Three thoughts after the U.S. beat Great Britain 118-78 in a pre-Olympic exhibition Thursday in Manchester, England:
1. The U.S. identity is established on perimeter defense. Until an opponent proves otherwise, the most frightening moments in the Olympic basketball tournament will likely arrive sometime in the first quarter, when coach Mike Krzyzewski sends in Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala. Opposing point guards will suddenly find themselves unable to initiate offense -- and often unable to bring the ball past midcourt -- as they and their teammates will become justifiably paranoid of being stripped by blindsiding traps. Great Britain drew within 23-20 late in the first quarter before Westbrook spearheaded the U.S. defense to create turnovers and easy baskets. The period ended with a 33-20 U.S. lead, and the game was effectively decided. This ultra-aggressive defensive style is mandatory for the Americans to mask their lack of size around the basket and prevent better competition from exploiting them in the post. The U.S. has a lot of work to do offensively, and it will presumably be a much better team by the medal round than it was in its third exhibition game. But Krzyzewski has already accomplished his most important goal: The 2012 Olympic squad has built its identity around its defensive intensity.
2. Don't forget about Carmelo Anthony. While LeBron James and Kevin Durant figure to be the leading scorers at the Olympics, Anthony should prove to be indispensable, especially over the next three games. As the U.S. moves to Barcelona for remaining exhibitions against Argentina and Spain, followed by its July 29 Olympic opener against France, the U.S. could lean more heavily on Anthony's versatility. All three of those opponents are medal contenders likely to limit U.S. opportunities in the open floor. And when games slow to a half-court pace, the U.S. will look to Anthony to create mismatches with the defense.
The pace of the exhibitions haven't necessitated the demand for Anthony to establish himself so far, but the U.S. certainly appreciates the ability of the 6-foot-8 Anthony to post up against smaller defenders and exploit bigger ones out on the perimeter. He appeared to be preparing himself for the next week of challenges by casually taking control of this game on offense at the end of the first quarter. When the perimeter defenders created opportunities, it was Anthony who finished them, contributing a pair of threes sandwiched around two transition dunks. He wound up with 19 points, tying Deron Williams for the team lead.
3. The role being played by Luol Deng is inspiring. For those looking for an underdog worth cheering for in the Olympic basketball tournament, it's the Bulls' 6-foot-8 small forward. Though his team was humbled on Thursday, Deng stayed on the court for a game-high 32 minutes, keeping his head up and leading by example for a national team that lacks tradition. Deng believes that he and his family were essentially rescued by Britain, where they moved from Sudan (via Egypt) when he was just a boy. Deng was insistent about representing Great Britain on its home soil during the Olympics despite the painful wrist injury he suffered during his All-Star season with the Bulls, and he has postponed surgery (which may no longer be needed) in order to lead his adoptive nation this summer.
In spite of the full attention of the U.S. defense, Deng led Great Britain with 25 points while refusing to surrender. He is under no illusion that his team can beat the U.S. in the Olympics; the goal is to finish in the top four in Group B and advance to the medal round. That benchmark is within reach for Deng and his fellow team leader, former NBA big man Pops Mensah-Bonsu (12 points and 9 rebounds), and his strong coaching staff, led by Chris Finch (an assistant for the Houston Rockets). Should the British finish fourth in their group behind Spain, Brazil and Russia (and ahead of Australia and China), then Deng will likely find himself in a quarterfinal rematch with the U.S. that will create enormous interest for basketball in a country that has yet to find success playing the American game. It is a worthy mission.