Commentary

Team USA heads to medal round against its toughest challenger

Originally Published: August 17, 2008
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Dwyane WadeTimothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesNobody has been able to hang with Dwyane Wade and Team USA. But that could change soon.

BEIJING -- As I write this, there are probably only a small percentage of people in the U.S. and around the world who watched every single second of Team USA's 106-57 pounding of Germany.

It was so noncompetitive, why bother staying focused on it, right? After all, this whole Olympic tournament is already pretty much over, eh?

Well, part of me wants to join with the masses and say, "Yes, there's no way the Americans do not win the gold."

But the other half is the smarter half, and it insists that I have to say "No."

And you know what, the other half is correct.

Do I think Team USA is going to lose? No.

Do I think it's possible it could lose? Hell, yes.

Am I the only one? Hell, no.

I've been at Wukesong Arena since Monday morning, when I saw Team USA's Wednesday opponent, Australia, destroy previously unbeaten Lithuania by 31 points, and I've been covering international basketball tournaments long enough to know that you never declare anything over until you see who's standing atop the medal podium at the end.

"The tournament is decided by easy baskets, and with America it's hard to get a shot off, and it's hard to get the ball past the half-court line, and they beat you down the floor and get layups," Australian coach Brian Goorjian said. "But if you can get your defense set, you've got a chance. No one I've seen has been able to do that, and that's our challenge."

Goorjian is the only coach who has been able to keep his team close to Team USA through 10 games this summer -- the five warm-ups the Americans played in Las Vegas, Macau and Shanghai, and the five they've played here in Beijing.

Redeeming qualities

Here's how the bronze-medal Team USA fared overall in 2004 compared with the 2008 squad's performance in the preliminary round.

USA men's basketball team, past 2 Olympics
2004 2008
PPG 88.1 103.0
Opp. PPG 83.5 70.0
FG pct. 45.9 55.3
Opp. FG pct. 48.2 36.6

Two weeks ago in Shanghai, the Aussies took the floor without their best player, Andrew Bogut, and were within striking distance of Team USA -- just seven points down -- with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. They spread the floor, made 3-point shots, avoided turnovers and even had a player who twice left Chris Paul in his wake on open-court penetrations all the way to the rim.

After beginning this tournament in horrible form, the Australians have been on an upward swing during the past five days, culminating in their 106-75 victory over Lithuania in which they led by as many as 38 and knocked down 16 3-point shots (7-footers Bogut and Chris Anstey were both 3-for-3) against an opponent that had been the class of Group A.

Granted, Lithuania had nothing to play for, having already clinched first place in Group A. But Australia had little to play for, either, because it knew before tip-off that it was locked into fourth place and a game two days later against the Americans.

"We've all seen 'Hoosiers,' 'Rocky,'" Goorjian said. "We're in a tournament, and we get a chance to step up to the plate and take a swipe at the Big Dog, that's the way I look at it. We're in a tournament with the best team in the world, and we get to take a swing. I'm confident we're going to play well."

Goorjian was then asked: Can the Aussies possibly beat the Americans?

"I don't know if we can or can't. I just like the way we're playing, and I want to play that way. What I've seen on TV, I don't even want to look at the tapes."

I spoke to a bunch of the Australian players when I was in Shanghai, and I remember how one member of the Aussie federation said he believed the Americans were in "deep s---" because they hadn't brought enough big men, weren't shooting particularly well and seemed extremely overconfident.

The Australian players played mind games with the Americans that night in Shanghai, calling them by their numbers rather than their names when they were defending them on inbounds plays. The members of Team USA didn't know whether to be flabbergasted or insulted because it was something so off the wall.

But it was a sign of how loose and how nondeferential the Australians were, and that combination -- along with enough size, outside shooting and ballhandling ability -- could be the recipe for the exact combination of things that could defeat the Americans.

Remember, the pressure on Wednesday night will not be on Australia.

The format will be one-and-done, if Australia somehow manages to play from ahead, we'll get our first chance to see how Team USA reacts to playing from behind. And in the past six years, America's teams have not responded well in those situations. That's not an opinion, that's a fact.

"I don't think you need to take the scare factor too heavily," said Aussie guard Patrick Mills, the speedster who twice scooted past Paul. "That's one thing Australians have, we're fearless and we don't take a step back from anyone. Just got to go out there, put our best foot forward and give it a good crack."

Said teammate David Barlow: "We're not fearful because we have nothing to lose. We go out there, have a crack at it and do our best, that's it. Nothing to lose.

As I look up, the scoreboard reads USA 98, Germany 53 with 3:29 left in the fourth quarter, and the PA announcer just told the crowd that the Americans have called a timeout, which made me recall how Chuck Daly never called a timeout during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

But that was 16 years ago.

So many things that would have been unthinkable then have all taken place in the intervening years.

Nobody predicted that Puerto Rico would defeat the Americans by 19 in Athens.

Nobody predicted that the U.S. would lose three times in Indianapolis in 2002.

Few believed it possible that the Americans would lose to anyone two years ago in Japan, but then they went up against a team with nothing to lose in the medal round and Greece beat them.

So don't count out Australia.

And don't think this thing is over, because it isn't.

Team USA is taking everyone seriously, and I expect the 12 players to bring their A-games against Australia.

But again, anything can happen in these tournaments, which is why, as devil's advocate, I'd counsel against forgetting to tune in Wednesday or set your TiVo for 10:15 a.m. ET because you believe the gold medal is already a given.

It isn't.

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.