U.S. basketball team members, from left, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony,… (Diego Azubel / EPA / July…)
Below are five things to watch when Team USA faces France in the opening round of the 2012 London Olympics, beginning Sunday at 6:30 a.m. PDT. (We will host a live chat for any early birds crazy enough to join me).
1. Team USA can win by double-digit margins, but it has to try. There's very little chance the U.S. will lose this game, let alone the tournament. But Team USA can't exactly sleepwalk in the opener. Only the fans waking up in L.A. for the early tip can do that. France, after all, features a few NBA players, including Spurs point guard Tony Parker, Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, future Spurs guard Nando De Colo, Spurs forward Boris Diaw and former Laker and current Clipper Ronny Turiaf. The French aren't exactly a scrub team. It finished second behind Spain in the 2011 European Championships. Still, Team USA should win by at least 15 to 20 points, so long as they take this game seriously.
2. All eyes will be on Tony Parker. Lakers fans often fretted whenever Parker came to town because, like most teams, no one could stop him. That could be a different story this time around, thanks to rappers Drake and Chris Brown. An altercation broke out at a New York City nighclub, and Parker wound up becoming an innocent bystander after broken glass hit his eye. So it's possible Parker will struggle replicating his numbers last season with the Spurs (18.3 points, 6.3 assists) or with France in the 2011 European Championships (22.1 points, 4.4 assists).
Team USA won't take any chances, though. It plans to throw multiple defenders at him, including Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Kobe Bryant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder guard had the most success last season against Parker, who shot below 50% from the field in San Antonio's three of four losses. Either way, expect multiple switching and cross-matches on pick-and-roll coverages. That way it will prevent Parker getting secondary options, such as Batum and Diaw, involved. More important, it would deny Parker from attacking the rack. With Parker probably the only hope of a France upset, it's likely the Team USA will devote most of its focus on him.
3. For once, Team USA has a size advantage. The one glaring weakness on this year's team? They don't have a frontline presence. Most of them are injured (Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh and Blake Griffin). If Spain pulls an upset on the U.S. team, it will likely happen because its frontline featuring the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka will prove too overwhelming. Tyson Chandler remains the lone 7-footer, but he's averaged a team-low 2.4 points in 13.4 minutes. LeBron James is versatile enough to play center, but he's more suited to the forward spots.
None of those factors will matter, though, against France. Without Joakim Noah because of a left ankle injury, the French have Turiaf as its starting center. Lakers fans always loved Turiaf's hustle, but he's not going to have a chance stopping James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Bryant from attacking the basket.
4. Bryant expects France to slow the tempo. So the U.S. should speed it up. Even with Parker running the show, the French know they can't survive a track meet with Team USA. The U.S. has averaged four steals per game and immediately pushes in the open floor. James, Durant and Anthony have proven nearly unguardable along the perimeter.
No need to change that formula. Every rebound and deflection should lead to quick outlet passes and run-outs. Effective swing passes will immeditately throw France out of rotations. And every quick score will turn this game into a rout within a matter of minutes.
5. Will the U.S. adjust to FIBA rules? This isn't going to cost Team USA a win. After all, Chandler got into early foul trouble against front-court heavy Spain this week, and the U.S. still stormed to a 100-78 win. But Team USA may as well iron out these kinks early. Through five exhibition games, Team USA has recored 107 fouls -- 15 more than its opponents. This has needlessly given teams a combined 13-point advantage in free-throw discrepancy. Throw in the multiple traveling violations that Team USA has committed, and it's clear the Americans are still used to NBA rules.
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