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July 30, 2012
Olympics
USA's Strengths Easily Outstrip Weaknesses

by Bradford Doolittle

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Sunday's 98-71 romp over France won't be the toughest test Team USA will face during the London Olympics. Nevertheless, you can expect to see more of the same type of dominance as the competition progresses. A lot more.

America's lack of big-man depth was a non-issue against the French, who weren't really equipped to exploit a potential advantage in that area. Perhaps Joakim Noah could have helped, but when Ronny Turiaf, Kevin Seraphin and Ali Traore are the foundation of your frontcourt, you're not exactly the kind inside-out team that can threaten the power-packed U.S roster.

The French aren't really firing on all cylinders right now. They needed a transcendent effort by Tony Parker, but after a trying summer full of off-court trouble and eye surgery, he was in no position to offer that. He looked rusty on both his midrange jumper and with his collection of floaters. He also seemed a step slow.

That was disappointing, because one area where Team USA could prove to be vulnerable on the defensive end is against a waterbug point guard who can break down Chris Paul or Deron Williams off the dribble and kick out to some rangy shooters.* Parker isn't that guy right now, and France isn't a good outside shooting team. They hit 2 of 22 from 3-point range against Team USA, killing any upset hopes they may have harbored.

(* With Patty Mills and some face-up big guys like David Anderson and Joe Ingles, Australia might have the kind of combination we're talking about, and they even run some nice secondary action off of high ballscreens to complement that. Australia can't really play defense, though, and they rely on Mills to do an awful lot. Plus, Team USA doesn't play the Boomers in the preliminary round anyway.)

To beat the Americans, you also need to win the battle of the boards. The U.S. held a plus-16 advantage on the glass and grabbed more than a third of available offensive rebounds. Tyson Chandler grabbed four of his teammates' misses in just 11 minutes and matched Kevin Durant with a team-high nine rebounds. Chandler didn't play more because, well, he didn't need too. France simply wasn't doing the kind of damage in the lane that required his presence.

Team USA dominated the glass despite releasing one or two players down the court nearly time France took a shot. Nevertheless, the French were able to rebound just 18 percent of their innumerable misses. The Americans won't be able to do that as easily against Spain or Brazil, for instance. In fact, Anderson Varejao's offensive rebounding was a key factor in the Brazilians' ability to hold off Australia. But if the U.S. does continue to hold that kind of edge on the boards, no one will touch them.

France managed to hang close early thanks to a slow shooting start by the Americans. Poor shooting marked all the early games. Team USA, France, Nigeria, Tunisia, Brazil and Australia combined to hit 26 of 100 from 3-point range in the tournament's first three contests. Commentator Doug Collins spoke a few times of how streaky the U.S. will be from the outside during the Olympics and that was certainly the case on Sunday.

France outplayed Team USA during the latter part of the first quarter and trailed by just one point entering the second quarter. When Chandler went to the bench for the first time, James was left as the de facto five-man in the lineup. This is an awfully small defensive configuration, but at the time Boris Diaw was the biggest guy on the floor for France. Still, the French were able to spread the Americans out and get to the rim, the only stretch of the game when the U.S. was left wanting for a rim protector.

The small U.S. lineup was worse on the offensive end. With all five players surrounding the perimeter, the offense de-evolved into a lot of isolation play and too many contested jumpers. Even when an American beat his guy off the dribble, with no screeners rolling down the lane, the French were able to sag and help cut off the dribble penetration. The U.S. would kick the ball out to a group of shooters who weren't in rhythm.

The situation was made worse by the lack of offensive rebounders on the floor. It wasn't a long stretch, but that configuration wasn't working. It might be better against a team playing a double-post lineup with defenders uncomfortable stepping out on the floor. Kevin Love came on and gave the U.S. just the modicum of an interior presence it needed to settle things down. James hit a 3 to open scoring in the second period, and the U.S. steadily pulled away from there.

That's the beauty of this U.S. roster. If one approach doesn't work, then you can just roll out an entirely different kind of lineup. This team has everything. We keep hearing how the roster is flawed. Outside of depth at center -- a very small wart -- it's hard to see how this team could be much better.

The stretch of isolation play proved to be an aberration. Team USA assisted on 27 of its 31 made field goals and, remember, international scorers tend to be a little more stingy handing out dimes that we are accustomed to stateside. Of the other five teams that played through America's game, no one had more than 15 assists. Even Brazil, which got 10 assists and a terrific all-around effort from floor general Marcelinho Huertas, assisted on just 13 of its 28 field goals.

Love, Chandler, James and Durant all were tremendous at outleting the ball to jump start Team USA's numerous transition opportunities, which is really where the squad wore down France and will wear down every team it plays. Wave after wave of athletes come in and out of the game and run up and down the floor. By the fourth quarter, it seemed like at least two Americans were running out about five feet ahead of any French defender every time possession changed.

Durant led the scoring with 22 points and James orchestrated things with eight assists, most of them of the flashy variety. There ought to be a rule against those two playing in the same lineup, because it's truly a frightening and exhilarating thing to watch. There has been a lot of talk about Team USA's potential size disadvantage on the interior, but what about the size, strength, speed and skill disparity other teams have to overcome facing that pair on the perimeter, in the lane and in the open floor?

Next up is Tunisia, which is led by 7'1" Salah Mejri. He's kind of a junior-high version of Chandler. A good shot blocker, not particularly agile and against Nigeria's Ike Diogu, he didn't look very skilled on the offensive end. He shot 1 for 8 and fouled out. Amine Rzig put on the best shooting performance of any player in the early games, hitting 7 of 9 and 4 of 5 from deep, but he's not going to get the kind open looks he had against Nigera. Tunisia turned the ball over 21 times on Sunday and it makes you shudder to think what that number is going to look like on Tuesday. Team USA won't break a sweat.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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