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Final Thoughts on Team USA and Rudy

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I allowed myself a luxury on Saturday night which I hadn't previously during this Olympic basketball run:  I watched the game as a game instead of focusing laser tight on Rudy Fernandez and his play.  I must admit it was much more relaxing that way.  I still came away with a few final thoughts.

On Team USA:

I was actually happy they won the gold medal game.  We saw something extremely rare in that contest.  Before this year we've seen two types of Team USA games:  those in which the squad wasn't challenged and cruised their way to victory and those in which they received a challenge and crumpled.  Saturday we got a rare glimpse of a game in which the team was challenged and actually played enough good basketball to claim the victory.  I liked seeing that.  It gave me a newfound respect for those players and the job the team as a whole (including the coaches) did.  Had the U.S. not showed some skill passing and hitting shots from distance they would have lost that game as they had its cousins in years past.  Despite the final margin piled on in the last minute one or two three-pointers missed would have rocked the boat substantially.  When they got finished I found myself saying, "Now THAT was a game."

Team USA also had to tread a line which will eventually become important to the Blazers.  During the middle quarters of the game when the U.S. was being pressured Doug Collins mentioned repeatedly that they had to continue playing a team game and not revert to one-on-one tactics.  This was a near-unveiled reference back to the Iverson/Marbury days when "team" described form but not function.  When he said it, I thought he was half right.  Two hands must be kept in tension, balanced against each other in this vein.  On the one had Collins is perfectly correct.  As soon as one player tried to dominate the game the team would fall apart, passing would fail, the opposing defense would key, and we'd see outside jumpers missed and run back for easy points, leading to a loss.  On the other hand you have talent on that team for a reason.  If no individual player is able to step forth and flourish, if giving up the rock is always the right play, then you end up losing because you never took full advantage of the players you put on the squad.  You get to the end of the game and the analysis reads, "Kobe was never Kobe" or "We never saw the real LeBron for some reason".

As it turned out, the U.S. team did play a team game up until the point in the fourth when Kobe took the game over.  When he did none of the other players vied with him for the position.  It seems like they said, "In crunch time this is the guy, and we're all going to be cool with that."  In reality this is just another variation of the unselfishness that Collins was talking about.  Any of them could have been that guy, but all of them competing to would have led to disaster.  The other guys--even LeBron--accepted the torch being passed to Kobe and said, "Down the stretch this team needs 100% of you more than it needs 20% of all of us."  We got the best of both worlds:  a team game plus Kobe being Kobe.

This balance has been devilishly hard for Team USA to perfect in the past.  That they were able to do it this year is a serious credit to all involved.  As Portland continues its evolution, looking like it will be stuffed to the gills with talented players, it's an example they would do well to emulate.

The only other things that stood out about the U.S. team was simply how difficult it is for any team that's not intimately familiar with each other (and trusting of each other) to make defensive adjustments and rebound.  Certain critical aspects of the game really are team-dependent no matter how talented the players involved.

On Rudy Fernandez:

The fact that Rudy didn't start the game or play in the first quarter tells you something about Rudy in general.  The fact that he responded with a fantastic game tells you something about Rudy specifically.

The inescapable generality we can glean from Rudy not starting is that his perceived talent level and value, while undoubtedly good, is not iron-clad great.  This was the gold medal game.  If this guy is your star, your all-star, Mr. Olympics, there's no way in heck he's on the bench for the opening tip, let alone the opening ten minutes.  That would never happen to Pau Gasol, period.  That's just reality.  Amongst all the Rudy hype it's necessary to say that, speaking in generalities, there were 12 guys on the U.S. Team who are all better players than he, plus a guy on the Spanish team, plus a few more sprinkled around the tournament.

Dwight Jaynes wondered why the Spanish team chose this route with Rudy.  I will admit it is not the way I would have chosen to go, but there may be a couple plausible answers.  First, Doug Collins hit it on the head when he said that the Spanish team wanted to shorten this game.  Their best strategy was to stay close as long as possible and then out-kick the U.S. (or if you prefer, turn the game into a coin flip) in the closing minutes.  The thing they wanted to avoid above all was getting down big in the first quarter.  To this end they played a ton of man-to-man in the first half.  Their other guards may just be better in that defensive scheme than Rudy is.  When they started employing more zone they had no problem playing him.  The second reason Jaynes hints at in the closing paragraphs of his piece.  Rudy fouled out even in the minutes he got.  It's possible they anticipated he would have trouble guarding his counterparts cleanly and figured they needed him out there for those crucial closing minutes more than they needed him in the opening stanza.  Making sense of this doesn't invalidate the paragraph just above, it simply explains what Rudy needs to work on to become one of those iron-clad guys. 

The only other reason I can think of offhand would be some sort of disciplinary action, but that seems well beyond the realm of credibility.  We've heard nothing of the sort and besides, it's the gold medal game.  You don't use that venue to make a point.

The bigger point here for Blazer fans is that Rudy responded fantastically to the plan, whatever the reasoning, strengths, or weaknesses involved.  A ton of guys would have crumpled after being left on the bench for the entire first period in the ultimate game.  Some would have come out angry and tried to dominate the game unnecessarily as soon as they were inserted.  What did Rudy do?  He only came out and had his best game of the tournament (taking the stakes and opposition into consideration).  He showed something about his resolve and dedication that speaks louder than the same game would have had he been used normally.  This is exactly what he's going to need in the NBA.  It's going to be a learning experience and he will face some struggles.  The proper response to that fight is exactly what he did in this game:  don't act the fool, don't pout, don't make excuses, don't make the game all about you, don't lose confidence and shy away...rather come out giving the best effort you can within the framework of the game plan and show the coaches and everybody why you should be playing every darn minute of the game.  In this sense the first-quarter absence was a blessing for those of us looking in.  It reveals something we otherwise might not have seen.  If Rudy keeps that attitude he will do fine here.

Congrats to Team USA.  The next time we'll see something definitive about Rudy will be the start of the season.  Keep the legend in perspective until then but also be prepared to enjoy him.  This should be interesting.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)