The U.S. men’s basketball team roared into the semifinals of the Rio Olympics Wednesday night, dismantling Argentina, 105-78. Not only did the win likely close the book on the storied international basketball careers of Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola, it marked Team USA’s ninth consecutive win over Argentina since losing in the semifinals at the 2004 Athens Games.
Team USA’s 27-point victory moves the Americans to 6-0 in Brazil. Perhaps more importantly, though, it effectively quiets the tension sparked by the team’s three most-recent victories, which were decided by 10 points or less. For a team that has grown accustomed to run-of-the-mill blowouts, that two games in three days came down to a final possession was certainly jarring.
But Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team got back on track with a new wrinkle: hammering away in the paint, where Team USA outscored Argentina 50-38.
It was the most points in the paint by the Americans in a single game in Rio — and some of that production came from previously untapped DeMarcus Cousins, who scored 15 points in 14 minutes. Entering Wednesday, he led the team in fouls and hadn’t finished in double figures in scoring since Team USA’s win over China in the first game of the group play. He finished with a plus-minus of plus-19 against Argentina, his best of any game in Rio. Cousins clearly understands his role on the team; all but one of his shot attempts against Argentina came inside the paint.
Of the four remaining teams — Spain, which the United States plays Friday, Australia and Serbia, who play each other — only the Americans average better than 40 rebounds per contest. Rebounds yield second-chance scoring opportunities, often in the paint, which Team USA generated 23 points off Wednesday. Even Kyle Lowry, the second shortest player on the floor, grabbed six rebounds against Argentina. DeAndre Jordan and Cousins each averaged at least 1.9 contested offensive rebound per contest last season, and will wreak havoc against their remaining matchups.
The move to focus on the paint shouldn’t be implemented to be contrarian — although it certainly is, considering the remaining teams in the tournament; it should be implemented because the United States is undeniably efficient there.
Krzyzewski doesn’t have a pass-first point guard; Lowry and Kyrie Irving ranked outside the top eight among point guards in assists per game last season, and Irving has been hesitant to pass at all in Rio. By funneling the ball into the post, Team USA can generate offense in ways no other team can.
Australia, Serbia and Spain each attempt at least 21 three-pointers per contest, and shoot better than 36 percent on those attempts. Those teams generate much of their offense on the outside. Thus far, Team USA has done the same, leading the tournament in three-point shooting (64 three-pointers made) and efficiency (38.1 percent). However, Krzyzewski’s squad connected on just 33.3 percent of the team’s looks in the quarterfinals, which is partially why Cousins, Paul George and Kevin Durant got more involved in the post.
Against France and Serbia, games which were decided by three points, the United States was forced into taking heavily contested three pointers, and fell far short of its tournament average in efficiency. Despite this inefficiency, against France, the United States attempted 27 three-pointers and made 10. It was as though they were refusing to utilize the area inside the arc.
The United States will have a rematch of the last two Olympic gold medal games when it faces Spain. This time around, however, Krzyzewski and Co. will play a far less-threatening Spanish club, one that lost its first two games in Rio.
Spanish center Pau Gasol leads all players in rebounds per game, but contributes more than 22 percent of his team’s total rebounds, and has difficulty corralling contested rebounds. Against Cousins and Jordan, who each ranked in the top six in contested rebounds grabbed per game last season, Gasol is likely to match up with his nightmare: bruising, tenacious opponents, who care not for his finesse, hyper-European style of play.
In Team USA’s last two gold medal games against Spain, which were decided by 11 points or less, Marc Gasol, the 2013 NBA defensive player of the year, was critical in the team’s ability to defend the paint. Instead of an in-his-prime Marc Gasol, though, Team USA will match up against his 36-year-old brother, who is the tallest man on the roster. Willy Hernangomez, who currently plays for the New York Knicks, will will be tasked with staying in front of Cousins and Jordan, while holding down the back line of the Spanish defense, should Gasol get into foul trouble.
Krzyzewski was never going to receive a free trip to the gold medal, but now that attacking the paint is clearly paying dividends for the United States, he should continue to funnel the ball into the post.