No Breathing Room For Barbosa
Posted Aug 27 2007 10:22AM
LAS VEGAS, August 26, 2007 — What looked to be an upset in the making turned out to be nothing more than another rout, the type that’s come to be expected when the U.S. men take the floor at the Thomas & Mack Center for the 2007 FIBA Americas Championship.
“We beat a really good team today,” U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after his team won its closest contest of the tournament thus far, defeating Brazil 113-76. “Brazil is one of the best international teams.”
For more than 15 minutes Sunday, Brazil looked the part, clinging to a single-digit deficit as it worked the ball inside to Nene and Tiago Splitter, getting the Americans’ front court players in early foul trouble.
“It’s the biggest team we’ve played,” Coach K said afterward. “They’re very strong. They have four big guys. You're concentrating on (Leandro) Barbosa, you’re playing the bigs and their guards got by us a few times. And Splitter did a really good job in the first period, with driving the ball to the basket. It was obviously their goal to do that.
“I think we made adjustments in that regard. Our guys did a much better job after the first quarter.”
While the team’s defense did a better job protecting the paint after the first 10 minutes, it did a tremendous job of containing the Phoenix Suns’ speedster from start to finish. Barbosa entered the contest as the tournament’s leading scorer at 27.0 points per game. He left it adding only four to his total.
“We put a lot of focus on Barbosa,” Chauncey Billups admitted. “He’s a dangerous player. He can beat you inside. He’s so fast and quick to the basket he can get you in foul trouble. So we put a lot of emphasis on stopping him. Kobe (Bryant) started off and did a great job, trying to deny him the ball and not let him get touches, playing physical with him. When he came out of the game, whether it was me or whoever else on him, we took the challenge and tried to do the same thing. We thought if we could take him out of the game and make all those other guys make plays, then we had a great chance.”
While Bryant clearly has the ability to take a player out of the game, some were left wondering after the game how much a twisted ankle, suffered in the team’s win over the Virgin Islands one day earlier, slowed his Pacific Division rival.
“He’s just as fast, just as quick,” Bryant said, ending any such conversation. “I’m 20 pounds lighter, too.”
Regardless of whether Barbosa was slowed or Bryant is quicker, this much is true: Kobe gave him no breathing room. And his teammates gave equally as little.
That much could be seen as early as three minutes into the game, when, after chasing Barbosa all over the court, Bryant raced Barbosa for a ball that squirted loose into Brazil’s backcourt, diving head-first to try to get to it before his opponent – even though the call on the court was a backcourt violation when Barbosa finally did reach the ball along the sideline. Kobe was that determined to keep Leandro from touching the leather.
“I think we, at times, went too much that way,” Coach K said of focusing so heavily on Barbosa, “and didn’t talk as well, which we have been talking the first three games. But overall, that’s a nice mistake – or a nice adjustment – to make, where we’re going so hard.”
Bryant continued the suffocating defense every time he was on the floor, never giving an inch.
With 6:26 remaining in the first half and teammate Carmelo Anthony at the free throw line, Bryant retreated all the way to the far baseline, bumping with Barbosa and denying a long pass off the rebound.
Thirty seconds later when Bryant went to the stripe, it was Jason Kidd shadowing Barbosa at the other end. Bryant, perhaps worrying about getting back to switch, missed the second attempt before sprinting the length of the court to resume guarding Barbosa on the ensuing possession.
Barbosa, however, wasn’t the only threat the U.S. was forced to deal with. Nene and Splitter drew two quick fouls on both Dwight Howard and Anthony.
“We had foul trouble with Carmelo and Dwight,” Coach K assessed, “and we had to use LeBron at the four, which was something we haven’t used yet.”
The problem was compounded when Prince twisted his ankle in the first quarter and couldn’t continue playing.
Anthony, for his part, picked up the two quick fouls because he simply could not guard Splitter. That’s not to say anything negative about Anthony as a defender so much as it is to say Splitter played that well against NBA competition. The San Antonio Spurs’ first-round draft pick in this June’s Draft never played frightened of his All-Star opponents. He’s big and strong, able to get the ball as far out as the elbow, face up, put the ball on the floor and aggressively attack the basket. The lasting impression from this one outing is that the Spurs, again, seemed to have selected well late in the Draft.
Basketball fans – and the U.S. men – might get another look at Splitter, Barbosa and Co. late in the tournament if both teams advance to the semifinals or finals, by which time Brazil might find a way to hang around longer than 15 minutes.