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George's defensive impact propels U.S. into semifinals

After slow start for Team USA, Pacers star comes off bench to provide spark to stifle Argentina and set date with Spain

POSTED: Aug 18, 2016 10:33 AM ET

By John Schuhmann

BY John Schuhmann

NBA.com

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Paul George, who denied Argentina small forward Andres Nocioni's pass, provided Team USA's defensive intensity when he came off the bench in the first quarter.

— The United States Men's National Team finally took a step forward on Wednesday. A step forward in the medal rounds. A step forward in its evolution.

For the first time in these Olympics, the Americans played defense. Wednesday's 105-78 win over Argentina was the U.S. Team's best defense game of the four they've played against decent teams. They're not quite where they need to be to win the gold medal, but they're much more ready to face Spain in Friday's semifinal than they were two days ago.

Maybe they needed the urgency of an elimination game. Maybe they needed the noise of the Argentina crowd. And maybe they just needed Paul George on the floor.

Argentina had a 12-7 lead when Carmelo Anthony picked up his second foul on Wednesday. George checked in 5:56 left in the first quarter, Argentina built its lead to 19-9, and then things changed. Part of it was that Argentina's early efficiency was unsustainable; Facundo Campazzo's floaters over the outstretched hands of DeAndre Jordan weren't going to keep falling.

Postgame: Mike Krzyzewski and Kyle Lowry

Coach Krzyzewski and Kyle Lowry discuss USA men's basketball's victory over Argentina in the quarterfinals.

Part of it was that George turned things around almost by himself. His defensive energy was palpable. It disrupted the Argentina offense and made it harder for them to run their plays.

"Paul played his best game for us so far," USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "He played a great game on both ends. He was all over the place."

The U.S. starting lineup, which featured DeAndre Jordan instead of DeMarcus Cousins at center on Wednesday, is potent offensively. And those guys will be on the floor when big shots are needed in close games. But the second unit has been able to make an impact defensively, with George, Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler on the perimeter.

For us, it's all about effort. We got all the talent in the world. If we don't have no effort and no heart to it, we're really just a joke in this thing.

– Paul George on how Team USA should play

"It was huge," USA assistant coach Tom Thibodeau said of the bench's impact. "When those guys came in, that changed the game, from ball pressure, to challenging shots, to finishing the defense, to getting out into the open floor. And once we got into the open floor, we got some easy scores and I thought that got us going."

Defense starts at the point of attack, and that second unit is better fit to stifle the seemingly endless line of playmakers that international teams put in front of them.

"Our interior defense was better because our perimeter defense was better," Krzyzewski said of Wednesday's game. "[Argentina] had to really fight to make movements out there instead of standing and throwing the ball inside."

Even as the U.S. allowed Australia, Serbia and France to score almost 117 points per 100 possessions, the defense wasn't so terrible with George in the game. It allowed 105 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and 128 per 100 with him on the bench.

It helps that he's on the floor against other teams' second units. It also helps that he's the team's best defender. And on Wednesday, Krzyzewski recognized that he needs to keep his best defender on the floor. George checked in less than five minutes into the game and didn't check out until there were less than five minutes left in the half, with the U.S. now up 20.

Postgame: Semi-final Matchup Against Spain

Coach Krzyzewski and Kyle Lowry discuss USA Men's Basketball's semi-final matchup versus Spain.

On this kind of team, that's a long stretch to be on the floor, whether you're a starter or a reserve. George played almost as many minutes in the first half (11) as he did in the whole game against France on Sunday (14).

"I knew I could give a lot of energy and really just be a pest on the defensive end, really try to make plays," George said. "I thought I did a great job of that, playing passing lanes, denying the basketball, rotating, just trying to give effort and energy from the bench."

Sometimes, plus-minus doesn't tell the story. Sometimes, it does. In his 21 total minutes, George was a game-high plus-28. Kevin Durant flipped the switch offensively, but George was the difference-maker on defense, where the U.S. most needed to be different that they were in their last three pool-play games.

The Argentina offense wasn't nearly on the same level as those of Australia, Serbia and France. In fact, as pretty as its offense can be at times, Argentina ranked last in offensive efficiency among the eight teams that reached the quarterfinals.

The Americans' toughest test awaits in the semifinals, where they will face a Spain team that has looked dominant over its last three games. But there's a lesson to be learned from Wednesday's win, as well as in what transpired in the three games prior.

"For us, it's all about effort," George said. "We got all the talent in the world. If we don't have no effort and no heart to it, we're really just a joke in this thing."

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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