At least this American basketball team knows that when the paint is packed with defenders and their three-point shooters have gone cold, they can still win games by firing up the defense.
But it isn’t pretty.
Facing a German team content to play zone defense and watch U.S. players bounce long shots off the rim, the Americans escaped with an 85-65 win Wednesday to advance to the final four of the FIBA World Championship. They face another team obsessed with defense, Greece, in the semifinals Friday.
Like the other semifinalists, Argentina and Spain, the Greeks haven’t been beaten in the tournament. They used a rugged defense to smother France, 73-56, in a methodical quarterfinal Wednesday and promised more of the same against the U.S.
“The first key for us is defense -- all of our players know this,” guard Dimitrios Diamantidis said.
The Americans, who have struck a humble tone throughout the tournament, recognized Wednesday they had much to be humble for. They now face a Greek team they know little about. No NBA reference points like Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki. Just a couple of games seen on TV.
“I know they’re a great team,” guard Kirk Hinrich said diplomatically. “But I haven’t had a chance to really look at them.”
He’ll get an up-close first look Friday in a game that may come down to American athleticism against Greek size and muscle, personified by 340-pound forward Sofoklis Schortsanitis, a Clippers 2003 draft choice who bounced the French around with his Shaq-like physique.
“In the couple of games we watched, they’re tough, they’re physical,” Carmelo Anthony said. “They like to bang down there, so we ought to get prepared for that.”
But do the Greeks have a chance to beat you, Anthony was asked?
“I don’t know,” he said, flashing a megawatt smile. “That’s why we play the game.”
The Greek defense will pressure U.S. shooters, who took 85 shots but made only 32 (38%) against a German team content to sit back and block lanes. And while U.S. basketball fans all those time zones away may see only the comfortable final score, the Greeks will have noticed that Germany’s strategy almost worked.
“I’m sure we’re going to see a lot of zone and that’s fine, we got guys who can make shots,” said Hinrich after he and his teammates finally pulled away from the Germans in a game they led by only a point at the half. “For whatever reason we just didn’t do that tonight.”
The Americans made only 10 of 40 shots from beyond the three-point arc, many of them unnecessarily rushed. Dwyane Wade missed all five of his three-point shots. Hinrich and point guard Chris Paul each were only one of five.
Wade made one of 11 overall, finishing with three points. Anthony led the U.S. with 19 points, most of them coming during a dazzling run in the third quarter when the Americans essentially grabbed the game, outscoring the Germans, 27-13. Anthony had been only two of 12 in the first half.
“The worst we’ve shot as a team,” Hinrich said.
Indeed the Germans led for a bit, though a harassed Nowitzki got into early foul trouble and uncharacteristically missed nine of 12 shots. Nine of Nowitzki’s 15 points came on free throws.
“I thought we did a good job of slowing it down in the first half, controlling the tempo,” German guard Johannes Herber said.
Slowed to a crawl, by the high-octane American standards.
“We got slowed down a little bit to Germany’s pace and we felt we weren’t playing well,” Hinrich said. “After the first half we were in the locker room and we were ahead, but we were upset the way we were playing. We just weren’t making things happen.
“So we tried to come out in the third quarter and pick up our defensive pressure.”
The third-quarter burst was enough. The defensive energy produced a flurry of turnovers: the U.S. finished with 10 steals and 10 points off turnovers, and had 22 offensive rebounds to the Germans’ six.
“They stepped it up defensively, ran some full-court pressure,” Nowitzki said. “We started to turn the ball over a little bit and they ran away with it. Those couple of minutes were all they needed.”
Semifinal matchups at Saitama, Japan (times Pacific). The U.S.-Greece game will be televised live on ESPN2.
*--* Day Teams Time Friday Spain vs. Argentina 12:30 a.m. Friday U.S. vs. Greece 3:30 a.m.