By Alexander Wolff
August 20, 2008

BEIJING -- Three straight U.S. blowouts in pool play -- against teams from Europe, the continent that was supposed to have provided the Americans with their stoutest tests at these Olympics -- had we ladies and gentlemen of the press getting just slightly ahead of ourselves over the past 48 hours.

Talk in the mixed zone and press tribune had even turned to a subject that would have been wholly taboo two weeks ago: comparing this Redeem Team to the original Dream Team.

And then, in Wednesday's quarterfinal with Australia, Team USA didn't just look mortal. For a telling stretch of the first quarter, the Americans looked horrid.

It began with the U.S. in control, leading the Aussies 15-6 and probably feeling smug that Andrew Bogut, the 7-foot center for the Milwaukee Bucks, was already pining it with two fouls.

That's when Australia laid a little full-court pressure on the U.S. -- a turn-the-tables gambit just cheeky enough to throw the Yanks back on their heels.

Then Patrick Mills, the little guard who plays college ball for St. Mary's, knocked down a three-pointer. Kobe Bryant did the Aussies a favor, jacking up a fadeaway turnaround early in the shot clock. Whereupon Australia's David Barlow knocked in a three of his own, putting the Boomers within 15-12.

Oz went into a zone, over which Jason Kidd knocked down a jumper. But Matt Nielsen found Chris Anstey near the basket for two; Carmelo Anthony squeezed off an ill-advised fadeaway from the baseline for the U.S.; and, after a free throw and layup from Dwight Howard, Anstey bottomed out another Boomer three, which brought matters to 20-17.

A couple of U.S. turnovers ensued, sandwiched around a Kobe brick from beyond the arc and one more jumper from Anstey.

The upshot: The quarter ended with Australia trailing by only 25-24. Team USA had gotten just slightly ahead of itself, like we scribes.

With the start of the second quarter, the natural order of things was restored. In what will become an iconic recurring moving image of these Olympics, Dwyane Wade made off with an Aussie brick, flicked in a layup as he was fouled and added the free throw to put the U.S. up four. Oz never did seize the lead.

But with that first quarter, the Aussies had restored to the remaining teams in the draw (to borrow a phrase) the audacity of hope.

With the U.S. up only 12 at the half, fans stuck around. Reporters didn't kite off to Greco-Roman. And the other semifinalists -- the Argentines (who with an 80-78 defeat of Greece get the U.S. on Friday); the Spaniards (72-59 victors over Croatia); and the Lithuanians (who ended China's run with an emphatic 94-68 victory) -- could all go back to mulling over game plans with the conviction that the time spent wouldn't necessarily amount to a fool's errand.

The takeaway for the U.S.: Slovenly turnovers are uncalled for. Chris Anstey has more to his credit than having once been tennis player Mary Pierce's paramour. And to settle for jump shots -- especially early-in-a-possession fadeaways -- is to invite an opponent to stay in the game.

The takeaway for the rest of the world: Somewhere in a 116-85 U.S. romp there was a wisp of a hint of vulnerability.

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