Kevin Love, Team USA coaches hard at work after win over France
LONDON -- With each game it's as though Team USA is crossing more items off its to-do list. On Sunday, the U.S. men developed Kevin Love as a contributor to their undersized front line. He scored 14 points in 14 minutes to create hope that he'll be ready when he's needed -- next Monday against Argentina in the final preliminary basketball game, and especially for the knockout rounds, when one bad day could ruin years of planning.
"I finally got into a rhythm,'' Love said before the U.S. practiced Monday. "I just had an opportunity. I got a chance, and my whole career I've worked as hard as I can to stay ready and I did that here.''
The previous three weeks of training and exhibitions had been a struggle for Love to establish himself. It was especially frustrating because his game was made for the Olympics -- at 6-foot-10, he rebounds, he makes three-pointers and he is skilled around the basket. He can contribute without having plays made for him.
"Early on, I couldn't really find myself in the offense -- or the defense, for that matter,'' he said. "I don't know if 'bummed' is the right word, but I think I was just a little confused. I was working so hard to be in this position to make a big impact on this team.''
Love met with coach Mike Krzyzewski before the team's final exhibition last week against Spain in Barcelona.
"He still needs everybody to bring their same egos and swagger that they have from their respective [NBA] teams back in the States," Love said. "He wants us to bring that back to the court but wrap it around a team mentality.
"We sat down and went over film, and since then I believe I've played better. And in practice, I know better what to look for and work for.''
In blowout victories against Spain and then in the Olympic opener vs. France, Love found a niche around the basket by trailing the play to receive passes or otherwise recovering loose balls to create plays for himself. The next three U.S. games will give Love and other teammates opportunities to build on their roles. Team USA will be facing Tunisia on Tuesday, Nigeria on Thursday and Lithuania on Saturday, a series of escalating opponents that will prepare it for the final game of group play against the Argentines, who looked strong in their opening win against Lithuania on Sunday night.
"I think everybody's going to have a chance to play a lot and gear up for the very important games, which are the single-elimination games,'' Love said. "But we're not looking past anybody.''
That's why Krzyzewski's staff scouts opponents as if they were in the NBA. The Tunisians feature no NBA players, but Krzyzewski insists they be studied as if they were the Miami Heat or Oklahoma City Thunder. They've been scrutinized statistically, by video and in person by a USA scouting staff that includes Tony Ronzone, Chris Collins, Steve Wojciechowski, Mike Hopkins of Syracuse and other members of Krzyzewski's staff at Duke. Several U.S. scouts stayed at the Olympic Park Basketball Arena for all six games Sunday, while Krzyzewski and his bench assistants -- Jim Boeheim, Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan -- watched Tunisia lose its opener to Nigeria on television.
Scouting has been one of the major advances created over the last few years by Krzyzewski and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo. The coaches will prepare the U.S. for its next game by breaking down Tunisia in a manner typical of the NBA.
"We go through personnel, sets, defense,'' D'Antoni said. "Coach [Krzyzewski] likes to give a talk of all of the personnel, going through each player and what his strengths are, his weaknesses. Then you show a video of the personnel, so they get that information twice. Then we show what they run all of the time, and if they played us before, we'll take that [video] and use that as a teaching tool. It's exactly the same thing as you do in the NBA, but because they're here [at the Olympics], you probably have more time to go through everything.''
The U.S. has done a strong job of defending three-pointers, which is crucial to avoiding an upset. After Sunday's opening win against France, Krzyzewski spoke of avoiding the first-half foul trouble that the U.S. endured as it adapted to the way the game was being officiated, and so avoiding fouls will be a point of emphasis for the coming week. The U.S. enjoyed a good draw in that each opponent over the next week promises to create a greater challenge, which will help the team build toward the latter rounds.
"In the NBA we know the teams, all their sets and secondary sets, and we know all the players,'' forward Kevin Durant said. "Here it's a little different. You don't know all the players -- just the guys who played in the NBA, or maybe the best players overall in Europe. But we know we have a lot of talent and a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things, and maybe that makes up for us not knowing as much [about opponents].''
Said Love: "We have many guys that really do a great job of making sure that we're ready and we have a game plan. Most of the guys we don't know, but we do a lot of video on each player, a lot of teams' sets, similar to how we do it in the NBA. And the walk-through is very much the same as well.''
Scouting is the means to avoid a major surprise. The next three games are unlikely to offer a large scare. More important will be affirming the style of play that the U.S. will need to prevail toward the end of the tournament, and that means bringing out the best in contributors like Love.