It's Unbelievable...Biggie-Biggie Smalls is the Illest...
When the news first broke yesterday that Team USA fell to Greece in the "final four" of the World Basketball Championships, the word unbelievable, and the classic DJ Premier scratching, Biggie rapping over, re-worked sample above soon followed, drifting through my sub-concious settling somewhere in my frontal lobe.
I knew Greece had a talented and highly cohesive team that plays with great passion and intensity.
I knew about the legendary Theo Papaloukas, the recently Houston Rocket-ed Vassilis Spanoulis and even the European "Baby Shaq," Sofoklis Schortsanitis, who incidentally worked out for Glen Grunwald and co. for the 2003 NBA Draft.
But I really didn't think that in the end, Greece could prevail over this "new and improved" team USA. But prevail they did, winning 101-95, while scorching the US with pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll and shooting an astounding 63 per cent from the field! The US by contrast shot only 50 percent and while not a terrible percentage, hit only 32 per cent of their 3-point attempts compared to Greece's 44 per cent and made only 59 per cent of their free throws.
Am I jumping back on the Chris Sheridan bandwagon?
Sheridan's concerns over this version of Team USA were always valid, it was just the constant negativity that I wasn't necessarily a fan of. There's a way to report "problems on the horizon" without coming off as a constant nag.
So what now? Is this back to the drawing board Part II? Or by the time the Olympics role around will the Kobe's, Chauncy's and Amare's all be on board? And will it make a difference?
(In fact, is anyone else thinking that Kobe is just exploding with joy that now he'll get the chance to "save US basketball?")
After watching the Greek victory, I don't think it would matter though. The US didn't lose this game by having less talented players - they simply weren't the better team.
I mean, is Amare light-years better than Dwight Howard or Elton Brand?
Are Kobe or Chauncey Billups a huge upgrade on Lebron or D-Wade?
Really, the only players I think that the US could have on their squad who would make a huge difference would be Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Redd or Ray Allen. Why? Because the way the international game is played (and called by the refs) makes individual effort much less impacting unless there is a substantial size or shooting advantage. While not the Shaq of old, O'Neal would still represent a huge mismatch issue which would force the opposition to adapt, leaving the US free to shoot open jumpers and drive lanes, something the consistently solid Greek defense prevented yesterday. As for Allen and Redd, the US showed once again that they still lack consistent outside shooting...and clutch shooting in general. Redd and Allen would be a much needed boost in these areas.
In fact, if I was one of team USA's braintrust, there's a few players I'd be thinking about de-inviting or giving less playing time to until they improved various areas of their respective games.
-Chris Paul Great point guard. But at only six feet, was a total liability against the pick and roll. On top of this, he's not yet even a decent outside shooter yet. In the international game, if you aren't a triple-threat, you're too easy to guard. Bring in Billups.
-Antawn Jamison Skill set was too easily duplicatable through various other players. Cut.
-Joe Johnson An overrated shooter, Johnson is easily replaced if/when Michael Redd comes on-board.
-Brad Miller I still think Miller would have been helpful in various situations, but if you're going to go small ball all the time and have forwards like Bosh and Brand playing center, why have Miller taking up a spot on the bench?
-Lebron James Yep, you heard it here first. Lebron is a great individual talent, and I'm not advocating cutting him altogether, but he needs to make some adjustments to become a better team fit. He looked like Mike James against Greece for the majority of the game - way too much dribbling and trying to go one-on-one. In the NBA, rules allow him to take advantage of his size and speed over others to get to the rim at will. It's not the same story internationally and time after time until late in the game, Lebron would put his head down and go, only to be called for a charge or turn the ball over.
And finally, as much of a Duke and Coach K fan as I am, why didn't Dwight Howard play more in the second half? He was a one-man wrecking crew in the first segment of the contest and was posing serious problems for the Greeks. In addition, with Greece essentially running a layup drill off the pick-and-rolls, I couldn't understand why the US coaches didn't have Howard inserted to rotate and swat some of the drives into the fourth row!
But I digress as I'm getting away from our main focus here at the HQ - the Raptors. So how exactly did the remaining three fare in these past two games?
Chris Bosh followed up an excellent game against Germany (10 points, seven rebounds, one block) with only five minutes of playing time against Greece. The US coaching staff went mainly with a smaller lineup in terms of playing time as even the US's other "bigs," Elton Brand and Dwight Howard, saw limited action (13 and 12 minutes respectively) as mentioned.
The other two Raptors, Jose Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa were meanwhile locked into a dog-fight in the other semi-finals match with Argentina. Spain prevailed in a thriller, 75-74 with Calderon actually scoring the winning basket. However Calderon made only one of two free throws leaving the door open for Argentina to get off a last attempt to secure the win. Luckily for the Spaniards this was not to be, and now they advance to face Greece in the finals.
Calderon statistically didn't have his best game of the tourney (seven points, one rebound, no assists) but team-mate and future Raptor Jorge Garbajosa was dymanite in the win. Garbajosa had 19 points and four rebounds while constantly driving to the rim resulting in his shooting nine foul shots (he made eight of them.)
With Pau Gasol's status for the final on Sunday now in question, it will be crucial for Spain to get another great performance out of Garbajosa if they want to have any hope of beating Greece.
Regardless of the outcome of this Greece-Spain match, there is still some fall-out to be had from the US's loss. Canada will even feel the effects as it now will have a tougher task concerning qualification for the 2008 Olympics.
And of course the US media will analyze things to death undoubtedly in effort to find out "just what went wrong."
To that I say...well...perhaps nothing went wrong! Perhaps the US, while still one of the best basketball nations in the world, is simply no longer the premier basketball power!
In fact...I'll let the following posting from a chat yesterday sum things up:
Ian: (Toronto, ON): I think some Americans need to realize that just because you produce the best athletes, your country is not owed anything. Trust me, us Canadians went through the same thing with hockey. The rest of the world caught-up, it stings but its good for the sport. Even if you win the gold at the next Olympics, it doesn't mean your dominating the basketball world again. Its a new world, get used to it.