Commentary

Breaking down Team USA's defense

Originally Published: July 25, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Tayshaun PrinceNathaniel S. Butler/Getty ImagesTeam USA has been focusing on defense at practice, and it paid off against Canada.

LAS VEGAS -- Not a whole lot to be critical about in Team USA's 2008 debut -- well, those white-on-white names on the back of the jerseys should be fair game -- but that's not to say we can't look at this 55-point victory with a critical eye.

After all, the Canadian national team is probably the weakest team (with the possible exception of Angola) the Americans are going to see the rest of this summer, so we caution everyone against getting overly giddy about this particular display of dominance.

This wasn't Duke-Carolina. This was more like Duke-Belmont Abbey.

But what Team USA's 120-65 victory showed was how the Americans' focus on defensive principles over the course of their week in Las Vegas manifested itself -- both good and bad -- on the floor. And although their pick-and-roll defense showed it still needs some work, the way they used their quick feet and quick hands to disrupt Canada's offense and force turnovers was stifling. And when the second unit, led by the unlikely backcourt duo of Chris Paul and Deron Williams, turned up the defensive pressure, this one turned into a rout before halftime in a matter of just a couple of minutes.

"You could see it unravel very quickly. It shows how quick and talented they are," Canada coach Leo Rautins said. "You can't afford to make any mistakes at all, and the talent they put on the floor, the quickness -- nobody else has that."

Knowing this game was going to be a lopsided one, and after hearing an earful all week from the players and coaching staff about how committed Team USA was to improving on defense, I decided to chart each and every defensive possession that the U.S. had.

In the first quarter, when Canada kept the game close and trailed only 30-24 after the first 10 minutes, Canada attempted 18 shots -- 12 of which were contested, six of which were not -- many of those uncontested attempts coming off pick-and-roll plays on which the ball was swung to an open player. Canada went 6-for-6 on uncontested shots, 2-for-12 on contested ones, committed three turnovers -- two of which were unforced -- and had two possessions in which they were fouled while shooting.

In the second quarter, the Americans held Canada to 0-for-5 shooting on contested shots, although Canada got off seven uncontested attempts and went 3-for-7. What made the difference in the quarter was the Americans' ability to force turnovers. Canada had 11 over the course of the 10-minute period, including seven in a span of nine possessions, the last of which came off a stolen inbounds pass under the U.S. basket by Chris Bosh that was turned into a layup for Deron Williams, putting the Americans ahead by 25.

"It was the first game we've played together, so that had something to do with it," Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the difference in the quality of defense his team played in the second quarter compared to the first. "We're still developing this team, and we will be until we get to Beijing, and we're still getting to know each other. The more the game went along, the more comfortable we became."

The Americans will not be able to exert as much three-quarters-of-the-court pressure when they face talented teams that are more adept at breaking the press, so their pick-and-roll defense will be all the more important in the weeks ahead. Any team that is able to break that pressure and set up its half-court offense will be looking to exploit the Americans' historical weakness in defending the pick-and-roll. That's why so much attention is being focused on it at this early stage of their preparations.

"Two years ago we weren't as good X and O wise as we are now," Coach K said. "We have a plan, and we think it's a good plan, and a lot of it is making sure the pick-and-roll is defended by five guys, not two."

The positives that jumped out from the Americans' side of the box score were their 43 points off turnovers, their 66 percent shooting (including 50 percent from 3-point range) their 38-24 edge in rebounding and their holding the Canadians to just 27 second-half points, including the paltry total of nine in the fourth quarter. They eased off on the three-quarters-court pressure after halftime, but they never let up on the intensity in the half court -- something that was evident even on the final play of the game when Carlos Boozer came out and joined Paul in trapping Canada point guard Jermaine Anderson near the scorer's table, forcing the last of Canada's 25 turnovers.

In the third quarter, my tally had the Americans contesting 11 shots (Canada made five) and leaving them uncontested for five attempts (only one of which was made), and in the fourth quarter I had Canada shooting 3-for-7 on uncontested shots and 2-for-8 on contested attempts.

Add it all up, and of Canada's 60 field goal attempts, 25 were uncontested.

Oh, and another thing, the Americans were actually outrebounded on the offensive end, grabbing only eight to Canada's 10. Team USA also committed 19 turnovers, although they didn't let it hurt them as Canada could only turn those miscues into nine points.

"Man, they're small. They're real small," former U.S. Olympian Gary Payton told ESPN.com after dropping by Valley High School to watch practice Thursday. So even The Glove has some concerns.

And while there was plenty to be satisfied with from Friday night's shellacking, nobody from Team USA -- except their vocal supporters in the sellout crowd of 18,498 -- was getting overly excited about this one.

The competition gets exceedingly more difficult next week when the Americans play friendlies against Australia, Russia and Lithuania on their pre-Olympic tour of Macao and Shanghai, and you can be assured that if they allow any of those opponents to get uncontested looks on 42 percent of their shots, there will not be a 55-point discrepancy in the final score.

Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics.