Larry Fine of Reuters might have best summed up the U.S. women’s basketball team’s 90-38 win (box score) over Angola yesterday in writing, “It took a little while for the Americans to get in synch, but once they did the reigning four-times Olympic champions put on a fastbreak show to extend their Games winning streak to 35 in a row.”
Although the talent gap was obvious to both teams and their defense was characteristically stifling from the opening tip, it did take the team a while to really find their rhythm offensively to the point that they were able to run away with things – it was only a 10-point game well into the second quarter before the U.S. truly began to fully impose their will on the game.
As USA coach Geno Auriemma said after the game, gelling has been a bit of a challenge for this team simply because they haven’t had the time together as a unit like other teams have. Nevertheless, the one thing that really made yesterday’s game impressive was that we started to see this team come together in ways that they hadn’t previously and it wasn’t merely because they were playing a weaker opponent – during a second quarter run that really seemed to break the game open you could almost see their chemistry building on the court and not simply because they were building confidence at the expense of an overmatched opponent.
“I think today we found a little bit better organization within ourselves and you can tell on the court,” starting guard Diana Taurasi said after the game.
And that improved organization best showed up in the way that they were actually creating and converting scoring opportunities in the half court like we hadn’t seen them do before.
Throughout the exhibition games after the WNBA took its break for the Olympics and their first game in London against Croatia, the U.S. was not quite as good an offensive team as their dominant margin of victory might have suggested. While they were excellent in transition, scoring in half court sets proved considerably more difficult and they didn’t get quite much production as we might have expected from their post players; in not having that time to gel, that’s where organization most easily showed up.
Against Angola, they still took a number of mid-range shots – including the dreaded long two-point shot that can be so frustrating to watch at times – which was the most obvious sign of their offensive struggles. What really changed in yesterday’s win was that they started knocking those shots down.
Key player(s): Augustus, Moore’s hot shooting helps to overwhelm Angola
Seimone Augustus and Maya Moore led the charge, shooting a combined 11-for-17 from the field for 24 points and hitting a string of jumpers as the lead grew from 10 to 23 in the second quarter. Sue Bird hit a pair of her patented pull-up jumpers to help catalyze the run that really put Angola on their heels. Yet the biggest sign of improvement was how they moved the ball to set up those shots, especially for a player like Augustus who we’re used to shooting better than the 1-for-8 performance she turned in against Croatia.
When Augustus can get the ball in rhythm on the right baseline or wing, there are few defenders anywhere that can stop her from scoring, either on the jumper or the drive. With the team starting to come together a bit more, she got a couple of shots in the second quarter where she was able to find gaps in the defense and got the ball almost as soon as she got open. And although her turnaround from the previous game really stood out, the whole team just looked more cohesive in the way they played and set up one another for quality shots that they were able to knock down.
Key statistic: Ball movement and mid-range shooting helps U.S. Find a rhythm offensively
— Alan Horton (@LynxRadio) July 31, 2012
All of that most readily showed up in their assisted field goal ratio, as Auriemma pointed out in his post game remarks.
And it’s important that in a game where you know that there is that disparity that you just do the things you need to do to be a better team; to work hard; to make sure we get the kind of ball movement we want; make sure we get the shots we want. The fact that we had 25 assists on 36 baskets, that’s an incredible number. I think that’s the kind of team we have.
That strong 69.4% assisted field goal ratio stands in stark contrast to all of their previous games – Croatia and their exhibition games – and is probably the greatest sign of improvement thus far.
Field Goals Made
Passing stats for the U.S. Women’s basketball team in the Olympics and exhibition play. Click here for more on “adjusted synergy”.
“Adjusted synergy” is a “junk stat” that sort of puts a lot of numbers into a blender to spit out something that represents how well a team is handling and passing the ball to create shots for themselves – doesn’t necessarily correlate strongly to winning because a team can clearly win games with a low synergy if they dominate in other ways, but it does reflect the difference between a team that is working together well to score and one that isn’t. For reference, the top WNBA team last season was San Antonio and the lowest was Washington; WNBA average has been about 0.45 in recent years.
Exhibition play was up and down for Team USA, which might reflect where they end up in the Olympics more closely. But the reason they turnovers are significant here – and why this synergy thing is even worth bothering with – is that the U.S. both moved the ball better and cut down on their turnovers against Angola. Some of that improvement is undoubtedly a matter of Angola not putting up a whole lot of resistance defensively and they did have some trouble with turnovers in the first half yesterday. But overall, it was an impressive performance in terms of how they set up scoring opportunities, which is noteworthy as they moved forward.
Statistical MVP: Candace Parker headlines USA’s defensive effort with a record 4 blocks
While their offense is improving, their defense remained solid against an opponent that was unable to match their size and athleticism – there were certainly times when their defensive effort around the basket might have left something to be desired in the first half and maybe some would point to Angola’s 14 offensive rebounds as evidence of that (but given that Angola missed 53 shots, allowing an offensive rebounding rate around 25% really isn’t all that bad). But what really stood out about Candace Parker’s performance is that she was everywhere.
In addition to her Olympic single-game record 4 blocks, Parker had 11 defensive rebounds and shot 7-for-10 from the field, also a beneficiary of the team’s improved ball movement as a whole. And Parker’s performance might also signal improved organization in another way for the U.S. – players are starting to get comfortable doing things that they don’t always do with their WNBA teams. Or more precisely in Parker’s case, less than they might normally be asked to do, as Parker commented after the game.
I think tonight, he just gave me two things to do: just rebound and run the ball. We’re going to play defense but I tried to focus on that and my teammates did a good job of getting me the ball.
In essence, Parker was asked to fill a role instead of being the catalyst – and MVP candidate – that she is with the Sparks. Similarly, dramatically muting her game to fill a role rather than being the focal point of the offense – after having among the highest usage rates in the league over the past two seasons, McCoughtry took three shots against Angola (for a usage rate of 21.53%). Rather than having everything run through them, they’re able to take what their teammates give them in transition and in the halfcourt, with Parker getting a lot of high percentage looks right around the basket and McCoughtry channeling her offensive aggression into getting to the free throw line 8 times.
While those adjustments to individual styles of play might seem minor – and might not even stand out to some – a large part of this team gelling is figuring out to manage this collective of talent to maximize the sum total of their abilities in ways that allow them to play as well as they did against Angola consistently.
They’re still not “there” yet – this team can only get better and statistics from one game against Angola are hard to read too much into. But there were some signs of progress that are worth paying attention to as they move forward in London.