BEIJING – The Americans had come for a cleansing of spotty basketball, the starts and stops, the residue of Greece dancing on the United States’ global basketball grave in the World Championships. All gone now, obliterated under an avalanche of good, old-fashioned American excess. This victory was a grander Team USA vision that validated itself in a baseline-to-baseline blur of red, white and blue.
The Americans are transforming into the world’s worst basketball nightmare again, a staggering shuttle of talent engaged and enlightened on the European game and determined on defense.
So much for Greece’s pick-and-roll paralyzing Team USA, which won 92-69 Thursday at the Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. So much for tearing open old wounds. So much for coach Mike Krzyzewski struggling to diagram a way out of that debacle. Kobe Bryant is on the clock now, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are grown up and the coach’s clipboard is increasingly obsolete here.
As the Americans rushed out on the court for pre-game warmups, the Greeks lay spread out on the court, stretching. They watched the Americans with wary eyes. They could see the way they bounced onto the floor, the way in which they had talked about turning this Pool B game into retribution for the humiliation of 2006. Greece is tough and talented. Its players didn’t tremble in fear. They just understood the truth: This wasn’t Tokyo anymore.
“They had a big motivation to win this game,” Greece’s Nikolaos Zisis said. “They lost to a small country overseas.”
Maybe the United States still hadn’t learned the names of those Greek players – something that inspired the Euros two years ago – but it learned its lesson. The Americans are defending with a vengeance now, a disposition that took root once Kobe Bryant infiltrated the program. There is so little freedom on the floor against them. Once the U.S. goes to its bench, Dwyane Wade could be the best sixth man in Olympic history.
Wade is everywhere on the floor. As much as ever, he doesn’t need to score to control a game. Once, he saved a ball falling out of bounds along the sideline, flicked it 30 feet to the basket and caught Kobe Bryant over the rim for a dunk. Wade hit the floor for loose balls. He had 17 points, six steals and five assists. He’s been hellacious for the Americans.
With Wade missing so much of last season with a shoulder injury, there’s such a freshness to his game. Such vigor. Two years ago, the Greeks didn’t remember Wade creating chaos on the ball. They didn’t remember James chasing down layups and pinning shots on the backboard. And they sure didn’t remember Bryant on the floor.
Bringing waves and waves of USA stars had long been the blueprint for the restoration of USA Basketball. As the Americans were blowing a close game open in the second quarter, it hit Wade: This was exactly what it was supposed to look like here. “They were playing tough, and we started making plays and more plays and more plays,” Wade said. “It wasn’t one guy, or two guys. It was everybody who was getting into the game. We had 16, 18 points in no time.”
Suddenly, it was 51-32 at halftime, and it didn’t matter that Jason Kidd and Dwight Howard had found foul trouble. There was Chris Paul and Deron Williams running the point, and Chris Bosh controlling the middle. Greece is still a good international team, but this was a night that affirmed what the world had come to suspect from watching Team USA prior to Beijing: The Greeks had lost ways to exploit the Americans.
Yes, they can go zone and make the U.S. shoot over them. Team USA will see more of that in the medal round. Yet that isn’t as much a way to attack the Americans as it is a prayer. Just two years ago, the Greeks could go everywhere they wanted on Team USA’s defense. They scored 101 points on 63 percent shooting at the World Championships. This time, Greece found a far surer, far more poised team that communicated on the floor. Strangers no more.
“We just talk so much more than we did then,” James said.
Team USA wouldn’t let the Greeks get their bearings. They wouldn’t let them breathe. Greece became panicked and turned the ball over 25 times. They had seven shots blocked and far more altered near the rim. The Americans had moments in the victories over China and Angola, but Greece was a test, a threat, and maybe they were the most intrigued of all to see where it left the U.S. with unbeaten Spain awaiting on Saturday night.
When it was over, Team USA had overrun Greece, a red-white-and-blue blur that’s turning into the world’s worst nightmare again. Another avalanche of good, old-fashioned American excess. It’s been a long time.