensive plays, forcing a turnover, coming up with a steal and then blocking a shot to demoralize the Greek offense.

Players can take over a game with their defense, but usually that means a big man blocking shots and controlling the paint or a perimeter player smothering opposing guards. I'm not sure I've ever before seen a player take over a game with his ability to defend the pick-and-roll. Bosh also set an important tone by taking a charge from Schortsanitis after the Greek big man found room to operate under the basket early. Bosh also had a pretty fair night at the other end, and yes, that's an understatement. He scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting in an all-around effort as good as you'll ever see.

The improvement in the USA's defense against screen-and-rolls went beyond the defense by the big men. Behind the action, the weak-side defense and rotations were sharp. Greece got some big men free at the rim, but there was almost always a help defender there to cut off the easy score, and most of Greece's looks from the perimeter were contested well.

A lot of the previews of this game mentioned the importance of the U.S. men maintaining their composure in the face of physical play from Greece. That proved accurate in the early going, as the USA seemed baffled by the way the game was officiated but played through it, stayed close and ultimately went into the decisive second quarter with a lead. What was a surprise was how flustered the Greek guards looked when their execution broke down. I expected the U.S. to do a better job defending the screen-and-roll; I didn't expect 25 turnovers and an amazing 15 steals, which translated into easy buckets on the other end and helped the USA overcome hit-and-miss execution in the half-court offense.

After halftime, Greece settled back down and played much better in the third quarter, scoring 22 points. Almost all of those scores came off of dribble penetration and crisp passing as Greece went away from the pick-and-roll. Theo Papaloukas had a strong scoring game, making six of his nine shot attempts for 15 points, and though he could night find the range from downtown, Vasillis Spanoulis got to the free-throw line seven times and scored 14 points. Still, Greece could make no dent in the lead even with the U.S. evidently ratcheting the intensity down a notch with a comfortable lead.

If Bosh was the MVP for the U.S., Dwyane Wade was a close second. I'd love to be able to look at Wade's plus-minus for the game, but unfortunately the FIBA.com play-by-play is broken. Suffice it to say that the USA has been a different team throughout these Olympics with Wade on the floor because of the energy he has offered at both ends of the floor. Wade's stat line is testament to the multiple ways he had an impact on the game: 17 points, six steals, five assists and only one turnover in 20 minutes. Where those numbers fall short is in describing the infectious joie de vivre Wade is playing with now that he is healthy again.

The U.S. seemed uncomfortable on offense with the way Greece was packing it in defensively early in the game before settling in a little bit. The USA's 23-point third quarter relied relatively little on early offense. Certainly, the U.S. ball movement was excellent, with 23 assists on 34 field goals and four players handing out at least three assists. The USA still could improve in terms of three-point shooting (7-of-20, 35.0 percent), though I'm curious if writers will assail the fundamentals of the Greeks after they hit but 22.2 percent from beyond the arc and did not have a single three-pointer in the first half despite some decent looks.

As impressive and meaningful as this victory was for the U.S. men, they can't afford to relax for a second, not with Saturday's matchup with Spain looming. Spain defeated Greece comfortably as well early in this tournament, and has the athleticism to overcome a focused USA defense in a way that Greece could not. The talk from the U.S. players in the wake of the win is along the correct lines; they're happy but certainly not satisfied.

The USA wasn't perfect in the win over Greece. The team started surprisingly flat, something which might not be a surprise with Jason Kidd in the starting lineup and Dwyane Wade bringing his energy off the bench. The offensive execution can certainly be tightened up and the off-ball defense in situations outside of the pick-and-roll occasionally flagged. Still, it feels wrong to nitpick minor American flaws on this day, an early triumph of USA Basketball's plan in the wake of the 2004 Olympics and 2006 World Championships and a game that shows how far the U.S. has come in building a team.

Argentina 77, Croatia 53

Possessions: 63.5
Offensive Ratings: Argentina 120.4, Croatia 84.3

The USA wasn't the only team facing a test at the Beijing Olympic Basketball Gymnasium on Thursday. The Argentina/Croatia tilt provided a chance to find out whether the European squad is legitimate and whether the South American team is still a top contender after an opening loss to Lithuania. Argentina passed the test and Croatia failed miserably in a 24-point loss.

Croatia entered the day with the best Offensive Rating of any country, having torched Australia and continued to put up big numbers in a win over Russia. The Argentina defense came to play and stifled Croatia, which had 22 points at halftime and already trailed by 18 at that point. Marko Popovic suffered a major correction; having scored 22 points against Russia, he tallied only one bucket in 13 minutes in this game. Zoran Planinic was held to four points on 1-of-7 from the field.

Argentina, meanwhile, looks to be rolling after the loss to Lithuania. Four of the five Argentinean starters scored in double figures and the team shot 59.4 percent on twos and 40.9 percent on threes. Now Argentina has to take care of business, while rooting for Croatia to somehow upset Lithuania and potentially create a three-way tie atop Group A.

Lithuania 86, Russia 79

Possessions: 77
Offensive Ratings: Lithuania 113.6, Russia 101.2

The day's most competitive game saw Lithuania beat Russia to stay unbeaten and move atop the group at 3-0. Lithuania will play Croatia Saturday with an opportunity to lock up first place in Group A with a victory. Lithuania won this game despite an off shooting night from forward Linas Kleiza, who missed six of his live shots, though he did grab 11 rebounds. Rimantas Kaukenas (20) and Ramunas Siskauskas (16) stepped up to score a combined 36 points.

The Russians were able to get to the free-throw line 37 times, but shot just 59.5 percent from the charity stripe, which proved costly in a close game. Star forward Andrei Kirilenko was 10-of-19 on free throws, and although he scored 25 points, J.R. Holden was 6-for-10 from the line.

The USA is playing at a faster pace than anyone else in the Olympics; Lithuania isn't far behind, however, with another game played with 75-plus possessions.

Spain 72, Germany 59

Possessions: 66
Offensive Ratings: Spain 108.7, Germany 90.0

The reigning World Champions improved to 3-0 with another unsatisfying victory. Germany led for much of the first half and Spain wasn't able to put the Germans away until late in the game. Other than a 27-point second quarter, Spain had trouble consistently generating offense, shooting 37.5 percent from the field as a team. That was only somewhat offset by turning the ball over just eight times.

Spain did defend Germany very well, holding Chris Kaman and Dirk Nowitzki to a combined 19 points. The Diggler shot 5-of-15 from the field. The best rebounding team in the Olympics thus far, Spain limited Germany to four offensive rebounds, good for a .871 defensive rebound percentage.

Ricky Rubio was a spark off the bench again, contributing seven points, five rebounds, three assists, two steals and no turnovers in an action-packed 12 minutes of action. The Painted Area has a great breakdown of the Spanish prodigy.

China 85, Angola 68

Possessions: 64
Offensive Ratings: China 134.2, Angola 104.9

The hosts got their first win of the Olympics by blowing a close game open in the third quarter, outscoring Angola 21-9 to pull away. Angola's lack of size in the middle was simply too much to overcome, as it was against Germany. Yao Ming took full advantage, shooting 10-of-11 from both the field and the free-throw line en route to 30 points in easily his best outing of the Olympics thus far. Behind Yao, the Chinese made 80.8 percent of their two-point attempts. You're not going to lose many games shooting like that.

Angola actually had a very competitive first half, outscoring China 27-16 in the second quarter. Four players scored in double figures and Angola shot 52.9 percent on threes. It's too bad Angola can't trade for some 6'11" stiff to put in the middle and have some hope of defending bigger players.

Australia 106, Iran 68

Possessions: 74.5
Offensive Ratings: Australia 142.3, Iran 91.0

The Aussies took out the frustrations of two opening losses on Iran and got a 38-point victory to dramatically improve all their numbers. Australia now ranks second only to the USA in terms of Offensive Rating. The Boomers aren't that good, but they have scored consistently over the course of this tournament while being unable to stop anyone. Even Iran had its best offensive game of the Olympics so far, shooting 47.2 percent from the field.

The young guards were very impressive again for Australia. Brad Newley scored a game-high 24 points in 23 minutes, while Patrick Mills had 15 points and five assists. Hamed Hadadi watch: The 7-2 Iranian center finished with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, eight rebounds and just two turnovers, playing 37 minutes.

The advanced stats:

Team            Gr    Diff   ORating Rank   DRating Rank    Pace

United States    B    31.5    120.8    1      91.1    1     79.3
Spain            B    18.6    110.0    7      95.4    3     68.2
Lithuania        A    18.5    113.7    4      94.6    2     77.6
Argentina        A    17.7    112.2    5      97.2    4     69.5
Russia           A     3.9    109.6    8     107.1    5     68.9
Australia        A     2.8    120.4    2     116.8    9     71.1
Croatia          A    -1.0    116.8    3     117.8   10     67.1
Germany          B    -3.5    110.4    6     112.6    7     66.2
Greece           B    -7.1    104.5   10     111.2    6     70.9
China            B   -11.3    106.9    9     112.6    7     70.5
Angola           B   -31.5     98.0   11     130.8   12     71.0
Iran             A   -42.5     86.1   12     126.1   11     72.1

And here are the Four Factors on offense and defense for each team.

                           OFFENSE                           DEFENSE
Team            Gr     eFG%    OR%   FTM/FGA   TO%       eFG%    DR%   FTM/FGA   TO%

Angola           B   0.457   0.243   0.222   0.176     0.641   0.667   0.310   0.166
Argentina        A   0.549   0.275   0.264   0.184     0.450   0.748   0.218   0.166
Australia        A   0.553   0.353   0.175   0.140     0.646   0.701   0.232   0.240
China            B   0.508   0.327   0.261   0.206     0.534   0.676   0.171   0.159
Croatia          A   0.564   0.366   0.305   0.196     0.570   0.699   0.246   0.173
Germany          B   0.563   0.264   0.238   0.200     0.494   0.710   0.275   0.131
Greece           B   0.529   0.294   0.240   0.211     0.528   0.706   0.275   0.175
Iran             A   0.461   0.326   0.265   0.288     0.592   0.602   0.155   0.146
Lithuania        A   0.553   0.276   0.291   0.177     0.433   0.730   0.369   0.197
Russia           A   0.517   0.282   0.227   0.153     0.515   0.642   0.311   0.218
Spain            B   0.487   0.389   0.240   0.163     0.509   0.767   0.180   0.219
United States    B   0.593   0.273   0.229   0.144     0.438   0.675   0.226   0.237

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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Olympic Recap (08/13)
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Olympic Recap (08/17)

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