US Olympians Bury China in Hoops Opener

The opening game for the USA Olympic basketball team was close early–tied even, at 29-29, nearly halfway through the second quarter–almost exclusively because the US were missing their three-pointes while their Chinese opponents were knocking them down. But nobody seriously thought this would be a ballgame, and the 101-70 tally seemed an appropriate gauge of the gap between the two squads.

It’s been fascinating to watch the way this team has been put together, and in particular, interesting to note that Mike Kryzewski of Duke, along with Jimmy Boeheim of Syracuse, are alloting the minutes. I’ve never partaken of the Coach K Kool-Aid, but there is a certain symmetry in him starting Jason Kidd over Chris Paul and Deron Williams at the point–the overrated coach showing deference to the player I consider the most overrated player in the NBA. Anyone with two eyes can see that Kidd is a distant third in terms of both talent and fit on this squad, and yet he gets the opening minutes instead of two much better, much classier players.

Even Doug Collins couldn’t help but comment that the Chinese weren’t even bothering to guard Kidd, who not only didn’t shoot in his 13 minutes on the floor, but didn’t drop a single dime and tied for the team lead in turnovers (with Kobe, who played more than twice as many minutes). Throw in aged footwork on defense and the mystery deepens as to why Paul and D-Will hug the pine at the onset.

In fact, the inability of Dwight Howard to develop a shooting touch around the rim, coupled with the emergence of Chris Bosh (both today and in the preliminary games), and the return to health of Dwyane Wade, makes the USA second unit a better ballclub than its starting five–and that’s with Lebron and Kobe, who both have been marvelous, among that first quintet. Take away Lebron and Kobe and you’ve got an over-the-hill Kidd, a still surprisingly raw Howard, and the always questionable Melo Anthony.

By contrast, the bench can run out Bosh, who is easily the most active of the USA bigs; the suddenly resurgent Wade, who didn’t miss a shot today, bagging a team-high 19 points on 7 FGs and 5 FTS; either Deron Williams, who played with a fabulous spark today, and/or Chris Paul, who owns the fastest hands of any backcourt defender; and the option of Michael Redd (if you need to stretch opposing defenses) or Tayshaun Prince (if you need a shutdown defender). Keep Lebron or Kobe out there with that group and start engraving the names on the gold medal trophy right now.

I will say this for K and the NBA elite–they are playing with an appropriately monster emphasis on defense, including the point guards not named Kidd guarding the dribble, the bigs and swingmen deterring penetration (Lebron had three blocks today) and the boxing out to prevent putbacks. China had the 7-6 Yao and the 7 foot Yi (who looked out of shape and often indifferent, and was called out by the announcers as the bad actor in contrast to the wet kisses Yao was slathered with) and still got outrebounded, while compiling an assist-to-turnover ratio of 12/18. Much has been made of the USA adapting to the international style of play, which relies less on low post scoring and more on perimeter treys (the line is nearly three feet closer in than the NBA). But I don’t care so much if the USA can hit the outside jumper, so long as they can defend it properly. Some of that comes from wearing down opponents with their superior depth and transitional quickness–the Chinese were much less accurate from outside in the second half.

For its part, I thought the USA shot too many treys. They were 7-24 from behind the arc, and 31-36 from two-point land. Got that? To match their scoring efficiency on two-pointers, they would have had to have nailed 20 (and two-thirds of a 21st) out of 36 treys. That 86% from inside the arc came against one of the taller teams in these Olympics to boot. I don’t mind Michael Redd jacking up seven treys (he made 3), but Kobe doesn’t need to shoot 7, not when he can (and did) break down almost any single defender and have a superstar waiting for the dish and an open look.

Another quibble: the interior passes are too tightly bunched. Don’t try to thread the needle in transition when you are four feet away from each other; take it to the hole or dish it to the perimeter or to midrange jump shooters–especially when Howard and his mediocre footwork and lousy shooting touch are the beneficiaries of pounding it inside. Both Bosh and Carlos Boozer looked better equipped to finish.

Bottom line, however, is that this is just a fabulous team. People can yelp about the original Dream Team all they want; these guys would give that crew a run for their money. I know, I know–the proof remains to be put in the pudding. But remember, the caliber of international basketball has improved by leaps and bounds since the original Dream Teamers. Watch how this USA squad wears each and every one of its better-quality opponents out in the days ahead, and, hype aside, make your own judgment.