Step One A Success
USA Men close Las Vegas training with 114-69 win over Puerto Rico
By Jeff Dengate
LAS VEGAS, August 3, 2006 -- Step one to regaining global dominance on the hardwood is now complete.
For USA Basketball, step two commences Friday morning when the men's senior national team makes its way to Guangzhou, China and then on to Seoul, Korea one week later.
As for that first stage, by all accounts, it was deemed a success, having been measured by the team's 114-69 rout of Puerto Rico in front of 18,218 fans at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
"We played hard. We played unselfishly," USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Thursday's exhibition contest.
"Like coach said," Dwyane Wade echoed, "all 14 guys played very hard from start to finish -- something we've talked about, something we've practiced. So, everything we've done in practice has carried over and will continue to carry over."
One of the key principles the team practiced during its two-week stay in Vegas was being aggressive on defense, which creates transition and easy-scoring opportunities at the other end. The team used that defense to counteract a sluggish start offensively.
"We came out really excited," Shane Battier said, "and really over-extended our defense. We were scrambling too much. Once we settled in and played tough pressure defense and made them make plays, we were able to wear them down."
Puerto Rico, however, didn't wear down for the first 15 minutes, exchanging leads with the US until midway through the second quarter, trailing by only a single point 36-35. Then the Americans clamped down on defense.
The Puerto Rican squad went scoreless for more than five minutes to close the first half, and then the first 2:11 of the third quarter. By the time point guard Elias Ayuso hit for the team's first two points of the second half, Puerto Rico was staring down a 23-point deficit, 60-37.
The pressure would never stop, as the Americans continued to come in those waves Kobe Bryant referred to after watching his teammates scrimmage Puerto Rico on Tuesday.
A focal point of that defense has been the opposing team's point guard. For Puerto Rico, it's the speedy Carlos Arroyo. For example, midway through that second quarter, Battier stepped out to force Arroyo into a double-team on the right wing, where he tried a long lob toward the seven-foot Daniel Santiago, stationed under the hoop. Gilbert Arenas, however, was there to rise up and make the interception.
For the game, the US forced 25 turnovers leading to 41 points. Its opponent could only muster four on 12 American giveaways.
But, it wasn't only on the defensive end where the team excelled tonight. Carmelo Anthony's 18 points led a balanced scoring attack as five players registered double-digits, while no player was on the court for more than 20 minutes.
When the team wasn't connecting on shots, it was getting second chances by way of the 18 offensive boards it pulled down in the game. Playing less than 12 minutes, Dwight Howard led all players with 10 boards -- five of those on the offensive glass.
Puerto Rico, however, will look to rebound from the loss and aim for an opening-game upset of the US like it pulled off two years ago at the Athens Olympics.
"We'll keep practicing and keep working," Puerto Rico's coach Julio Toro said, "and try to be a better team against USA when we play again, officially, in Japan on the 19th of August."
-- US players and fans will have to grow accustomed to the international officiating. Late in the first quarter, Wade elevated for a spectacular dunk that was waived off because he took too many steps. The vocal crowd didn't agree with the call, but it stood. Later, in the third quarter, Wade made a highlight-worthy spin move that resulted in a whistle for travelling.
-- Arging the officiating isn't likely to do any good either, just ask Julio Toro. The Puerto Rican coach picked up a technical foul 93 seconds into the game for disputing a carrying violation. For the record, replays showed the correct call was made.
-- The US players continue to pay their respect to the service men and women in our armed forces. During a break in the action, Air Force personnel, who had recently returned home from active duty, were introduced to the crowd. The US team stood and loudly applauded for each of the officers. The same fatigue-clad crew was seated front row to watch Dwyane Wade take flight on a breakaway and throw down a nasty windmill dunk. As Wade turned to get back on defense, he threw a salute toward the sideline where they were seated.
-- USA team members have recently been doing a special handshake -- two hand-slaps about waist high, followed by a quick salute.
"That's a little team unity, another way for us to bond," James, who came up with the move, said. It's going to be good. It's going to be known across the world very soon."
-- The team's hustle plays are worth watching alone. Whether it's Shane Battier trying to get in position in front of Santiago to take a charge or Elton Brand chasing down a loose ball just before he crashes into the Puerto Rico bench, the players are all over the floor. On a play to end the first half, Arroyo swiped the ball away from Kirk Hinrich and appeared like he would have an easy layup to end the period. Brand, however, sprinted down into the paint to pressure the attempt, forcing it to roll off the front of the rim.
-- It's nearly impossible to keep in front of Chris Paul. The second-year player can go anywhere on the court at will. Against Puerto Rico, he routinely penetrated the opposing team's defense, then kicked out to an open shooter from three. A gifted ball-handler, Paul makes maneuvering traffic in the open court look effortless. At the end of the game, he crossed up scrambling Puerto Rican players, then flicked a left-handed pass down the court to a streaking Anthony for the slam.
-- The US continues its training in Guangzhou, China, and will play two exhibition games this week -- August 7 vs. China and August 8 vs. Brazil.