2010 Worlds: Team USA is gold worthy
ISTANBUL, Turkey -- The letter "B."
Every time they see it, they seethe.
"B" Team. B-Deem Team. B-eatable.
"I follow. I listen. I pay attention," Lamar Odom said. "But it's like that sometimes, sometimes you're not the favorite. It's good for us. We kind of take it as a challenge. We love to compete. We're all professionals. And one of the best things about playing sports and being competitive is when someone says you can't."
The fact of the matter remains that this is indeed a "B" team compared to the squad the United States sent to Beijing two years ago, and there is no derogatory intent when that letter and those nicknames are invoked.
You could actually make the argument that this is America's "C" team, because three of the players (Amare Stoudemire, David Lee, Brook Lopez) who were with the team back in mid-July when they gathered in Las Vegas the night before their first practice would probably be here at the crossroads of Europe and Asia if circumstances hadn't forced their withdrawals. But let's step back and B focused on the present, not the past. B-cause as much as there is a temptation to focus on who is not here, that would be an exercise in B-ting a dead horse.
The Americans who are here have undergone a transformation, both personnel- and mentality-wise, since they left the United States nearly two weeks ago.
When they arrived in Spain for two exhibitions, Rajon Rondo and Tyson Chandler were starters. When they left Athens after their final tuneup game, Rondo was on a plane headed the other way, back to the States, and Chandler had not only lost his starting job, he was a serious candidate to become the third-string center after a hyper-productive performance by Kevin Love in the final exhibition against Greece.
A confidence level that was down in the dumps a week ago has undergone a complete turnaround, boosted by their ability to impose their will and their preferred up-tempo pace in their one-point victory over Spain.
"I think the signature moment for this team was probably the first quarter against Spain. All the time we heard how we were nowhere near as good as Spain, Spain was going to crush us, this that, this that," Chauncey Billups said. "We got off to a bad start against the Lithuania team, and everybody's coming out and saying this team whatever, whatever. But we jump on Spain, have a great quarter, and they make it a game. But even if we lose that game, the way that we came out with the energy and toughness we displayed -- that's who we are. That's who we are as a team. I think that was a big, big time for us."
So they enter the World Championship, which begins Saturday night against Croatia (noon ET, ESPN Classic, ESPN3.com), with a starting five of Billups, Derrick Rose (who replaced Rondo), Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Odom.
They know they are going to be undersized against virtually every opponent they play, but they have outrebounded the opposition by a lot in every single one of their exhibitions through sheer hustle, athleticism and determination.
They have gained a little swagger, but they are not fooling themselves into believing they are going to crush every single opponent, and they have come to grips with the notion that the new normal means they are going to have to endure some close games. Yet they have already shown they can handle the pressure of playing a close game against a top-quality opponent on hostile ground and emerge victorious, which is what they did in Madrid. They won't have to endure the same thing in Istanbul unless they play against Turkey.
"We're getting more comfortable, everyone is. Since that first game against France, things are coming easier for everybody," said Durant, who has come to learn that being a team player, for this team, means bringing the same offensive aggression that he brings to his NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has turned from a pass-first, shoot-second ideologue into a shoot-first-and-keep-shooting weapon, the same mindset that made him the NBA scoring leader last season.
It is difficult to name a player who has not been whacked across the face or knocked to the ground without hearing a whistle blow. But rather than complain, the Americans have embraced the physicality of the FIBA game as a refreshing respite from the ticky-tack world of the NBA that they left behind.
They are young, they are eager, they are lively. And unlike the team that traveled to Japan four years ago with a false sense of confidence, they are an ego-less bunch with a perfect mixture of respect for the opponents that await them and an understanding of what they can and cannot do. And there is not a single bad apple in their bushel.
Of their collective mentality, Rose said: "It's totally different. We have confidence and trust in one another, and we go out there we already know that we can win the game."
The Americans settled into their downtown five-star hotel on the banks of the Bosphorus River on Thursday and held their first practice Friday at Abdi Ipekci Arena, where they will play their first five games.
"I like the arena," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "When we played in Greece the court lighting was kind of different, so far removed. Here it's a really good shooter's background. It's more like a U.S. gym."
The schedule is going to be a grind at first -- Team USA opens against Croatia, Slovenia and Brazil in a back-to-back-to-back -- but then becomes blissfully tranquil, with a pair of gimme games against Iran and Tunisia and then a multiday break (three consecutive days off if they go 5-0 in pool play) before the knockout competition begins with the Round of 16.
And as much as this squad truly is a B-team, so is everyone else's. Spain is without its best player, Pau Gasol, and lost Jose Calderon for the tournament when he tore his hamstring last weekend against the U.S. team. Brazil has lost Nene to a foot injury, Argentina is without Manu Ginobili and lost Andres Nocioni on Thursday when the Philadelphia 76ers told him he could not play on his injured ankle, Turkey is without one of its top NBA players, Mehmet Okur, who is recovering from a torn Achilles' tendon, and Germany is without Dirk Nowitzki.
So this is really a "B" tournament all around, and despite what Odom says, the Americans actually are the favorites.
If they win their first seven games and the Spanish team does the same, the bracketing and tournament formatting calls for those two teams to meet in the semifinals on Sept. 11.
It would/will be one heck of a game, but the element of mystery will be absent. The Americans have already seen them, have already beaten them on their home floor, and are entirely capable of knocking them off again.
"A lot of people are probably counting us out, not giving us a chance to win, and that's what makes it fun," Odom said.
The gold medal game is on Sept. 12, and I am of the B-lief that the rest of the world should B-ware of this edition of Team USA. Despite its structural flaws, I predict the Americans are going to win this thing and crown themselves World Champs for the first time since 1994.