LONDON -- Okay, let’s look at the numbers.
Team USA is plus 83 points off turnovers; the French have allowed four more points off turnovers than they have garnered from their opponents' mistakes. Team USA is plus 168 in the paint; France is plus 10. Team USA is plus 75 on second-chance points; France is minus two. Team USA is plus-118 on the fast break; France is minus seven.
The French do shoot threes better than the Americans, and they defend the three-pointer well. But they have 15 more turnovers than assists, compared to the Americans’ 163: 100 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Of course, there is more to the game than numbers -- sometimes talent can't be completely measured by math. But regardless how Saturday's upcoming gold-medal game is analyzed, whether by looking at championships won, raw talent or carefully honed skill, the Americans are just much better.
Could they lose? Yes, as this is the Olympics, and this is the unpredictable world of sport. But Australia, by most measures except one close overtime loss, is a better team than France, had Team USA befuddled and playing poorly for a half, and still lost by 13. Assuming the Americans play better than they did in the semis, and that's not an unreasonable assumption, this Olympic title game is not likely to be not be a close one. Here's why ...
Point guard: If the Olympics have anointed any individual as a star in London, it’s Celine Dumerc. Not only has she been tremendous in the run of play, she’s hit clutch shot after clutch shot – including two buzzer-beating daggers against Great Britain, the first to send the game into overtime and then the second to win it outright. She did the same against Russia at the end of the third quarter Thursday in their semifinal to put the French up by eight, and the Russians never recovered.
Dumerc’s numbers are impressive -- 15.1 points per game, 59 percent from the field, 58 percent from three, 87 percent from the line, a 24:11 assist-to-turnover ratio. And while the Americans can often point to disparate playing time to account for the gap between their own statistical performance and those of their international opponents, Dumerc has put up those numbers in just 26:12 per game, just a little over a minute more than Sue Bird spends on the court. Still, Dumerc is the heart and soul of a team that has won seven straight games without being statistically dominant.
|Celine Dumerc celebrates the three-pointer she drained with just seconds to go to carry France past Great Britain in pool play, one of several perfectly timed treys the French point guard and team captain has netted in this tournament. (Photo courtesy London 2012)|
Sue Bird, on the other hand, has been quiet almost to the point of invisibility, and her effectiveness has been masked by the string of U.S. routs. Her assist-to-turnover ratio is a phenomenal 33:8 and she’s shooting a solid 44 percent from the field. But she has shown minimal aggression (she has yet to take a free throw) and scored just 25 points in the first six games despite playing more minutes than any other American player (25:04 per game). In addition, she struggled defensively against Australia, as did backup Lindsay Whalen, though she did show her ability to put up points in that game when her team need it from her.
Whalen, though, has been consistently productive offensively, averaging 8.7 points in just 17:30 per game, shooting 53 percent and drawing 15 fouls, and she too is an elite point guard. Her driving, penetrating style is much like Dumerc's, though in this tournament, she has shown no ability to match Dumerc as a three-point threat and even on a per-minute basis, Dumerc has put more points on the board.
Still, Whalen has proved herself a better player than French backup Edwige Lawson-Wade, a WNBA veteran, who’s shooting just 40 percent in London and averaging just 8.9 points per game, though she had a standout night against the Russians on Thursday. Lawson-Wade is quicker than either Kristi Harrower or Samantha Richards, and neither Bird nor Whalen could stay in front of the Australians, so Lawson-Wade might be able to pose a problem for the U.S. backcourt.
On reputation, the American point guards are better; on production so far, the French are. Advantage France.
Shooting guard: There’s always a temptation to downgrade Diana Taurasi. She’s had so much hype that if she isn’t perfect, she’s not playing well –- and she hasn’t been perfect in London. But she is the team’s leading scorer (12.9 ppg), is shooting 47 percent from the field and is Team USA’s only consistent three-point shooter at 44 percent. She’s also a good rebounder, an excellent passer, a very good shotblocker for her size and if she’s not in a class by herself in women’s basketball, it doesn’t take long to call the roll.
Emilie Gomis, on the other hand, is a pretty good Euro who had a cup of coffee in the WNBA –- and her 11 points per game and 53-percent shooting are offset by an awful 5:15 assist-to-turnover ratio. Still, she is athletic and adds to the French quickness edge on the perimeter, and could give Taurasi trouble in a one-on-one matchup.
Of course, if that happens, Geno Auriemma can call on Angel McCoughtry, who has been spectacular most of the time she has been on the court. Despite coming off the bench, McCoughtry is tied with Tina Charles as Team USA's second-leading scorer. She’s by far the most athletic American, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her guarding Dumerc now and again –- and both Dumerc and Gomis would have serious problems getting going against McCoughtry.
The French also play Lawson-Wade at the two and sometimes Florence Lepron, but the American depth, as always, cannot be discounted. What's more, as Geno would be quick to tell you, Team USA has Taurasi, and France doesn’t. Advantage Team USA.
Small forward: Sandrine Gruda is more comfortable at the four, but she typically starts at the three, then moves to power forward when Lawson-Wade bumps Gomis to small forward. The U.S. counters with Maya Moore, who has the size and athleticism to stay in front of Gruda, but will have to work to keep her off the boards. Moore has averaged 9.4 points in 18:53 per game, but at just six-of-22 (27 percent) from the arc, has not been the three-point threat Auriemma said he was looking for when he sent Candace Parker to the bench and moved Moore to the starting rotation.
Gruda also averages 9.4 points, but in 28:57 per game, making Moore the more productive scorer of the two. But Gruda also chips in nearly eight rebounds and two blocked shots per game. Moore averages 5.5 boards per game, but makes up some of the difference with 2.7 assists and 1.7 steals per outing, and that doesn't count her quick-handed deflections and disruptions of her opponents' play.
An even better match-up is Tamika Catchings, and though in his recent lineup adjustments, Auriemma has moved Catchings to the four spot, that might still happen, which would limit Gruda’s effectiveness. Gruda hasn’t shot all that well in London anyway (45 percent), though she does lead the Olympics in blocked shots, but she is capable of having a big game –- and she’ll need to.
Catchings has had an uncharacteristically quiet Olympics from a scoring perspective, averaging just 6.4 points in just under 20 minutes per game. She is shooting only slightly better than Gruda (48 percent on 19-40) from the field. Though Catchings owns a three-point shot, which Gruda really doesn't, her perimeter threat has not been much in evidence here in London, where she has one just one-of-six (17 percent) from the arc. Auriemma keeps her in the starting line-up for her leadership and commitment to defense, and Catchings has responded with nearly five rebounds and more than two assists and two steals per game.
Endene Miyem sometimes works as a small forward in Pierre Vincent’s lineup, but compared to Seimone Augustus … well, there’s no comparison. Even if some might take Gruda over Moore, no one would take Miyem over Augustus. Advantage Team USA.
Power forward: This is the biggest problem for the French, as the French have height but not all that much else here. Tamika Catchings gets to go head-to-head with either Emmeline Ndongue (3.9 ppg, 2.1 rbg) or Jennifer Digbeu (1.1 ppg, 1.7 rbg), neither of whom can score on her or guard her. Even if Isabelle Yacoubou gets the start at center, allowing Vincent to shift the more effective Endeme Miyem (6.7 ppg, 3.0 rbg) to the four, one of the following trio -- Miyem, Ndongue or Digbeu –- has to go against Catchings, backed up by Candace Parker (9.0 ppg, 7.3 rbg), and that hardly seems fair.
That, however, is life in the Olympic gold-medal game. Huge advantage Team USA.
Center: For some reason, Pierre Vincent has only played Isabelle Yacoubou six more minutes than Emelline Ndongue and only 30 more minutes than Jennifer Digbeu, who has done absolutely nothing with her time on the floor. Yacoubou, France's third-leading scorer at 10.1 points per game and one of its better rebounders at 5.4 boards per game, is tall, strong and a force in the paint, and given the Americans’ struggles with Liz Cambage, it would seem France’s best chance of mounting an inside game would to be play Yacoubou for 30 minutes.
That could cause problems for the U.S., because Yacoubou could have a chance to muscle Tina Charles in the paint, and Sylvia Fowles is clearly hurt (36 total minutes in London).
On the other hand, Charles is a superb all-around player (14 assists to just four turnovers, a team second-best 11.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) and Yacoubou is probably overmatched against her. But if Yacoubou isn’t playing, then Charles will certainly have her way with Ndongue and Digbeu. Another big advantage Team USA.
Coaching: Pierre Vincent is clearly more familiar with FIBA-style basketball; it is after all, his bread and butter. And he has pushed all the right buttons, guiding the French, a team that didn't even qualify for the last two Olympics, to a 7-0 record even though their talent isn’t necessarily that much better, if it is at all better, than that of Australia or Russia or the Czech Republic. At the end of the day, 7-0 is 7-0, and Vincent has to be given some credit.
It would be hard to rival Geno Auriemma's collegiate coaching record. But at the Olympic level, he hasn’t had to do nearly as much as Vincent. Still, he has made adjustments when necessary –- for example, shifting to a 2-3 zone in the second quarter against Australia –- and will do the same against the French if necessary. Both teams are unbeaten, and it certainly could be argued that it took more coaching to get the French to 7-0. Still, this one’s even.
|France celebrates its Olympic semifinal win over Russia on Thursday at London's North Greenwich Arena. Team USA owns significant advantages over France in talent, depth and experience, but then so did three other teams -- Australia, Russia and Brazil -- who are now out of the running as France is guaranteed at least the silver while it vies with the U.S. for the gold. (Photo courtesy London 2012)|
Intangibles: Everyone roots against the U.S., but the British have been supportive of all teams playing in this tournament -- unless, of course, they happen to be facing off against Team GB. What's more, while France is apt to have more fans in London than the USA, the Brits in the house will find it hard to be in full throat against their biggest international rival, so the French shouldn’t have a big advantage inside the arena.
The French have unquestionably been "in the flow" over the course of a tournament run they describe as magical. They are playing with confidence, skill and passion, at a level above anything they have shown in the past. They are enjoying the ride, and on Saturday, they will be playing with no pressure. Guaranteed of finishing, at worst, with silver, and returning home as heroes with the nation's first-ever medal in women's basketball, they have everything to win and nothing to lose on Saturday.
A win on Saturday will bring the Americans their fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal. But while big-game experience is, on the one hand, an advantage for the USA, the American history of success also holds its downsides. The Americans constantly play under the pressure of knowing that one more win, or yet another gold medal, is "no big deal," but merely what is expected of them. Auriemma has noted repeatedly that it will only be news if the U.S. loses.
The expectation and demand for success not only adds to the level of stress for the U.S. players and coaching staff, however much they might tend to minimize it, it also holds the potential for overconfidence. Following Thursday night's victory over Russia, Vincent told the press, "Today, the Russians' lack of humility, overconfidence and almost arrogance cost them the game."
The French can always hope that the U.S. will be similarly overconfident -- enough so to negate its talent advantage. But while the Americans are not unaware of the advantages their depth and experience give them, the U.S. women, at least, have long had an ethos of taking one game at a time and never underestimating their opponents. They spend much of the year playing alongside or against their French adversaries in the Euroleague; they know their opponents well and respect them.
Moreover, any propensity to consider themselves invincible evaporated in 2006 in Sao Paulo, as the Americans watched their hopes of repeating as World Champions evaporate at the hands of a Russian squad in the semifinals. Team USA's three leaders on the floor -- Bird, Catchings and Taurasi -- have that loss indelibly emblazoned in their memories, and after their struggle with Australia, it seems unlikely that even the American rookies will be inclined to take the French too casually.
There’s more pressure on Team USA, but this veteran team should handle it. Even.
In conclusion: In short, the French need a miracle. They don’t have the significant advantage in the paint the Australians did, nor do they have the depth of talent on the Opals’ roster. In addition, few of the French have played in the WNBA, and thus adjusting to the speed, size and style of the Americans will take at least a a few minutes.
On the other hand, Australia, Russia and even Brazil, all though they had better post play and greater depth than the French as well. None will be playing in Saturday's fial. Maybe Celine Dumerc has some more buzzerbeaters. Maybe Emilie Gomis can out-quick Diana Taurasi. Maybe Isabelle Yacoubou can dominate Tina Charles. Maybe Edwige Lawson-Wade will show she belongs in the WNBA.
Prediction: Team USA by 27.
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