WASHINGTON, D.C. – From every angle, Spain, featuring a frontline of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, is the biggest threat to the U.S. Men’s Senior National team in its quest to win a second straight Olympic gold medal.
Argentina, with its generation of international stars playing one last tournament together, is a dangerous threat. France has as much NBA talent as any team outside of the U.S. And Lithuania and Russia are two more tough teams who won’t be eliminated easily.
But the team that gave the United States their toughest game at the 2010 World Championship was Brazil, who the U.S. will play Monday in an exhibition game at the Verizon Center (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2). It’s the U.S. Team’s final action on American soil before they travel to Manchester and Barcelona for three more exhibitions, and then to London for the Olympics.
The U.S. Women will also play Brazil as part of a double-header. The women’s game precedes the men on ESPN2 at 5:30 p.m. ET.
The Brazilian men finished ninth in Turkey, but they gave the U.S. a real scare in preliminary round action before falling 70-68 in a game that was inches away from going to overtime. It was also a game that was played without two of Brazil’s best players, Nene (not on the roster) and Anderson Varejao (injured).
Five players on this year’s U.S. Team were there in Istanbul and remember that game pretty vividly. The other seven got a taste of it when the team watched film Sunday morning before practice.
In addition to those Nene and Varejao, Brazil also has NBA’ers Leandro Barbosa and Tiago Splitter on its 2012 roster. But their most dangerous player is point guard Marcelo Huertas, who ran circles around the U.S. defense in the first half of that 2010 game, running pick-and-rolls with Splitter and finding Barbosa and Marcus Vieira on the perimeter for open threes.
“Huertas really controlled the game,” U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Sunday. “He played a magnificent game. You look and you say, ‘Well, I can bother him,’ and he was never bothered by our pressure.”
And when one screen didn’t work, Brazil came back with another.
“They screened and re-screened and re-screened and re-screened to get what they wanted,” Andre Iguodala said. “And we didn’t do a good job of adjusting. And we just barely got out of that game.”
So Monday’s game will be a great test for the U.S. Team’s pick-and-roll defense, which will certainly be critical in London. Expect them to defend the pick-and-roll aggressively, trying to take the ball out of Huertas’ hands, a scheme that worked in the second half of that game in Turkey.
“Against the best teams, we’re going to see a lot of pick-and-rolls,” Kevin Love said. “If we suck in on the pick-and-roll with the big guy, they’re going kick it out and knock down shots. I think that was the biggest thing for us. We just need to get up and contest, be able to switch at multiple positions. I think if we do that, we’re going to be good.”
The game will also be a test of the U.S. Team’s ability to rebound with a smaller roster than they had in Istanbul.
“That’s one of the things we’re concerned about,” Krzyzewski said. “We have to have gang rebounding and make sure that we hold our own on the boards and use our quickness to get to loose balls.”
The U.S. Team’s issues weren’t limited to the defensive end of the floor in that Brazil game two years ago. In fact, after switching up their pick-and-roll coverage, they held the Brazilians to just 22 points in the second half. But the U.S. offense was nearly as poor, lacking ball movement and player movement.
“I don’t think we played too well,” Iguodala said, “but you’ve got to give them credit for putting us in those situations.”
Against opponents who play zone and pack the paint, stagnant offense is always going to be a concern for the U.S. They’ll look to use their pressure defense to get easy baskets in transition, but half-court execution is needed as well. And a defense anchored by Varejao is certainly a good measuring stick of where the U.S. stands on that end of the floor.
“They’ve got a chance to compete for medals in London,” Krzyzewski said, “so we know the game [Monday] night will be great preparation.”