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Oldest play in basketball doomed U.S.
Seattle Times staff columnist
You would have thought the Greeks had invented a new way to play the game. Thought that their offense had come from the mind of some super genius, more Aristotle than Auerbach.
You would have thought, the way the Greeks carved up the U.S. defense last week in their 101-95 semifinal victory at basketball's world championships, that they had invented a better way to play the game. Maybe, even, you could have thought they were cheating.
What was this quadratic equation of an offense they were running? Why was it so unsolvable?
How could the U.S. allow 101 points to Greece? Why did the U.S. look so confused, as if this were all Greek to them?
"That's the same question I have," said Mercer Island's Ed Pepple, a coach for 49 years who has won four state championships. "For Greece to score 101 points, I can't figure that out."
Greece, which two days later scored only 47 points in the championship loss to Spain, beat the Americans with the most basic play in the basketball handbook — the pick-and-roll.
Beat them over and over again with it. Pounded them like a bass drum with an offensive play so old, the X's and O's of it might have been chiseled on some tablets and left at the base of the Acropolis.
Greece ran it so well, you would have thought John Stockton and Karl Malone had come back to the game as Greek basketball gods.
They beat the U.S. with a play practically as old as the game itself. On the first-ever pick-and-roll Zeus probably rubbed his man off a screen set by Apollo.
"It's not difficult to run, but it's hard to defend, because the defense has to decide what it's going to give up," said Seattle Pacific coach Jeff Hironaka, who took his team to the NCAA's Division II final four last season.
Big man sets a screen for the smaller player. The smaller player rubs his defender off the big man. The big man rolls and either the big man is open for a pass and a layup. Or the smaller player is open for a jump shot. At least, that's the theory.
Out of simplicity comes genius.
Former Sonics assistant coach Dwane Casey once said Seattle had eight different options for stopping the pick-and-roll, but the U.S. staff, led by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, couldn't find one to stop Greece.
"It's a very basic play, but if you don't defend it right, it's a very effective play. Somebody's going to be open," said former Sonic Al Hairston, who won state championships coaching Garfield and also was a head coach at Seattle University and an assistant at Washington. "But it's very unusual if the team is scouted and you know they're going to run it that you don't know how to defend it.
"In Coach K's defense, they don't run the pick-and-roll that much in college. It's mostly motion. But in the pros, the predominant offense is the pick-and-roll. That doesn't let Coach K off the hook, though, because they did scout it."
For 40 minutes, the U.S. acted almost arrogantly toward the Greeks, who had no NBA players on their roster. The Americans played with the attitude that this slower, less-athletic team couldn't hang with them for 40 minutes.
The Greeks call it hubris, and that arrogance helped beat the United States.
"That was my thought," said Sonics coach Bob Hill. "I was disappointed. Even when they were down with four minutes left you didn't see any sense of urgency. They didn't push the ball. They didn't pick it up on defense. They kind of just kept playing.
"We were quicker and faster and could jump better and we should have pressured and run more. We should have played all 10 guys and we could have exhausted them. But that didn't happen."
And for all of the talk about constructing this U.S. team differently, surrounding the superstars with role players, this still was a flawed team.
Where were the jump shooters? Where was the shot-blocker who could have discouraged the roll of the pick-and-roll? Where was a defensive demon like the last man cut, Bruce Bowen?
And where was the passion?
"It's just not as important to us as it is to the rest of the world," Hill said. "To be honest, I don't lose any sleep on it."
It's a good thing, because the Greeks' pick-and-roll could have given any U.S. coach nightmares.
The oldest play of the basketballers' playbook was enough to beat the best group of players in the world.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company