Kevin Durant celebrates hitting one of his eight three-point baskets against… (Eric Gay / Associated Press )
Team USA (5-0) faces Australia (3-1) in the quarterfinals in the 2012 London Olympics beginning Wednesday at 2:15 p.m. PDT. Below are five things to watch.
1. Team USA should have an easy game against Australia. The stakes are higher because it's the medal round. But the reality still remains the same — there's absolutely no way Australia will come close to beating the U.S. The Aussies only feature one NBA player in Patty Mills, who's tied with Pau Gasol in the Olympics as the leading scorer (20.6). But he's a seldom-used reserve for the Spurs. Australia boasts a physical front line, but Team USA's small-ball lineup and versatility can still run laps around the team.
Team USA already experienced tough tests against Lithuania and Argentina, but its youth, talent and depth can overcome lax effort on defense and inconsistent shooting. This will probably mark the last game the U.S. can enjoy such a luxury, since it will play either Brazil or Argentina in the semifinal and then presumably Spain in the gold-medal round. So this would be a good opportunity to sharpen up its weaknesses so it doesn't need to in games Team USA could lose.
2. Chris Paul vs. Mills is the matchup to watch. Australia has played without Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut because he's rehabbing from ankle surgery. So the Boomers have relied on Mills. That leaves Paul with the biggest defensive matchup. Team USA threw multiple defenders at France points guard Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs, mixing between Paul, Deron Williams, Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala, along with multiple double teams. It wouldn't be surprising if Team USA uses the same strategy. But after the fiery Paul lit into his teammates for their jittery 60-59 first-half lead over Argentina, it'll be up to mostly Team USA's starting point guard to provide the necessary intensity to neutralize Australia's biggest threat.
3. How will Team USA's offense look? Two scenarios have unfolded for the U.S. since these Games started. It makes endless three-pointers to run its opponents out of the building. Or it allows LeBron James to take over. Aside from Team USA's 83-point thrashing last week of Nigeria, the squad's shooting hasn't always proven dependable. Team USA went through stretches against Argentina and Lithuania in the past two games where the shots don't fall and its lack of size suddenly becomes a weakness. But that's when James decided to take matters in his own hands. He scored nine points in the last three minutes against Lithuania and posted the same amount in the third quarter's first few possessions.
Team USA also boasts various offensive options in Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony. But James' size, driving ability, dependable outside shot and facilitating have proven too big of a monster for anyone to stop. Having Team USA run the offense through him allows him to take control of the game and also ensure that others are involved. Should Team USA struggle with its outside shot at certain stretches against Australia, James should simply take over.
4. Australia should play physical against Team USA. Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski isn't exaggerating when he told reporters that Australia is the best defensive team in the Olympics. It finishes third in total defense (74.6 points per game) and third in field-goal percentage (46%).
That may become a moot point considering the U.S. overwhelmingly dominates the field in scoring (117.8 points per game). But Australia's bruising front line should provide a good test on whether Tyson Chandler can stay out of foul trouble and whether Kevin Love can build off solid defensive efforts (averages a team-leading 6.4 rebounds per game).
5. Iguodala could be a critical player off the bench. If Bryant's shooting woes persist (38.9% clip) and/or Team USA coasts to an early lead, it's possible Team USA Coach Krzyzewski would give Iguodala an extended role. He posted 13 points and a team-high nine rebounds in 20 minutes in Team USA's double-digit win against Argentina. Even though he finished scoreless in the previous game against Lithuania, Iguodala's been a key part in boosting Team USA's energy off the bench. Now that has translated from a statistical standpoint, it wouldn't be surprising if his playing time increases.
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