In a basketball game which featured approximately 600 dunks, including several worthy All-Star Weekend, it might come as some surprise that the most significant aspect of America’s 101-70 win against China was the play of its defense.
In the shock and awe of the final score, it would be easy to forget that after 15 minutes of the 40, the score was 31-29. That will give a more honest picture of where the US is in relation to basketball powers like Spain and Argentina.
For those first 15 minutes, China played as perfect a basketball game is it could ever have hoped to, hitting almost every 3-pointer and hinting a Miracle on Hardwood turned against the US.
What changed the game was the Americans’ recognition of their limitations and stifling, bungee-on-the-trashcan-lid defense.
The fact is, the team that the US has brought to Beijing cannot play the world game. The international style is based on driving to the basket to collapse defenses inward, then passing the ball back out to the perimeter for 3-pointers.
For most of the first quarter, the US tried to play like this – and failed utterly. In the first half, the US shot 1-of-12 from the 3-point line. It has only one international-quality 3-point shooter, Michael Redd, and opponents know to stay inside his jersey at all times.
This means the US must play its brand of slash-and-dunk basketball. There’s no one better at it. No one even comes close. The problem is that international basketball has one great advantage over American basketball.
If you trade baskets with an international team, you will slowly fall farther and farther behind. And that’s where defense comes in. The US cannot live on the 3-point line as its competitors will. Therefore it must stop them from scoring threes with turnovers and tight defense.
When the US did this late in the second quarter, China suddenly realized that it was not Lithuania – perhaps the deadliest sharpshooters in international basketball – and the score got out of hand. But it was not the dunks that did it.
The good news for American basketball is that it has a team that appears willing to scratch and claw, as it will almost surely need to for a gold.
After Athens, it has now built the team the right way – on a foundation of teamwork and dedication.
With sterner tests ahead, however, the question remains of whether the US has built the right team.