Just call them the 'B-deem Team'
New-look Team USA just making the grade with solid but unspectacular exhibition win
NEW YORK -- Its boss gave it a grade that could spawn a fitting nickname. Anybody on board with calling it the B-deem Team?
"Grade?" Team USA director Jerry Colangelo asked, repeating the question. "B.
"We can do a lot better, but it's not bad."
That pretty much summed things up Sunday as Team USA opened its exhibition schedule in advance of the 2010 World Championship by defeating what can be justifiably called France's B team 86-55 at Madison Square Garden.
Having officially cut Jeff Green and JaVale McGee from the roster hours before the game, the Americans will bring 13 players to Europe on Monday when they depart for Madrid, Spain. They will not be in action again until they face Lithuania and Spain Aug. 21 and 22.
We got our first good glimpse Sunday at what this team is going to look like, what the rotations will be, and what its relative strengths (speed and defense) and weaknesses (size and heft) are. But keep in mind it was only a peek, and the caliber of the competition was the weakest it'll see until September -- after it has faced Lithuania, Spain and Greece in exhibitions and Croatia, Slovenia and Brazil in its first three games of the preliminary round in Istanbul.
"I thought our defense was real good. I think the offense is a little behind," said Chauncey Billups, who started at shooting guard and earned game MVP honors by scoring 17 points, second to Rudy Gay's 19 off the bench. "And that's just because offense is executing, defense is energy. You can control your energy level, but offense is kind of knowing each other, executing and seeing if shots are going to go down."
The game was tied at 16 after one quarter, and Team USA was up by only nine at halftime. But the Americans opened the third quarter with a 16-6 run that took the life out of a French team that will enter the worlds without its four best players -- Tony Parker, Joakim Noah, Mickael Pietrus and Roddy Beaubois.
If things go the way it hopes, that formula could become Team USA's new normal. A slow but steady defensive-oriented attack that wears opponents down creates open-court opportunities to take advantage of the athleticism, best displayed by Andre Iguodala and Gay on a pair of rim-rattling breakaway dunks that helped silent a sizable contingent of French fans among what was announced as a sellout crowd.
"It was probably a B. We didn't play our best basketball, but the pace of he game, the way we grinded 'em out in the first half and turned it right on in the third quarter is kind of a good setup for our recipe for success," said Derrick Rose, who came off the bench at point guard behind Rajon Rondo.
"If we're not blowing a team out early, that's OK as long as we're grinding them out on defense, limiting them to one shot, making them work hard and getting 24-second shot clock violations. Our defense is there, and we know our runs are going to come at any given time."
Rose and Colangelo were kind graders. Gay was the harshest in dubbing it a C-minus, while Rondo and Billups both handed out a B-minus.
"We had lapses where we couldn't score and we couldn't stop them," Gay said, "so we wanted to be the aggressor for most of the game, and there were points where we weren't."
There's no telling whether coach Mike Krzyzewski will stick with the rotation he established Sunday, because this team tends to shift its identity and change its plans on an almost daily basis. For instance, just a day after intimating that the team might take McGee along to Europe simply as an insurance policy in case Tyson Chandler or Kevin Love (limited to eight minutes by a bruised calf) are injured, McGee was cut. Also, there emerged a new set of players on the bubble, as Russell Westbrook was the last man off the bench, and Danny Granger -- a day after scoring a team-high 22 points in a scrimmage against China -- was scoreless on 0-for-3 shooting with five fouls in less than 12 minutes.
Rose is the key playmaker off the bench, and Gay and Granger could end up rounding out what will be a nine-man rotation, with three players from the foursome of Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon, Love and Westbrook filling the final three seats on the bench.
Certainly, it is not America's A team.
But there is no shame in being a B team if all the A-list players are too unavailable/disinterested to participate.
It's essentially a B tournament anyway, but it's still one the United States has not won since 1994. What we need to see now is whether an A-game is within the Americans' grasp despite their relative unfamiliarity with each other, and whether that A-game can be harnessed when it truly matters -- sometime between Sept. 4-7, when they'll play their first single-elimination game in the Round of 16.
Until then, it's OK to call them a B team and it's OK for them to play their B-game. And as long as they keep their eye on peaking at the finish, what happens along the way will matter not at all -- just like this match against France, which may have done nothing more than earn them a nickname that fits.