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Sunday, August 15, 2004
Updated: August 16, 11:14 AM ET
The world is in the zone

By Dr. Jack Ramsay
Special to ESPN.com

After Team USA lost to Italy while preparing for the 2004 Olympic Games, I wrote a prescription for the team's maladies in that game.

In essence, the U.S. team had to do a better job defensively. It had to contain the ball-handling point guards who had penetrated the paint and dished to open 3-point shooters. It had to improve on defending screening situations to cover shooters who successfully flared into open areas, often for unmolested looks at the hoop.

The U.S. needed an injection of energy to capitalize on its athleticism and generate an up-tempo, open-court offensive game.

In its half-court offense, the team needed to develop an effective zone attack -- one that could penetrate the middle by pass or dribble, and from there, relay the ball to open inside and perimeter shooters. The 3-point shot in international basketball is about three-feet closer than the NBA distance, so it's not a long shot.

I expressed the hope that the loss to Italy would serve as a "wake-up call" that would bring Team USA together and spark it to gold medal success.

The team played somewhat better against Germany immediately after that, although it won that game only by virtue of an Allen Iverson buzzer-beater. Team USA then dominated Serbia and Montenegro in its best pre-Olympic showing. Then it scuffed its way to a pair of wins over Turkey in games played in Istanbul. Significantly, none of those latter teams played major portions of the game using a zone defense.

I was confident the United States would be able to beat Puerto Rico. Team USA had walloped them 96-71 in the first of its preliminary games. The Puerto Ricans played some zone defense in that game, too, but the Americans drove them out of it with smart passing and positioning.

The Diagnosis

Team USA showed none of the improvement I had hoped for. Puerto Rico adjusted the zone defense that it had played in the preliminary game to one that matched up with Tim Duncan from behind and collapsed outside defenders on him whenever he touched the ball in the paint. The United States had no answer. Duncan, the most dominant big man in Olympic competition, was limited to 11 field goal attempts and committed seven turnovers.

Team USA perimeter shooters were stone cold. Iverson was 1-for-10 and Richard Jefferson 0-for-6 from 3-point range. Team USA was a combined 3-for-24; Puerto Rico was 8-for-16 in treys. Overall, the United States shot .347 from the field; Puerto Rico .564. Those numbers reflect the quality of shots obtained. Puerto Rico had high-percentage shots, the United States did not.

Carlos Arroyo, starting point guard for the Utah Jazz, dominated the game with his shooting and handling. Arroyo scored 24 points and had seven assists, repeatedly setting up his teammates for open shots out of screening situations. It was Italy all over again.

Team USA once again showed its inability to adapt to the international game, which is vastly different from the NBA game in rules, time components, and floor configuration.

Opponents know the international game and play it well. Coach Larry Brown, regarded as one of the great teachers in the history of the game, hasn't been able to develop his squad of All-Stars -- in the limited time he'd had the team together -- into a team capable of matching the level of play of good international teams. And Puerto Rico doesn't represent the best the players will face.

The Cure

There is no quick fix for what ails the United States in international basketball. It's unlikely that Team USA is suddenly going to have a zone attack in sync for the upcoming games. Opponents, starting with Greece on Tuesday, will all play variations of zone defenses until the United States shows that it can handle them effectively. I hope that will happen, but I doubt it. The U.S. version of pressure defense isn't working either. Good international teams take their time -- and the 30-second shot clock helps them -- to work the ball to good scoring positions ... and international players are excellent shooters.

Team USA's efforts to get in the open court have been thwarted by their opponents' ball control, which produces high percentage shots without many turnovers. In that tempo, the United States doesn't get many fast break opportunities.

Finally, it may be just about impossible to teach the international game to a group of NBA players in the span of a couple weeks. Coach Brown, and assistants Gregg Popovich and Roy Williams, are among the top coaches in the game today. And they haven't gotten the job done any better than George Karl did in the 2002 World Games.

It also may be time to face up to the fact that international players have improved greatly. Their teams are well-coached. There are some excellent players who have already made their mark in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, Peja Stojakovic, Steve Nash and Andrei Kirilenko are outstanding in both the NBA and in international competition, and let's add Arroyo to that list.

The international teams have moved ahead of the NBA in the international game. These teams couldn't compete well in the NBA, but in their game they're out in front of the United States and will probably stay there until the US team is made up of its very best NBA players (Shaq, Kobe, KG, T-Mac and Jason Kidd would make a huge difference) or the NBA adopts international rules.

Dr. Jack Ramsay, an NBA analyst for ESPN, coached the Trail Blazers to the 1977 NBA championship. A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, he is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for Dr. Jack for possible use on ESPNEWS.