The U.S. Women’s National Team remained undefeated in the preliminary round of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but through two games, a blueprint has formed for pulling off the upset.
Three Quarter’s of Dominance
The story of Team U.S.A. in this year’s games entails slow starts followed by sizzling second-quarters and stifling defense over the final three quarters. As a result, they have overcome deficits after one quarter to win each of their first two matchups. Beating Nigeria, 81-72, and knocking off the home country, Japan, 86-69.
First, in the opening win over Nigeria, they were behind 20-17 after one. Then, against Japan, they trailed by two after giving up a 30-point first-quarter on a blistering 6/10 shooting from deep.
I discuss the slow starts later, but the comebacks stem from their phenomenal defense in the second and third quarters. Starting with Nigeria, the U.S. outscored them by 23 by dropping 53 points in the second and third quarters. Defensively, they held Nigeria to 30 points over that 20-minute span after giving up 20 points in the first.
After solving their defensive woes vs. Nigeria, Team U.S.A. relapsed against Japan, allowing even more offense with the 30 point quarter. But they rebounded stronger, scoring 58 and allowing 39 over the final 30 minutes of action. This included a 50-33 run over the final 25 minutes.
The defense stepped up big time, but that has more to do with lineups than their ramped-up defensive intensity.
Team U.S.A.’s stretch of dominance is unprecedented as they push for their seventh straight Olympic gold medal. Their run has been so consistent for so long, that not even the game of basketball remains the same. The way the game of basketball is played has changed over the course of the last 25 years.
Flaw Number One
This evolution should not surprise anyone, but it brings us to our first flaw: lineup construction.
U.S.A. Women’s basketball has a very obvious strength over other teams, and it is size. But with the new way the game is played, height is not always an advantage. Positionless basketball with versatile players and maximizing shooters to create space on the court for drives and penetration is key. Furthermore, skill is more valuable than height with the combination of the two winning out.
The WNBA game features some of the most dominant centers in the world. So, for the team made up of entirely WNBA talent, many of the veterans of Team U.S.A. are bigs. Team U.S.A. has five players over the height of 6’4″ and they lack versatility.
For America, the Olympics is about bringing the best players together to play with each other. Previously, this brought extremely skilled post players together who do not add much more to the game besides presence in the paint and rim protection on defense.
Now, teams stretch out with five shooters on the court and force bigs to stray from the rim on defense. Plus, bigs need to guard quicker players and play against a more fast-paced offense. This turns them into liabilities on defense and spacing annihilators on offense who can only score in the paint.
Today’s reliance on versatility and shooting makes it hard for the U.S. to play lineups with multiple lumbering bigs. So, dominant Olympic gold medalists, Brittney Griner, Slyvia Fowles, and Tina Charles, have to split the center minutes amongst themselves. Team U.S.A. is punished by the best teams for playing any of them together, despite them being the best players.
Team U.S.A.’s Lineup Construction
So, in the first quarter when the United States struggles the most, they started lineups with three bigs. They start Griner down low with A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart in the big forward spots. While Stewart stretches out a defense with her shooting, Griner and Wilson are still taking up a lot of space. Even with the added versatility and athleticism, Wilson can provide, her interior game is her strength. Defensively they are less versatile, giving up space for shooters or unable to stay in front of quicker players’ drives.
Additionally, this is even more of an issue when they start next to Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi. While those are two of the greatest players of all time, this is also their fifth Olympics. They are not as quick as they used to be, and quicker teams take advantage of the U.S.A. defense.
With guards who cannot apply pressure and bigs who must stray from the rim, teams with shooters and quick ball-handlers will attack for easy opportunities. This has occurred so far in the Olympics as even lesser teams have scored early and often against these lineups.
Flaw Number Two: Ball Handling
Team U.S.A. also struggles mightily with ball-handling. Despite having two of the greatest guards of ever, as a team, they have given up the ball 42 times. 25 turnovers against Nigeria and 17 against Japan. While that is an improvement, it is still a major weakness for this team.
Against Japan, they were tied after the first 15 minutes of play, in large part because of this problem. Team U.S.A. let Japan hang around not only from defensive issues but because they turned the ball over early on.
Teams can keep the game close against the U.S. with suffocating ball pressure. Japan did a great job of pressuring the American guards and forcing turnovers. The whole way up the court, they bogged down the offense. And when they transitioned to a full-court press, the U.S. struggled against that as well.
The U.S. is at its best when it can get out and run in transition. So, when Japan and Nigeria applied ball pressure, they were in the game. On top of that, the U.S. was careless with the ball.
Team U.S.A.’s Final Flaw
This brings us to the final flaw in the U.S. game. Team U.S.A. is far and away still the better team each time out. Even with the aforementioned lineup construction and turnover issues, they are the best. While the world continues to catch up, they have still won six straight Gold Medals at the Olympics. They have the most players from the WNBA, with each of them being WNBA All-Stars. They are the best.
The final flaw is that they know they are the best. All it takes is the right team at the right time when the U.S. is not focusing enough. We have seen the U.S. start games poorly that they end up dominating the rest of the way out. Team U.S.A. starts slow and gets a slap in the face because all the competition is gunning for them. They are the top dogs and everyone knows it, so the U.S. faces everyone’s best performance every time out.
So, when the U.S. turns it over because they know they are better, they could be in trouble. When they come out of the locker room lackadaisically, they could be in trouble. When the other team outworks them and just happens to shoot the ball better, they are in trouble. Just look at what a less physically gifted Japan team and a less talented Nigerian team were able to do. All it takes is the right night.
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Finally, here is what it takes to beat Team U.S.A. As we have discussed, the U.S. is not perfect. So, the team that ends their streaks of 51 wins and six-straight Gold Medals does not have to be perfect either.
While not perfect, the U.S. is the most physically gifted team. The team that takes down Team U.S.A. needs to be able to match up closely with their athletes. They need to have the size to throw at the U.S. bigs. They need to be able to shoot from all positions. They need to be in top-notch shape. To attack the United States, the team will not match up evenly, but they need to be comparably gifted.
They need to be well-disciplined and they need to believe that can pull off what many believe is the impossible. The team does not have to be perfect, but their game plan must be.
Offensive Game Plan
On offense. It will be about slowing down the pace and moving the ball. Not letting the U.S. get out in transition and controlling the game to their own tempo will be key. Also, if they can move the ball all game to find good looks that will be hugely important.
The team will need a great shooting night from all over the court: threes, in the paint, free throws, everywhere. They will need to hang around while continuing to take advantage of the U.S.’s slower bigs. They need to get U.S.A.’s dominant bigs away from the basket and work in the pick-n-roll defensively. This will open up driving lanes and clear shots at the rim where they need to attack and finish.
Most importantly, the Team beating the U.S. needs to take care of the basketball. Making the most of every possession and moving the ball while spacing the court is the game plan.
Defensive Game Plan
Defensively, having the correct personnel becomes even more important. It is hard to have five players all capable of dribbling, passing, and shooting, or even just shooting. But to have five players who do those things as well as not being liabilities on defense can be tough. They need bodies to throw at Team U.S.A.’s bigs and quick guards and versatile forwards everywhere else. With good defenders who are capable on offense, the win is possible.
Clearly, if they are good enough to take on the U.S. and potentially take them down, they have the desire. The desire to play hard and put in the effort is a majority of what defense is. But when it comes to scheming against the best and most dominant offensive players in the world, strategy is involved.
Taking on the U.S. with dominant bigs, switching is not perfect, but having players who switch 1-4 is huge. The team will need those versatile defenders who can guard multiple positions. Double-teaming U.S.A.’s bigs down low when there is a mismatch from a switch will require good rotations, too.
Most importantly from a defensive perspective, the team needs to apply good pressure. Applying good pressure is challenging and exhausting, but forcing the U.S. into turnovers is necessary. Slowing down the U.S. in the full-court and speeding them up in the half-court with pressure changes the game. Team U.S.A.’s turnover issues could come back to bite them in a game against a better team.
The Olympics Still Belong to Team U.S.A.
While the perfect storm could beat Team U.S.A., it is unlikely that it would. This team is the most dominant of any American sport in the Olympics. Seven-straight Olympic Gold Medals are unheard of. They are the perfect storm.
The right gameplan for beating the U.S., from the correct players filling the right roles all in one country at the same time to a perfect coaching performance to everything falling into place during the game like shooting, rotations, and getting the 50-50 balls, will be hard to come by. Skilled, versatile players coming together for their country does not even occur in the U.S. who has one of the best teams ever.
The likelihood of that happening soon for another country is low. So, taking down a powerhouse is not easy, but this is how it could be done. Team U.S.A. at 2-0 with a prelim game to go has their flaws, but they are still the best.
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