The U.S. women's basketball team, now riding a 26-game Olympic winning streak dating back to 1992 and Barcelona, may well wind up grateful for Saturday's tutorial by the time they leave Beijing -- even if you'd never know it if you missed the first four minutes of the Americans' 97-57 victory over the Czech Republic.
The Czechs' starting five all play for the same club team in Brno, where the coach, logically enough, is national team coach Jan Bobrovsky. Poised, balanced and almost extra-sensorally aware of one another, they raced out to a 10-2 lead as each starter -- Petra Kulichova, Ivana Vecerova, Eva Viteckova, Hana Machova, and Jana Vesela -- scored.
Meantime, Katie Smith twice, then Diana Taurasi, then Tina Thompson jacked up hasty and ill-advised perimeter jumpers for the U.S., whose only bucket came on a Taurasi shot with a high degree of difficulty.
U.S. coach Anne Donovan called a timeout, sent glue gal Kara Lawson to the scorer's table, and asked her starters what was going on.
"She wasn't happy," Taurasi said afterward. "It was a good time to sit down and take a deep breath."
The Czechs held an advantage to 17-12, whereupon Lawson led a 10-0 run that sent the Americans on their way. Donovan tells her charges to pick up opponents at the earliest opportunity, regardless of whether they've scored. But it's hoop truth that a press is most effective after a made basket, and the better the shot selection, the more baskets you make. Following a cloud of Czech turnovers, beyond-the-arc masonry and -- as they don't have much depth beyond the Brno Five -- fatigue, it was 'ova and out.
The game highlighted four keys to the U.S. beating out Australia, winners at the World Championships, and the Russians, who defeated the Aussies in the semifinals of the same event two years ago:
• Defense. Donovan says she's not sold on how everyone on her roster plays it individually. "Our task as a staff is to get more out of the team on defense," she says. "We're trying to change the culture defensively with little tricks here and there." If you see Team USA hedging out on screens, and coming with help early in a possession -- and possessions last only 24 seconds in international play -- they're doing something right.
• Team cohesion. Donovan notes the irony that, as the U.S. men find more time to train together, the women are getting less. The WNBA is on hiatus for these Games, which meant that Sue Bird played for the Seattle Storm on July 27 and pulled on a USA practice jersey the following afternoon. As Bird says, "In the women's game, you can't just rely on athleticism bailing you out. For us to be successful, we have to play together."
• Go deep into the bench. In other words, leverage the very thing the Czechs, and most other teams in the tournament, don't have. "Our depth is only an advantage if we use it," Lawson said after Saturday's game. "If we just keep the waves coming." Which leads to ...
• Fatigue. The American roster is full of players in year-round demand, and like Endless Summer surfers, they migrate from lucrative European club contracts to the WNBA to their national team with hardly a break. "I worry," Donovan says.
She's probably worrying less after Saturday night -- and after hearing guard Cappie Pondexter say, as she did afterward, "We did learn a lesson."