Unless you were tuned in at 3:30 a.m. or remembered to set the VCR, you probably saw only that the U.S. team beat Italy 94-85 at the FIBA World Championships, that Carmelo Anthony scored 19 of his 35 points in the third quarter and that the U.S. team clinched first place in Group D.
That barely tells the story of what had to be a major wake-up call for USA Basketball.
Let me set the scene 15 seconds into the third quarter: The Americans went into halftime trailing 45-36, having been blitzed by Italy 26-11 in the second quarter. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony could have been forgiven for flashing back to 2004, when the Italians stunned the U.S. team 95-78 in a pre-Olympics exhibition game in Germany.
On the first play of the second half, Elton Brand can’t convert inside. Italy runs out on the miss, with Marco Belinelli slamming home a dunk while being fouled by Anthony. He sinks the free throw to complete the 3-point play. The U.S. is now down 48-36 in a game fast slipping away from them.
If not for Anthony and Wade, the Americans probably would have lost Wednesday. It’s hard to describe just how bad things went for USA Basketball in the first half. The Italians jumped out to an early lead and outscored the American starting five (James/Battier/Paul/Howard/Anthony) 15-14 before Mike Krzyzewski brought in his second unit.
It would get a lot worse late in the second quarter. The Italians were simply dominating the U.S. Stefano Mancinelli posted up Kirk Hinrich and flipped in a left-handed hook over him. Fabio DiBella raced the other way for a layup after a Wade turnover. Belinelli brought up the ball and buried a 3-pointer. Matteo Soragna stepped out and hit a 3 against Anthony. Ever heard of any of those players before?
The last U.S. possession of the half was typical. Wade tried to drive from the top of the floor against Luca Garri, who didn’t give ground and forced Wade into a tough shot from the baseline. There was no play, just isolation for Wade. I thought the U.S. was done if Italy – - which hit 15 3-pointers against them in 2004 – - went bombs away in the second half.
Instead, Anthony and Wade rescued the U.S. team. After the Italians went up by 12, Wade got to the basket at the other end and the Americans started to run. Wade had three fast break dunks in the third and Anthony took over the game, hitting four 3-pointers on his way to 19 points in the quarter. His 35 was a USA Basketball record.
I went back and watched Anthony’s third quarter, just to see what was working for him. He got hot and the Americans had no problem getting him the ball and watching him light up Andrea Michelori and Angelo Gigli. Isolated against Gigli, Anthony spun past him for a layup. He also drilled a 3-pointer over Mancinelli as time expired.
The Italians played man all game, which came as a surprise. They had nobody who could match up against Anthony in the second half.
Without Anthony, there’s no telling where the U.S. would have been. This was a game that could have been a disaster. It also helped that the Italians were not hitting from the outside (7 of 21 from 3-point range) and finally stopped grabbing every offensive rebound during the second half. They also should have milked that 12-point lead for more of the third quarter.
A couple of observations about Team USA:
The Italians were completely unintimidated walking on the court and shot the ball with confidence from the very beginning. I thought that was remarkable. If you take out the third quarter, which the U.S. won 35-19, the other three quarters went 25-19 U.S., 26-11 Italy, and 23-21 U.S. The Americans have been outscored in five of 16 quarters so far in this tournament.
The U.S. can’t base its defensive effort on how well things are going at the offensive end. Krzyzewski has the right idea in trying to get his team to play in five-minute bursts. The Americans can overwhelm anybody that way. They also can’t base their offensive game stricly on halfcourt isolation and fast break baskets, even if they can’t name a single player on the other team.
The U.S. can’t afford to leave points at the foul line, which they did Wednesday. They made 19 of 34 free throws – - Brand missed five, Wade four – - and might have needed those 15 points had Italy not struggled in the second half. The Italians went 16 of 19 from the line, knowing the value of those points.
Somebody’s going to get hurt and an NBA team isn’t going to be happy about it. Howard took a nasty fall in the second quarter when he went up for a block as the Italians inbounded the ball on the baseline. Howard returned later in the game but played only 10 minutes in all.
Krzyzewski’s going to pare down his rotation once the U.S. gets to single-elimination play. He went with Wade, Anthony, Brand, James and Paul for the bulk of Wednesday’s game. Chris Bosh and Brad Miller didn’t play while Antawn Jamison was on the court for only five minutes. It’ll be interesting to see how this unfolds.
The U.S. really could use a pure 3-point shooter, somebody like Kyle Korver to open the floor. The Americans are 32 from 81 (39.5 percent) from 3-point range in the tournament and needed Anthony’s five 3s to break open the game against Italy.
It was a great game to wake up to this morning. Looking ahead to the single-elimination tournament, the U.S. likely will play Australia in the Round of 16, then Germany in the quarterfinals, with possible showdowns against Spain in the semifinals and Argentina in the gold-medal game.