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HELENE ELLIOTT

USA shows ability to execute . . . opponents

August 21, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

Beijing

Redeem team?

More like extreme team.

Think of it this way: The U.S. men's basketball team romped past Australia, 116-85, Wednesday at Wukesong Arena in the quarterfinals of the Olympic basketball tournament.

That 31-point difference cut the team's average margin of victory from 32.2 points over its first five games to a mere 32 as it cruised into Friday's semifinals against Argentina.

How is anybody going to beat this team?

"If we don't approach every game like it's our last, we can be beat," said LeBron James, who continues to settle into the leadership role he began to assume last summer.

"If we don't come into it and offensively make that key pass, if defensively we don't help each other and we start reverting back to individuals, then we could lose. But it's going to be tough."

And Mike Krzyzewski, one of the few coaches with the credibility to get a group such as this to play sound defense, isn't going to let them break down at this late stage.

"I'm not going to let that happen either," James said. "Coach K is one of the greatest coaches that we have. I try to lead on the court. So it won't happen."

Australia had played the U.S. reasonably well in a pre-Olympic exhibition game Aug. 5 in Shanghai, if reasonably well is defined as an 11-point loss.

The Boomers, who went 3-2 in pool play here and finished fourth in their group, were expected to pose a tougher challenge Wednesday because Andrew Bogut had returned to their lineup after missing the Shanghai game because of an ankle injury.

Keep waltzing, Matilda.

Australia was within one point after the first quarter, 25-24, but the U.S. dominated the boards and took off on a 14-0 run to start the second half, using its bottomless bench and relentless star power to turn the game into a runaway.

Kobe Bryant revived after an eight-point first half to score 17 in the second half and lead both teams in scoring. James had 16 points and nine rebounds. Carmelo Anthony scored 15 points after averaging 8.6 over the first five games.

"What happens is, we're up one at the end of the first quarter and everyone probably says, 'We knew this was going to happen. What's next?' " Chris Paul said.

"This team here, we understand it's a 40-minute game. Sooner or later we'll impose our will and I don't know if you can keep up with us for 40 minutes."

And so Australia met the same fate as Spain, which was supposed to be a formidable foe for the U.S. because of its physicality but lost by 37 points in the fourth game of the preliminary round.

"We're 25 down and I look over at the scorer's table and they're sending in Kobe and LeBron and Carmelo," said Brian Goorjian, Australia's coach by way of Crescenta Valley High.

"I think Coach K has done a great job with the team defense. They're playing great together, and everybody is contributing. They were too much for us."

They have been, and will continue to be, too much for everybody.

"We don't want to lose," Paul said. "This team is full of too many competitors."

C.J. Bruton, Kansas-born but raised in Australia and a 14-year veteran of the country's National Basketball League, took consolation in keeping the game as close as it was.

Against the U.S., that means losing by fewer than 40 points.

"We came up against a team that's going to probably go down in history as one of those teams like the Dream Team was," Bruton said.

"We gave it a crack. We put a strain on them."

But not much stress.

"We know they're a good team, and they execute extremely well," Bryant said. "They executed extremely well in the first half.

"What we try to do is to remain calm. We understand our biggest strength is in our depth."

That depth extends to character and camaraderie, which were noticeably missing four years ago in Athens.

That team fractured and pointed fingers. This team seems tight and is willing to hustle every second: With the U.S. leading by 18 in the third quarter, James dived and fell into the courtside barrier to save the ball and maintain possession.

He didn't have to do it. He wanted to because he knows the importance of setting an example and making an extreme effort even when it might not seem necessary.

"In '04 we didn't play well as a team," James said of the Athens squad, which lost to Puerto Rico and Lithuania in preliminary-round play and fell to Argentina in the semifinals before salvaging a bronze medal.

"We didn't have a leader. We didn't have a leader defensively. We just weren't a good team. We got to the semifinals still because of our individual abilities. It's a totally different feel now.

"Off the court we weren't a team like we are now, and that helps. It's just a different mix."

And it smells like a winner.

"It's go time," Bryant said. "This is what we came here for and we're all ready to go. The money's on the line."

--

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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