LAS VEGAS -- No one is going to be able to run with this U.S. team,
It won't be easy to slow the game, but France, Argentina, Brazil and Spain will be among the contenders aiming to do it. It's in those potential situations that the U.S. will wish it had 6-foot-10 Blake Griffin, among its other missing big men. That lone vulnerability may also resonate with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley, the original Dream Teamers who scoffed this week at the idea that their 1992 collection of Hall-of-Famers might have lost to the current U.S. team.
Jordan was right to laugh when he heard Kobe Bryant suggest that the youth and athleticism of his team today would be too much for its forefathers of 20 years ago. What else was Bryant going to say? He has never admitted inferiority to anyone.
But he was wrong in this case, and it has everything to do with size and style of play. The Dream Team was a traditional basketball outfit that played through the low post. The current U.S. team -- minus big men Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge, Lamar Odom and now Griffin -- has little post presence apart from Bryant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
The importance of post play was proved this past NBA season by none other than James. Last year James didn't play with his back to the basket, with the result that he failed to respond to the Mavericks' loaded-up defense. When he developed his post game this season he was able to dominate the Thunder, who themselves had no post presence.
A basketball team that can't play through the post is like a football team that can't run off-tackle for first downs. It's a style of play that becomes necessary at the most important times, especially when an opponent is able to slow the game to a tightened halfcourt pace.
It's almost anachronistic to complain about a lack of back-to-basket play in this era of athleticism and dribble-penetration, but it's an option that the Dream Team surely would exploit in a theoretical showdown against the current U.S. collection. Like the American team of today, the Dream Teamers would defend all over the floor, create turnovers, play in transition and shoot threes. But the team of 20 years ago could also play through the post via Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone and David Robinson.
That is not a go-to strength for the U.S. team that spent Thursday running the Dominicans off the floor. The U.S. forced 27 turnovers for 38 points, and its defense was able to zero in on the two big NBA threats while holding All-Star center Al Horford of the Hawks and guard Francisco Garcia of the Kings to a combined 1 for 15 from the field.
The U.S. should be seeking to force turnovers and play at full speed in the open floor, because its strength isn't going to be structured halfcourt offense. This team is going to be defined in no small part by the perimeter defense of Russell Westbrook and Andre Iguodala (18 points), who for a late stretch of the third quarter made it impossible for the Dominican guards to advance the ball past halfcourt as Bryant, Durant and Anthony stood from the end corner of the bench cheering on their defense.
"The way we're playing," said U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, "is exactly the way we should play with this group of athletes."
There is no doubt he is right, which is why this team has a chance to be the most intriguing U.S. contender since 1992. It will be especially interesting to see how the unorthodox American lineups respond against an experienced opponent that is able to withstand the defensive pressure. Krzyzewski made it clear that no one should be viewing 6-10 power forward Anthony Davis as an answer to the issues up front now that Griffin has been diagnosed with a torn meniscus in his left knee that will sideline him from the Games in London. The 19-year-old Davis will play in the Olympics before he has made his NBA debut.
"Blake is older," said Krzyzewski in comparing Griffin to Davis. "Blake weighs more. Blake has guarded (Pau) Gasol. Blake is one of the best players in the league. Blake is a proven commodity, and if we don't have him it's a big loss.''
His loss means the U.S. will have to ask more of its biggest wing players. In the early going of this game, James was guarding Horford, which was a quick example of the enlarged roles Krzyzewski will also be asking of Kevin Love, Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Iguodala. "Rebounding is going to be a key thing," said Krzyzewski. "We're not as tall as we were in Beijing (in 2008). We're a little bit like the World Championship team in Istanbul."
In that tournament, like this one, 7-1 Tyson Chandler was the team's lone traditional center. "It's very, very similar," Krzyzewski went on. "I think we're more talented than the World Championship team, but we can get small -- comparative to some of the international teams -- real quick."
If Tony Parker of France or Pablo Prigioni of Argentina or Jose Calderon of Spain is able to fend off the hawkish press defense, then the U.S. will face the most interesting challenge of all. Can it win a slower game against an equally tall or taller opponent? Over the opening three quarters Thursday, the U.S. ran two traditional post ups. Two post-up plays. Both were entered to Bryant, who made one of his two ensuing fallaway jumpers.
That's not an indictment of a team that is just beginning to install its halfcourt offense. Of course this team ought to run whenever possible, and in this opening game those possibilities seemed infinite. This group of Americans have the point guards, coaching and frontcourt talent necessary to play to any style. But it's not an unbeatable team either, and the best way to understand its vulnerability is to imagine what would happen if it were indeed able to play its forefathers of 1992: The Dream Team would smother them in the post.
Sorry, Mr. Bryant, but that's one game you couldn't win.