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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Did you have Senegal plus 46?

You never know when the greatest upset in sports history is going to happen, right? Well, the U.S.-Senegal game today in the FIBA World Championships wasn’t it. And it probably didn’t help ratings that the ESPN2 announcing crew was likening the game to a “scrimmage” for the Americans early in the first quarter.

The U.S. won 103-58 – - I’m wondering if you could have taken Senegal plus 50 points in Vegas – - and Dwyane Wade sat out the last game of pool play. Now comes single-elimination play for the Americans, starting in the round of 16 against Australia at 11 p.m. PDT Saturday night (Sunday afternoon in Japan).

The road to the gold medal game probably will include a quarterfinal game against Germany and a semifinal game against Greece or France. Argentina and Spain, two of the strongest teams in the tournament, are on the other side of the bracket.

Even though Senegal finished winless in five games, I’m sure all of its players will tell their grandkids stories about Thursday’s game. They led the U.S. 13-12 with 4:07 left in the first quarter after Makhtar Ndiaye hit a 3-pointer. No DeSagana Diop, no Boniface Ndong, no Mouhamed Saer Sene, no problem. It also helped that the Americans missed their first seven shots.

Coach K went with a starting lineup of LeBron James/Antawn Jamison/Brad Miller/Joe Johnson/Kirk Hinrich. He brought Carmelo Anthony off the bench one day after Anthony went for 35 against Italy. Sure enough, Anthony connected on two 3-pointers soon after checking in as the U.S. closed out the first quarter on a 14-0 run.

That made it 26-13 after the first quarter, leaving Fran Fraschilla talking about how many practice days the U.S. had left in Japan. I think the U.S. had to actually run an offensive set once in the first half. They had the last shot before halftime and ran Anthony off a couple of screens along the baseline to free him for a 3-pointer on the left side.

Anthony drained the shot and finished with 12 points in 14 minutes – - all on 3-pointers. I thought a couple of the U.S. reserves were going to start shooting the ball with confidence in this game; instead Joe Johnson went 1-for-7 from 3-point range and Hinrich went 1-for-4. That was worrisome to see.

If the Americans are going to win gold, they’re going to have to play a disciplined game. That means making free throws, putting in maximum effort on the defensive end, not giving up offensive rebounds and valuing every possession on offense. And they’re going to have to run at every opportunity to open up these games.

But at least the U.S. got through pool play undefeated. They were playing their third game in three nights Thursday – - something NBA players are not used to. They also have a clear path to the gold-medal game, or so it looks right now.

As far as names you might know on Australia, there’s Andrew Bogut, the No. 1 overall pick by Milwaukee in the 2005 Draft, and Daniel Kickert, a star at St. Mary’s for all the West Coast Conference fans out there.

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How do you say “major scare” in Italian?

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.

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Summer report

Its been a static summer for the most part in the NBA, with few big names on the move. Kenyon Martin still has a bad knee and bad attitude in Denver, Kevin Garnetts clock is ticking in Minnesota, Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis are trying to play nice in New York, and Allen Iverson is a Sixer, at least for now.

There have been some moves made of interest, however, and we weigh in today on the 10 best and five worst of this off-season.

The 10 best moves

1. Charlie Villanueva to Milwaukee

The Bucks certainly remembered Villanueva after his 48-point game in March at Bradley Center. They acquired him from Toronto for T.J. Ford on June 30 – - a deal that almost got lost between the NBA Draft and the start of the free agent negotiating period.

The Raptors were overloaded at forward after drafting Andrea Bargnani and re-signing Chris Bosh. But giving up on Villanueva (13.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg) after one season was shocking. Villanueva had a better rookie season than the Bucks own No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut.

There wont be a lot of buzz about the Bucks heading into this season, but they should not be overlooked. Their starting five is Mo Williams, Michael Redd, Bobby Simmons, Villanueva and Bogut, with Dan Gadzuric, Steve Blake and Ruben Patterson off the bench.

The difference between finishing eighth in the Eastern Conference – - as Milwaukee did last season at 40-42 – - and finishing fifth was only two games. The Bucks bridged that gap with the best move this summer.

2. Shane Battier to Houston

Even after an injury-plagued 34-48 season, the Rockets might not be that far away from contending again. They won 21 of 31 games that Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming played together, which would project to 55 or 56 wins over a full 82-game season.

If Houston is to make the leap back into the Western Conferences top eight, Battier will be one of the keys. Simply put, Battier is rock solid, a career double-figure scorer who played in 396 out of a possible 410 games (96.5 percent) in five seasons in Memphis.

The basketball Web site 82games.com calculated Battiers fair salary rating for last season as being $10.54 million. He made less than half that with the Grizzlies. He’s also starting for USA Basketball right now at the FIBA World Championships in Japan.
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World Championships update

Only a couple of months ago, it looked as if the Lakers could be well represented at the FIBA World Championship running from now through Sept. 3 in Japan. (If you’re up at 3:30 a.m. Tuesday, check out the USA/Slovenia game on ESPN2.)

Then Lamar Odom had to withdraw from USA Basketball training camp after the death of his infant son and Kobe Bryant followed suit after undergoing knee surgery. Sasha Vujacic and Vladimir Radmanovic both declined to play for their national teams. That left only second-year forward Ronny Turiaf, who is playing for the France.

So far, Turiaf hasn’t gotten a lot of minutes playing behind Frederic Weis and Boris Diaw. France is 2-1 in Group A, having beaten Serbia and Nigeria and lost to Argentina. Turiaf played nine minutes against Argentina, six minutes against Serbia and none against Nigeria. His combined numbers: Three points and seven rebounds.

But Turiaf has a chance to get a medal out of his summer. France figures to finish second in Group A behind Argentina and advance to the Round of 16. They could see Angola to open the single-elimination phase, then Greece or Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals and either the U.S. or Germany in the semifinals.

* * *

I’m always intrigued to see what Darko Milicic can do with minutes, and he’s gotten his share in the World Championships. Milicic went just 2 of 11 from the field and scored 5 points against Nigeria in Serbia’s opener. But he bounced back with 14 points, 9 rebounds and 3 blocks against France and with 18 points in 24 minutes against Lebanon.

This will be an interesting season for Milicic in Orlando. The Pistons exercised the fourth-year option in his contract last October, leaving Milicic a restricted free agent come next summer. Milicic, who turned 21 only this June, played more minutes in 30 games with the Magic last season than in 2 1/2 seasons in Detroit before that.

* * *

The importance of the World Championships can’t be overstated for the U.S. team. Either they win the gold and automatically qualify for the 2008 Olympics or they have to head to Venezuela – - not exactly an American ally – - next summer for the FIBA Tournament of the Americas.

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Harrington’s worth

I’ve been a big fan of the basketball Web site 82games.com ever since coming onto the Lakers beat. The recent feature on fair salary ratings might be the best I’ve seen. It takes into account player production, team success and minutes played and tries to calculate what a fair salary for that player would have been.

In Kobe Bryant’s case, it was $26.09 million last season. For Elton Brand, it was $21.17 million. Kwame Brown was a $1.85 million player playing on a $7.5 million contract. Lamar Odom actually was slightly underpaid at $11.5 million, compared with his worth at $12.09 million.

With the news that the Al Harrington sweepstakes will start again, I thought it was worth looking at his fair salary rating, especially if teams really are willing to go as high as $60 million or $65 million to sign him to a six-year contract, as was reported by two papers this morning.

According to 82games.com, Harrington’s fair salary rating for last season – - when he averaged 18.6 points and 6.9 rebounds on a Hawks team that went 26-56 – - was about $3.56 million.

It’s a number that would probably go up playing on a better team, like the Lakers, but the question has to be asked if Harrington is really worth that much more than a deal for the midlevel exception. Thankfully, I’m not the one writing the checks.

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Harrington available?

It’s been a foregone conclusion for so long that Al Harrington was going back to Indiana that today’s news out of Atlanta comes as a major surprise.

Harrington is an unrestricted free agent, and the vast majority of NBA teams are over the salary cap, which means a sign-and-trade would have to be worked out for any team that wanted to acquire him. When the Indy deal was being discussed, Harrington wanted a six-year, $57-million contract, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

So Harrington can choose where he wants to go, but he needs the Hawks’ help to get there. The Lakers are reported to be interested, along with Denver, Golden State and Minnesota.

That’s a lot of money for the Lakers to shell out, especially when they already have Lamar Odom (due $40 million) and Vladimir Radmanovic (due $30 million) on the roster. Harrington plays both forward positions and would force the Lakers to get creative with their lineup to get all three players the most minutes on the floor.

Signing Harrington also would put the Lakers at the luxury-tax threshold come next summer. The tax this season will be assessed on payrolls greater than $65.42 million. The Lakers would be at approximately $64 million for the 2007-08 season when you take into account their midlevel salary-cap exception.

If you want Harrington, you additionally have to be ready to pay him about $11.4 million for the 2011-12 season. No Lakers player is under contract that far in the future, not even Kobe Bryant.

It will be an interesting couple of days to see the Harrington fallout. The Lakers probably can deliver the Hawks the package of players with expiring contracts, draft picks and cash wanted for Harrington. The question is whether they want to make that $60 million investment in Harrington or let another team open its wallet instead.

There’s a short-term gain, to be sure, in adding a player like Harrington, but what about the long-term pain of a contract that onerous? This would be the kind of move expected next summer, when the Lakers will consider loading up in advance of Phil Jackson’s last season as coach.

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How the D-Fenders will be built

What’s the difference between the ultimate Lakers fans and everybody else? They get excited about the prospect of an NBA Development League expansion draft in the coming month for the D-Fenders.

That will be the first step for the Lakers’ new minor-league affiliate in building a roster. No date has been set for the draft, but the D-Fenders can select players from the D-League teams that have folded (Fayetteville, Florida and Roanoke) as well as players left unprotected by current teams.

They probably will sign four of those players and bring them to D-League training camp in November. They also will be able to sign two players of regional significance and one player from a local tryout camp. And there will be a 10-round draft in late October or early November after NBA training camps end.

That should leave the D-Fenders with a roster of 16 or 17 players for their training camp.

The Lakers also will be able to assign the rookies and second-year players from their roster to the D-Fenders, up to two at a time. They used the minor-league system twice last season, sending rookie guard Von Wafer to their affiliate in Fort Worth, Texas.

One sidenote: Even though the Lakers will own and operate the team, the D-Fenders players will be treated no differently than their counterparts around the league. That means any other NBA team could sign a D-Fenders player to a 10-day contract beginning in January.

So don’t get too attached to your D-Fenders’ star next season. He could be a Clipper before you know it.

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The D-Fenders coach is…

I’m guessing not a lot of people had Marquette assistant coach Dan Panaggio in their pool. The contract still has to be finalized, but Panaggio is going to be the first coach of the Los Angeles D-Fenders. He’s a father of five with tons of experience coaching in the CBA. He also has a future of running the triangle offense ahead of him.

The way it’s been explained to me, the D-Fenders will be treated no differently than any other NBA Development League team, even though they will be owned and operated by the Lakers. The Lakers can assign the rookies or second-year players from their roster to the D-Fenders, up to two at a time. But the Lakers won’t necessarily be able to direct players they like (just not enough to sign) to the D-Fenders.

There is a league-wide draft before the season; last year’s No. 1 pick was Andre Barrett. After that, all players head into a central pool in which any D-League team can put in a claim, much like a waiver wire. The Lakers might be able to protect a player who has a regional tie, but that could be complicated because Anaheim and Bakersfield also are home to D-League teams.

Even before that, players have to decide whether they are best served playing in the D-League or overseas. The top salary in the D-League is about $30,000 a season. Some players can make two or three times that a month in Europe.

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Working overtime

It has come to our attention that the Laker Girls – - an NBA institution since Jerry Buss bought the Lakers in 1979 – - have been doing some moonlighting as the dance team for the Arena Football League’s Avengers. I guess it’s better for the Laker Girls to be doubling as the A-Team than, say, the Clippers Spirit.

http://www.nba.com/lakers/dance/200203_lakergirls.html
http://www.laavengers.com/team/dancers/roster.php

My sense is that fans might have some strong feelings about this development. I’m just hoping none of the Laker Girls have to become D-Fender Girls next season.

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