No easing in -- France looms as difficult opener for Team USA
LONDON -- This is the best of all introductions to Olympic basketball for the U.S. men. The opponent in the 12-team tournament with the most NBA players is France. The opening U.S. game on Sunday will be against France.
"A team the caliber of France for the first game helps you get even more ready," said U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The Americans don't need any excuses to take it easy. They've been training together in five cities across three countries for three weeks. Their excitement for the Olympics grew after all of their players marched through the sensational staging of the Opening Ceremony Friday night. They want and need the challenge of a medal contender like France, with a roster of a half-dozen NBA players led by Tony Parker of the Spurs.
Parker's supporters could argue that he had a better NBA season than every American but MVP LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Parker was the main reason San Antonio was the No. 1 seed going into the NBA playoffs three months ago, and yet he is of more importance to France. Last summer he drove his country to the silver medal at Eurobasket -- the European Championship -- and he'll be seeking a similar result, at least, in these Olympics.
"Tony's going to be ready to go," said Chris Paul, the likely starter at point guard for the U.S. "Tony's an unbelievable competitor like the rest of us. I've known Tony since I was in college. Their national team in France means everything to him. I actually have one of his old French national team jerseys hanging in my house. Instead of him giving me a Spurs jersey, he'd actually given me one of his French jerseys. So I know how much it means to him, and I know they'll be ready."
A problem for Parker is that the U.S. defense will be attacking him in waves. Coming off the bench behind Paul will be Deron Williams.
"A lot of pick and rolls," predicted Williams of Parker's preferred style. "It's going to be a really good matchup. Me and C.P. are really good friends with Tony, so we're looking forward to that game and trying to slow him down in any way we can."
If they cannot, then maybe the job can be done by Russell Westbrook, who slowed Parker during the Western conference finals. Waiting behind Paul or Williams or Westbrook (or Andre Iguodala, another potential Parker-stopper) will be an interior defense led by center Tyson Chandler, the NBA defensive player of the year. "He's going to be a big challenge for our team," said Chandler. "He's a very fast guard, he's very good at penetrating and getting to the heart of our defense. It's definitely going to take a team effort to try to wall him off from living in our paint."
The U.S. drew additional inspiration by attending the Opening Ceremony. "That's when it really hit everybody," said Carmelo Anthony. "You walk to the village first, get all the athletes, and then walk up to the field together. When they lit the torch, that really was something."
They were surprised to find the torch being lit in the center of the field. How will the field competitions -- the javelin and other events -- be managed around the flame?
"This is the Olympics," said Anthony. "Don't worry about that. That's what they do."
The team members were encouraged not only by their membership in the world's largest athletic community, but also by their prominence. "Guys like Kobe (Bryant) and LeBron -- it's not an exaggeration -- took thousands of pictures with people and were smiling and so courteous to everyone. Not that those other guys weren't, but those two were the most popular, and I think they handled themselves extremely well. I'm proud of them, and I hope we play in a manner that people can be proud of how we play too."
It begins Sunday with Parker, though he's not the only concern. His partner in the backcourt is 25 year old Nando de Colo, the 6-5 combo guard who will be joining Parker's Spurs next season. De Colo has been France's best performer during the summer run-up to London, but little of his time on the court has been spent alongside Parker, who has been recuperating from the difficult NBA season. The American players knew little of De Colo apart from their studies of him on video and in scouting reports, but his role could shrink if Parker has the ball most of the time.
Ronny Turiaf is likely to start at center, with Kevin Seraphin coming off the bench. Much will be demanded of Nicolas Batum (Trail Blazers), who can provide defense, transitional scoring and three-point shooting of the highest level internationally. But the second-most important teammate of Parker's is probably his good friend and Spurs' teammate Boris Diaw, the power forward who can serve as a secondary playmaker alongside Parker. Expect the U.S. defense to key on Diaw in addition to Parker.
"Diaw is a very important guy for them because he's really their best passer," said Krzyzewski. "He's that point forward that they run a lot of their offense through. Batum's shooting is outstanding, and then there's their athletic ability to run up and down the court -- we're not going to be able to out-athlete them like we have with some of our opponents."
France would be an even greater threat if not for the ankle injury that has sidelined center Joakim Noah from the Olympics. Noah has recently told French journalists how badly he wishes he could be in London with his teammates; they may miss him even more once James and Anthony launch their attacks on the rim.