- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2012


We barely recognized Verizon Center on Monday night. The arena was sold out with a loud, energetic crowd. Unlike similar occasions when the basketball court is in place, the throng was virtually unanimous in its allegiance. Nearly every fan rooted earnestly for the home team, which was stocked with All-Stars.

It figures that Washington’s lone representative, Nene, played for the visitors. Wizards fans might have never believed the scene otherwise.

The U.S. men’s Olympic team overcame a sluggish start and held off feisty Brazil for an 80-69 victory in the final domestic exhibition. The crowd undoubtedly was happy with the win but likely still harbored concerns about Team USA’s outlook in London.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t bring home the gold,” President Obama said during a courtside interview on ESPN. “We just have to stay focused.”

That’s one of the main threats facing Team USA each Olympiad, especially against lesser competition. It’s hard to concentrate and pay attention to details when you’re 30 points better than the opponent. If the Americans get too comfortable operating in flip-the-switch mode against the likes of Nigeria and Tunisia, they could struggle against legitimate contenders such as Spain and Argentina.

Brazil is considered a notch below but has the size to cause problems with Nene, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Anderson Varejao and the San Antonio Spurs’ Tiago Splitter. And point guard Marcelo Huertas adeptly handled the Americans’ pressure with 13 assists (more than Team USA combined) versus three turnovers.

“Brazil is really one of the outstanding international teams,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Huertas as a guard played great against us in Istanbul, and he’s even better right now. He’s just a terrific guard. And that rotation of three bigs is huge. Nene, Splitter and Varejao and when they bring [Guilherme] Giovannoni to spread you, they’re tough to defend.”

Defense was the difference after the first quarter, which ended with Brazil holding a 27-17 lead. Team USA isn’t tall but it’s full of long and quick defenders. They turned up the heat, swarmed to the ball and clogged the passing lanes, to create 12 second-quarter turnovers and limit Brazil to five points.

Coach K insists that his team’s ultimate success doesn’t involve putting the ball in the basket. “I mean 27 points [allowed] in 10 minutes and 42 in [the final] 30 minutes,” he said. “It’s a huge difference. If we win the gold medal, it will be because of how well we play defensively.”

Unlike LeBron James’ vicious one-handed slam and Kevin Durant’s two-handed alley-oop dunk, few defensive plays landed in the highlight package. But the undersized Americans can conduct clinics with the ball-hawkers on the roster.

Tyson Chandler won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. James and Chris Paul are on the NBA’s All-Defensive first team and Kobe Bryant is on the second team. Andre Iguodala led all players in “others receiving votes” and Kevin Love was the league’s second-leading rebounder.

The players’ ability to guard multiple positions allows them to switch routinely on defense and remain effective. Only Chandler, Love and Anthony Davis are at least 6-foot-10, but four others can guard big men.

Doing so consistently can affect the offense, as was the case Monday when Team USA shot just 35 percent in the first quarter. Coach K said the physicality when banging against bigs is “much more distracting” and requires more concentration than chasing smaller players around the floor.

“We came out and didn’t shoot the ball extremely well,” James said. “It got us down and we let our offense mess with our defense early on. Once we decided we needed to focus on our defense and not our offense, we were able to turn the game around.”

For at least that night, a hoops crowd at Verizon was treated to a thrilling victory by the home team.

And the U.S. Olympic squad received a first-hand lesson in what it takes — and where it’s needed — to win another gold medal.

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