(This play symbolized the whole first half.)
Not that the exhibition game between USA and Lithuania counted for anything, but that was almost ugly. Really, disgustingly, hideously ugly.
Team USA overcame a slow start and a terrible case of the shooting shanks to wear down Lithuania and win easily, 77-61. At halftime USA trailed 29-28 and was shooting 28.6% from the field, but a 24-2 run spanning the third and fourth quarters helped put the game away. It’s a good thing Lithuania only had one NBA player (Linas Kleiza), because USA looked very much like a rag-tag bunch of individuals that had been tossed together this summer and labeled a “team.”
Rajon Rondo started for Team USA, as he has every game. But he was far from his best, looking sloppy and uninvolved on the offensive end. On one occasion, Rondo stole the ball from his Lithuanian counterpart and had a wide open lane to the hoop. Instead of dribbling in for an easy dunk or layup, Rondo spun and left a pass for the trailing Rudy Gay. While the play was unselfish, it was undoubtedly flawed; unlike Rondo, Gay was covered by a defender. Gay was fouled, and instead of an easy bucket Team USA was forced to take the ball out of bounds. As strange as that sequence was, it typified Rondo’s uneven and lackadaisical offensive play. I’m not sure what his stat line is (the box score is oddly missing from anywhere on the internet), but I can promise you one thing: It wasn’t pretty. (Update: He had 2 points, 2 rebounds, 0 assists and, if you can read Spanish, you’ll be able to tell me how many turnovers.)
Despite the poor (piss-poor?) offense, Rondo was a menace defensively. When he was in the game, the Lithuanian point guards barely even wanted to dribble the ball up court. On a roster like Team USA’s, where Rondo isn’t forced to play 40+ minutes and carry an offensive load, he can really take advantage of his ability to apply defensive pressure. Full court D, chest in his opponent’s mug, shadowing his opponent’s every move: Those things are exactly what Coach K wants him to do and precisely what Rondo has been doing. You almost feel bad for the players Rondo defends. If the Lithuanians were chewing gum, in the words of the immortal Norman Dale, Rondo definitely knew the flavor.
But that doesn’t mean he played well. Even though his defense was outstanding, that’s only half the game. And on the other half of the court, Rondo almost looked like he had taken twelve turns on the dizzy bat right before the game. He simply didn’t have it. On one play he threw a cross-court bounce pass directly to a Lithuanian. On another he fell down on his way to the hoop and lost possession. Generally, he looked a lot less like the real Rajon Rondo than I expected.
While Rondo struggled, two USA guards who were supposedly on the cut bubble played great basketball. Russell Westbrook earned Player of the Game honors with his tenacious, fearless play on both ends, and Eric Gordon battled in the passing lanes to notch deflections and steals and displayed his impressive nose for scoring the ball. Both needed great performances to keep their hopes of making Team USA alive. Both delivered the goods. Westbrook even played so well that he started the second half in Rondo’s place.
In case you couldn’t tell, today’s game is one Rondo would probably rather forget. But the beat goes on, and tomorrow he’ll match up with Ricky Rubio. Redemption could come very quickly.