Team USA keeps big picture in mind after two blowout victories
LONDON -- What good can come from a game you can't lose? Such is the issue facing U.S. men's coach Mike Krzyzewski as he escorts his basketball team through this week of round-robin play.
"This isn't a sprint,'' Krzyzewski said after his team crushed Tunisia 110-63 on Tuesday night. "It's a longer race and there are a lot of things that have to be done before the medal round. We didn't get anyone hurt tonight.''
He wasn't trying to be funny. It's the simplest things that matter at this early stage of the competition. When big man Kevin Love left the game momentarily with an injury that turned out to be a banged knee -- he would return to the court a short time later -- then Krzyzewski was able to view the incident as a kind of victory.
Though injuries to several big men left the team undersized as the roster was assembled, the 12 U.S. players here appear to be remarkably healthy. Point guard Chris Paul has been playing with a sore thumb and shooting guard Kobe Bryant has been rested for most of the two games, but otherwise there appear to be no compromising issues. The chief U.S. rival, Spain, would love to be in such good shape after shooting guard and team captain Juan Carlos Navarro
The U.S. is 2-0 in Group A and 7-0 since joining together last month in Las Vegas. Krzyzewski gave the players Wednesday off from practice before their next game, Thursday against Nigeria (1-1), which lost 72-53 to Lithuania. Nigeria's roster of American-born players (including Al-Farouq Aminu, a New Orleans Hornets forward and the eighth pick in the 2010 draft, and 28-year-old power forward Ike Diogu, who has played for six NBA teams) will present a better test than Tunisia.
"We're not happy just to be here,'' said forward Alade Aminu, Al-Farouq's brother.
Whenever Krzyzewski is asked to compare his team to the original 1992 Dream Team, he comes back to this fact: This group's opponents are here to compete and to measure themselves, rather than to pose for pictures. (Though Krzyzewski did himself pose for a photo with a Polish journalist who pronounced him name correctly at the postgame news conference.)
"They look at this game as the game of their life,'' he said of the Tunisians, though he may as well have been talking about the Nigerians and other opponents.
After Krzyzewski opened Tuesday's second half by benching his starting five in favor of a second unit led by the defense of guard Russell Westbrook and swingman Andre Iguodala, he insisted that he hadn't been mad at his starters for enabling Tunisia to take an early 15-12 lead or remain within 46-33 at the half. Instead, he said, the goal was to balance the minutes and give more time to Love (who would play 18 minutes), shooting guard James Harden (16) and forward-center Anthony Davis (12).
"You don't know who it's going to be that helps us win the gold medal,'' Krzyzewski said. "If you look at the gold-medal game against Spain in '08, Tayshaun Prince gave us eight [actually six] points in an abbreviated role that were huge for us because LeBron [James] and Kobe had two quick fouls each. If we don't get those guys to a level of experience over a period of time, then they may not be ready for those moments -- and that's what we're trying to do.''
Tuesday's win was not without its lessons as the Tunisians made seven three-pointers and missed several other open shots by executing their offense.
"The point I wanted to make and we need to adjust is that we need to stop switching so much'' on defense, Bryant said. "Especially in the first half -- because of that, our defense was a little softer and gave them a lot more space. In the second half we came out, didn't switch, kept bodies on bodies, and put a lot of pressure on them.''
The haunting aspect of the Dream Team is the anachronistic idea that the U.S. should go unchallenged. In fact, Krzyzewski wants challenges that force his players to engage.
"It's not going to be a perfect thing, you know,'' he said after the win against Tunisia. "But overall tonight was good. Come on -- it's 110-63, you can nitpick and do whatever.''