LAS VEGAS - In the spirit of the USA Basketball Olympic hypotheticals that have captured a nation's attention, in the wake of this year's Olympic squad's first public appearance in Thursday's blowout 113-59 exhibition win over the Dominican Republic, I offer this point for discussion: Could the USA bench beat the first team?
In truth, this matchup is not imaginary. Such a question is likely to be answered behind closed doors over the next week or two, though much like the famed Monte Carlo scrimmages among the Dream Team in 1992, the results might not be revealed publicly for another couple decades.
First, Mike Krzyzewski and his coaching staff have to pick a final lineup for London. If the USA lines up the way it did to start Thursday's game, however, the second unit has the distinct advantage of the best player on the court against the Dominican Republic--Kevin Durant. The runner-up in NBA MVP voting dominated from the moment he checked in as the USA's first sub, replacing Tyson Chandler to take the USA lineup from small to uber-small.
Durant, who started the second half, ended up playing more minutes than any of the starters. He took full advantage of the shorter FIBA three-point line, using his quick release to drain triples over unprepared defenders. Durant was 5-of-6 from beyond the arc, shot 9-of-11 overall, scored 24 points and added 10 rebounds as a bonus.
The USA's other second-team star was Andre Iguodala, who played ahead of James Harden as the third perimeter player off the bench (after Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook). Iguodala's energy made an impact at both ends of the floor, and he too enjoyed moving in nearly a couple feet on three-pointers, shooting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc. With 18 points, Iguodala was the team's second-leading scorer.
Besides Durant and Iguodala, Williams dutifully played the role of set-up man, handing out 10 assists in just 21 minutes. Kevin Love got going in the fourth quarter to finish with 11 points, Harden scored eight and even Anthony Davis--just summoned back to the team yesterday when Blake Griffin suffered what has been diagnosed as a torn meniscus that will keep him out of the Olympics, per the Los Angeles Times--contributed nine points in garbage time.
Compared to the younger reserves, the veteran starters - all but Tyson Chandler boasting past Olympic experience - played in a lower gear. Chris Paul played nine unmemorable minutes. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James did not really display the breadth of their talents. The only starter who seemed especially engaged was Carmelo Anthony, who scored 13 points and grabbed five boards in just 12 minutes.
Of course, that will change when this team gets to London and the stakes get higher. So too might the lineup. Afterward, Krzyzewski wasn't willing to commit to Durant as a reserve for more than the next game, though he did say he liked being able to bring Durant and Iguodala off the bench to change the speed and style of the game. He also pointed out that Durant was amenable to either starting or relieving, a crucial factor in any decision.
For Krzyzewski and his coaching staff, this and the four other exhibitions scheduled before the opening of the Olympics are all about sorting through their myriad lineup options. For the most part, the USA played one big man at a time, meaning Krzyzewski's two options were smallball and smaller ball, the latter featuring James or Durant at center.
The national team is delightfully apositional, and the coaches have embraced the versatility as a tool to switch screens on defense, create turnovers and get out and run to push the tempo. That reaches its peak when the U.S. plays James in the middle alongside Durant and Anthony, with all three players contributing on the glass to help make up for the lack of any traditional post player.
While the USA will face bigger and more talented frontcourts along the way, the Dominican tandem of Al Horford and Jack Michael Martinez was an interesting first test. The U.S. big men did a terrific job with Horford, who missed 11 of his 12 shot attempts and praised the USA defense after the game. Martinez had more success at times, but finished with just eight points (and nine rebounds). In the first half, the Dominican was able to extend possessions with offensive rebounds, collecting better than a third of its own misses. Those second chances disappeared after halftime, when the Dominican Republic had just one offensive board.
To the extent the U.S. may have issues with help defense when playing small, or against the pick-and-roll, the Dominican was unable to expose them. The Dominican Republic never found a consistent source of offense outside of the long-range efforts of Elpidio Fortuna, who scored a team-high 10 points.
When the USA was forced into the half-court offense, they mostly went against zone defense, which invited them to utilize the three-point shot. 33 of the USA's 74 shots came from beyond the arc, and the team made them at an impressive 39.4 percent clip. Dominican coach John Calipari marveled at the shooting after the game. Add in 28 shots in the paint and more than three-quarters of the U.S. attempts were from high-efficiency spots on the floor.
All in all, it was a triumphant debut for the 2012 USA Olympic team, and one that created plenty more fodder for discussion before the action begins in London.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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