LONDON — Despite Coach K’s traditional overpraise of an overmatched opponent, I’m here to tell you it’s not going to be France.
Nope, if the team exists that is going to deny the USA a gold medal in men’s basketball at the Olympics, it’s not going to be France.
It was USA 98, France 71 Sunday in the opening game for the Americans, and that about sums up the proceedings at the pre-fab Basketball Arena (catchy name, huh?), a no-frills structure that will be dismantled about 27 seconds after the last preliminary-round game is played next week. And “dismantled” would suitably describe the state of the French team, which played evenly with the Americans for a period before reality set in.
“Maybe till the 15-minute mark we played quite well,” said French coach Vincent Collet. “But I think after that we lost our control. We tried things outside our system. We let the US get some steals. You know if you let them do that, they are the best team by far to run fast breaks.”
It was a comfortable beginning to Olympic play for the USA. The team did not shoot particularly well (43 percent), but it asserted its prowess in such areas as defensive pressure, rebounding at both ends, and in withering defense-to-offense transition. Hope of the Future Anthony Davis even had eight minutes of impressive fourth-quarter action, and before you say, “So what?” consider that Tyson Chandler is the only legitimate center among the NBA stars on the roster. It is not inconceivable Davis could play a role in this before it’s over.
“It was a good first step for us against an outstanding team that is very well-coached,” said Mike Krzyzewski, who, as any Atlantic Coast Conference scribe knows, never utters a public negative word about a foe.
It really was a game for a quarter. When France’s Yannick Bokolo nailed a buzzer-beating three, the French were right there at 22-21.
But that was that. The US hit them with an 11-0 run to open the second quarter, and things never got better for the French.
“We turned it over,” said Boris Diaw with a shrug. “If you turn the ball over, then they have the opportunity to make fast breaks.”
“All they want to do is get the ball and run,” said Florent Pietrus, Mickael’s twin brother.
The truth is they really needed to run because the marksmanship was off from the start. Could the problem have been the configuration of the arena, in which the stands are quite far removed from the court and there is enough open space to create the same kind of shooting problems created by those infamous domes back in the States? The teams started out a collective 0 for 9 on threes, with France finishing a dismal 2 for 22. The USA’s 8 for 25 wasn’t going to win any great prizes, either.
“I think for shooters it does help when the court is more condensed,” agreed Kevin Love, who scored 14 points in 14-plus minutes and whose overall performance was so noteworthy that Coach K made him the team’s postgame representative.
Krzyzewski did lend credence to the arena shooting theory. “None of us were allowed in here before the games for more than an hour,” he pointed out. “It may take a few games to get adjusted.”
A quick question: Is someone in authority trying to keep Coach K humble? His name tag at the press confab was missing the second “z.”
“Is that right?” he inquired. “The Poles are going to be upset.”
What this game drove home to any future opponent taking notes was that defense will be the American calling card. “We missed a lot of threes,” pointed out Coach Collet. “But a lot of them were missed because the USA defensive closeouts are, by far, the best in the world.”
Let’s take a 20-second timeout.
Proof of just how far the globalization of basketball has come is the fact that Collet referred to “closeouts,” a reference unheard of anywhere two Olympiads ago. “Closeouts” emanating from the lips of a French national coach? Mon Dieu!
Actually, we probably should take a full timeout.
More proof of just how big basketball is on an international scale: the Press Tribune at this arena did not come remotely close to accommodating all those who wished to gape at, or report on, the Americans. And as we were exiting the mixed zone after interviewing the players, we saw hordes of Chinese journalists attempting to enter the facility to see the China-Spain game that followed. All this, of course, is the legacy of the 1992 Dream Team.
Coach K does not have a Dream Team, but he’s got a pretty good one that has an advantage over the one in Beijing, although he shies away from direct personnel comparisons. “What we have going for us is better continuity,” Krzyzewski explained. “In Beijing, we had never coached them before. We’ve now coached five of them in Beijing, and five more in the world championships two years ago. The familiarity with our staff is better. I’m not saying we didn’t have good camaraderie in 2008, but it’s better now.”
The next game is against Tunisia. With all due respect to what I’m sure will be “an outstanding team, very well-coached,” I don’t think Tunisia is going to be the team the world is looking for to slow down the Americans, either.