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Mark Heisler ON OLYMPIC BASKETBALL

Team USA's new attitude -- none

August 03, 2008|Mark Heisler

SHANGHAI -- Back, back, back?

It's early -- actually it won't start until the opener against China on Aug. 10 -- but U.S. basketball fans who tuned out after all the recent disappointments, or emigrated, will be happy to know this year's Olympic team looks great!

Of course, leaving aside the 2004 train wreck when the U.S. lost its first overseas exhibition, lost its opener in Athens and two more games besides, when didn't it look great at this point?

Meanwhile, the U.S. hasn't won as much as a silver medal in three international tournaments over the last six years, which raises several questions:

How in the name of Dr. James Naismith did this happen?

Let us count the ways:

Lack of commitment, preparation, cohesion and, let's face it, effort.

Lack of respect for the differences in the international game.

Lack of respect for the international players.

Worst of all, no lack of attitude.

Could lightning strike again?

Duh.

If Americans haven't learned anything else, they should know they can not only lose, it wouldn't take a bolt of lightning.

The shooting ability of international players can close the gap between them and the superior U.S. athletes in a hurry.

The entire international game is counterintuitive to U.S. players who play outside in, with superstars expected to drive the ball to the basket and get to the foul line.

With the conical lane and zone defenses, international teams go inside to draw the defense so they can kick it out and shoot it from behind their short 20-foot 6-inch arc.

So what's the big deal about this U.S. team?

These guys play hard, especially at the defensive end.

Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant, arriving last summer, were like the good cop and the bad cop. Everyone loves playing with the unselfish Kidd but it was Bryant who put his stamp on them with his knife-between-the-teeth defense.

As U.S. basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo said of Bryant, "It's not a game to Kobe. It's war."

Best of all, this team has managed to lose the 'tude under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who not only comes off as humble but sincere. It's a nice change after all the years of swaggering in before they were carried out.

"They were extremely arrogant and it was kind of a turnoff for the world [playing] against them," says Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius, their old nemesis who almost beat them with a last-second three-pointer in Sydney in 2000 and then shot them up four years later in Athens.

"They sort of felt like the gold medal was going to be handed to them, whether it was Olympic Games or world championships, and they paid the price for it.

"The first thing I noticed about watching this team play against Turkey [in Macao last week], they were actually pretty friendly and were sort of respectful to the referees. . . .

"They're hungry right now. I think that they know that they just can't show up and they're going to win. I definitely think they're favorites."

So there's nothing to worry about?

Hardly.

Even if Krzyzewski insists this team is bigger than most NBA teams, it isn't even as big as a lot of college teams with only Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh taller than 6-9.

"Speed and quickness are our best assets and we have to go with that," Krzyzewski said. "Someone else is going to try to use bulk and try to punish us on the boards.

"And it's just, can we do ours better than they do theirs? That'll be the story or our games."

So why did they choose all those little people?

Well, they are incredible players.

The problem isn't defending some international Shaquille O'Neal, because there is none, and the conical lane all but does away with post basketball.

Nor is the problem the referees, moving screens, etc. It's covering shooters.

Krzyzewski, a great defensive coach, must have talked to himself for a year after Greece shocked his U.S. team in 2006, running successful pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll.

Now the word Krzyzewski uses is "connectivity," with everyone "on a string" helping each other.

"He's not bringing in so many big guys and getting killed in the pick-and-roll game, which the world is famous for," Jasikevicius said.

"It seems to me this is their No. 1 concern, defending the pick-and-roll and stuff like that. They're playing a lot of small lineups. It's more or less four perimeter players with Dwight Howard, or if Dwight goes out, Chris Bosh."

Of course, in 2010, FIBA is moving the three-point line back to 22 feet. The U.S. just has to try to survive until then.

--

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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