MANILA, Philippines — There were plenty of things Team USA needed to do differently against Italy, plenty of things to work on in film sessions and practices in order to avoid another Lithuania fiasco.
Sure, certain tactical adjustments needed to be made, different Xs-and-Os approaches that were crucial in order for them to stay alive in the tournament. But the simplest thing that the Americans could’ve done differently?
They just needed to play better.
Team USA bounced back from an upset defeat by taking out their anger on the Italians, who found it extremely difficult to establish a rhythm on offense against a highly athletic team who used such gifts to their fullest extent.
This was most apparent on the defensive side of things. The Americans were flying around in the half court, rotating furiously, crowding the paint, and shutting down passing lanes almost instantaneously — something Lithuania did to them last time.
During Team USA practice on Tuesday, head coach Steve Kerr explained how Italy was different compared to Lithuania, most notably in how they lean more toward the finesse end ‘of the spectrum through constant off-ball motion and several off-ball screening actions.
“More off-ball movement, very patterned team,” Kerr said. “When they throw the ball into the post it’s not to score like (Jonas) Valančiūnas and (Nikola) Vučević, it’s more to run split cuts and gaggles and a lot of movement and misdirection stuff.”
If what Kerr described sounds familiar to you, it should. The Golden State Warriors themselves can be described as a very patterned team who rely on split cuts and “Gaggle” action to fuel their motion-heavy offense. It was expected that Kerr — having institutional knowledge of how that brand of offense works — would have formulated a clear gameplan as to how to slow it down.
Not only did Kerr and Team USA slow down the Italians’ offense — they ground it to a screeching halt. Italy managed to score a paltry 0.75 points per possession, shot poorly on both twos (16/37, 43.2%) and threes (7/38, 18.4%), and turned the ball over 14 times which were translated into 25 points off of turnovers by the Americans.
The operative term for Team USA’s defensive approach against Italy was “pressure” — or to be more specific, full-court pressure. It’s quite rare that they resort to a full-court press early on during a game, but that’s exactly what they did against Italy, who thrives in the half court with their pattern and movement.
A press aims to take away that half-court comfort zone by forcing opponents to play fast and hurried in an attempt to get over the half-court line. At the very least, they will have little time to get into their set with lots of seconds burned off from the shot clock. At most, the pressure will eat up subpar ballhandling and decision making, forcing mistakes and causing turnovers.
Kerr employed a 1-2-2 variation of the press that sought to slow down Italy’s march and bait them toward the corners for traps:
On some possessions, Kerr would add insult to injury by having his players switch everything after the press. Not only were Italy forced into the half court with a significant amount of time erased from the shot clock — they couldn’t get any flow on offense going because of how flattened their actions were as a result of the Americans’ switching.
Switching everything ran the risk of smaller guards and wings being forced to jockey for position down low against bigger and burlier human beings. Lithuania took advantage of that during their contest and had success ranging from drawing fouls to getting tons of shots off from up close.
Team USA saw that dilemma and made the simple adjustment of sending help earlier and quicker against backline mismatches:
When asked post-game about the choice of employing a 1-2-2 press early on, Kerr quickly pointed out the luxury of having multiple talented players on his roster.
“We were just trying to establish our defensive aggression right away,” Kerr said. “We know that the biggest advantage that we have is the depth on our roster. We can play really hard for five or six minutes and then bring another five guys in. Most teams can’t do that. We have to take advantage of the talent that we have.
“But more than anything it was just these guys knowing it's the quarterfinals. We have to play our very best if we want to win the gold medal, and they came out and did that tonight.”
Asked Steve Kerr post-game about putting early full-court pressure against Italy and the reasoning behind it: “We know that the biggest advantage that we have is the depth on our roster. We can play really hard for 5 or 6 minutes and then bring another 5 guys in. Most teams can’t… pic.twitter.com/kGdLNben24— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) September 5, 2023
Being able to establish a defensive tone early on allowed the Americans to establish a rhythm on offense. Mikal Bridges — a menace on the defensive end and a burgeoning scorer — led the way with 24 points on 11 shots (4/5 on twos, 4/6 on threes). Tyrese Haliburton had 18 points on nine shots — all of which came courtesy of a 6/8 clip on threes — to go along with five assists.
Team USA’s semifinals opponent will be the winner of the quarterfinals contest between Germany and Latvia.