U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team heeded defensive call

Trailing Brazil by 10 after the first quarter of Monday night’s exhibition game at Verizon Center, the members of the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team were noticeably frustrated as they surrounded coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Their shots just weren’t falling, and they couldn’t seem to find their offensive stride. Meanwhile, Brazil forward Alex Garcia was making it look easy — trampling the home team’s defense and going 4 for 5 from the field in the game’s opening period.

A change was needed.

“We did not have defensive intensity [in the first quarter], and if this team doesn’t have that, we’re going to get scored on,” Krzyzewski said after the United States rallied for an 80-59 victory. “We kept reminding them, ‘We’re not doing it on offense. Don’t let it affect defense.’”

And for the rest of the game, it didn’t. With the exception of forward LeBron James — who led the team with 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting — the U.S. had trouble making shots and failed to create an imposing offensive presence.

But on the other end of the court, they looked like an entirely different team. After the much-needed timeout, the U.S. held Brazil to just five points in the second quarter, using a suffocating defense to grab hold of a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

It’s a strategy the Americans plans to ride all the way to the medal podium.

“We didn’t shoot the ball very well from the 3-point line, but our defense won us that game,” guard James Harden said. “That’s what we’re going to have to do. Even though we didn’t knock down shots, defensively we’ve got to lock down.”

Krzyzewski said Brazil got by the U.S. defense in the first quarter because his players were overrunning their opponent’s offense, allowing Brazil to be a full-court team. When they tightened up the defense in the second quarter, it made a world of difference.

Brazil committed 26 turnovers, three of which were pressure-induced shot clock violations. The U.S. also recorded 19 steals — James and point guard Chris Paul led with four apiece.

Tyson Chandler — the 7-foot-1 reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year — is the only true center on the Americans’ 12-man roster, and guard Kobe Bryant acknowledged that rebounding could present a problem for the team in overseas competition. Pair that with an inconsistent offense, and the U.S. could have its work cut out as it attempts to win a second straight gold medal.

But Monday at least, one thing made up for all those flaws.

As the players filed off the court on their way to a flight bound for London, the word “defense” laced everybody’s postgame remarks. It saved them once. And they all agreed on one thing: There’s more where that came from.

“It’s so hard at times when you’re not scoring the ball like you know you can, and you allow the defense to go down the drain,” James said. “As the game went on, as our offense stayed the way it was, we picked up our defense even more.

“That’s where we’re going to make our mark.”

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