Posted Sep 6 2010 3:10PM
ISTANBUL -- This was not the opponent the U.S. National Team needed to face in the round of 16 at the FIBA World Championship.
Angola is a decent team, but its freelance offense did little to prepare the U.S. defense for the remaining knockout rounds. After the U.S. Team's easy 121-66 win at the Sinan Erdem Dome on Monday, 11 teams remained in the tournament. And eight of the 11 are from Europe or South America, running offenses with much better ball and player movement than that of Angola.
Those are the offenses that the U.S. needs repetitions against. It was the Brazil offense, orchestrated by point guard Marcelo Huertas, that gave the U.S. the most trouble in pool play.
And knowing that his team's pick-and-roll defense would be a critical component of its success this week, head coach Mike Krzyzewski put an emphasis on communication over the last two days. The players talked it up in practice and they were vocal on Monday, but their ability to communicate defensively won't truly be tested until they face a team that moves the ball well.
Angola was not that team. But you can only play the team on your schedule, of course. And the U.S. still found ways to improve in a game that was over halfway through the first quarter.
It started with energy and enthusiasm. Before the game, Krzyzewski challenged his team, noting that its average age was 23, and asking where the youthful enthusiasm was.
It showed up Monday on the defensive end, where the U.S. was more active, putting pressure on the Angolan guards on the perimeter early on. That kept the opponent from running its offense comfortably. Angola shot just 5-for-18 from the field in the first quarter, and the U.S. was able to take those misses and turn them into easy buckets on the other end, registering 14 fast break points.
And though Angola offense didn't really test the U.S. Team's rotations over a full 24 seconds, there was still a benefit to just getting back to game action.
"They just tested our effort," Stephen Curry said afterward. "They're more of a one-on-one team. And if we could put ball-pressure and really take them out of their offense, then that would disrupt the other team's timing the further we get in this tournament. I think we'll be able to rotate, close out to guys and continue the defensive tenacity that we had, no matter how people play."
"It was about us," assistant coach Nate McMillan added. "And I thought we established ourselves early defensively, as far as how we wanted to play and defend."
There's no doubt that the energy was there defensively. But the clearest improvement in the U.S. Team's play from its first five games was on the offensive end. This was certainly the Americans' sharpest offensive performance since they started training camp seven weeks ago.
And the key on that end was ball movement, which was another one of Krzyzewski's points of emphasis over the last two days. The U.S. moved the ball moved early and often in their possessions, against both man-to-man and zone defenses. The result was 30 assists on their 41 field goals, easily their highest total in any game they've played so far (including five exhibitions).
"We benefitted from a day of practice where we could play five-on-five against each other, work on our execution and our timing of our plays," Curry said. "Coach can tweak the offense and really give us some pointers on how to be effective in our offense, but we really need time to practice on the court, and that day of practice helped us."
The unselfishness was contagious, with 10 different players registering at least one assist. But also critical was how well the U.S. took care of the ball. After averaging 17 turnovers in their last four pool play games, they committed just five on Monday. They took less risk and they also avoided the overpenetration that's been a problem against sagging defenses.
"We've been kind of loose with the ball in the first few games," McMillan said. "I thought we kept the game simple tonight and made the A-B pass, as opposed to the A-C pass."
With the win, the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals, where they will face the winner of Monday's Russia-New Zealand game on Thursday.
Angola wasn't the ideal opponent to begin the knockout rounds, and the U.S. players will have to still prove that they can stop a European offense for 40 minutes. But when it comes to effort and unselfishness, they won't have to worry about turning the switch on when the level of competition steps up.
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