A few minutes before the teams took the court at the Wukesong basketball arena, two workers came out to measure the baskets to make sure they were the right height. As miserable as Kobe Bryant and his teammates had been from beyond the arc in their first two Olympic games, they had to be grateful for the assurance.
Poor outside shooting alone wasn’t going to doom the U.S. men’s team against the likes of China and Angola, but things were supposed to get a little stickier against a seasoned group of Greeks with some basketball pedigree of their own.
This was the kind of team that could give the United States some trouble or so the thinking went. And, in fact, the Greeks had done just that two years ago when they ran the pick-and-roll to perfection to shock the United States in the world championships in Japan.
Slam down all the fancy dunks you want. But keep shooting 27 percent from beyond an abbreviated international 3-point line and you’re courting the inevitable disaster against the best teams from Europe.
Or so the thinking went.
The new thinking might go something like this: This American team is so good, so focused and so deep that it doesn’t really matter.
This group plays such aggressive defense and has such great athleticism that making anything from outside the paint is a bonus.
This team may have been put together so well it can’t lose.
Purists might howl at that, pointing out that basketball history is littered with the carcasses of teams that were sure winners. And it’s certainly true that a lot of things can go wrong and go wrong fast in a 40-minute game.
“There’s always a group of human beings that can beat another group of human beings,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Not when your human beings play like superhuman beings they can’t.
If there’s anything since the original 1992 Dream Team that looks like a sure thing, it’s the group that took the court Thursday night and so easily dismantled Greece that any suspense about the outcome was over before the halftime buzzer even sounded.
And they did it while still struggling to find their outside shot.
“When our outside shots are going, we’re even tougher, but even without that, we’re still tough to beat,” Dwyane Wade said.
Two 3-pointers in the final minutes helped make the stats look better against Greece, but the NBA superstars shot about as poorly from the outside as they did in their first two games. It hardly mattered, though, because there were enough breakaway layups and spectacular dunks to more than make up for any errant shots.
Most important, though, was the smothering defense and nifty pickpocket work that forced nearly as many turnovers (25) as Greece had baskets (26). Wade stole the ball six times himself as the United States shut down the vaunted Greek pick-and-roll and threw its offense into disarray.
“We’re built to play defense,” Chris Paul said. “As long as we keep the pressure on teams in this tournament, I feel we’ll impose our will and eventually break them down.”
That’s what happened against Greece, and it didn’t take long. For the first time in these games the United States was up against an opponent of some repute, but by halftime it was 51-32, and the only thing in doubt was the final margin of victory.
For the record, it was 23 points, but you got the feeling it could have been 40 if the United States had taken the whole revenge factor seriously. Six players, including Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, were on the team that lost to Greece two years ago, but this team seemed more concerned with getting better and moving on than taking their displeasure out on the Greeks.
Defending world champion Spain is up next, and this was a chance to finetune the substitution pattern, get more comfortable with defensive switches and practice the inevitable alley-oops that always characterize any star-studded U.S. Olympic team.
They didn’t always work like the one Wade lofted to Bryant in the second quarter, but there were more than enough other easy baskets, including some tomahawk dunks by James, to thrill the mostly Chinese crowd that has adopted the Americans as their own.
“We got better as a team tonight,” James said.
What they may not be, outside of Michael Redd, are great shooters. And they certainly aren’t shooting the ball well, with Bryant hitting only three of 20 from a 3-point line that is more than three feet closer than the NBA line.
Still, they’re winning, and they’re winning easily. They’re adjusting to each other and adjusting to their roles on the team.
Imagine how good they might be if they start shooting the ball, too.