Commentary

Easy part's over; tougher tests coming for Team USA

Originally Published: August 12, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

LeBron JamesAntonio Scorza/AFP/Getty ImagesTeam USA had no problems against Angola, but Greece could be a different story (Thursday, 8 a.m. ET).
BEIJING -- They've toured the Great Wall, and they've had their way against the two weakest teams in their group. Now, with Tuesday's 97-76 victory against Angola in their rear-view mirror, things are about to get tough for the Americans.

And when we say tough, we're talking Charles Oakley tough. Bill Laimbeer tough. Maurice Lucas-Jim Loscutoff-Al Attles tough.

Team USA's next game is against Greece, a smashmouth team that pounded and prodded Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman into submission Tuesday on the second day of men's basketball competition at the Olympics. Greece played a suffocating, stifling and occasionally dirty brand of defense that completely flummoxed the Germans in its 87-64 victory.

"That's their style. They try to beat you up," said Kaman, who was triple-teamed the first time he touched the ball and had just four points and two rebounds with five turnovers.

Then there was the usually mild-mannered Nowitzki, who lost his cool after getting slugged one too many times by Greek center Andreas Glyniadakis and responded with a slug of his own, earning an unsportsmanlike foul (the FIBA equivalent of a flagrant foul) midway through the third quarter of a game in which the Greeks were already in full control.

Nowitzki was held to 13 points, Germany shot just 36 percent and the Greeks walked off the floor looking like an entirely different team than the one that was trounced by their nemesis, Spain, in their opener.

Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistants Jim Boeheim, Mike D'Antoni and Nate McMillan watched the Greece-Germany game from the end zone seats, deciding after three quarters they had seen enough. They were not in awe, but they were impressed.

Coach K's take: "[The Greeks] play as hard as anybody, especially on the defensive end of the court. Their offensive schemes are well conceived. Their team starts with their guards, and they really have three point guards, and all three of them can be in at the same time. They really value possessions; you have to play them possession by possession, and you have to play them with great intensity for 40 minutes.

"Our guys already know that, but we'll reinforce that," Krzyzewski added. "It's a great game for us to play to get ready for the medal round, because we feel Greece has as good a chance as anybody. That's how much we think of them."

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesKobe and his teammates couldn't find their range against Angola.
It was difficult for the Americans to have much motivation against the overmatched Angolans, who managed to hang around -- much like China did two nights earlier -- for the first 15 minutes before the Americans' aggression and athleticism wore them down.

It was an 18-point game at halftime -- Angola's Carlos Morais already had 10 turnovers at that point, and Dwight Howard (5-for-5), LeBron James (5-for-5), Dwyane Wade (3-for-3), Carmelo Anthony (3-for-3) and Chris Bosh (2-for-2) all were perfect from the field -- and Kobe Bryant recovered from an 0-for-7 start to score four of five U.S. buckets, the third on a breakaway 360-degree dunk, to begin a 20-7 run that built the lead to 27 in the second half.

From there, Team USA coasted.

Angola's only aim was to lose to the Americans by a margin of less than 40 points (it had lost by 46 in 2004, 33 in 1996 and 68 in 1992 against the Dream Team).

"We have achieved the goal of today's game. We tried to minimize the gap," Morais said. "Through this game, we understand that we can compete with them. Generally speaking, I am happy with the result."

The Americans were happy, too, or at least satisfied. But they made only five of 21 3-pointers -- Bryant was 0-for-8 -- after going 7-for-24 against China, and if their shooting doesn't improve, they're going to be in trouble at some point in this tournament.

None of the Greeks play in the NBA, and their best perimeter player, Vassilis Spanoulis, was so disenchanted with the NBA after spending one season languishing on the bench in Houston that he gave up $4 million in guaranteed money to return to Greece and sign with Panathinaikos in the summer of 2007.

The American coaches did notice Greece had some trouble dealing with Germany's zone defense, but D'Antoni said the Americans will not look to use a zone -- at least not at the start.

Team USA's chief scout, Tony Ronzone, has been compiling detailed scouting reports on the tendencies of each of the Greek players, and how hard the American players study his reports and videotapes will have a major effect on how successful they'll be in keeping the Greeks from executing their offensive schemes as successfully as they did two years ago.

The Americans who were on the 2006 team that lost to Greece in the semifinals of the World Championship will be extra motivated, although they haven't been motivated enough to come to the arena early and scout their opponent with their own eyes -- with the exception of Kobe, who sat next to Coach K in the stands for the Greece-Spain game Sunday.

"I haven't seen them play since they beat us," James said. "If Kobe was there [for the Greece-Spain game], we were all there, because he's one of our leaders, and he's going to share all the info he has."

You can't measure greatness against the likes of China and Angola, but you will be able to measure toughness against Greece.

And the Greeks will be fearless.

"[The U.S. is] the best team in the tournament; they are the favorite, and we'll go there and play our game and see what happens," Spanoulis said. "We have new guys on our team, we can score more points than we did two years ago and we play better defense because we play much more with our minds."

The Greeks play with their elbows and their hips, too, and if they play as well against the Americans as they did Tuesday against Nowitzki, Kaman and the Germans, Team USA is in for a fight. And if the Americans don't do their homework, if they only pay lip service to the notion of respect, it's not inconceivable that they'll lose.

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.