Team USA's flaws exposed in ugly win over Australia
Dream Team II?
Not after this splash of cold water in the face.
What transpired Tuesday night against Australia will go down as one of two things: The night Team USA was exposed as a flawed, overconfident team, or the night Team USA received a wake-up call.
Porous defense, inside and outside. Abysmal 3-point shooting. Bad free-throw shooting. Sloppiness with the ball. Even a never-before-seen inability to contend with speed. Backup Aussie point guard Paddy Mills was a blur, the fastest player I've seen since Allen Iverson was a rookie. He plays Division I ball in the U.S. for St. Mary's (Calif.), where he just finished his freshman season, and he told ESPN.com he has run 400 meters in 49 seconds.
"I was concerned after the last game that they were already in Beijing," coach Mike Krzyzewski said of the team's mental state. "They'll be OK, but obviously this was not a good performance."
The truly stunning thing about the Americans' 87-76 victory was that it came against an Australian team that didn't even have its best player, since Andrew Bogut sat out to rest a sprained right ankle. The Boomers, as they're known Down Under, are setting their sights merely on making it into the medal round, with no illusions about where they stand in the worldwide pecking order -- somewhere between sixth and eighth, nowhere near the likes of Spain, Argentina and Greece, the three teams who will wake up Wednesday morning with a heightened sense of hope after seeing how the U.S. team struggled in its final pre-Olympic tune-up.
"The three days that we can have practice in Beijing have to be three good practice days in order to get us going, because we've been playing outstanding basketball, and tonight I didn't think we played very well," Krzyzewski said. "I'd be much happier if we had played great, but I'd be sadder if we lost."
Before we look at the numbers, let's make sure to highlight the biggest weakness on display: Team USA's defense was just plain awful, with Australia spreading the floor, moving the ball and repeatedly finding itself able to score on uncontested shots from both inside and beyond the 3-point line. Even when the inside shots were contested, they were too often being contested by a player several inches shorter.
Remember last summer when Mexico scored 100 against Team USA in the Tournament of the Americas and the players shrugged it off as nothing? Well, it wasn't nothing. It was a sign that too often they are beaten for open looks, and they should have taken it as a warning sign.
"I think a lot of teams get intimidated by that team, but basketball around the world is getting stronger. On paper they are [a lock], but I don't know," Australia's Chris Anstey said. "I don't think they've been a lock for the last eight years. That's nothing against them, that's just a credit to everyone else around the world. Every now and again, some people are going to catch up.
"We made them take a lot of contested shots, we didn't give them anything easily. And they're the best athletes in the world, so we wanted to try to make them beat us from the perimeter."
But the Americans shot just 3-for-18 from 3-point range, scored only 10 points on the fast break, missed 13 of 33 free throws (Dwight Howard was 0-for-6) and needed a clutch leadership performance down the stretch by Chris Paul (with lots of help from Dwyane Wade) to finish off an opponent -- again, without its best player -- that trailed by a mere seven points with just more than 5 minutes remaining.
"We think we're a pretty good team," Anstey said. "We play hard, we should have beaten Argentina [last weekend in the DiamondBall tournament]. Not many people expect us to do a lot at the Olympics, but we think we could cause some upsets. We'd like to do something special. We've never won a medal."
Coach K said his team seemed flat after having a day off on Monday to enjoy Shanghai, and he was especially looking forward to getting in three days of practice prior to the opener Sunday night against China -- a game U.S. President George Bush is planning to attend.
The Americans are about 99 percent certain to get a W for "W" -- the betting line on that game moved from 25 to 33 points on international sports gambling Web sites over the past week -- and they're 99.999 percent certain to put a whupping on Angola in their second preliminary-round game.
But then comes Greece, which beat the U.S. two years ago and can control the tempo of a game better than any team in the tournament. After that, the U.S will play the reigning FIBA world champion, Spain, which goes nine deep with players who can beat you from inside, outside and in-between.
Coming off this performance versus Australia, both of those games have to be looked at as toss-ups. If the Americans keep gambling too much on defense, thus leaving themselves vulnerable to open looks produced by judicious ball movement, and if they shoot the ball as poorly from outside and from the free-throw line as they did against Australia, they'll be headed for the first crunch time they've experienced together. (One major positive from Tuesday, though, is that Team USA shot 29-of-45, 64 percent, on 2-pointers.)
And, yes, Team USA might just lose.
But if so, would that be such a bad thing?
Let's all remember, the whole point of this tournament is to win the final three games -- the quarterfinals, semifinals and gold-medal match. In the end, whatever happens before then matters not one iota.
The Americans are in China to win the gold medal -- not to dominate every quarter, as they once spoke of, and not to restore American invincibility, which is never coming back.
They're human, they're vulnerable, they've got structural flaws, and they're going to learn at some point that this gold-medal quest is going to be a rough ride at times.
Maybe that's what they learned Tuesday on an evening when they entered the arena feeling bold and self-assured and left it pondering why they were made to look only slightly above-average against a mediocre team missing its only NBA player.
Yes, the U.S. is still considered the favorite. But they now know that the road to the gold is really only just beginning, and there will be potholes along the way.
They need to play smarter, they need to play better, and they need to get a grip on the fact that there are going to be nights when mistakes, hubris and failed defensive execution are going to put them in grave danger.
But better they learn that now instead of 10 or 12 days from now.
They still have work to do, and they're not going to be feared. If they're smart, this night will go as a lesson learned, a night when an ugly win woke them up to that reality.
Chris Sheridan is an ESPN.com Insider. He has covered the U.S. senior national team since the 1996 Olympics. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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