The Success of Team USA’s Small-Ball Defense
Team USA’s small-ball lineup, the one that doesn’t feature a true center, has been talked about a lot in the buildup to the Olympics — and for good reason. Going small would be the only hole other teams could exploit, especially on the defensive end. Going into their game against Spain, the USA lineups without a true big had been outscored by one point in their other exhibition games, according to John Schuhmann of NBA.com. Any time Tyson Chandler has been in foul trouble (remember, in FIBA play, players get five fouls instead of six), the United States has struggled. We saw something similar in the first quarter against Spain yesterday. After Chandler picked up his second foul, Team USA had a lineup featuring LeBron James at center, Carmelo Anthony at power forward, and Kevin Durant at small forward. Serge Ibaka exploited the smaller lineup with 10 straight points.
With Carmelo Anthony covering Ibaka, Spain used him repeatedly to set high screens for the ball handler at the top of the key. The first play in the video above is a perfect example. As the ball handler comes off Ibaka’s screen, Anthony shows hard, and as Ibaka rolls to the rim, the rotation to Ibaka (one that should be coming from LeBron James) is a split second late. This allows Ibaka to make the catch and finish at the rim. These late rotations and lack of communication were keys to Ibaka getting easy scoring opportunities.
Thankfully for Team USA, those problems didn’t continue. After a brief stint from Kevin Love and another foul from Chandler, the U.S. went small once again. This time, the rotations from Team USA were quick and there were even some pre-rotations, situations where players read the play and rotate before a cut even happens. As you would expect, this had a huge impact on the effectiveness of their defense.
Here, Spain runs another high pick-and-roll. This time Kevin Durant is guarding the screener, who happens to be Pau Gasol. As the ball handler comes off the screen, Chris Paul fights over it, and Durant shows hard to trap the ball handler.
Gasol rolls hard to the rim. In the first quarter, this hard roll (specifically from Ibaka) was resulting in easy dunks. This time, Carmelo Anthony is ready and he rotates into the middle of the paint to meet Gasol at the front of the rim.
Instead of being in position for an easy dunk, Gasol now makes the catch outside the paint and is forced to make a post move against Anthony. This becomes even more difficult as the help defense comes. Here is the play in real time:
Anthony defending Gasol isn’t the most favorable matchup for Team USA, but with the U.S. playing small, making Gasol catch the ball outside the paint and forcing him to go up through five defenders is a win.
Team USA’s rotations stayed that way for the rest of the game and were a major factor in beating Spain by 22.
The rotations forced extra passes after Spain kicked out the ball from the paint, and that led to turnovers and contested shot attempts. This is exactly what Team USA wants when they don’t have a big on the floor to protect the paint. After starting the game with a plus-minus of -1 while going small, they ended it +18. As Tyson Chandler struggles with foul trouble, keeping teams out of the paint with a small lineup will be important as the Olympics get started.