Finally, competitive basketball has returned. Look, I’ve been enjoying spending the summer writing about stats as much as the next guy. And I’ve enjoyed peeking in at the Las Vegas summer league games on NBA.tv.
(I particularly enjoy listening to maligned former Timberwolves General Manager Kevin McHale call games. I kept thinking to myself, there’s a huge difference between “sounding like you know how to evaluate players” and “knowing how to evaluate players. I also really enjoyed when John Thompson Jr. joined a game for commentary and spent 10 minutes complaining about how Greg Monroe needs to be more aggressive and how he has foolishly accepted the label of “unselfish” when that’s not going to make him a star in the NBA. Thompson certainly spoke out about the need for Monroe to be more aggressive in the past, but he was unleashed here. John Thompson Jr. must have felt he needed to hold his tongue until Monroe was drafted.)
But the Las Vegas summer league games are simply exhibitions designed to get the young players some playing time. This weekend with the start of the FIBA 2010 tournament, we finally get games that feature elite players and teams that are trying to win the game.
The best part of this is the timing. The reality with niche sports is that they work best when they fall in a quiet period on the calendar. August definitely falls in that category. Preseason NFL, golf, and endless baseball can easily be pushed aside for a chance to see Nick Calathes and Patrick Mills playing to win one more time.
By the way, if you are wondering how best to watch this tournament, it is almost NCAA quality on the weekend. This Saturday and Sunday feature three blocks of 4 simultaneous games. Some of the games are on ESPN and NBA.tv, but all are free online. So I recommend you check the ESPN box scores at the end of the 3rd quarter of each tier of games, see if there are any endings worth watching.
Best yet, the games are not broadcast in the middle of the night. I thought with the games in Turkey we’d be looking at 4am start times, but that’s not the case. The earliest games start around 9am while the latest start around 2pm. Not bad at all. Here’s my review of Day 1:
Almost Upset of the Day: Greece defeated China 89-81.
I started watching this game in the third quarter and the first thing that occurred to me was how poor these international teams seem to be at stopping dribble penetration. There seems to be a staple play where teams spread the floor, place a player at the top of the free throw line, and use a simple screen to drive inside for a lay-up or free throw. Where is the help defense? On some level I understand this play working for Greece because they have a number of good three point shooters, but I was surprised to see this working for China.
Maybe this means that China’s guard play has improved. China has always had good depth in the front court, but today guard Sun Yue absolutely looked like a star. When he drove the lane for a one handed dunk in the third quarter, I practically fell off the couch. Sun also made some clutch jump shots in this one. And his good play seemed to pay off with some luck. China cut the lead to 81-79 on Sun Yue’s banked three pointer with just over 3 minutes to play.
But after that point China fell apart. They couldn’t make shots, players like Wang Zhizhi committed too many turnovers, and Greece held on for victory. The back-breaker was probably Vasileios Spanoulis drive to make the score 83-79. China had switched to a zone defense to cut off penetration and Spanoulis drove all the way to the basket against the zone and scored a lay-up. It was simply atrocious defense and it cost China a chance to win.
Closest Game of the Day: Australia defeated Jordan 76-75.
Sadly the game didn’t involve a clutch last second shot, but there was still plenty of drama. Australia, which had to be the favorite due to participation in the 2008 Olympics trailed by 5 with just over a minute to play. But thanks to an offensive foul by Jordan’s Osama Daghles, and clutch free throws by Patrick Mills and David Andersen, Australia took a one point lead with 13 seconds left. At this point we got one of those crazy sequences under the basket where Jordan kept getting the rebound and kept missing shots. It looked like they got up about five attempts, but the box score shows only three. Regardless, Jordan had several chances to win, but couldn’t make a lay-up and Australia hung on for victory.
Upset of the Day: France defeated Spain 72-66.
If you did not catch this live, it is almost worth watching this game just to listen to how excited the announcer was down the stretch. Sadly, I didn’t catch his name. Spain is one of the few international teams that is capable of beating the US, as seen by their one point exhibition loss to the US earlier this week. So this result was a major shock.
Down the stretch
-Spain missed free throws
-Juan Carlos Navarro, who played extremely well against the US team last week had his thumb injured on a play when France went for the steal.
-Ricky Rubio was called for an offensive foul
-and Spain let Boris Diaw drive all the way to the basket uncontested.
But all of that could be overcome. Spain made a last minute run and could have been back in the game if not for an extremely dumb move by Rudy Fernandez. Fernandez thought he had a clean block with about 2 minutes left. In his upset state he ran up into the stands. This drew a technical from the officials. Fernandez mistake cost the team two standard free throws (one of which was missed), two technical free throws, and possession of the ball (which resulted in a basket.) Overall it was a five-point swing. And in a game where Spain was within 5 points several times in the final minute, Fernandez’s bad decision was the difference.
Once College Football kicks off, it will probably be harder to pay any attention to these games. And sadly, due to a larger field for the FIBA championships relative to the Olympics, the talent dilution makes for fewer must-see games until the elimination rounds. But when your other option is listening to the Nationals talk more about the Stephen Strasburg injury, competitive basketball is a nice change!