LONDON -- The comparison with previous eras -- 1992 especially -- is irrelevant to this U.S. men's basketball team, because it is under such pressure to win the Olympic gold medal with a wing-heavy lineup that isn't ideal. That's why a sound 98-71 opening victory against France on Sunday was so important. For the first time in their three weeks together, the Americans expressed absolute confidence.
As individuals, they've always been confident, but as a team they've often played too fast, as if in a hurry to take advantage of their athleticism and skills. In this game they looked altogether like a golfer who slows down his swing and finds he hits the ball straighter and farther. In this case, the proper rhythm started with LeBron James.
Over the two weeks ahead, James will probably play every position at both ends of the floor, but on Sunday, his work as a playmaker was crucial to establishing the terms for the seven games that lead to a gold medal (or so the U.S. hopes). He finished with eight assists (and nine points) in 25 minutes; more to the point was James' 6-3 halftime lead in assists over Tony Parker's entire roster. When the French were in possession of the ball, they were unable to run plays or complete passes against the ball-deflecting U.S. defense. The Americans, on the other hand, were sharing the ball freely among their talented scorers. Any game in which all but four of their field goals are assisted is likely to result in a win going away, as it was on this afternoon when James' teammates followed his example.
Their command was something of an aberration.
"They don't really blow out every team," said French forward Nicolas Batum (seven points in 18 minutes) in assessing the Americans, who went 5-0 in exhibitions leading up to the first Olympic game. "They won by six against Argentina, they won by 11 against Brazil. They can lose one game maybe."
He listed the recipe for an upset.
"You have to play a 40-minute game, really," said Batum, the Trail Blazers' promising small forward. "Control the rebound, take care of the ball and play good defense. Some teams can do that, like Spain, Argentina, Brazil."
Of course he was right. It isn't just for the pursuit of aesthetics that the U.S. needs to share the ball, and it isn't to prove the hypothesis that it may yet compare favorably with the Dream Team. (Which can never be proved, because that team obviously was superior to this team today.) Instead, the Americans must strive to peak solely because they might be upset in the semis or final otherwise.
When Yannick Bokolo of the French league beat the first-quarter buzzer with a three-pointer, the U.S. was sent back to its bench with a scant 22-21 advantage.
"I think France played well defensively," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski tried to explain graciously.
"Thank you," mouthed French coach Vincent Collet, nodding from the far end of the table from Krzyzewski at the postgame news conference. "Thank you."
Closer to the truth was that several Americans were in the early stages of foul trouble and that Parker had been getting to the basket frequently. But Parker rested to begin the next quarter, and that lapse of French depth -- something that should never be a problem for the U.S. -- was converted quickly into a double-digit American lead.
By halftime, the U.S. was up 52-36 and Kevin Durant had scored 15 of his game-high 22 points. But he would take the ideal of unselfishness too much to heart while passing up three consecutive threes, by Krzyzewski's count.
"That's the beauty of this team, though -- guys don't mind passing the ball, they don't mind sacrificing minutes and shots, and that's what makes this whole thing work,'' Durant said. "Coach has been screaming at me -- and Chris Paul has been screaming at me more than anybody -- to shoot the ball, so I guess I have to be aggressive."
As well as the Americans played while stretching their lead to as many as 29 points, Durant believes there are better days to come.
"I think we can go to another level," he said. "We missed some easy shots, free throws, we got to finish plays. And on the defensive end, we got to stay solid."
They missed 10 of 38 free throws and shot only 43.1 percent from the field (compared to 39.4 percent for France), but the Americans can build up those numbers from a position of strength as long as teamwork is their base. Two full-court outlet passes by James laid out their potential in full. In the opening quarter, he turned and crouched to improve the angle of a two-handed bounce pass of 40 feet through traffic that led Durant for a dunking three-point play. Later, James threw a flare ahead to Deron Williams, who, with one hand, volleyballed a behind-the-back bounce pass for Durant to earn a pair of free throws.
Parker, uncomfortable in goggles needed to protect his injured eye, managed 10 points (on 4-of-13 shooting) and one assist with four turnovers, while his future Spurs teammate Nando de Colo had seven points overall and five nervous turnovers in the early going. The U.S. rested Kobe Bryant for all but 12 minutes while establishing Kevin Love for 14 points in 14 minutes off the bench -- an important contribution because, at 6-10, his array of skills might be crucial in the latter stages against the bigger teams.
Michelle Obama happened to see the U.S. at its best (thus far), and afterward she congratulated her countrymen for making easy work of an opponent whose six NBA players were supposed to serve as a major threat.
"She said we're the only sweaty people that can give her hugs," said James Harden, who played 14 minutes in his Olympic debut.
They hope to be playing even better over the next two weeks. Because their future opponents may insist on it.