To bring our Olympic coverage up, we’re bringing our formerly retired series of daily vignettes — titled “The Outlet” — back for the Olympics. “Don’t call it a comeback.” Though, you can call it series 3, as we are in the title. Every day there's Olympic Basketball to cover, we’ll try to share two or three short vignettes from our collective of writers ruminating on the previous day’s events. Should be a fun time. Today’s Outlet covers the action from Olympic basketball, day one.
- AUS vs BRA -- The Return of Flopsy (Alex Dewey)
- USA vs FRA -- FRA-enheit 451 (Alex Dewey)
- RUS vs GBR -- They Had To Use Their AK (Alex Dewey)
- ARG vs LTH -- "We've Been Here For Years" (Alex Dewey)
Click the jump for today's thoughts.
• • •
AUS vs BRA -- The Return of Flopsy
Okay, only watched a quarter and a half of this one, but one thing stuck in my craw: Brazil's offense was relatively insane by NBA standards in this one, and to be instructive, I'd like to focus on the Brazilian great Anderson Varejao. If you've ever watched Anderson Varejao of the Cavaliers operate out of the pick-and-roll, you know how intelligently he plays, rolling even if the point guard decides to kick it out, rolling with his massive frame in directions that allow him to flare-screen or post-up for later action on the play. If he gets the ball, he can use it, even though he isn't an exemplary scorer. It's awesome. In the 2011-12 preseason, I noted with relish a wonderful end-of-quarter play by Andy with the Cavs:
My favorite Andy play of this game came at the end of either the second or the third quarter when he was rolling off a pick for Kyrie, who couldn’t get him the ball and ended up passing to a second option (Casspi I think). Varejao kept rolling, kept looking for the pass, and in the meantime was establishing good post position. But Casspi was open and took a good three. As soon as Casspi set up to shoot the three, Varejao, still in mid-roll, used the fact that his man was still moving with him to establish rebounding position, which he got on a near-side rebound for an awkward fading tip-in to beat the buzzer. I know chasedown blocks and dunks make the highlight films, and if it didn’t beat the buzzer it wouldn’t even be a highlight. But it was the kind of tenacity, intelligence, and creativity that wins games and championships.
Seeing Varejao in the Brazil offense was something of a revelation. In an offense that seemingly has no weak or strong side of the court (that is to say, cross-court passes were extremely common, and in a few possessions you'd see multiple cross-court passes -- real passes, not just reverses around the perimeter), so fast and inclusive is its offensive action, Varejao looked totally complete as a player. Even though Varejao isn't a good creator or scorer (even in the less tightly-wound international game that sees Pau regress back to a top creator/scorer), Anderson looks like the total package -- a node in a fast-moving network that must move quickly and unpredictably from side to side. Varejao's decision-making is actually used properly, making him -- in retrospect, unsurprisingly -- an astonishingly complete, elite big man at both ends in the Olympics and perhaps more useful than a more traditional scorer from the five.
To put it one way, if the Spurs (or whatever Steve Nash can make of the Lakers next season) somehow acquired Anderson Varejao, I sincerely believe that their top-ranked offense would not suffer much or at all. Instead, I rather believe that the top-ranked offense would change its character, much like it did with the acquisitions of Stephen Jackson, Kawhi Leonard, and Boris Diaw last season (or with the Lakers, with the emergence of Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol at the start of their most recent dynasty). Just as Parker's French Team experiences informed his masterful 2012 campaign, perhaps a closer look at Andy could inform an NBA coach about how to use him in the future. A top coach and a top guard might be able to find a way to use Anderson Varejao to his full potential, despite his reasonable reputation as a role player. Even with Andy's fine contract, it's pretty surreal to think how much more valuable he could be. If not, well, that's just one of the breaks of the game and a reminder that Olympic basketball has a way of turning your expectations upside-down.
This is quite aside from Andy's defensive skills, and quite apart from the exciting fourth quarter of the Brazil-Australia match, which saw the Aussies make an awesome comeback behind the speed and energy of (admittedly quite inefficient overall) Patty Mills and an impossible do-everything stretch by a finishing, charge-drawing, perfect-passing Joe Ingles that nearly brought the Aussies into the extra session. Ingles made two crazy finishes on two consecutive possessions, one a high-arcing banked layup over the outstretched arms of Anderson Varejao. I guess Joe Ingles subscribes to the Kobe System. Unfortunately the game was more-or-less decided when Brazil forced an Australian kick-ball with 9 seconds left, resetting Brazil's expiring shot clock and forcing Australia to gamble or foul. Ugh.
There should... probably be a slight rule change on that account, all things considered?
• • •
USA vs FRA -- FRA-enheit 451
This was a barnburner. Unfortunately for Gerard Depardieu, France itself was the proverbial barn. Boris Diaw looked awful, Kevin Seraphin looked solid. Tony Parker was sparkling, and he wore these goggles, and he still had both eyes, and it was really neat. Parker ran the offense quite well, and was able to get open space for some of his signature drives, borrowing his "Loop" action from the Spurs (or vice versa, it's impossible to know). In "Loop," as Joon Kim aptly demonstrates here, Parker passes the ball off to another player at the top, then uses a series of screens around the paint (in the eponymous loop shape) and his own speed to get a few feet off the defender, from which he can operate with an extra couple steps or else force the defense into an auspicious switch. Parker is well-equipped in these situations, and for the first quarter, the French team was holding pretty close to the U.S.
Then the U.S. remembered that it had more depth and talent at every other position -- even considering its sparse bigs, even to a somewhat stacked and medal-worthy French team decked out with major and minor NBA players. The depth came from Coach Krzyzewski's somewhat obvious decision to play small ball for much of the game, for the simple reason that it allowed him to play as much of Durant and LeBron together as possible and two top point guards (often Westbrook and Chris Paul) at once. Amusingly, France still found itself with mismatches on defense (I saw two LeBron post-ups on Tony Parker, for example... one of which -- hilariously -- failed. The other resulted in a kick-out three. I was pretty confused as they were happening). LeBron, Melo, and KD are remarkably good players with length and versatility, and it turns out that guarding inferior NBA fours and (in LeBron's case) even fives was not a major concern compared to the offensive output it provided. I never got the sense that Ronny Turiaf or Boris Diaw could score at will.
The U.S. offense was pretty neat, at least in the highlights. Whole lot of lobs and cuts. LeBron made an insane 50-foot bounce pass between two streaking defenders. Heavenly. My personal favorite (great euphemism for "not an insane 50-foot bounce pass," right?) was Deron Williams on a fast break, receiving an outlet pass and delivering a behind-the-back, over-the-shoulder touch to a player at the basket for an easy finish. And then there's this -- Harden's athleticism on the left-handed finish kind of evokes Scottie Pippen for me. I'm never going to complain about over-passing on a team with Kobe and Melo, but I guess that would be the nit to pick. France did not have the quickness to stop the overpassing, in any case, although Batum had some nice defensive sequences, including an impressive chase-down block right before LeBron's needle-threading 50-foot topper.
There were a lot of fouls, though, especially in the first half. To be honest, the fouls made the game alternately pretty and unwatchable. The officiating seemed to be alright but altogether rather suspect. Then again, our baseline is constant bailout calls for superstars, so seeing Boris Diaw get bailed-out is pretty jarring and makes objectivity difficult.
• • •
RUS vs GBR -- They Had To Use Their AK
Man, international play really makes these defensive-minded wings look like the best scorers in the world for stretches, eh? Former Jazz great Andrei Kirilenko and Luol Deng played their respective brands of tenacious, punishing, versatile defense. But it was their offensive games that really seemed to shine. On a set play at one point Kirilenko made this insane redirection pass across the lane from the top of his reach for an easy finish. AK-47 at various instances performed as every causal link in the positive production of easy baskets, especially in the currency of steals, passes, and finishes. Kirilenko was by far the best offensive player on the floor and for stretches Deng (and Pops Mensah-Bonsu) could make the same claim. Deng made this wonderful dribble-penetration-to-dunk through Russia's defense that the announcers described as a "pro move" but I don't think I've seen any of the pros in the NBA do it quite like that, not with quite the cleverness of strafing. All that said, while Russia looked tough, I'm not holding my breath for them to pull out a game from the U.S. Kirilenko might outplay one of our insanely long, versatile combo wings/bigs. He might even outplay two. But I really doubt he's going to outplay all nineteen such players on the U.S. roster.
And if they intend to medal, they'll need him to.
• • •
ARG vs LTH -- "We've Been Here For Years"
21-10-6-4 on 17 shots with 2 turnovers. Not a world-beating line.
Manu Ginobili makes a drive and his man doesn't get called for contact. It might have been a flop on Manu's part. There's no way to know. But Manu evidently does not think so, and during the ensuing Lithuanian possession, you can see Manu complaining about the no-call. Lithuania gets a basket on the possession and Manu takes it upcourt, still upset, still complaining to the ref walking beside him about that single no-call. As he's dribbling it up in the back-court, while he's in mid-complaint, Manu draws a rip-through on the full-court-pressing Lithuanian defender. So Argentina's offense resets and in seconds, Manu makes an angry drive and then gets a tough, impossibly-high-arcing finish, off glass as I recall.
The announcers compare him to David Banner. You wouldn't like him when he's angry. I don't know, I kind of liked the whole sequence. And -- flops and complaints being incidental to this anecdote -- the sequence exemplified just how much control Manu really exerted over this game. Sure, Carlos Delfino was shooting lights-out from deep and Luis Scola was shooting quite well himself (not to mention his finishing that seems ever crisper in the international game). But this was Manu's game, and he looked like a world-beater.
Manu passed the ball to Luis Scola by using a soft bounce off the top of the backboard on one play. On another, Manu drove to draw in the man from the corner, started a two-pass reverse around the perimeter to a wide-open Carlos Delfino in the corner to end the first half. On a finish in the second half, the announcers noted how he extended his arms to make a finish under the basket, and I understood exactly what they meant - his sinewy strength allows him those crafty, stretch-arm plays that defenders cannot help but underestimate. On another play, Manu found Nocioni on the roll for a wide-open look. Dagger. Ho-hum.
And -- with the game in hand, two minutes left -- Manu got into a vicious scrum for a meaningless rebound that Manu nevertheless felt was his. He fell on the other player, back first. A teammate kissed him as he subbed out. He emerged unharmed.
21-10-6-4 on 17 shots with 2 turnovers. Call it 30 things that he did right against, say, 10 he did wrong, in 30 minutes. No, it's not a world-beating line, but just like Manu himself, it sneaks up on you, it aggregates, it pools its advantages into something powerful. It complains and games for every inch and every millimeter, and it's vanquished the stars and stripes before.