Kevin Durant had 22 points as the U.S. defeated France at the London Olympics. (Rob Carr / Getty Images /…)
Below are five things to take away from Team USA's 98-71 victory Sunday over France in the opening round of men's basketball in the 2012 London Olympics. The U.S. next plays Tuesday against Tunisia at 2:30 p.m. PDT.
1. LeBron James was all over the place. Don't judge his game on how many points he had (nine) but instead on everything else he provided on the floor, including eight assists, five rebounds and two steals. James opened the game throwing a crisp lob pass to Tyson Chandler. In what should be the highlight of the game, James connected with Kevin Durant on a fast-break dunk with a quick cross-court bounce pass. His aggressiveness in attacking the lane and working out of the post was a wonder to behold. James threw down a lob from Deron Williams with force.
It's clear that James' hunger hasn't diminished since winning in his first NBA Finals this past season with the Miami Heat. He's taking complete control of the game, yet is doing so in a way that makes everyone around him better. On a team stocked with talented point guards in Williams, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook, it's James who's mostly directing the offense. When Team USA made a defensive stop or grabbed a rebound, James pushed the team in running the floor. When the team was in dire need of quality shots, James provided that too. Team USA's depth will always result in multiple double-digit scorers (Durant's 22, Kevin Love's 14 and Kobe Bryant's 10). From game to game, the contributions may fluctuate. But it's clear that James' versatility and playmaking will stay constant throughout.
2. Team USA broke open the game in the second and third quarter. Don't blame Team USA's 22-21 first-quarter struggles on apathy. It simply didn't make outside shots, missing its first five three-pointers. Team USA only converted seven points off France's nine turnovers. French guard Tony Parker didn't allow a pair of goggles he had to wear because of an eye injury or Team USA's swarming defense to slow him down on dribble-drives. And the Americans had trouble adjusting to FIBA rules on the varying travel and foul violations.
Because of those factors, Team USA looked impatient. But that all changed in the second quarter. Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul each made three-pointers to begin the second quarter. Durant attacked the basket and nailed jumpers with ease. Team USA looked more aware on defensive rotations, limiting Parker to only 10 points and one assist. And the seldom-used Love became a key part in the U.S. team stretching the floor. Suddenly, the U.S. led at halftime, 52-36, and the game was pretty much over.
3. Durant led the team in scoring in unassuming fashion. Durant's 22 points, nine rebounds and two blocks looked especially impressive because he didn't try to force anything. Even though he shot only three-of-eight from the field, Durant converted well from the outside on catch-and-shoot opportunities and pull-ups (three of five). Both James and Paul found him on the open floor for fast-break dunks. Durant still stayed aggressive in attacking the basket, resulting in a perfect seven-of-seven from the free throw line.
4. Bryant had some key moments. Don't evaluate Bryant's performances in these games by how many points he scores. He's not the primary option, and he has graciously deferred so that other shooting threats such as James, Durant and Anthony can also contribute. He may have scored only 10 points on two-of-six shooting. But Bryant's shots proved timely.
His five-point swing, including a pair of free throws and three-pointer, gave Team USA a nine-point lead early in the second quarter. His other three-pointer happened after Durant's dagger, which opened a 6-0 run in the second half. Sure, Bryant followed those shots with two unnecessary threes despite being heavily covered. He also had exactly zero assists. But for the most part, Bryant didn't force the issue. And he did so while largely helping out in containing Parker.
Bryant's game shouldn't solely hinge on whether he makes shots. As he showed against France, they won't always go in and he won't be asked to produce all the time anyway. The true mark will involve how he fits in the team concept. For the most part, Bryant fulfilled that job description.
5. Love had a breakout game. After struggling for playing time through five exhibition games, Love posted 14 points on five-of-eight shooting. Considering Chandler has continued to get in foul trouble, Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski may need to lean on Love for more frontcourt help. He certainly earned that trust by hitting an early three-pointer, spacing the floor and playing aggressively inside.