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U.S. makes the most of this court date

BEIJING 2008

August 11, 2008|BILL PLASCHKE

Beijing

The first step was a stomp. The first greeting was a slap. The first words were sung with steals, stuffs and the angriest of slam dunks.

This wasn't a game, it was a star-spangled banger.

Four years after finessing and fidgeting their way out of world power, the U.S. men began their quest for basketball redemption Sunday as bulls in China's shop.

They took a billion-person home-court advantage and turned it into a solitary voice momentarily heard above the red-clad crowd at Olympic Basketball Gymnasium.

Owww!

If the road to the regaining of U.S. world dominance has a signpost, that word would be on it.

Owww!

The prettiest basketball country in the world returned to the Olympics and its roots Sunday with a 101-70 victory over a skilled team, a giant nation and an old stereotype.

"We have made history," Kobe Bryant said after the victory over the Chinese national team, and there were signs of it everywhere.

It was previewed as potentially the most-watched game in basketball history, yet thousands of Chinese fans seemed to stop paying attention after the blowout reached full force in the third quarter.

That's what a raging, rushing, chase-you-into-the-photographers defense does.

It has been tagged as the most selfish basketball nation on Earth, but the U.S. showed teamwork intensity normally not seen at any place other than, say, Duke University.

What a difference a K makes.

Four years ago, the U.S. team selfishly blew a gold medal for the first time since it began sending NBA players to the Olympics in 1992, raising the question of whether our stars had forgotten how to play the game we invented.

Here's guessing Coach Mike Krzyzewski won't let them.

After the debacle in 2004, the Duke guy was installed as the national coach. After Sunday, he has taken a step toward becoming a national hero, his defensive schemes and unselfish culture spilling out from his quiet seat to the furious court.

Dwyane Wade was spectacular by not missing a shot in scoring 19 points, but more impressive was China's missing 28 of 41 shots from inside the three-point line.

LeBron James controlled the court with 18 points and six rebounds, but more spectacular were the U.S. team's 14 steals and four blocked shots that led to 18 Chinese turnovers.

Then there were the assists. Seven guys had them, maybe more guys than in all of 2004, the Americans poking and prodding and passing to all those nasty slams.

"We can't play in our usual individual style; it doesn't work," center Chris Bosh said before the game. "We have to sacrifice our game for the sake of the United States. Gold-medal winners don't stand up there by themselves. They stand up there as a team."

I watched two of the top medal contenders Sunday, Lithuania and Argentina. I have also seen glimpses of the other contender, Spain.

Four years ago, they were all capable of embarrassing us.

Now, those teams can all only hope to not be embarrassed.

President Bush attended Sunday's game but left midway through the fourth quarter. If this opener was any indication, in upcoming games involving the U.S. team, that could be as long as anybody's attention span lasts.

These Americans get it. These Americans know that offense comes from defense. These Americans know that the fun fastbreak dunks come only after the furious half-court checks.

Their shooting will slump, but their intensity should not. They may grow tired of sharing the ball, but good teams do not grow tired of sharing on defense.

These Americans look so different from recent Americans, a foreign journalist actually asked what Krzyzewski did to "kill" his team's "super egos."

Responded K with a grin: "We play for what is on the front of the jersey and not on the back of the jersey; our team is doing that, that part has been easy for me. I haven't had to kill or destroy anything."

The jersey is different, but Lakers fans surely recognized a certain player in this game who sweated mightily toward that destruction.

Kobe Bryant, of course.

Bryant, who has talked repeatedly about these Games as the defining basketball mission in his life, began the night by staring in apparent awe at the computer-generated scoreboard flag throughout the U.S. national anthem.

He then took the court and, yeah, he seemed a little overwhelmed.

His first shot hit the side of the backboard. His second shot was blocked by Yao Ming. He was beaten badly for a layup by Chinese guard Chen Jianghua, who scored his only two points of the game.

But Bryant kept hustling on defense, and kept passing on offense, and his teammates fed off his energy.

Krzyzewski was asked whether the Americans had "showed off."

"Don't confuse heart with showing off," he said of his renewed Americans.

For now, for the first time in a long time, we won't.

--

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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