LAS VEGAS -- Everyone else looks at the talents of the U.S. Olympic team and wonders how they could ever lose. Coach Mike Krzyzewski looks at them and worries about the clock ticking away.
The opening game in London is little more than two weeks away and he still has not seen his full team on the floor together. On Thursday night here the U.S. will play the first of five pre-Olympic exhibitions against the Dominican Republic, coached by Krzyzewski's NCAA rival John Calipari.
"We have 12 really good guys that over the next couple of weeks we have to develop into a team,'' said Krzyzewski. "That's why we'd like to get everybody healthy and out of free agency so we can start a team-building process and do it a little bit quicker.''
Since the opening of training camp last Friday, LeBron James has been held back to give him time to recover from his recent victory in the NBA Finals. Chris Paul hasn't practiced since aggravating a thumb injury on the first day of practice, and Deron Williams was sidelined while waiting to sign his contract with the Brooklyn Nets as a free agent. Those three stars promise to be the top ballhandlers for the U.S., which explains Krzyzewski's sense of urgency.
"It's a disjointed start because we had to use the first couple of days for selection,'' said Krzyzewski of the decisions on the final three roster spots that went to Blake Griffin, Andre Iguodala and James Harden Saturday. "Then free agency and then injury.
"The early start of the Olympics puts us in the window of the NBA free agency. In '08 our practices started the 20th (of July) -- we never had to deal with that, and we didn't have an injury at one position. That has an impact. It's a negative impact that we have to overcome.''
And yet Krzyzewski has refused to express concern about the most obvious issue of concern, which is the absence of height at center and power forward. Tyson Chandler is the only traditional center on the team, and at 7-1 he's the only American taller than 6-10. "In 2010 Tyson was coming off injury and he was our only guy (at center),'' said Krzyzewski. "We've played this way in the last two major championships, and we're obviously going to have to do this again.''
While he's confident of his players' ability to adapt to unconventional positions and lineups, Krzyzewski also understands that the changes aren't going to happen naturally. That's why the timing of this exhibition is welcome, because it holds him and his players accountable for their progress. They'll be going against a Dominican team led by All-Star center Al Horford of the Hawks and Francisco Garcia of the Kings. The Dominicans finished fourth in the world qualifying tournament in Venezuela, from which Russia, Lithuania and Nigeria advanced to the Olympics. If the Dominicans had won either of their last two games against Lithuania or Nigeria, they would have been moving onto London too.
"We're looking forward to seeing who we are as a team,'' said U.S. forward Kevin Durant, who was competing in the NBA Finals three weeks ago with Oklahoma City teammates Russell Westbrook and Harden. NBA executives who have been watching the practices say that many of the U.S. players have been holding back and that the ball hasn't moved as fluidly as it will have to during the Olympic Games.
While Durant and his teammates have been slowly working themselves into the scrimmages, the focus of a televised game against a competitive opponent should help speed up the process of pulling the team together. "As time goes on we have to feel more comfortable with each other and feel each other out, and that's what exhibitions and practices are for,'' said Durant. "I don't want to go out there and prance around or just stand around because I don't want to step on anybody's toes or I don't want to take the most shots. I'm going to go out there and be me.''
That is exactly the kind of approach Krzyzewski was seeking as he looked ahead to the opener: Less thinking, more reacting.
"In '08 Wade came off the bench,'' said Krzyzewski of Dwyane Wade, who wound up leading the Olympic team in scoring that year. "But he didn't come off the bench like an off-the-bench player. He came off the bench as Dwyane Wade. That's what we're trying to get with the younger guys that they do that.''