Some dreams turn into nightmares. Some help to put reality into perspective. The Nigerian D’Tigers’ dream of playing in an Olympic tournament was realized on 3 July 2012 when it clinched a berth in Pool A of the London 2012 and was consequently drawn in a battle with the United States of America. Never mind that the battle turned out to be one-sided with the motley of NBA stars rolling over their Nigerian counterparts easily as a chess grandmaster would do in a game with a rookie. The D’Tigers were scorched by a class of NBA stars known for its supremacy in an historic match that will forever haunt the image of Nigerian basketball in the international arena. At the end of regulation time, the scoreboard glowed USA: 156 vs Nigeria: 73.
Prior to the Nigeria/USA game, millions of Nigerians who had come to terms with the reality that neither of their two national soccer teams (the Super Eagles & the Super Falcons) made it to the London 2012 Olympics, relished the idea of being represented in a team sport by the D’Tigers. Added to this joy was the fact that the Nigerian male basketball team had just earned its debut to an Olympic tourney, beating formidable opponents such as Lithuania and Greece in the qualifying games hosted in Caracas, Venezuela just weeks before.
Going into the contest, the D’Tigers were considered underdogs, ranked 21st globally by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). In spite of this, the Ayo Bakare-led team stunned opponents as they overcame Greece and Lithuania – teams ranked fourth and fifth respectively. D’Tigers’ win over Dominican Republic (ranked 25th) in the final match cemented its quest for an Olympic ticket, thus earning a spot in pool A along with the United States of America, Argentina, France, Lithuania, and Tunisia.
After going 1-1 in two games played against Tunisia (win) and Lithuania (loss), D’Tigers were scheduled to play the US on August 2. The D’Tigers were regarded with a measure of respectable fear after the prowess they demonstrated in Venezuela, with some touting it as team D’Trouble in sublime hope that it may cause an upset for the United States like Puerto Rico did in Athens 2004 Olympics. The first few minutes after tip-off showed that the US Dream Team was not underrating these breed of tigers as they went on a 13-0 run before D’Tigers ventured to respond.
The US side had a particular weakness, obviously at the post for the reason that Tyson Chandler was the only natural at the center position, and a defensive-minded one at that – an attribute with a greater tendency to attract fouls in favour of opponents slashing into the paint.
Reason for D’Tigers’ loss
The D’Tigers coaching crew employed rather inappropriate tactics both on the offensive and defensive ends of the game with regard to the US pattern of play, and failed to take advantage of scoring opportunities to reduce the embarrassing margin at crucial times.
The home truth is that the flaws in the D’Tigers game were existent prior to the Olympics. The only reason it failed to show was that Nigeria had not experienced pugnacious defensive teams like the United States en-route to London. A scrutiny of some key figures in Venezuela confirms the defects.
On the offensive end, ball movement by the D’Tigers was very poor and this reflected in the percentage of field goals it recorded against opponents both at the qualifying tournament in Venezuela and in the first two games in London before its meeting with the United States. In Venezuela, D’Tigers totaled a meager 6 team assists against Greece’s 18, escaping narrowly by one point as the game ended 80-79. In its match-up against Lithuania, D’Tigers combined for 13 assists in comparison to Lithuania’s 20 – the inadequacy of its passing efforts reflected in shot-selection as Nigeria recorded 43.9percent against Lithuania’s 50.9percent on field goals. That aspect implied D’Tigers took contested shots. Though Nigeria won that game 80-86, it could have stretched the margin further if it dished out the ball more than its opponent.
Though Nigeria emerged from the tournament averaging 13 assists, it could have performed better overall if only it improved in the assists category. Its first loss in London revealed this weakness as it lost by 19 points to Lithuania which limited it to a dismal 3 team assists. Lithuania, however, combined for 19 assists.
For those who don’t understand how assists impacts on scoring performance in a basketball game, good ball movement translates to uncontested shots (good shot selection), which earns the last player to pass the ball to the scorer an assist and the shooter a clear and confident look at the basket. Stats reveal that this was not the case for the D’Tigers. Besides poor ball movement, Nigeria failed to utilize set plays and dribble penetrations to draw fouls from shot blockers which would have earned it trips to the free throw line. Had the Nigerian team exploited the weakness of US’ only player at the center position, chances were Tyson Chandler would be in foul trouble early in the game, thus forcing Coach Mike Krzyzewski to play Kevin Love (a natural and offensive-minded forward) or the young Anthony Davis whose minutes were greatly limited at the post. Instead it seemed the technical crew was fazed by how fast the US had racked up so many points just a few minutes into the game, and 49 points at the end of the first quarter. The first quarter!
On the defensive end, D’Tigers totally lost its D when it chose to play zone defense against an extremely good passing and good perimeter shooting team when it ought to have employed a man-to-man full-court press. Had the latter defensive formation been used, Coach Ayo Bakare would’ve succeeded in minimizing the damage as US wouldn’t be able to organize its offensive sets in half-court whenever it succeeded in getting the ball beyond mid-court. Such defensive tactic would’ve resulted in a sizeable number of turnovers on the side of the US, thus favouring D’Tigers with steals (or fouls) that would’ve been converted to transition baskets (or free throws). Instead, D’Tigers chose the easy defensive route of waiting for the US to bring the ball up court and letting them set up and distribute the ball around the arc, consequently leaving excellent perimeter shooters like Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant open to 3-point shootouts (shots considered mid-range due to the extended arc used in the NBA). Perhaps, no scouting report on the Nigerian side to inform them that Anthony holds the record for most points in a quarter in an NBA game when he netted 33 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves barely four years before.
Now to the statistics on the defensive end, poor defense encouraged easy ball movement (something it failed to do on offense) for the US team, given that the Dream Team tied the Olympic record for most assists in a game at 42 when it came down to the wire.
Let’s assume that the 42 assists were converted into 2-point baskets (which, clearly, was not the case given that it scored 29 three-pointers – a new record), then it would amount to 84 points as a result of the assists (just one point shy of the 83-point margin created by the win). And if D’Tigers cut-off passing lanes appropriately and focused on man-to-man full court defense, which it could, then the US would break as a cohesive unit and resort to playing individual offense as opposed to its effective team-oriented game.
That never happened, and Nigeria lost. The team lost on a colossal scale.
Some basketball enthusiasts on social media (including US citizens) also called out the US team for deliberately running up the score against Nigeria – an accusation that clearly miffed Coach K, who described it as pathetic. But the truth is that this US Dream Team saw a window of opportunity in setting new records (five new records were made in that match) and thus winning the argument about being better than the 1992 US Dream Team.
Mobolaji Akiode, standout Nigerian female basketball player, writer, and philanthropist, in a post on her Facebook page, reprimanded the 2012 Dream Team led by Coach K. She noted that the US had a reputation for beating opponents gracefully but deliberately chose to run up the score out of arrogance towards Nigeria. The US team treated a less formidable Tunisia (ranked 32nd) rather softly a few days earlier despite being able to do greater damage than it did to Nigeria.
Akiode, herself an Olympian on the 2004 female squad that represented Nigeria in its first ever Olympic outing, was somewhat emotive about the game.
“I’ve always respected the way they handle their superiority in the sport of basketball against other teams up until now. It seemed the US came out to embarrass the Nigerian side. Not sure if words were said, but no one can tell me they couldn’t have done this against Tunisia. No offense to them. This game lacked so many things and good sportsmanship was one of them.” – Mobolaji Akiode
Coach K, however, was quick to decry allegations of deliberately making Nigeria lose face, even pointing out that he rested Kobe Bryant and Lebron James, both prolific scorers, in the entire second half, and pulled out Carmelo Anthony from the game at a point in the third quarter. He also hinted that he opened scoring opportunities for the Nigerian team, which it failed to utilize, by changing his team’s defensive stance to a zonal one as opposed to the full-court that was used largely in the first three quarters.
“I take offense to this…because there’s no way in the world that our program in the United States sets out to humiliate anymore….We didn’t take any fast breaks in the fourth quarter, and we played all zone. You have to take a shot every 24 seconds, and the shots we took happened to be hit.”
Truth be told, the US team did change to a zone defense, although D’Tigers failed to adjust its offense to one that exploited the opportunity. Even when D’Tigers turned the ball over a couple of times in the second half, Deron Williams – who was running the point – showed reluctance to run a fast-break basket but chose to wait for the D’Tigers to come up and organize its defense.
In fairness to Coach K, the US basketball program has not been on record for humiliating opponents since its match-up against Angola at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, when Charles Barkley deliberately jammed his elbow into the torso of an Angolan player on his way up court after scoring a basket. But D’Tigers clearly had no answer for the US team. A few days later, the US struggled to catch a win against the same Lithuanian team that Nigeria beat a couple of weeks back in Venezuela. That in itself showed that the D’Tigers had the individual skill and basketball IQ to, at least, hold their own against the Dream Team but failed just because it couldn’t integrate its strengths using appropriate game-strategy.
One can go on and on about the poor style of play and seeming inability of the technical crew to scout its most lethal opponent. Intangibles such as being star-struck can even be offered, though there’s doubt about this given that about 80 percent of its twelve-man squad were born in the United States and have experienced the best that basketball tradition could inculcate in a society that embraces basketball as a culture. Even the excusable lack of financial resources will always be understood, particularly for basketball – a sport that gets no love at the expense of soccer. One could go on and on about the challenges, but wisdom suggests that Nigeria should get to the drawing board and make the game appealing to kids, beginning at the elementary level and introducing more tournaments at the secondary and tertiary levels besides the annual Milo-sponsored event and the feature at Nigerian University Games. The game needs some love!
This article was originally written on August 10, 2012 but published here for the first time on June 5, 2014.