A message awaited members of the U.S. team a few hours ago, as they boarded the bus for Tuesday afternoon's practice at Beijing Normal University. On every seat someone had left a piece of paper that read, TAKE NOTHING FOR GRANTED [0-0].
Ever the extrovert, center Dwight Howard met the press with the orders taped to his chest.
I've heard of being "on message," but this was "message on."
With pool play over, the Redeem Team embarks on single-elimination medal-round play against Australia with a quarterfinal at 8 a.m. ET on Wednesday. The urgent circumstances have everyone using the idiom most familiar to him. For most of the U.S. players that means each remaining contest will be "like Game 7 of the NBA Finals." For coach Mike Krzyzewski, the analogy of choice is the NCAA tournament.
Team USA met the Aussies in Shanghai on Aug. 5 for its final pre-Olympic tune-up, winning by 87-76, its smallest margin of victory since mustering in Las Vegas at the end of July.
To be sure, there were extenuating circumstances. It was the Americans' fourth game in six days. Moreover, Team USA scout Tony Ronzone said, "We treated it more like a practice, trying out different things defensively. That muddied up the game a little bit."
"It was our last game," guard Deron Williams said. "We wanted to get to Beijing."
This time, the U.S. will focus less on trying out its own new stuff, and more on gumming up Australia's -- and there's plenty to stop from a team that features Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut; former Dallas Mavericks forward Chris Anstey; and point guard Patrick Mills, who plays in the States at St. Mary's.
"They run a lot of Princeton stuff," Krzyzewski said. "And they shoot a lot of threes, and hit a lot of threes. They've hit 16 of their last 25."
Playing that game in Shanghai, Coach K believes, will turn out to have been a blessing. "It gave us a chance to personally touch some of these players," he said. "We know how quick Mills is, why [forward David] Anderson is one of the best in Europe, and how Anstey can still really shoot."
On defense, the Aussies sag into the lane, so the Americans' own newfound three-point touch -- the U.S. is 23-for-51 from beyond the arc in its last two games -- may come in handy.
In one important respect, Australia resembles world champion Spain in 2006 and Olympic gold medalist Argentina in 2004, in that it can leverage a core that has remained intact for at least a half-dozen years. "They're one of the hottest teams playing right now," Ronzone said. "They're very relaxed."
Before their final pool play game with Lithuania, the Aussies stood arm-and-arm for the Anthem. "They must have had a team meeting or something," Ronzone said, pointing to Australia's 106-75 thumping of the Lithuanians. "It's amazing what can happen at the Olympics when teams get in a family way."
The Aussies are playing well enough that they should keep things in hand for longer than Greece, Spain or Germany did during Team USA's final three pool-play games. But right now the U.S. will put its togetherness up against anyone's. The Americans may be on notice to take nothing for granted, but it's becoming harder and harder for the rest of the world, as it watches the U.S. gather momentum, to regard the gold medal as anything but a foregone conclusion.
U.S over AustraliaGreece over ArgentinaLithuania over ChinaSpain over Croatia
U.S. over GreeceSpain over Lithuania
Lithuania over Greece
The Skinny: The Spaniards may have held something back during pool play, but they weren't playing 37 points' worth of possum.
Final Score: U.S. 95, Spain 78