- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 10, 2008

— Much was made about the offensive struggles of the U.S. men’s basketball team during the 2004 Athens Olympics. The Americans misfired from the perimeter, weren’t good from the free throw line and settled for third place.

What is just starting to generate talk? The United States couldn’t defend either.

Teams abused the United States on the pick and roll and befuddled the young squad with set plays run thousands of times throughout the years.

But when the United States opens Olympic play against host China today at 10:15 a.m. EDT, the Chinese will have to be ready for a different defensive team.

“We can play the style of defense we want to because we’ve been able to practice for a month and we’re much more versatile than the 2004 team was,” said forward Carlos Boozer, one of four holdovers from Athens. “We do a lot of switching and trapping and we have more mature athletes. We were a very young team, and this year we’re a veteran team.”

In its five-game tuneup, the United States limited opponents to 41.2 percent shooting and forced them to commit 101 turnovers. The United States - led by LeBron James’ 12 steals - recorded 65 steals and surrendered an average of 75 points a game but averaged 106 points.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski has installed Kobe Bryant as his perimeter defensive stopper, a role he flourished in during last year’s Olympic qualifying tournament. Point guards had trouble getting the ball past halfcourt with Bryant serving as a vice.

“I look forward to it,” Bryant said. “It’s part of the reason why I’m here. I enjoy those matchups. I enjoy the challenge in guarding.”

Inside, opponents (including Yao Ming on Sunday) may be bigger than Boozer and Dwight Howard, but their quickness and athleticism will cause problems.

“We’ll be able to trap more and be more aggressive and do a lot of things with the pick and roll, whether it be blitzing it or pushing it,” Boozer said. “And we can put pressure on the ball coming up the floor no matter what, and we have quick wings to deny people and get through screens.”

Said U.S. assistant coach Nate McMillan: “We know we’re small, but we’re quick - we have speed. We want to try and take advantage of our speed. As opposed to having a bulky, big unit, we have a very athletic unit with players that are versatile and can play a number of different positions.”

Boozer said the international officiating, which allows for more physical play, benefits the Americans.

“We can be a lot more physical,” he said. “We can do things we can’t do in our league - we can play physical off the ball and really check them without any consequences. In the NBA, the contact is called. Being more physical is exciting for us.”

For the last three summers, during which every U.S. player appeared at least once, the coaching staff has tried different defenses and combinations to prepare for the Olympics. The end result is likely a big problem for opponents.

“We’ve tried some things that we like and some things we didn’t like,” McMillan said. “We can play a lot of different combinations that will force teams to make adjustments.”

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