LOS ANGELES– Where’s the suspense?
Team USA bludgeoned Argentina, 111-74, and China, 106-57 in the first two games of its pre-season Olympic exhibition tour and it would be stunning if the Americans are challenged in Rio Olympics. Even without LeBron James and Stephen Curry, this United States senior men’s basketball team is capable of creating an avalanche that could bury the rest of the world, much like Dream Teams 1 and 2 in 1992 and 1996.
They may even be too good for their own good.
Judging from the first two friendlies, they may no longer be must see TV. Their national televised games could be over before they begin.
There is no Spain in this Olympic tournament to push Team USA the way it did in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics at Beijing and London.
The Redeem Team needed 13 points and two assists in the fourth quarter from Kobe Bryant to survive a determined performance by Spain, 118-107, in the 2008 gold medal game. Spain closed within 91-89 with 8:13 left in the game before Bryant, who had been in foul trouble, took over. In the next 2:11, he scored five points and assisted on a Deron Williams three-pointer and Dwight Howard dunk. Later, he drained two threes, including a four point play. Bryant finished with 20 points, six assists and two blocked shots in 27 minutes.
Four years later, Team USA defeated Spain again, 107-100, in another dramatic thriller. Spanish guard Juan-Carlos Navarro lit up the United States with 19 points in the first half and 7-0 NBA All Star center Pau Gasol exploited the American’s lack of size by scoring his team’s first 15 points after halftime, helping his country take a 71-70 lead at the end of the third quarter. Spain was still within 97-91 late in the game before James, who subbed in for a hobbled Carmelo Anthony with 3:30 to play, busted loose for five straight points on a three point shot and a driving right handed slam dunk to sink Spain.
This year, even though Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo and senior team manager Sean Ford had to scramble to find a 12 man roster after an avalanche of elite wing players took a pass for personal or medical reasons and Cleveland Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving didn’t commit until Thursday before the official announcement, this team still is a heavy favorite to win the gold medal.
Three-time Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski only has two players– forwards Kevin Durant from the Warriors and experienced Carmelo Anthony from the Knicks– back from the 2012 gold medal team, but the NBA talent pool is so deep, he could also have seven of the best 10 players in the tournament with the addition of Irving, guard Klay Thompson, forward Paul George and two legitimate low post centers– 6-11, 275-pound DeMarcus Cousins and 6-11, 265-pound DeAndre Jordan.
“We’re young, but we’ve got a bunch of seasoned pros,” Irving said. “We’ve been on a lot of journeys, and we’ve crossed paths before, but now we’re all coming together at the right time.”
This is a much better team than the young United States 2014 World Cup of Basketball team that was considered a “B” squad but matured quickly with Irving, center Anthony Davis, guard James Hardin, Cousins and Thompson and defeated Serbia, 129-92, in the gold medal game at Madrid.and never had to face Spain on its home turf after the Spaniards lost to France in the quarterfinals at Madrid.
Cousins and Jordan have changed the dynamics, giving Krzyzewski imposing physical size and two defensive anchors in the middle– a new dimension for a team that won in 2012 by playing small ball with three forwards– Durant, Anthony and James, playing most of the big minutes.
Cousins is a powerhouse who may be the best big man in the tournament, ahead of the aging Gasol. Both he and tireless Jordan are capable of scoring double figures and extending plays with their offensive rebounding.
The 6-10 Durant and Irving, who was the MVP in the 2014 World Cup, are both game changers. Durant, who was the leading scorer on the United States 2012, has the potential to score more points than minutes played and can combine with his new teammate Thompson to give Team USA two lethal three point shooters. Irving is the best us the young point guard in the world. Durant, the 6-8 George, 6-8 Anthony, 6-6 Demar Derozan, 6-8 Draymond Green and 6-6 Thompson are versatile enough to play multiple positions, which should allow the Americans to switch on every possession and make this the best defensive team Krzyzewski has coached in his three Olympic cycles.
Krzyezewski had to coach the youthful 2010 and 2014 World Championship teams to gold medals. He had to manage the 2008 and 2012 OIympic teams, which restored order to the global game.
This year, he thought he might have to do a little of both because he had never seen Jordan and guards Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry play in the NBA and had not seen George in play in two years after he snapped his left leg after sliding awkwardly into a basket stanchion located too close to the baseline during a 2014 USA Basketball Showcase at the Thomas and Mack Arena at UNLV.
But this team has come along quicker than expected after just one week of practice. The chemistry is definitely there. “We’ve only been together a week, but it seems like we’ve been teammates for years,” Jordan said.
And the competition is not. Since most international teams shy away from taking the ball to the basket against Team USA (China had two points in the paint in the first half of the Los Angeles exhibition), it will take a hot shooting night to challenge this U.S. team, which can go big at four positions.
Spain, which qualified by winning the 2015 European championship, had an initial roster of NBA players like seven-footers Pau and Marc Gasol and guards Navarro and Ricky Rubio. But Marc Gasol is out after failing to recover from a broken right foot in February and the rest of the key players, with the exception of Rubio, are all over 30 and aging The Spaniards’ golden generation blew their best chance to defeat a weakened U.S. team in the 2014 Worlds when they lost to France in the quarterfinals.
France has a core group of quality players, including guard Tony Parker, wings Boris Diaw and Nicholas Batim and center Rudy Gobert, who all have NBA credentials; and guard Nando de Colo, the MVP of the Euroleague who shot 58.5 in the Olympic qualifying tournament. But they didn’t qualify until this summer when they defeated a Canadian team that was missing Andrew Wiggins, 83-73, in finals of a last chance qualifying tournament in the Philippines.
Serbia, playing in its first Olympics, is coming off an Olympic qualifying tournament victory in Zagreb where it shot 54.6 percent fro the floor and 42.2 from the three in qualifying games. Center Nikola Jokic shot 69 percent and teammate Brogdan Bogdanovic, who may challenge Thompson, Durant and de Colo as the best shooter is the tournament, shot 57.8 percent from the floor and 55.6 percent from deep. Both averaged 17.8 points in the qualifying.
“The teams that we play internationally are really good spot-up shooters,” Krzyzewski claimed. “All of them. They can all shoot, and so in your coverages and how you react, they have good movement, which gives them windows of opportunity.”
That was supposed to be Argentina’s trump card in the first exhibition game. The Americans won by 37. Team USA has come a long way since it lost to Greece in the semi-finals of the 2006 World Championships. The machine is purring.