With minutes at a premium, the U.S. bench figures its best way to make an immediate impact is on defense
POSTED: Aug 6, 2016 10:40 PM ET
Jimmy Butler and Paul George (13) are part of a second unit that helped the U.S. total more turnovers forced (24) than field goals allowed (20) in Saturday's conquest of China. (USA Today)
RIO DE JANEIRO — Through its exhibition schedule and its first game at the Olympics, the United States Men's National Team has played mostly against bad teams. Five of the six games have been against the three lowest-ranked teams here in Rio.
And after Saturday's win over China, the third victory over the same opponent -- by a total of 156 points -- in the last two weeks, there were no conclusions to be drawn. At this point, there's no discerning just how much the U.S. will be tested in the medal rounds and no wondering how this squad measures up with Olympic teams of the past. The level of competition so far gives us no help there. Be patient.
But in watching the six games that the National Team has played, we can see seeds being planted. And in Saturday's 119-62 victory, Mike Krzyzewski's rotation became clearer. Krzyzewski used five different starting lineups in the five exhibition games, but went back to his original starters -- Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and DeMarcus Cousins -- in the first game of pool play.
That's a potent mix offensively. And against China, it's more than good enough on defense too. But the evolving second unit is where the U.S. can really turn things up defensively.
On Saturday and probably for the foreseeable future, that second unit consisted of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler, Paul George and either DeAndre Jordan or Draymond Green at center. That's a lot of length, a lot of versatility and a bunch of guys who have played on multiple top-10 defenses in the NBA.
"When they came in, it looked like there were seven guys on the court," Krzyzewski said after Saturday's triumph. "Their lateral quickness is so good. They don't have a position. They can switch everything and they have great attitudes. They want to do that."
With the exception of the six games George played off the bench in April of 2015 in returning from his leg injury, the guys on that second unit have started every NBA game they've played for at least the last three years. So when they come in midway or late in the first quarter, they're itching to get going. And that energy shows up on the defensive end of the floor.
"I think it's obvious, you're able to see it, just how aggressive we come out," DeRozan said. "It's more so defensively, and we try to feed off that, get stops, run, and try to build the lead."
Though other teams here don't have the USA's top-tier talent, the Americans' biggest advantage is their depth. Having 12 guys who can play at a high level on this stage means that nobody has to carry a large load, either in scoring or in minutes. Five-minute bursts is all that the reserves are asked to produce.
"When we do sub, there's no drop-off," assistant coach Tom Thibodeau said. "The pressure's going to keep coming."
"With us playing short stints, it gives us the opportunity to go 100 percent, especially on the defensive end," DeRozan added. "Once we get stops, everybody on this team is a hell of a scorer, so it's dangerous once we start to get stops and get out."
As it has been with every U.S. team that Krzyzewski has coached, it's been easier to get things cranking defensively than it has been to find chemistry on offense, even though a few of these players are not known as high-level defenders in the NBA. With the ability to keep his minutes around 20 per game, a little bit of peer pressure and the opportunity to win a third gold medal, you'll even see Carmelo Anthony getting down in a defensive stance and locking his man up consistently.
"That's our identity," DeMarcus Cousins said. "That's something that's preached on the daily. That's something we've accepted as a team. We're just trying to go out there and perform. Every time we come in, that's how we want to get our game started, defensively."
It's also how they can gain separation when the team's biggest stars are on the bench. Right now, against opponents that won't be around after pool play, everything is working. But when the competition gets tougher, some things will work better than others. And that second-unit defense could be a difference maker in a critical moment.
"It's just a different look," Krzyzewski said. "Our team can have a few different looks and if one of them is going real well, they all know that we'll stay with that look."
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