USA vs. Nigeria and The Skipping Young Instrument of My Tennis Apocalypse

Posted on Fri 03 August 2012 in 2012 Olympics by Jacob Harmon

Wow. What do you even write about what Team USA did to Nigerian basketball last night? Do you start with addressing Carmelo's 37 points in 14 minutes? Do you talk about all the threes? The 80+ point margin of victory? There's very little of substance to be said about the obliteration that took place on the London hardwood last night.

Oh sure, there's already plenty of talk about sportsmanship, or about whether Team USA should be considered bullies, or that this might be a strong argument for the implementation of an under-23 rule. This talk will continue as the tournament goes on, even though these discussions are well played out, just like the talk continued and the played itself out before in 1992, as The Dream Team rattled off their campaign of dominant performances bordering on mockery. I have no doubt that better, and more interested writers than myself likely have much to say about these topics, and how this game does or doesn't play into the grand narrative of something or another.

So I'm just going to talk about tennis instead.

To my best estimate, I played tennis for around seven years, probably until I was about 14 or so years old. I don't remember anything about it. I don't remember how the scoring works, don't remember many of the rules, and if you handed me a tennis racket asking me to go a round, I wouldn't really know what to do with it. As you can probably infer, I was not an exceptional tennis player. For all my lessons and matches, I never felt that I tangibly improved past the basics of the game, and I lost nearly ever single match I ever competed in, usually by a large margin. Yet I pressed on, largely because I had to participate in some sort of athletic activity and had resigned myself to the notion that tennis failure was simply my lot in that particular span of my young-and-unathletic life. Not a lot stands out when I look back on my years of tennis. Much of it is blur of frustration, sweat, interminable heat, and a coach who was so relentlessly cheery in the face of my failure that it started to seem almost insulting. I don't even remember most of my matches, as short and deflating as they often were. But I do have one vivid tennis memory, the tone of which seemed to more or less sum up my court career.

• • •

I had a competitive match against an opponent from another country club across town, and when I got dropped off, a little lost in a strange building and slow to find my way to the tennis courts, I was informed her parents hadn't brought her yet.

“Her?” I thought, with the kind of mixed hesitation that comes with receiving news that can't be divined as either good or bad. The youth tennis matches were co-ed, so it wasn't unusual for guys to play girls, mixed doubles, that sort of thing. But now, for someone whose pre-match temperament had acclimated to a sort of resigned defeat, a general mood of “let's just get this over with?” There was real fear. How old was this girl? Was she my age? What if I lose to a girl? Sure it happens all the time, I know a lot of girls good at tennis. But what if I lose to a girl? The internal dialogue rolled on, as I grew more and more nervous waiting. My 14-year old self figured the realistic best-case scenario would be that it would be a girl around my age, she would be athletic and talented, and I could take some pride in her whipping my butt and putting me away quickly. You would think the best-case scenario would be that I would beat her, but again, such was the broken state of my tennis confidence. In my mind, the most ideal scenario would be being beaten by a good opponent, girl or not, and there would be no shame in that. I might even seem downright progressive in my gracious defeat!

Just then, my opponent's mother's SUV pulled into the parking lot, and she stepped out. The mother, I mean. My opponent couldn't step out, not on her own anyway. Being what appeared to be a little girl not a year older than 9, she required assistance out of her seat and onto the ground. Her mother carried her bag and racket for her as she led her to the courts, Angelo Dundee in Nike shorts and a tank top. Both of them looked serious. This was not good.

Indeed, this was the worst case scenario. What does an almost comically untalented underachieving failure of a tennis player do in this situation? If I beat her, I have to own up that one of the few W's in my column was against an elementary schoolgirl only barely bigger than my racket. If I throw the game, it's an L to a little girl, and knowing that I threw the game. And then there was the worst possibility. What if I go out there and I compete and I give it my all, and she crushes me? What if I'm destroyed in humiliating fashion in front of adults, coaches, and other little kids? What if I have to acknowledge to the rest of the world that I wasn't even able to outplay a little girl, nearly small enough to fit in my backpack?

Since this is a basketball blog, and this is an Outlet piece regarding the USA/Nigeria game, you probably already figured out how things went once we took the court. My fears of proper etiquette turned out to be simply wishful thinking, as I was run ragged, broken, and cast aside by this girl. I don't remember the score, but if you asked me to guess I'd be willing to wager I didn't score a single point. I felt helpless at the mercy of her dominance. As she whizzed all over the court, inordinately coordinated with a racket it really seemed like she should have had difficulty swinging, I found myself questioning my faith. Was this God's punishment for a sinful world? How can I believe in a loving God when this is happening to me? Is there any joy in the world at all? Will someone test her for baby steroids? Please don't let there be anyone watching.

And just as soon as it began, it was over. I lost in resounding, dizzying fashion, and had to shake her hand at midcourt, smiling gamely as internally I combated the feeling of wanting to strike a small child for the first, and only, time in my life. She simply grimaced up at me, mean-mugging like Kendrick Perkins, squeezing my hand the hardest her little hands could squeeze, presumably trying to grind what was left of my spirit into dust. I left the court, and to the best of my recollection, that was the last time I ever played tennis. The all-encompassing nature of my failure at the sport, and the absolute degree of competitive humiliation was such that I saw no reason to press on.

• • •

The point of this story is to say that I don't regret it one bit. I was really terrible at tennis, and at some point you just have to face that there are things you are good at, and there are things you are not that good at. There are things you may be relatively good at, but ultimately quite bad at when faced with stiffer competition. Anyone who has ever played or been decent at any sport knows the feeling of entering into competition with an opponent you know is talented, and not fully understanding the depth at which you are over your head until it's far too late. Some people encounter this against little girls on a tennis court, some encounter it against Carmelo Anthony at the Olympics (Personally, I'd take Carmelo Anthony). Sometimes, oftentimes, you're just over-matched, and you have to be realistic, take your licks, and move on. I guess what I'm saying is I won't blame the Nigerian Olympic basketball team if they decide to take up judo; or race-walking.


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The Outlet 3.01 - Flops, Loops, Wings, and Falls

Posted on Sun 29 July 2012 in 2012 Olympics by Alex Dewey

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
Alex Dewey

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
Alex Dewey

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
Alex Dewey

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"
Alex Dewey

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.

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