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I say Puerto, you say Rico...

NBC Sports just hasn't been the same since they lost the rights to cover the NBA. Little surprise, then, that they would jump at the chance to broadcast, live, Team USA's opening round match against overmatched Puerto Rico, whose "best" player was a backup point guard for the Utah Jazz. And honestly, watching Team USA scratch and claw their way to a 22-pt. halftime deficit, and eventually to a 19-pt. loss, I found myself rooting for Puerto Rico.

Standout players are important, yes. But in the words of Dick Vitale (this is the only time in my life I've ever quoted him),

Basketball is all about understanding roles and not about taking guys who are all number one options on their respective teams and throwing them together. They can't adjust to a different situation with just a few weeks playing as a group.

Watching the US play wasn't a whole lot different from watching an episode of Streetball. PR played a zone, and almost every time down the floor, the US squad would whip the ball around the perimeter, and each guy would take his shot trying to break down his defender. Welcome to the NBA style of ball, where it's all about talent. Problem is--and there are gazillions of examples of this, from Princeton in the NCAA's to Detroit in this year's NBA Finals and now to Puerto Rico's top-5-of-all-time upset--that skill and strategy can make up for huge talent deficits, and it did today. The US played NBA defense, and so a very average Puerto Rico team almost scored at will. PR, on the other hand, played actual defense, and the US shot 3 out of 24 from outside.

I've got no problem with the way that the NBA runs their All-Star Game every year--get the top 2 or 3 guys from each league at each position and let them go at it. But don't ask me to believe that this is the way basketball is meant to be played. You build a team by assembling a group of players who take up a range of roles--you've got to have passers, rebounders, shooters--and if you're lucky, your #1 guy will do all these things well. That was the Dream Team, a squad full of all-around brilliant players--it's not today's NBA. Championship teams have great benches, groups of guys who could do a couple of things well, and compliment the stars. The Lakers this year assembled arguably the single best starting lineup of its generation, but without a bench, they couldn't beat Detroit.

Team USA doesn't have a bench. They've got 15 starters, and with a few exceptions, their skill range is remarkably narrow. That's not to say that they're not good--they're great players, in fact--but they're all great at the same couple of things. And when Puerto Rico challenged them to be great at all facets of the game, including defense and shooting, they failed. And given the options of watching them try to Yankee their way to a gold medal or watching a team like Puerto Rico play the game with a little heart, it was easy to root for the little guys...


I caught a few minutes near the end of the game, and honestly, I was surprised PR held on for the win. Arroyo came up with several clutch plays (three-pointer followed by three-point play, etc.) in the final quarter without which the US would, I think, have easily regained the lead. So there's no over-valuing Arroyo's contribution, IMHO. He was brillant. Good for Arroyo and PR that they pulled it off; we'll find out soon enough if that game restores USA to a moderate level of effort vs. Greece tomorrow.

I think it will--it'll be closer than it should be, but I suspect the US will win. They'll take the loss as a sign that they need to play harder, when it's probably just as important to understand that they need to play differently. As overwhelmingly talented as the original Dream Team was, they were also overwhelmingly skilled...