USA Basketball: The (Defensive) Pressure Is On
Posted Jul 22 2008 5:36AM
LAS VEGAS, July 21, 2008 -- Following the Lakers’ loss to the Celtics in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant tried to make sense of the series that his team just dropped 4-2 and was able to glean a little bit of wisdom from what transpired.
“I think if we’re going to learn anything from this series is that we can’t expect to win a championship by focusing on the offensive end,” Bryant said. “We have to be able to hold people down as well.”
A few days later, at a press conference at STAPLES Center after having his exit interview with Phil Jackson, Bryant uttered the same sentiments.
“It’s all about defensive concepts and how we defend collectively, as a group.”
Coming up short against the stingiest defense in the league led by the Defensive Player of the Year seems to have given Mr. 81 a new mantra: defense, defense, defense.
When the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team convened in Las Vegas on Sunday to start the six-week journey that it hopes ends with a gold medal in Beijing, Bryant spoke up at a team meeting to stress the importance of ‘D.’
For the first time since 1992, the United States isn’t in the position to defend its gold medal from the previous Olympiad. In order to get back to that position in 2012, there’s one thing the team will have to do this summer – defend.
“Kobe mentioned defense and rebounding was huge,” said Tayshaun Prince, whose role on the team is primarily a lock-down guy who can get stops. “Defense and rebounding [are] really key to winning. It’s key to winning in the NBA and I’m pretty sure that it’s key to winning any basketball that you’re playing. Nobody is going to shoot the ball 100 percent, so those are the keys. We have good, athletic guys at every position. We have great speed. So hopefully our defensive pressure will help us out.”
Prince, selected to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2007-08, explained that even though high-intensity defensive effort is critical, it’s not what his U.S.A. teammates are used to.
“It’s different for me as well as everybody else because we’re picking up three-quarter court, we’re trying to really put some defensive pressure up the court,” Prince said. “That’s something that we don’t do on our NBA teams, obviously, because we play 40 minutes a night. I think this is a situation here where this is one month and I think we can play this style of tempo, especially when you’re going to get subbed in and out a couple minutes here and there and what not.”
Trail Blazers head coach Nate McMillan’s role on the U.S.A. Basketball coaching staff is sort of like the defensive coordinator on a football team, while New York’s Mike D’Antoni is the offensive expert.
McMillan was quick to point out that the U.S. wants to apply pressure this summer, but it doesn’t want to “gamble.” Who knew that the same advice applies to hanging out in Vegas as it does to playing basketball in China.
“Normally they drop back and they wait for the offense and pick them up across half court or in the paint,” McMillan said. “We don’t want to do that because, first of all, we feel we’re deeper than the teams we’re playing against, and we’re athletic. So we want to use our ability to apply pressure, but not gamble. We want to have that pressure disrupt the rhythm of the offense and not allow these teams to just come down and execute their offense, because they do a great job of running you deep into the clock and normally that’s when an NBA defense breaks down.”
Despite going to the NBA straight out of high school, center Dwight Howard says that the full throttle defense reminds him of the way it’s played in the NCAA.
“If you’ve ever watched Coach K’s Duke team and the way they play, it’s almost the same way of pressuring the ball, up on defense, not giving them anything on the perimeter,” Howard said. “We’re basically playing college style basketball with NBA players.”
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski echoed McMillan’s warning.
“Pressure doesn’t mean gamble,” he said. “Pressure means they know they’re being guarded. We have depth, whether it’s half court, three quarter or full, we should be on people. They should feel our presence.”
Pressure defense creates turnovers. Turnovers creates transition basketball. Transition basketball creates easy baskets. Easy baskets create big leads. Big leads create wins. Enough wins creates a gold medal. See how it works?
“We want to create offense off of our defense,” McMillan said. “What we tried to do today is just have the practice squad run some sets that we will see probably in this tournament from different teams – some misdirection plays, some pin downs, a lot of pick-and-rolls – just so we can get acclimated to the different screens, the different pick-and-rolls, the different combinations because the way the team is set up now, we can switch a lot of pick-and-rolls.”
U.S.A. Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, the man responsible for finding 12 guys who would be willing to play both ends of the court, put it bluntly, “The teams that win are going to play defense and rebound. It’s not about the scoring. Scoring is going to come.”
Bryant is certain that he’s unlocked the key to winning basketball games, be it the NBA, the Olympics or even the local rec center.
“No matter where you play or who you play against, if you’re playing pick-up ball at the YMCA, if you defend and you rebound, you’re going to win,” Bryant said. “That’s true anywhere you go. That’s something that we’ll focus on.”