Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Team USA defies catchy description
By Marc Stein ESPN.com
BARCELONA, Spain -- It's not a Dream Team or a Redeem Team or a team that lends itself to any sort of easy, catchy moniker. No one knows quite what to call the 2012 edition of the U.S. Olympic men's basketball squad.
How would you describe a traveling band of NBA All-Stars that's missing several key players due to injury, carrying only one veteran center alongside its three elite point guards and possessing so much speed and athleticism that all those holes on the roster might not even matter?
"Extremely atypical," Spain coach Sergio Scariolo volunteered late Tuesday night.
Perhaps realizing that he'll win no marketing prizes with that submission, he took another stab after Team USA overcame its various deficiencies to pummel Scariolo's Spain in its final pre-Olympic tuneup.
"Best team in the world," Scariolo said. "There is no question about that."
Pau Gasol and Spain had to contend with the versatility of Kevin Durant and Team USA.
Not now. Not after Tuesday night's evidence at the famed Palau Sant Jordi. The sixth team of NBA pros to represent the United States at the Olympics might not have a ready nickname -- and might well be punished down the line if Tyson Chandler keeps finding foul trouble or it goes cold from outside -- but the Americans will open play Sunday in Group A against France as the unquestioned tournament favorites after a 100-78 rout of their most feared international rivals.
There can be no other conclusion after Team USA, completing its five-day Spanish detour in tribute to the legacy of the original Dream Team that changed international basketball here 20 years ago, said farewell to the hallowed hardwood of Barcelona with Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James not only combining for 52 points but also taking credible turns at center in place of the whistle-prone Chandler.
Even with Spain clearly holding some of its best back for a potential rematch in the Olympic medal round -- and even if you buy the notion that the Spaniards are laying it on thick to try to make the Americans feel extra good about themselves as they all head to London for the start of the real deal this weekend -- there was no ignoring how swiftly and powerfully Team USA floored the hosts after a worrisome start.
Speed solves a lot of problems, apparently.
"We have a lot of speed," says Team USA elder statesman Kobe Bryant. "A lot of speed.
"LeBron's 6-9, Carmelo's 6-9, [Kevin] Durant's 6-10. And we're fast. When you have that amount of speed, it makes up for it."
It being the size shortcomings, most notably through the injury absences of Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh, that had given Spain hope of finally breaking through against the Yanks after a string of near-misses that began in the 2008 gold-medal game in Beijing, where the Redeem Team saw its lead chopped to four points inside the final three minutes before pulling away at last.
Those hopes obviously weren't completely dashed Tuesday night, because Scariolo held out All-Star center Marc Gasol despite the fact that Gasol -- who's legitimately nursing an injured left shoulder -- looked pretty spry in pregame warmups. Star guard Juan Carlos Navarro (back) is ailing, too, but just having Gasol next time should allow Scariolo to back up his claim that Spain will be "more ready than tonight" if these teams are to meet again in London.
Yet it's equally conceivable that the speed Bryant referenced and the benefits it creates at both ends just demoralized the Spaniards in front of their raucous and expectant home fans. Anthony and James, masquerading as centers, looked far more capable of hanging with Pau Gasol (19 points) and Serge Ibaka (who finished with just 16 after a 12-point eruption in the opening quarter) than the Spanish big men did trying to cope on the perimeter.
"Quite a bit," Gasol said when asked how much Team USA's athleticism offsets its size woes. "Their athleticism, their length, their quickness makes up for it pretty well. Interior players aren't used to being outside guarding people 20 feet away from the basket, so it's sort of a double-edged sword.
So loaded that Anthony, who drained five 3-pointers and scored 23 of his 27 points before halftime, is operating as Mike Krzyzewski's sixth man. So loaded that Durant could pop up after a quiet opening half with 10 crucial points in the third quarter. So loaded that Bryant took only three shots in 20 minutes and didn't mind, happily convinced he's just saving crunch-time fuel for when Krzyzewski might need it later.
"LeBron can play all five positions, but Carmelo can play three of them," Krzyzewski said. "He's as versatile a guy after LeBron that we have. He's as good of a [talent] as we have on our team."
Said Team USA guard Chris Paul: "We're fortunate enough to have some of our forwards, like LeBron and Melo, who play bigger than they really are. We'll be OK."
Looks like it. The Yanks survived scares against Brazil and Argentina to finish their exhibition schedule at 5-0 with an average victory margin of 26.6 points, nudging their record in all games under Krzyzewski to a tidy 54-1. The vulnerabilities remain, but the greatest risk now might actually be tuning out the hype and managing team confidence after a performance that only enhanced USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo's claims over the weekend that this group, in addition to all of its international experience, is deeper and more athletic than the 2008 squad.
"We [just] played against two very tough teams in Argentina and Spain, so I think it made us a better team," Bryant said. "I think it showed us some things that we want to do differently, some things that we're doing right, and I think because of it we feel pretty good about our chances."
And if they continue to combine shot-making from the 3-point line with all that turnover-forcing defensive aggression triggered by their fast hands?
Just call 'em hard to guard.
"Dream Team was coined for one team only," Bryant said, offering zero nickname help.