By Terry Lyons, CBSTampa Special Contributor
The boys in Vegas won’t be shocked by the prediction that the United States will successfully defend its 2008 title as Olympic gold medalists in London. But the forecast for Team USA’s road to gold comes with severe storm warnings.
To those close to the team, we might replace the Olympic motto of “Faster, Higher, Stronger” with the predicted outcomes of “Close, Closer, Closest.” The USA’s all-out dominance of men’s basketball – dating back to the ’36 Olympics but underlined in 1956, ’60 and ’92, then reinstituted by the 2008 “Redeem Team” – will be replaced by one huge factor: the ability to force turnovers and score in transition.
It’s that simple.
“If we win the gold medal, it will be because of how well we play defensively,” stressed USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski after his team won-out over Brazil thanks to a 20-5 second quarter run in a Washington, D.C. exhibition last week.
The strategic philosophy developed for the 2012 version of USA Basketball’s elite is born from a combination of many factors. That philosophy began the day after the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, transpired throughout the 2010 World Championship in Istanbul, and further unfolded during the basketball season leading up to the 30th Olympiad.
Here is one man’s take on the big picture, following the USA’s 98-71 rout of France and its NBA-heavy roster in the opening round Sunday.
First, on the day after the Beijing Olympics, USA guard Jason Kidd hung-up his “USA” jersey and announced he’d played his last game for the national team. Kidd’s presence and the obvious addition of Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant to the ’08 squad, were monumental.
While Bryant’s ability to guard the perimeter might be over-looked by some, his uncanny leadership skills – along with his willingness to step-up and hit big shots – was an element that put Team USA over the top. So, while Bryant’s game made the USA exponentially better, it was Kidd’s locker-room demeanor, confidence, and “We’re not going to lose on my watch” attitude that gave the younger members of the ’08 team a level of swagger that the 2006 USA bronze-medal world championship team did not possess.
Kidd, David Robinson and Ray Allen are unquestionably the best international players the USA had on its roster since the ’92 Dream Team passed the torch, along with the impossible task of living up to the legendary efforts in Barcelona. Don’t overlook the fact – losing Kidd hurt.
At the ’06 worlds, the USA left home with a backcourt that could not defend the bigger, stronger guards of international play. While the likes of 6-foot Chris Paul, 6-foot-3 Kurt Hinrich and 6-4 Dwyane Wade played defense with tenacity and skill, they were simply outmuscled by a Greek team that ran its pick and roll offense to perfection. Coach K and Team USA – joined by USA Basketball head-honcho Jerry Colangelo – countered by sliding Lebron James to play the point, but James’ defensive abilities in 2006 were nowhere close to his “D” in 2012.
Secondly, after the triumph and relief of ’08, the United States had to field a team for the 2010 FIBA world championship.
Gone were Bryant, Wade, James, Kidd, Paul, Deron Williams and the entire core from ’08. Instead, Team USA stocked up with a ton of big-time, versatile guards such as Chauncey Billups, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and a bevy of 6-6 to 6-9 swingmen like Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Rudy Gay.
Meanwhile, as the 2011-12 basketball season and playoffs unfolded, several players – including former NBA MVP Rose, center Dwight Howard and forward Chris Bosh – all suffered nagging injuries that kept them from pushing their bodies through a grueling summer of try-outs, exhibition games and, ultimately, eight tough Olympic games.
The loss of Howard and Bosh, in particular, combined with the personal trials and tribulations of C-F Lamar Odom (possibly the MVP of the 2004 and 2010 national teams), handed the USA with a roster void of big men, the so-called traditional centers. The result: the United States headed to London this past week with a team that might jump “higher” and is infinitely “faster” but is under-sized and certainly not “stronger” in any sense of the word.
The rest of the world’s teams have all studied Team USA closely and will calculate different ways to defeat the Americans. Certainly, it will involve getting the USA’s only true center, Tyson Chandler, into early foul trouble. It will involve the defensive strategy to allow the USA to penetrate and pitch for long, outside jumpers.
If an Anthony or James struggles with the outside shooting as Mr. Melo did in the 2006 elimination game against Greece in Japan – or even as the entire USA squad did in its Washington, D.C. exhibition game against Brazil – the upset vultures will be circling, That’s what happened when Lithuania ran with the USA in Sydney in 2000.
But if the likes of Carmelo Anthony, James, Iguodala, Bryant or Durant are hitting from three-point land, it will translate to 20-plus point victories for Team USA – no matter who the opponent is.
Terry Lyons, former NBA Vice President of International Communications, worked the 1984 and ’88 Olympics stateside, then accompanied Team USA’s basketball team from 1992 through the 2008 Olympics. He is the co-founder of MediaForward.tv and serves as Editor in Chief of DigitalSportsDesk.com http://www.digitalsportsdesk.com On Twitter, follow – @DigSportsDesk