Although the United States' men's basketball team is 4-0 in the Olympic qualifying rounds, their erratic guard play leaves them vulnerable to a loss against Spain or Russia in the upcoming medal round starting this Wednesday.
The U.S. men's backcourt is a fearsome ensemble of elite NBA guards. The team's starting guards—Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant—are arguably the best point guard and two guard in the NBA, respectively. The bench, comprised of Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, are all offensive powerhouses.
And yet, in two out of four qualifying round games, the U.S. team's guards have struggled immensely. In Saturday's surprisingly close 99-94 win against Lithuania, Bryant and Paul combined for an anemic four for 16 (25 percent) shooting from the field. The backup guards fared only a little better, shooting eight for 21.
Due to their shoddy guard play, the United States had to rely on LeBron James' late game heroics (nine points in the last four minutes) to salvage a win against Lithuania. In fact, it has been the United States' exceptional frontcourt play that has been responsible for the teams' overall dominance in London thus far.
Granted the U.S. recorded an impressive 98-71 win against France last week, the U.S. guards shot a ghastly nine for 27 in that contest. Notably, point guards Paul and Williams amassed an uncharacteristically sloppy assist to turnover ratio of less than two to one.
In that contest, forwards Kevin Durant and Kevin Love had to pick up the slack on the offensive end. They scored 36 of the United States' 98 points.
The U.S. men's backcourt must shoot a higher percentage to ensure a gold medal victory this week. Two of their likely opponents in the medal rounds—Russia and Spain—present the biggest threats to halt the U.S. frontcourt on offense and force the U.S. team to make outside shots.
Spain's frontcourt has a decided size advantage over the United States. The Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, are both NBA All-Star 7-footers who will challenge the United States' ability to penetrate and amass easy shots around the rim.
The U.S. men's team, on the other hand, boasts no player taller than 6'10". They are a little thin at the center and power forward positions; a shortcoming which may be problematic on both ends of the floor.
Moreover, power forward Serge Ibaka will likely be assigned to defend Carmelo Anthony. Ibaka is a top candidate to finally cool Anthony's terrific play on offense in the Olympics thus far (Anthony has averaged 28.5 PPG over the past two games on 20 for 29 shooting).
Ibaka is a physical, athletic stretch defender who may give Anthony problems with scoring in the paint and at the corners. If this does happen to be the case, a U.S. guard will have to assume Anthony's vital scoring output.
Perhaps a lesser threat to the U.S. men's team, Russia (4-1 in the qualifying round) has emerged as a dark horse to win the 2012 Olympics. The key reason for Russia's success has been NBA player Andre Kirilenko's stellar play at both ends of the floor. Kirilenko has averaged 18.2 points a game while forcing opposing teams front courts in to foul trouble.
A terrific stretch defender, Kirilenko will create scoring problems for small forwards Anthony and Kevin Durant, particularly with respect to their shooting at the wings and corners.
The U.S. men's team will be playing Argentina at 5:15pm EST Monday, August 6th, in what will be a warm-up for the Olympic medal round. It would be wise for the U.S. team's offensive strategy to focus on guard play and to shore up problems in this area.