When Grant Hill and the USA Basketball Board of Directors assembled this year’s version of Team USA, these are the types of games they likely envisioned. From the opening tip, the United States had a noticeably fastened pep in their step and each of their starters scored in double figures. As a result, they cruised to a wire-to-wire, stress-free 108-80 victory over Argentina.
Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard quickly made himself a focus, scoring all 13 of his points in the first half. He played the all-around game, adding three rebounds and four assists on 4-of-9 shooting, helping Team USA to their first win in three tries during the exhibitions. To kickstart the takeaways, here’s an in-depth look at his play:
After the happenings of this past spring’s Western Conference First Round, there was an odd, almost-unspeakable satisfaction in watching Damian Lillard light up an Argentina backcourt led by Denver Nuggets guard Facu Campazzo. The Blazers star went hunting with a 13-point first half performance, and then watched his teammates sit at the table and eat in the second half.
The king-sized takeaway from Lillard’s play was largely attached to Argentina head coach Sergio Hernandez’s scheme. That, or Argentina’s perimeter defenders. On multiple occasions throughout that first half, they elected to go “under” on ball screens for Lillard. That’s a strategy guaranteed to put a defense in the dirt. But just to be sure, they also provided themselves with the proverbial shovel, letting Lillard get to his go-to shot — driving left, right shoulder already aligned with the rim — and in his playground, he dictates the terms.
Three games in, it appears roles have become more defined. Lillard has unofficially played the role of conductor, getting Team USA out to vibrant offensive starts, and then being differential thereafter with a lead in place. He’s been one of the few U.S. Olympians that appeared at ease offensively in all three games; some of the players have even gone so far as to admit they needed to adjust to not getting the “touch fouls” they normally get at the NBA level.
Lillard’s no sacred cow; he hasn’t been perfect to this point, but he’s been remarkably solid three games in. He’s also gotten a block in three consecutive games. Blazers fans have questioned his recruiting skills to this point, but what he’s putting on tape in two-man games with Adebayo, Green, and even Durant have been remarkable. Here’s to hoping they’ve seen it too.
Lillard’s statistics in USA exhibitions (thus far):
— 16.3 PPG | 4.0 RPG | 3.0 APG | 0.6 SPG | 1.0 BPG
— 47.0 FG% (11.3 att), 48.0 3P% (8.3 att), 83.3 FT% (2.0 att)
— (+7 ) net rating in 85 minutes.
Bam, Crash, Pow
There aren’t superlatives capable of describing how versatile Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo is, but a little onomatopoeia does him some justice. Big-dreamer Blazers fans likely can’t help but notice how palpable the chemistry is between he and Lillard, but outside of that, Adebayo’s impact is just as special in its lonesome.
Team USA opened with a different sense of focus, and that much was evident on the opening play. They opened up a 15-4 run, the first of which coming on a quick screen and then re-screen into an authoritative Bam Adebayo alley-oop that set the tone. That transition into more of an inside-out game altered the entire vibe for Team USA.
Here’s a run of 3 straight Team USA baskets courtesy of Bam Adebayo assists. Out of a double team, a great hit ahead to Durant, and the transition dime. Already with 5 assists and 0 turnovers. pic.twitter.com/MeqdQ8HIHd— Five on the Floor (@5OTF_) July 13, 2021
By virtue of their balanced scoring, there was no clear-cut alpha dog tonight. Adebayo, though, made perhaps the most demonstrative case, with his do-everything-but-score mentality. By the time Argentina could crane their necks around, Adebayo had either plucked the rebound and flipped a skyward pass down court for a transition score, or he’d brought the ball up himself to orchestrate the offense.
And after providing everything except scoring, Adebayo sought to do just that: score. All told, he finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists on 6-of-13 shooting. Excuse me, as I remind myself that this is indeed not the Miami Heat page.
Elite Ball Movement Changes the Game
It’s fitting that the last team to beat the United States in a game of true consequence — Argentina in 2004 — did so through both ball movement and taking advantage of Team USA’s lack of ball movement. In tonight’s game, they put on a masterclass in selflessness, with seven different players generating at least three assists.
That offers another chance to praise the likes of Adebayo and Green. Team USA’s identity isn’t yet crystallized, but one avenue they’ve consistently gone to are those backdoor cuts and high-post finds from their bigs.
Thinking more proactively, it perhaps changed Argentina’s preferred method of play. If the first five possessions were of any indication, 41-year-old Luis Scola, who was on that 2004 team, was soon-to-be on “Wilt Watch.” Argentina went to his back-to-basket game with no conscience. But, it’s different to sustain that sort of diet when you check the scoreboard and you’re down 15 after one.
Long-term Blazers fans can attest to the stresses that come with defending Luis Scola; new-school fans have their own stories from this summer about Facu Campazzo. Pair the two together, and you’ve got a dangerous, sneaky inside-out combo. Thankfully, they’ll have to save that sneakiness for another opponent on another night, and ball movement and efficient Team USA scoring was a key reason why.
Team USA gets a two-day break before resuming action on Friday, July 16 vs. Australia(!), 3 p.m. Portland time.