- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2008

From the Dream Team to the Redeem Team, the U.S. finds a name to fit the basketball occasion, the latest potentially sweet.

It comes after the U.S. exhausted its considerable basketball savings account in a mere three international competitions through arrogance, indifference and a flawed selection system.

That hard reality has crystallized the sense of purpose of the latest NBA contingent, led by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, who have embraced the change in business of USA Basketball and the dictates of Jerry Colangelo.

The would-be basketball saviors are playing defense with conviction and dispatching opponents with extreme nastiness at the Beijing Games.

Basketball redemption is within America’s grasp at long last.

This is not to suggest it will happen, no matter how compelling the numbers are after five games in pool play.

The Americans have outscored the opposition by 32.1 points a game. They have forced 22.8 turnovers. They are shooting 55.3 percent, thanks to an abundance of dunks and layups. They are averaging 103 points, 14.4 steals and 20.4 assists.

The Americans were not tested in pool play, a favorable development considering two of the vanquished were Spain and Greece. Spain won the world championship in 2006, facilitated in part by Greece’s victory over the U.S. in the semifinals.

Opponents and observers have all but awarded the gold medal to the U.S., a testament to the capacity of this star-stuffed NBA contingent to put aside its egos and perform as a team.

Yet the medal ceremony remains three games away, and this U.S. team has its flaws, unlike the original Dream Team that had no weaknesses other than the aching back of Larry Bird that prompted his premature retirement from the NBA.

That team could beat you with the precision passing of Magic Johnson and John Stockton. It could muscle you with Charles Barkley and Karl Malone. It could outshoot you with Chris Mullin and Bird or even with Patrick Ewing stepping from the post to drain jumpers.

Other than Johnson and Bird, most of the players were in the prime of their careers, starting with Michael Jordan, who at that point had secured only two of his six NBA championship rings.

Team USA 2008 remains beatable because of two deficiencies: perimeter shooting and free throw shooting.

Neither element showed its corrosive side in pool play because of the oppressive defense of the U.S.

Yet if one of the remaining teams is able to neutralize the defensive pressure of the red, white and blue, induce a halfcourt game to limit the number of possessions and forces the favorites to the perimeter, the U.S. players could be confronted with a scenario that possibly unnerves them, which is a tight game that increases the importance of good free throw shooting.

Here are the two percentages that should give U.S. supporters pause: 36.2 percent from beyond the 3-point line and 67 percent at the foul line.

One of the most fundamental differences between international tournaments and the NBA playoffs is so obvious that it is rarely discussed. It is the single-elimination dimension of international tournaments following pool play. The U.S. possibly never would have surrendered the gold medal in the last three international competitions if these affairs featured best-of-seven formats.

You think Greece would have defeated the U.S. four times in 2006? Please. No wonder coach Mike Krzyzewski referred to the Greece players by their jersey numbers instead of their names. But in the Olympics and world championships, one subpar performance in the medal round ends the gold-medal quest.

That thought can unsettle even the most mentally resilient in the waning minutes of a seesaw affair.

This U.S. team has repaired much of the damage from the last two world championships and in Athens.

Yet its work remains incomplete. Nothing but a gold medal will be acceptable, especially with the way the U.S. buried Angola, China, Greece, Spain and Germany in pool play and with a number of opponents saying the competition is now about who gets the silver medal.

That is the burden on the U.S. going into its meeting with Australia today.

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