Carmelo Anthony would never have guessed that one of his greatest performances would come against Nigeria. The Nigerians would not let themselves envision the humiliating outcome that is always threatened by the U.S.
"The mindset was we wanted to win the game,'' said Nigerian center Ike Diogu with a slightly embarrassed smile.
Instead they were beaten by 156-73 Thursday in a game that produced all kinds of Olympic records for Anthony and his U.S. teammates. Anthony set a U.S. Olympic record for points (37) as well as for 12 threes attempted and 10 made, which accounted for an outrageous 83.3 percentage.
The Americans made 29 of 46 (63 percent) outside the three-point line and 30 of 37 (81 percent) inside it. They were ahead by 49-23 at the end of the first quarter and by 78-45 one quarter later for what amounted to the largest total of points by any team at halftime in an Olympics.
The quality of their play was far more relevant than the identity of the victim. Fellow contenders will not be able to dismiss this U.S. performance as the kind of game that happens against a team like Nigeria (1-2 in Group A), which celebrated its first Olympic win last weekend. While the U.S. was playing like a video game brought to life, its two biggest rivals -- Spain and Brazil -- moped around unimpressively Thursday while preceding the U.S. into the cozy Basketball Arena. Brazil lost to Russia 75-74 and Spain survived a comeback by winless Great Britain for a 79-78 win, and then out came the U.S. to put the rest of the tournament in perspective while demonstrating a level of excellence beyond reach of its rivals.
When Andre Iguodala hit a three five minutes from the buzzer, he and his teammates heard the public address announcer say, "Ladies and gentlemen, you have just witnessed history -- the highest score ever in an Olympic basketball game.'' The U.S. players on the bench stood and walked along their sideline slapping hands with each other and with the coaching staff. It was a performance they did not take for granted.
"It's a great accomplishment to get that record,'' said Anthony. "We did it in a very high, classy way. When you play the way we came out tonight, that record could have come on any team.''
He was trying to soothe the Nigerians, to help them to avoid taking their humiliation personally -- but there was a reverse truth to his statement that has to frighten opponents awaiting the Americans in the medal round. For if they are making shots at anything like this rate then of course there is no opponent on earth that can run with them. Most frightening of all is common-sense reasoning that they should be able to approach this level against the best opposition, so long as they are defending and forcing turnovers to push the ball into the open floor. No one can dismiss this result by blaming it on Nigeria.
"Coach K [told] me and D-Will to really push the ball,'' said Chris Paul of his fellow point guard Deron Williams. "He told us to not call any sets. So y'all noticed, even after free throws we pushed it, we pushed it. That's why our team is so dangerous in this tournament -- if we don't call any sets and play off one another, the game's a lot faster, a lot funner.''
Fun depends on one's point of view. When a two-handed overhead pass from LeBron James found Kevin Durant across the court for a rhythmic three on the opening seconds, the game was virtually over and done. By the third minute the U.S. lead was up to 13-0. The only Nigerian putting up a meaningful fight was Diogu, a former NBA first-round pick who showed leadership and a stubborn post game by scoring 15 points in the first half on his way to 27 overall (11 of 17).
"It all just depends on your mindset coming into the game,'' Diogu said when asked if any team could beat the U.S. "You've got to be really focused. You've got to play mistake-free basketball. But when they shoot like this, I don't know if there is any team that can beat them.''
They could have taken Anthony's 37 off the board -- as if it was some kind of Las Vegas cutthroat golf match -- and still won breezily. The production of James (six points and five assists in 11 minutes) was minimal. Russell Westbrook went 7 for 8 (including 3 of 4 threes) for his 21 points. Kobe Bryant was 6 of 8 (and 2 of 2) for 16. Kevin Durant was 4 of 7 from the arc, Iguodala was 3 of 3, and Williams was 2 of 3.
Shots were made at the end of beautiful passes in transition. The ball moved as if bouncing off bumpers and flippers in a pinball game, and it moved with intelligence and vision. The U.S. had a spectacular 41 assists and 7 turnovers.
They've been fending off the comparisons ever since Kobe Bryant predicted that this team could beat its elders of 1992, but this was a shooting performance that surpassed the best of the Dream Team. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski had never seen the game look so easy. "We just shot better in a game than any team I've ever coached,'' were his first words afterward.
Krzyzewski was angered by a question of whether the U.S. had humiliated Nigeria for its 83-point win. "The first thing we did was not play LeBron and Kobe in the second half,'' he said. "We didn't play Durant [17 minutes], we didn't take any fast breaks in the fourth quarter and we played all zone. I take offense -- there's no way in the world that our program in the United States is ever out to humiliate anyone. The score is irrelevant to us, we just want to play well and win.''
The Nigerian coach had a pleasant way of deflecting his team's embarrassment. In painful detail he listed the mistakes his players had made in terms of ball movement, getting back in transition and defensive rotations before at long last ending the statement by saying: "Other than that, I think we could have won the game.'' Then he laughed along with his audience of reporters.