Lost in the euphoria of Team USA's record-breaking Olympic performance against Nigeria on Thursday was a minor problem. While the U.S. was shooting well (incredibly well, as it happens) they weren't necessarily playing well -- or playing smart. This is admittedly a nitpick for a team that remains undefeated in Olympic pool play and has been mostly dominant in the tournament thus far, but it's possible that the lights-out shooting from that 83-point victory could be the worst thing to happen to Team USA in London.
Consider that since 1985, in tens of thousands of NBA games, only four times has a team taken more three-point field goal attempts than two-point field goal attempts. Against Nigeria, Team USA took 46 three-pointers compared to just 37 two-pointers, a ratio of three-pointers to two pointers higher than any game in NBA history. Over the course of a 48-minute game, those 46 threes would equate to 55 threes, easily an NBA record.
"So what?" you say. Team USA is an amazing collection of players, so it should not be surprising that they take a lot of three-pointers. Well, actually yes, it should be at least a little surprising. This is indeed an amazing collection of players, but not necessarily an amazing collection of shooters. Andre Iguodala (who happened to have an outlier year, and is just a 33 percent three-point shooter on his career) and James Harden (who is the 11th man on Team USA) are the only Olympians among the 33 players in the NBA who took at least one three-pointer per game and made better than 39 percent last season. As NBA players, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Paul, et al are encouraged to take the ball to the basket for their teams, not to settle for three-pointers. Of all the members of Team USA, only Harden and Kevin Durant could reasonably be considered elite three-point shooters.
Yes, the international three-point line is 19 or so inches shorter out top, but it's not so much closer that it should be changing the nature of the game. Nor is there anything inherent in the "International Game" (other than the slightly shorter line) that dictates taking loads of threes. It's simply a way that coach Mike Krzyzewski has encouraged this team to play (with, one suspects, a strong influence from assistant Mike D'Antoni, currently unemployed beyond his Team USA duties). It's true that the trend in the NBA is towards more three-pointers -- NBA teams averaged an all-time high 18.38 threes per game last season. But 18 threes in a 48-minute game is one thing -- 46 in a 40-minute game is another thing altogether.
Against Lithuania on Saturday, the threes were not falling quite like they had against Nigeria -- but that didn't keep Team USA from hoisting them. Midway through the fourth quarter, the U.S. had taken 28 threes, but made only one quarter of those attempts. It's not just a coincidence that the undefeated and previously unthreatened Americans found themselves behind by two points, 84-82, at that point.
Team USA didn't stop firing, though, and in the final six minutes they took another five threes, crucially sinking three of them to regain control of the game. Team USA held on for a five-point win, 99-94, but it seems worth noting that had they missed a couple more of those threes down the stretch (and the percentages on Saturday indicated that they very well could have), the outcome could have been different. This, against a Lithuania team that lost to Argentina earlier in the tournament by 23.
It may seem like 33 three-pointers on Saturday was a much more circumspect number when compared to the 46 three-pointers against Nigeria, but let's put those 33 attempts into perspective as well. Over the course of a 48-minute game, that would translate to almost 40 three-pointers -- well more than double the NBA per game average last season. In the past decade, there have been only 17 NBA games in which a team attempted 40 or more three-pointers -- it happens about once or twice in a typical NBA season. Team USA is shooting three-pointers at a rate that would make the Orlando Magic or D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns blush -- whether they make them or not.
To be clear, the United States will almost certainly win the Gold Medal playing this way because this is a supremely gifted team. But they could win playing any number of ways, and it seems entirely possible that hoisting a lot of quick three-pointers is in fact one of the relatively few ways that they could manage to lose.
The final two baskets that iced the game for Team USA on Saturday were isolations for LeBron James, and let's face it, few players in the world can handle James one on one. Surely there's more certainty and less volatility in possessions that feature James going to the basket (or Durant or Kobe Bryant or Anthony or any number of other Team USA players), than possessions that feature long three-pointers early in the shot clock.
Team USA has long since clinched a spot in the knockout stage and is one win away from first place in Group A, which would guarantee a relatively easy quarterfinal matchup with Australia. But any number of opponents in this tournament, including Monday's opponent Argentina and the big three of Group B in Spain, Russia and Brazil, can beat Team USA if they happen to go cold from the perimeter but insist on remaining out there.
It's time to forget about that magical night against Nigeria and start taking the ball to the hole.