August 20, 2008
The prevailing guess heading into the first round of tournament play was that the worst thing the Australian Men's could do was have played Team USA so close during exhibition play. After all, Team USA is always lacking motivation, and desperate for the kick in the rear needed to rise up for these games against inferior opponents and take to the expected win.
Also expected? The media taking the wrong end of the stick and beating around the bush with it.
Hey, I was right there, getting it wrong. I spent the bulk of Tuesday thinking about the same thing. Australia was going down, not because they struggle to guard teams or because they're not as talented or because the famous tennis-playing Chris Anstey has a significant role ... but because they made the "mistake" of keeping things tight with Team USA during that contest from over two weeks ago.
Then I saw this video. Not the part that had Dwight Howard acting a goof (seriously, man, you're 22, she's pretty; stop it), but the part that starts at the 1:10 mark. The one that has Kobe saying all the right things. Australia wasn't going down because of a close game from 15 days ago, naw, they were going down because Team USA was going to get it right, right, right.
We were wrong, wrong, wrong. Team USA isn't winning because it is grabbing motivation from out of nowhere. It's always had motivation. It had motivation, whether you believe it or not, in 2002, 2004, and 2006.
They're not winning because the team is able to pull a perceived slight out of the abyss, a la MJ, and take it to heart. That's not it. This team cares, at all times. So did the other teams, even the ones with Stephon Marbury on board.
The real reason Team USA has changed is a lot less interesting, and a lot more significant. Team USA is winning because its defense has gotten much, much better.
Boring, I know. It doesn't make for easy "sleeping giant" attempts at classification, or lead to easy ledes that would bring up asking Australia to maybe save its best for the medal round, next time.
Instead, the real growth is coming in Team USA's ability to pay incredibly strict attention to its own man. In doing that, and not looking for every steal or to put a massive two-hand block on every poor non-NBA talent that dares waltz into the lane (even the guards were thinking that, early on), Team USA is discovering how to defend international basketball.
And the leader is Kobe Bean Bryant. He hasn't been the best Team USA defender in terms of sheer output (that distinction would go to Chris Bosh, who has been able to live up to his potential and cover huge gobs of hardwood at a time, especially in screen/roll situations), but he is saying the right things to his teammates, getting the point across, and keeping a clear mind.
That's important. You have to work against instinct in a tournament like this, and so far, Kobe's done it. You have to tell yourself to stick to lesser talents on defense, even if they seem unassuming at first, and not roam. You need to treat every guard, forward, and even center like they're some version of Manu Ginobili or John Havlicek, and assume that a half-second with a turned head will result in an efficient cut and easy lay-up.
And Team USA, for all its 114 points in 40 minutes, and for all of Australia's rather solid 10-28 mark from the three-point, is getting the job done in that area. Finally. For those of us that watched the team have no idea how to play defense on anything more than a screen and roll in 2002 (though Team USA's offense was just as bad as its defense), 2004, and 2006, it's about damn time.
It's also damn hard to realize, or appreciate in real time, either. This isn't the sort of play that gets noticed, mainly because Team USA is taking away plays that never happen. It's easier to point out good defense when, say, someone overplays while defending the post, and doesn't allow the entry pass. Team USA's work on Wednesday was a little tougher to glom onto. But if you saw both wins over the Aussie team this month, you noticed.
We also noticed as Kobe, gee-it's-funny-how-these-things-turn-out, went off offensively.
Fully copping to the notion that he prefers to step a step or three back from the international three-point line in a post-game interview, Bryant went off for 23 points on just 15 shots, hitting 4-7 from long range. Carmelo Anthony had a hand in the spurt to start the second half (one that put the Aussies away), Dwyane Wade continues to do amazing things in short bursts of time, and the game wasn't close in spite of a slow start for Team USA's offense.
Of course, this could all go up in smoke in the next round, when back-door enthusiasts and noted Team USA-killers Argentina or Greece will have a go at Kobe and company. Heartened as I am by this recent batch of defensive goodness, I'm as confident as I was in a Team USA gold as I was a month ago. That is to say, quite confident, but mindful of the fact that two quarters worth of inefficient offense and (more importantly) impatient defense could lead to a loss.
So it's not over. Keep watching your man, keep hitting those threes (12-28 tonight for Team USA, very good), but really just keep watching your man and the front of that rim at the same time.
You'll only have to do it for two more games, and then it's back to the NBA, and back to watching the screen and roll for 48 minutes. Oh, glorious orthodoxy.