Koreans miss their shots in Basketball Challenge
Some 5,000 fans, who were on their feet at Jamsil Gymnasium in Seoul, let out a collective gasp. Cho, the team captain, turned his back from the basket and wrapped his hands around his head. His teammate, center Ha Seung-jin, who scored a game-high 20 points, lied on the floor to receive treatment for a cramp on his left leg.
The scene was a microcosm of what the Korean basketball team faced over the weekend at the World Basketball Challenge. Despite its reputation as a good shooting team, the players didn’t make a lot of shots last weekend and lost all four games it played.
Koreans was tied with Turkey in the tournament opener Friday, but after a missed three-pointer, forward Erdogan Serkan scored an open layup with 22 seconds left. Point guard Kim Seung-hyun then committed a traveling violation in the next possession. Turkey won, 70-67.
Against Lithuania, ranked No. 4 in the world, Korea ended the first half leading 40-37, and traded leads several times before falling 83-81. These two losses were the result of lack of concentration in the last minute and of crunch-time experience by most players, said their head coach, Choi Bu-young.
Then came the 96-61 blowout loss to Italy and a 116-63 pounding by the U.S. team. last night. Against Italy, it wasn’t the margin of the loss that upset Korean coach Choi, but the lack of effort and hustle by young players when the game was already out of hand.
“I put some kids in the game [such as guard Kim Tae-sul and forward Yang Hee-jong] in the late minutes, and asked them to just play hard and give all they had,” Choi said. “But they didn’t accomplish anything I asked of them. Nothing.”
In two other games, closer losses, Korean players couldn’t match their opponents’ fitness level in the last moments.
During the Lithuanian game, Ha, the only Korean in the National Basketball Association, had to be treated twice during the game before receiving attention from the medical staff after the buzzer.
“I think he’s become much better at establishing his position in the low post,” said Kim Seung-hyun, Korean team’s starting point guard, of the 20-year-old Ha. “But in the second half, he had some durability issues and had difficulty maintaining his balance.”
With no player shorter than 190 centimeters (6-foot-2), both the Turks and the Lithuanians presented tough physical battles for Koreans. But the Korean team still went to Ha, listed at 223 centimeters (7-foot-3).
Ha was harassed much of both games, and Sunday played only 13 minutes as a backup to Kim Joo-sung.
“Ha was in terrible shape today, and I should have given him some rest against Lithuania,” Korean head coach Choi said on Sunday of the Milwaukee Bucks center. “But he was so adamant he could play. He made it hard for me to take him out of the game [Saturday].”
When opponents double-teamed Ha, it opened up shot opportunities for trigger-happy Korean players, including forwards Bang Sung-yoon and Lee Kyu-sup. But with Ha and fellow center Kim Joo-sung getting little help in the post, the Korean team’s fate hinged too much on perimeter shooting.
Bang, who was fourth in the Korean Basketball League last season in three-point field goals made per game, missed 14 of his 18 treys in the first two games. After going 1-for-8 against Lithuania through the first half ― with most shots off-balance attempts ― Bang was benched for the second half.
“He was so out of playing shape that he wasn’t even on the same page with his teammates,” Coach Choi said about Bang on Sunday, after he played 18 minutes and scored six points, all from three pointers. “I sat him down to teach him a few lessons, and I hope he learned them. He fell way short of our expectations this weekend.”
“We did almost nothing well today,” Choi said. “As the head coach, I am prepared to take blame for our losses. But I am disappointed in my players today.”
For the first two games, at least, things were more encouraging on the defensive end. Players such as Bang and Lee Kyu-sup, not known for their defensive skills, were active on their feet, getting their hands on the passing lane on several plays. Bang recorded three steals in just over five minutes of play against Lithuania.
The defensive intensity didn’t last through the weekend, however, as the Koreans had no answer for Italy’s second-half perimeter shooting. After scoring just 34 points on 34-percent shooting in the first half, Italy racked up 31 points in the third quarter alone, including 5-for-8 from behind the three-point arc, to open up 65-38 lead going into the final frame.
“Defense is always the first for Italian basketball, and that’s what our coaches said,” Italian point guard Fabio Di Bella told the JoongAng Daily about his team’s early aggressiveness. “But in the second half, we focused more on shooting. We lost to Turkey [Saturday] and we didn’t want to lose two in a row.”
Against taller centers, Korean post players were pushed around in the paint. They gave up 18 offensive rebounds against four on their own. The Korean team had 22 total boards in the game. “We played evenly against the two previous teams because of Ha’s presence in the post,” forward Lee Kyu-sup said. “With him hobbling, we were pushed around like we used to be against bigger teams in the past.”
Comments from other players in the tournament were limited. Players, coaching staff, and other team officials were only made available for comments during designated press conferences.
After the Lithuanian match, for instance, neither head coach Choi nor player of the game Ha answered questions.
And officials from the top two teams here, the United States and Lithuania, described the event as an exhibition, rather than the showdown that organizers promoted. None of the games sold out, going into the game Tuesday between the United States and Korea.
“Our main focus is gearing toward the World Championship in Japan [starting Saturday], and nothing but that,” Jerry Colangelo, managing director of the U.S. team, told the JoongAng Daily before his team’s 111-88 victory over Lithuania.
In the press conference following his team’s game against Korea, Lithuanian head coach Antanas Sireika was asked what he thought of Colangelo’s earlier observation that Lithuanian players might not have given 100 percent against Korea to conserve their energy for the world championship.
Sireika smiled, and told the reporters through an interpreter, “Jerry is a smart man.”
“[The game against the United States] is not as important as [ones in] Japan,” he said.
Mike Krzyzewski, U.S. head coach, used the term “exhibition” a few times to describe the five-day event during his post-game press conference Sunday. His team finished the tournament unbeaten after crushing Korea by more than 50 points.
The Korean basketball team, meanwhile, hopes to regroup. “As a team, the current national squad doesn’t yet have the ability to handle crises and challenges as they surface during games,” coach Choi said before the game against the United States. “I think we can get better by playing more against top teams, rather than through practices. This weekend gave us a chance to look at ourselves in the mirror and prepare for the future.”
by Yoo Jee-ho