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October 30, 2014

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Team USA knows its Achilles’ heel

Using the pick-and-roll, international teams hope to force the Americans into an Olympic checkmate

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Tiffany Brown

Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers dribbles the ball during a U.S. national team practice last month at Cox Pavilion. Lately the team, on orders from coach Mike Krzyzewski, has been practicing defending the pick-and-roll play.

Bring on Canada

Team USA begins exhibition play for the Olympics 5 p.m. on Friday at the Thomas & Mack Center against Canada. Watch players preview the game.

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  • Robin Lopez, NBA rookie and member of a select team training this week against the U.S. national hoops team, on defending the pick and roll offense.
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  • U.S. assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo on the pick and roll.
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  • Carmelo Anthony, forward on Team USA, on losing to Greece and the pick and roll offense in the World Championship in Japan in 2006.
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  • Jerry Colangelo, executive director for USA Basketball, on how defending the pick and roll has been challenging for Team USA.
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  • Kobe Bryant, Team USA guard on the one thing that is most difficult about defending the pick and roll.
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Greece is not the word around the U.S. national basketball team. Neither is Spain, Yugoslavia, Argentina, Lithuania or Puerto Rico.

Each has beaten the Americans in recent major international tournaments, forcing the supposed global hoops leader to reevaluate its entire system.

The common theme in those defeats is the pick-and-roll. Those are the three dirty little words to Team USA.

“They’ve hurt us pretty bad,” Kobe Bryant says. “We’re looking forward to the challenge, to see if we can negate that problem.”

Foreign squads have picked U.S. teams apart and rolled them aside, keeping the Americans from playing in the past three international finals — two world championships and an Olympics.

That’s a record for futility for Team USA.

“That’s the bread-and-butter play for many countries,” Jason Kidd says. “In the past, that’s something that has hurt us. We haven’t communicated as well as we should have.”

In 2006, Greece pick-and-rolled the United States out of a semifinal in the World Championship in Japan.

Carmelo Anthony, who played on that team and is a part of the U.S. squad going to China, says the Greeks flummoxed the Americans.

“That was a big part of the reason why we lost,” he says. “It’s hard to analyze, hard to break down. Right now, in basketball, it’s the hardest thing to defend.”

P.J. Carlesimo, an assistant coach to Team USA boss Mike Krzyzewski, had clear orders when he gathered select-team players in an auxiliary gym Monday at Valley High.

He diagramed four or five variations of pick-and-roll offenses, and that’s all the select team ran against the senior team for three hours.

It was relentless. The young select-team players have run the pick-and-roll against Team USA all week.

Carlesimo says the senior players were aggressive against the offense.

“It’s just really a challenge, but they took us out of most of them,” he says. “They can use their athleticism and size and quickness to really stop people from running it.”

It is predicated on two players — usually a guard and a power forward or a center who sets a screen, or pick, against that guard’s defender — connecting. From there, confusion can reign as the guard runs his defender into the screen.

If both defenders go to the dribbler, the big man is wide open for a pass from the guard and an easy path to the basket. If both defenders stay on the big man, the guard has the free path.

If the defenders switch, the big man has the advantage because a guard will be on him. Does the defending guard switch over the screen or under it?

Taking a step back, that big man has an open midrange jumper. That pick-and-pop maneuver is what Detroit Pistons center Bill Laimbeer perfected, with guard Isiah Thomas, in the 1980s and 1990s.

“We have a lot of speed at the bigs,” lanky guard Tayshaun Prince says. “That will help us clamp down on the pick-and-roll, and not cause as many problems as they would normally.

“The key is stopping the ball. That’s why we’re working on it now and, more importantly, why we’ve done this three-year commitment.”

Stopping it was a point of emphasis for Krzyzewski the past two summers in Las Vegas, when the United States spent 87 days training or playing in the FIBA Americas tournament.

It was also highlighted a couple of weeks ago during a weekend get-reacquainted session at Cox Pavilion.

Fans will get a first peek at Team USA’s chemistry Friday night when it plays Canada in an exhibition at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Foreign teams have held a chemistry edge on the United States, says assistant coach Jim Boeheim, because many of their players have been together for 10 years.

“We’ve been together for three,” he says. “We have better talent, but they have had better cohesiveness because they’ve been together for so long.”

Pick-and-rolls likely have been around since the peach basket, but Boeheim, the veteran Syracuse coach, didn’t see much of them in the college game when he played for the Orangemen in the 1960s.

Hall of Fame California coach Pete Newell might have had a wrinkle of it in his system, but Boeheim says Rick Pitino, at Providence, might have been the first to emphasize it.

In 1987, guard Billy Donovan, now the Florida coach, guided the Friars to upsets over Alabama and Georgetown to reach the Final Four, courtesy of the pick-and-roll.

In professional basketball, John Stockton and Karl Malone most famously made a living on the play for the Utah Jazz.

It’s a misconception, Bryant says, that the pick-and-roll involves only two players. The best teams involve all five players in the attack. Watch Spain, he says. Watch Argentina.

“They operate as a five-man unit,” he says. “Take the threat of the dribble away, the point guard will kick it back to the ‘pop’ guy, who then swings it to the baseline guy, who then hits the cutter from the weak side.

“They bait you. It’s like a chess game. For us, it’s about being ahead and anticipating their next move, taking their options away from them.”

Or, once again, getting checkmated.

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