Commentary

Was opening-round dominance real or an illusion? Time to find out

Originally Published: August 19, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Dwyane Wade and LeBron JamesJesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwyane Wade and LeBron James stayed loose at practice on the eve of the Olympic quarterfinals.
BEIJING -- All it will take is one slipup and we'll look back on the first nine days of men's basketball for Team USA as one big Opening Ceremony.

Sure looked and sounded great. But in the end, if that slipup occurs, it will have been many parts illusion.

That lip-synching 9-year-old singer? That'll be the part that was played by Spain.

Those phony fireworks? That'll have been the redemption game against Greece.

That appearance by President Bush? Well, that part was real, as was the part when LeBron James greeted George H.W. Bush by calling him "Pops."

But in its totality, the Olympic preliminary round is only a tease, and the steamrolling that Team USA has put on every opponent might be giving everyone back in the United States a false sense of grandeur, the idea that everything is picture-perfect.

In reality, it can all come crashing down in a matter of hours.

With one loss, the Redeem Team becomes the Bereave Team.

Team USA has performed, there's no denying that. But it has not yet performed under pressure, which is why the tournament could get interesting over the next six days.

And the pressure begins Wednesday against Australia, with no second chances.

"I don't get butterflies," Carmelo Anthony declared Tuesday, echoing statements made all across the practice court at Beijing Normal University.

Team USA gathered there to prepare for its quarterfinal match against an opponent that'll be a heavy underdog. But Australia gave the Americans their only challenge this month and averaged 100 points in its final three preliminary-round games. It's a team with nothing to lose against a team with everything to lose.

"Nobody's afraid of us, but we're not looking for anybody to be afraid of us," Dwyane Wade said. "At the end of the day, we have to win the ballgame. We understand that the world has caught up."

[+] EnlargeCarmelo Anthony
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesMelo and his teammates are three wins away from erasing the bad taste from the 2004 Olympics.

As dominating as the Americans have been, they have shown a newfound maturity while still retaining their humility, and they seem genuine and sincere when they say they are taking this quest one day and one opponent at a time. They learned two weeks ago in Shanghai -- in a close exhibition victory over Australia -- that even the slightest lapse in concentration can instantly make things difficult for them.

"We've got a lot more games under our belts, and I think you can tell we're playing a lot better than we were then," Chris Paul said. "That game [in Shanghai], we were working on a lot of new things, trapping the post when we hadn't put it in in practice. It was a game we just were ready to get to Beijing and start the Olympics."

Said Anthony: "We were looking forward to getting the Olympics started. Now it's going to be a different story."

Wednesday's tip-off is 8 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET), after the Spain-Croatia and Lithuania-China matches, and before the Argentina-Greece quarterfinal.

The semifinals are Friday night, and the gold- and bronze-medal games are Sunday afternoon, local time, meaning that by the time the sun rises over the East Coast of America, Team USA will know for certain whether it has fulfilled its mission.

"My gut is basically this: The first five don't really count," team director Jerry Colangelo said. "That's the way we're looking at it, and the intensity builds up from this point on because we've been talking about being on a mission, and there are a lot of things being said, and they're all wonderful, but they don't mean a thing if we don't finish the job.

"I feel good about the way our team has been approaching each of the games, and that's something we've been trying to instill -- take nothing for granted, no one for granted. And so far we've maintained that. But I really do believe we all understand that the focus is all funneled down now to three games."

Or, as the players are putting it, in NBA terms, three Game 7s.

Win 'em all and Wade won't be filled with the kind of gold-medal envy he expressed to Michael Phelps on Monday night. When the swimmer visited the U.S. locker room, Wade asked him where he was keeping his medals. (Locked in his coach's safe, Phelps told him.)

Win 'em all and no one will ever again refer to Coach K as Coach L, or to King James as LeBronze.

Win 'em all and Kobe Bryant gets some consolation after losing in the NBA Finals.

But lose once and they will all have to live with an emptiness that will last for at least the next four years.

"When you get into these moments, it's when you see great things happen, and I'm hoping we can do that -- not just win, but play at such a high level that we can't lose," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You'll see something different from an opponent that you haven't seen in an exhibition or in pool play, and we need to be prepared for that. But maybe they'll see something in us, too, that's different. And that's the excitement.

"I have a nervous excitement. I'm not nervous that we're not going to be ready, but there's an anxiousness."

Think about that last line for a while, and you'll begin to understand the pressure the Americans will be under beginning Wednesday, which for them will be the real opening night of the Olympics, the night when we begin to know for sure whether they're really as invincible as they've seemed or whether it was all an illusion.

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.