Zone defense, in any language

Now its a two-game tournament for the U.S. after Wednesdays 85-65 victory over Germany in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Championships. Theres a semifinal game Friday against Greece and a potential gold-medal showdown against Spain or Argentina after that.

Those three teams – - all of which are undefeated – - can thank the Germans for exposing just how vulnerable the U.S. can be against a zone defense. Maybe if Italy had played zone in their pool play game, the Americans wouldnt even have won Group D.

The Americans pulled away in the third quarter, but this game was no comfort to anyone who watched it, either live at 3:30 a.m. PDT or on tape this morning. The U.S. led 40-39 at halftime, having shot 14 of 44 overall (31.8 percent) and 5 of 20 from 3-point range.

So much for the U.S. team having shot 41.2 percent from the shorter international 3-point arc in the first six games of this tournament. Theyre at 37.5 percent after Wednesdays nightmare. Keep in mind also that Germany lost by 21 to Spain in Group B play.

The Americans missed 30 of 40 3-pointers, as bad in the second half as they were in the first half. Kirk Hinrich was 1 for 5, Shane Battier was 0 for 3, Dwyane Wade was 0 for 5, Chris Paul was 1 for 5 and Carmelo Anthony was 3 for 9.

Paging Kobe Bryant, anyone?

It took the U.S. five possessions midway through the second quarter just to get a basket against the German zone. Elton Brand traveled in the lane. Paul threw away a pass. Hinrich missed a 3-pointer. LeBron James missed a 3-pointer and committed a charge.

They finally broke through as Battier missed a 3-pointer and Elton Brand hammered in a basket after an offensive rebound. That was the one area of the game the U.S. dominated, taking 22 offensive rebounds to 3 for the Germans.

The Americans struggled to solve the zone, with Wade one of the few players who seemed to know what to do. In that second quarter, Wade slashed to the foul line, broke down the defense and kicked out a pass to Joe Johnson for a 3-pointer.

It shouldnt have been more difficult than that, but it was. The Americans couldnt take advantage when Dirk Nowitzki, who went 3 for 12 and finished with an underwhelming 15 points, went to the bench with three fouls and 3:04 left in the first half.

They watched instead as Wade missed a fastbreak layup and got hit in the face by Pascal Roller as both players chased after the loose ball. Wade crumpled to the floor in a scary scene but returned in the third quarter. Heat fans wont soon forget Rollers name.

If the Americans couldnt shoot all game, at least they could play defense in the second half, holding Germany to 26 points. They won the third quarter 27-13 behind a lineup of Hinrich, Johnson, James, Anthony and Dwight Howard.

Anthony had 10 points in the quarter as the U.S. pulled in front 67-52. He ran out for a basket off a German make, pounced on a pass at the top of the floor and headed the other way for a dunk, and knocked down two 3-pointers.

There were few easy baskets and fewer 3-pointers in the game. Anthony finished with 19 points and is now the U.S.s leading scorer in the tournament – - averaging 19.7 ppg – - after Wade went an awful 1 for 11 and had three points (five assists) in 21 minutes.

The one hope for U.S. fans is that the Americans weathered their worst shooting game of the tournament and figured out some things against the zone. You move the ball, attack the lane, stay patient and sometimes look to lob a pass over the top. What you don’t do is launch 3s over and over again.

The final play of the third quarter, before the game got ragged, might have been a beacon of light.

With the last shot of the quarter, the U.S. put the ball in James hands. He drove to the elbow against the German zone, which committed to stopping him. So James simply fired a pass to Paul for an open 3-pointer.

Paul buried the shot at the buzzer to put the U.S. ahead by 15 points. If only the gold could come so easy.

* * *

Lakers forward Ronny Turiaf finished with 4 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 13 minutes as France lost 73-56 to Greece in an earlier quarterfinal. Turiaf also had five fouls in the game. France will play Germany in a consolation semifinal Thursday.

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