I hate to say I told you so, but after the first day of Team USA training camp in Las Vegas, I wrote that Kenny “The Manimal” Faried must be the first guy selected for the roster and everyone else should come thereafter.
My reasoning was Faried’s motor, toughness and energy level with intangibles such as putbacks and garbage points would be invaluable to this team. In Sunday’s come-from-behind victory against Turkey, Faried led Team USA team with 22 points and eight rebounds, all through his boundless energy. He did not have a single play run for him. And once Anthony Davis came alive in the second half with all 19 of his points, the Americans were home free.
Now, let’s talk about my old friend Uncle Mo.
Anyone who has coached understands the importance and the elusiveness of getting, controlling and gaining momentum in a game. When you talk about the tale of two halves, all you have to do is look at Sunday’s numbers to understand who controlled the tempo, pace and momentum.
In the first half, Turkey outrebounded Team USA, 21-12. The Americans had 10 turnovers, struggling mightily against Turkey’s matchup zone. The U.S. was flat, sluggish and – worst of all – impatient, taking to many quick and ill-advised jump shots and not attacking the basket or getting to the paint.
Turkey did a masterful job of slowing down the game and really spreading out Team USA team by being very deliberate and using its high pick-and-roll offense to drive and kick for 3-pointers, carving up the American defense like a porterhouse steak.
After beating Finland by 59 points on Saturday, there was some human nature to treat the next game as if it were a Sunday stroll in the park. Another coaching lesson I have learned along the way that I am sure coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff will agree with is that the best way to teach and improve your team is when you have their undivided attention following a scare, a war of a game or fighting back from behind to pull out a victory. Every coach I have ever known would rather teach their team after a win than a loss. These are truly the best kinds of tests.
In the second half, Team USA imposed its will upon on the game by turning up the intensity level and defensive pressure. The Americans were much more disciplined and intelligent with their pressure, which was a huge factor. Intensity is good, but it has to be coupled with smarts.
In the spring, Mike Hopkins – the top lieutenant to Syracuse coach and Team USA assistant Jim Boeheim – came to me because he wanted to learn the nuances of pressure defense. He felt I was one of the game’s savants on pressure defense, and since his background has been learning the famed Syracuse 2-3 zone, he wanted to expand his knowledge so he could be more versatile when he becomes a head coach.
(By the way, for whatever it is worth, when my legendary Jewish godfather Howard Garfinkel of Five-Star Camp fame first saw me as an up-and-coming young coach, he said I was a “can’t-miss” coaching prospect. I would say if there is up-and-coming coach that “can’t miss,” it is Mike Hopkins. But I digress.)
The primary point I tried to emphasize to Hopkins is that it is always easier to slow a game down than to speed it up. What Turkey did in the first half was slow the game down by controlling it with its offense. Team USA turned the tables by not running around and being undisciplined defensively and giving up open 3-pointers. Many young players and coaches think pressure defense means just extending to full court and running around wild when the truth is that being a very good pressure defense team takes an extreme amount of discipline, positioning and intelligence.
The Americans ultimately had 17 steals, and although the conventional wisdom on older veteran European teams is that they are not going to get rattled, the key to Team USA’s success is its superior depth, athleticism, quickness and length. It was on full display in the second half and especially in the fourth quarter, when the Americans went on a 10-0 run to create separation and ultimately break open the game.
The key to this team winning the gold medal and defending its world title will come down to its intensity level, activity level and how much energy it plays with on every defensive possession. If the Americans can continue to push the pace with their defense, causing turnovers, deflections and steals to help them get into the open court and score transition points and constantly keep the game at breakneck speed, they will win the gold.
The top takeaway for Team USA assistant and Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, Krzyzewski’s defensive guru, is that he must find a way to improve the schemes for pick-and-roll coverage, which is what they are going to see going forward. The European teams want to spread the floor and have the guard come off the screen. From there, he often drives and kicks to the weak side for a 3-pointer. Sometimes he will hit the roll man if you don’t do a good job picking him up. Occasionally, he will kick back to a pick-and-pop big man prevalent in the European game.
Against Turkey, Team USA made every mistake imaginable in its pick-and-roll defense, from the guard going under the screen and getting wiped out by the roll man, to the help defense getting sucked in too deep and giving up open threes on the weak side, to simply not putting enough pressure on the ballhandler. If Coach K’s group can continue to make strides with its pressure defense, solve the different pick-and-roll looks and continue to attack offensively like it did in Sunday’s second half, the 55-game international winning streak and overall dominance will continue.
Bobby Gonzalez is a former Division I coach at Manhattan College and Seton Hall University. He has been writing columns for SheridanHoops since March 2014.