There has been much concern as America was befuddled by the efforts of team USA against the world in the FIBA game. Although we have certainly lost more games this Olympics leading up to this point, the narrative will remain the same, despite the U.S. winning the gold this weekend.
The international game was and still is designed to work against the American style of play but not by the rules, but by the form of play.
The international game, as played by all other countries, focuses more on the team game both offensively and defensively. This fact explains one of several difficulties encountered by Team USA, which is composed of NBA players mostly from different teams around the league. A majority of critics will attribute this as lack of chemistry but that doesn’t completely explain the situation.
With regard to the offensive side of the game, it’s not that the NBA does not play team oriented basketball. It’s that their focus becomes exploiting one on one mismatches within a wide open style of play. This typically leads to less ball movement and even less action off of the ball.
The international style of play passes the ball around much more with the emphasis on finding the wide open shot. This can occur through a breakdown of a defensive assignment due to rotations beyond three to four passes. They also look to post up mismatches created by small on big switches.
Fundamentally, it’s what a good offense is supposed to do, especially when the team does not possess the level of talent that their adversaries do. This also makes it hard to scout their players as they do not gear the offense towards any particular scorer.
As for the defensive side of the ball, they look to take away the drive with strong ball side help, as opposed to reaching. They do this with little regard to what’s happening on the weak side, banking on the fact that the U.S. will not reverse the ball nor will they flash cutters into the key.
This is what leads the Americans to one and done offensive possessions, as they resort to their habitual NBA style of play. While defending the ball, they don’t pressure the dribble and veer the drive sideways with their footwork in order to get steals from the pass.
There is also more physicality allowed away from the ball as well as when it comes to contact on the shot. Initiating the contact on an offensive move will either garner an offensive foul or no call at all. Incidental contact under the basket is almost never whistled.
The refs do however focus on reaches, pushes and holding, which makes it harder for the U.S. to get into a flow during the game. Reaching in on the dribble or the pass is not a violation unless you hold or impede the player’s progress while doing so.
All this being said, Team USA was still the best team in the Olympics. Their combination of skill and athleticism couldn’t be matched by any other country, especially when it comes to players 6’8” and above. They just needed to assert a more skillful style of play that emphasizes their athletic superiority.
America’s offensive attack in the future should utilize more fundamental skill sets such as pass fakes, shot fakes and cutting towards the basket to capitalize on penetrating dribble drives. They need less pull up three pointers and more wide open attempts.
Other teams’ internal defense is no match for the U.S.’s crafty finishers and length as long as they go up strong off of two feet anticipating the contact. NBA players tend to fade away on their jump shots and avoid the contact underneath the basket.
Transition and fastbreak basketball can bring their athletic attributes to the forefront while taking advantage of some easy points. This will make the other teams work harder on defense and could have an effect on their offensive output, as well as their substitution patterns. Most international teams don’t have the bench depth that Team USA always has. Their versatility can also be a factor, as most of the team can defend or score on any player from any position.
In keeping with the pressure theme, the U.S. must stay in front of the ball handler, pressure the passing lanes, as well as force the cutters down and away from the ball. Chase down block shots are a must! By matching up and not over pressuring the dribble, they will be able to contain the drive and cut down the number of passes the offense can make.
International players are not very good at making contested shots nor at creating shots off of the dribble. They rely on good spacing created by the offense in order to step into their shot attempts and attack from the weak side of the defense as players close out running towards them off balance. Only the NBA players on each FIBA team seem to be able to create and finish, but not with such ease nor frequency.
In 1992, the Dream Team brought home the gold with a 32 point rout of Croatia by controlling the pace of the game, utilizing transition and solid man-to-man defensive principles. They kept the ball handler in front of them, had a keen awareness of the off the ball motion and showed hard on switches and pick and rolls.
Offensively, they shared the ball, used efficient dribble penetration, looked for the back line cutter and attacked from the baseline away from the defensive help. Statistically, Croatia shot better from behind the arc and the free throw line. However, Team USA scored at a 67% rate from the field, 70% in the first half, and out rebounded them 27 to 19.
It goes to show that the more things change, the more they fundamentally stay the same.