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BEIJING 2008 : HELENE ELLIOTT

This appears to be a U.S. team to be trusted

August 17, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

BEIJING — Late in the third quarter of yet another romp for the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team, the crowd at the Wukesong Arena was treated to a rendition of "The Twist," sung by someone who sounded a lot like Chubby Checker.

Here in the land of lip-synching opening ceremony singers and computer-generated fireworks added to telecasts that claim to be live but are showing events that ended 12 hours ago, you can't be sure of anything.

Except that Team USA will win. Big.

If world champion Spain was supposed to pose a serious challenge to Mike Krzyzewski's merry band of would-be Olympic redeemers, Pau Gasol and his teammates never got the memo. In this case, two Gasols -- Pau and his younger, bulkier brother, Marc -- were decidedly not better than one.

Not when the Americans were shooting 58% from the field, making 12 of 25 three-point attempts and sprinting away to 32 fastbreak points -- Spain was credited with none -- in a 119-82 rout that improved their record to 4-0 in preliminary-round play.

"We were expecting the worst," Kobe Bryant said. "We were expecting them to come out and hit everything, being able to execute their strategies and keep us off balance, so we wanted to take it to them and be physical with them."

That included bumping bodies more than once with Pau Gasol, his Lakers teammate.

Bryant allowed that was "a little weird because we were playing for high stakes going against each other. It was a little different than playing in practice."

For the U.S. team as a whole, it required little more effort than a normal practice.

Spain had beaten Greece, China and Germany with Pau Gasol, Rudy Fernandez and Jose Calderon averaging in double figures. On Saturday, only Felipe Reyes (19) and Gasol (13) had any impact.

"I was disappointed, not surprised, that we didn't do a better job than we did tonight," said Gasol, who acknowledged it was "a little strange, but at the same time fun" to bump up against Bryant.

Their encounters were far more fun for Bryant, even though he scored only 11 points in 16 minutes.

Bryant said he and his teammates had been looking forward to this game because "absolutely it was something for us personally to say, 'Where do we measure up with the champion?' This was a big game for us."

So, how did he think they measured up after they dissected Spain's defense, scored 26 points off turnovers and piled up 60 points in the paint to 40 for Spain?

"Pretty damn well," Bryant said with a satisfied smile.

There's an understatement.

"We were able to read the floor very well and get our hands on balls and steal and be aggressive," Bryant said, "and when we do that we're at our best.

"We've got to continue to do what we do best, which is run. Execute our zone offense, which is something we did very, very well tonight and something that we're going to need to improve on in the quarterfinals and the later rounds. So that's what we'll stay focused on. And offensive rebounding is obviously a big key as well."

The U.S. has surpassed 100 points twice and has won its four games by an average of 28 points, but those numbers weren't Krzyzewski's favorite part of the score sheet.

He was more pleased that Spain made only 39% of its shots and was pressured into 28 turnovers -- five by Pau Gasol.

"I like our defense, forcing the number of turnovers that we did," Krzyzewski said, singling out Chris Bosh as the catalyst because of his team-leading seven rebounds and take-charge attitude.

Krzyzewski also noted that Spain missed some open shots, but he was being polite. His team has barely had to break a sweat here, but thanks to the work ethic he and his staff have instilled, this group is not likely to lose its edge because it hasn't had to fight through close games.

Asked whether the team had been trying to make a statement or prove that it is taking everything seriously -- unlike its desultory performance in Athens four years ago -- assistant coach Mike D'Antoni nodded.

"I think we've been trying to prove that from the first day of practice two months ago," he said.

They proved it Saturday. Looking up at the clock on the arena scoreboard, Carlos Boozer noted that because of the late start -- 10:15 p.m. Beijing time -- it was already well past midnight when players emerged from the locker room for postgame interviews.

"We've got to sacrifice. That's all part of learning how to get a gold medal," Boozer said.

"If it means leaving the arena at 1 o'clock in the morning to get a gold medal, that's what we'll do."

They may have some late nights but probably no sleepless nights worrying about their next opponent.

"Our philosophy," Bryant said, "is just get better every day."

No matter what day it might be here or back home.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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