Hazing The Greeks

Yeah, I could watch this team 365 days a year.

Take the world’s greatest athletes (anyone wanna debate that?) motivate them with patriotism and professional pride, give at least two of the most talented–"LeBronze" and the prematurely discounted Dwyane Wade–an extra nudge toward the need for retribution, and then settle in with your fingers on the pause and slo-mo buttons. Game on. Game over.

After watching the US Olympic men’s basketball team dismantle Greece Thursday morning, the idea of this incredibly deep and star-studded team needing to veer away from their strengths and conform to conventional Olympic wisdom seems laughable. For example, perhaps the only time this squad should deploy a zone defense is if an opponent is totally on fire and you need a box-and-one or diamond scheme to deter him. Because right now, I don’t envision an international team that can pass or dribble its way through the USA’s extended and tenacious man-to-man schemes on a consistent basis.

The best thing that could have happened Thursday was for Jason Kidd to pick up three quick fouls in the first two minutes and sit until garbage time. Because as Doug Collins pointed out, when the US team has Williams and Paul guarding the perimeter, and a vengeful Wade ballhawking to boot, your defense off the bench is your best defense, especially with Bosh showing strong on the pick and roll. That leaves Coach K with the option of LeBron or Kobe–with the carrot of bountiful transition dunks and assists–as the fifth.

What Wade did today was put himself back in the LeBron-Kobe conversation about who is the best player in basketball today. As he was before his injuries, Wade is an intriguing third, and might embolden his followers to try and bump him up if he continues to play defense like he has in these games. I know it is sacrosanct to make comparisons with the original Dreamers, but how amazing is this USA ballclub that they can actually ambush opponents with a guy like Wade? I mean, Greece can honestly say they didn’t really see Wade coming; they were too busy preparing for LeBron and Kobe.

The play of the game was the second quarter steal by Wade and his immediate dish–in the course of saving the ball from going out of bounds–to Kobe for the alley oop. Wade dropped another gleaming dime shortly after that. Then LeBron had a steal where he shrugged off a Greek trying to mug him before he touched the ball, grabbed the ball, and did a backwards over-the-head slam after bringing the rock below his waist. Then Chris Bosh scored twice in transition in the final minutes of the half. No disrespect to Dwight Howard, who had his best game defensively when the team needed him most, but Bosh is as good on D in the low block, better at showing on the pick and roll, and light years better at catching and finishing in transition.

The play of Bosh and Wade in particular have made me look smart (when in fact I don’t know the international game at all) by claiming that the USA doesn’t need to load up from long-distance, just shut down the opposing treys and get hoops in transition. When the defense is as good as it has been thus far, and you’ve got guys elevating their passing, like Wade, and finishing, like Bosh, it’s go-go all the time. Wade hit 17 of his first 20 shots of the tournament.

Now comes Spain, which has the Gasol boys and Calderon at the point (and how psyched should Raptors fans be that their two best players, Calderon and Bosh, are boosting their confidence and reputations in the heightened competition?). I think this is a game when a nonstop mucker like Boozer might be effective for 10-12 minutes on Gasol(s). I’d also put Deron Williams on Calderon–certainly not Kidd: Calderon was a whopping +64 in the two games he played (and won) against New Jersey while Kidd was still there last season. In 35 minutes of international competition this Olympics, Kidd has not attempted a shot, his A/TO rate is 4/5 (despite being fourth lowest in playing time, he is tied for the team lead in turnovers and the rest of the team is 54/35 in A/TO), and his aging reactions make him foul prone on defense. Clearly, he is in the starting lineup out of sentiment right now, an awkward situation. But if Spain really is the game of the tournament, Williams ought to get the start.

What’s really scary–and eminently enjoyable–about this USA team is that they are romping and whomping while Kobe is clanking. Bryant is a woeful 3-20 from outside the arc. Ironically, the one he hit today was a legit NBA three, and if you’ll recall, distance doesn’t make much difference to him so long as he’s within about 26 feet. Which means, if anything, he ought to conserve his bombs for the really long shots where his dead-eye for treys is more practiced.

But the story of the tournament for the USA thus far is Wade and Bosh, in that order. LeBron has been utterly magnificent, in a coin flip with Wade over who has been the best player. But we all expected that from LeBron. Wade, by contrast, hasn’t looked this good since the ’06 playoffs, and his defense is much better now than it was then.

Bosh has the international game down; he’s swatting the ball when it is around the cylinder more aggressively than others, and figuring out what charges and flops most impress the Olympic refs. And he gives the raft of penetrators–Paul, Williams, Kobe, LeBron, Wade–an appealing target. I wouldn’t start Bosh against Spain because he’s such good energy off the bench and a perfect sub tandem with Wade and Paul, but I think he can beat Gasol both in transition and on the low block. And, in a bit of side soap opera, Kobe has a chance to kick Gasol’s butt after the latter’s lackluster performance against the Celts in the Finals.

So, three games in, Wade leads the team in scoring and steals, LeBron has the most assists and blocks and minutes-played and is the second leading scorer, Melo has the team rebounding lead by one over Bosh, and is subtly sliding into the role of a 6-10 paint warrior (kudos to him). The top six in minutes–LeBron, Kobe, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Melo and then Wade, are all wreaking havoc on defense. The backcourt performers for Greece appeared unflappable when the game began. They were simply ground down.

The only thing that hasn’t been answered is how does this USA ballclub respond when it’s in trouble.

We may never have to find out.