I was among the one billion viewers tuned in Sunday morning as the United States routed China 101-70, the first step in what "Redeem Team" hopes will be a restoration of hoops pride that has been lost over the last half dozen years. And let me get this out of the way:
The U.S. can lose down the road in Beijing. I'm not saying it will. I'm saying that it can. In terms of personnel, this U.S. team is the closest to the original Dream Team of 1992. But there is positively, absolutely no comparison to the basketball world of 16 years ago to today's global game. More on that later.
Sunday's game turned, predictably, into a run-and-dunk contest in which the depth-lacking host team couldn't possibly compete. The U.S. had worn China down by early in the third quarter, then slipped into those open spaces created by fatigue for dunks and wide-open looks.
But don't think for a second that the Chinese represented much of a test. The early snapshot of that game -- the U.S. missing wide-open three-pointers, the Chinese draining the same shots whenever the U.S. gambled or double-teamed -- is what undoubtedly occupied the thoughts of the U.S. coaching staff when the game was over. Spain, Argentina and Greece all have better shooters, better defenders and, most importantly, more depth than China. Games against those teams will likely be close and turn on execution and three-point shooting. As the opponents become more formidable, the U.S. should have one primary thought on defense: Don't gamble. (That means you Kobe Bryant and you Dwyane Wade.) A missed steal on a pass, a lunge on a crossover, an injudicious doubling on the ball, and the tournament's formidable teams will score, more often than not on a three-pointer.
China was the ideal opening opponent for the U.S., not strong enough to score an upset, but tall, reasonably talented and energized by the home crowd. To put things in perspective, the '92 Dream Team opened against Angola, a team that should never have even qualified since the entire African continent, at that point, had few organized leagues. But there are no global patsies anymore in the Olympics.
The U.S.-Angola game 16 years ago was more sideshow than competition. I remember David Dupree of USA Today nudging me at one point and saying, "Is my math correct? Has the U.S. gone on a 46-1 run?" And I said, "I can't believe you're still taking notes." It was true -- during one 13-minute stretch, the U.S. margin was 46-1.
That game was also the one in which Charles Barkley famously elbowed an Angolan forward named Herlander Coimbra. It was the big news -- what else could you write about in a game that ended 116-48, setting the tone for what would be Team USA's 43.8-point margin of victory en route to the gold medal? -- but, if you were there, it really didn't come across as that egregious of an offense. In a curious way, in fact, it conveyed a kind of respect upon the Angolans. Who wants to be picked off the floor and patted on the butt after every play, right? Besides, it involved Teflon Charles, everybody's friend even when he was acting like a horse's ass. Eventually and inevitably, Charles posed for a photo with Coimbra, who would've probably picked up Barkley's laundry had he asked.
That's how it was back then. The U.S. did what it wanted, on and off the court, and everything was fine. The U.S. was king and everyone else was serf.
Well, things are different now. This '08 team, led by Bryant and LeBron James, has to both toe the comportment line and play solid, fundamental and top-flight basketball to come out on top. I have little doubt it will do the former. The latter remains the big question.