For all its talent, Team USA is an unorthodox crew. Only one true center, in Tyson Chandler, with his technical "center" reserve (rookie Anthony Davis) so whippet-thin that the New Orleans Hornets dealt for a traditional center in Robin Lopez to aid in his development. It's a team full of All-Stars that somehow has to get out of the All-Star game mindset: Overpassing, deference to fellow friends and stars, and taking it easy at times considering the score. It's coached by an NCAA coach that has never helmed a pro team. The group also boasts a series of combatants, as well as friends, as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have never had the warmest of relationships, to say nothing of the three Oklahoma City Thunder stars attempting to get over their loss to James' Miami Heat in the NBA Finals earlier this summer.
[Photos: Team USA goes for gold]
They adapt, though, from game to game. True to their makeup and reputation, Australia used brawn, a packed middle, and expert outside shooting to take advantage of Team USA's cold touch from the outside. It kept the contest close throughout the first half and actually began the third quarter (usually Team USA's time to pull away) with an 11-0 run. Depth, and adaptation, prevailed. Team USA just bundles its options, and decides how to beat you on the fly.
That might come back to catch coach Mike Krzyzewski's crew at some point, as Team USA attempts to defend its gold medal in the semifinal and hoped-for final-round contests on Friday and Sunday. But for now, the group is winning in waves. LeBron James (who ended with the first triple double in Team USA's history) takes over for a few possessions, or the defensive pressure turns up, or someone finds someone behind the 3-point arc on the break. Then Chris Paul rips off one of his five steals, and before you know it that manageable nine-point lead has shot up to 25.
Team USA's leading scorer was Kobe Bryant, who at times looked like the worst player on his club's starting five but rode a hot hand in the third quarter on his way to 20 points on six made 3-pointers in 10 attempts. It single-handedly helped quell that aforementioned Aussie run; and while it didn't do much to force us to think differently about Bryant's woes elsewhere (he didn't hit a shot inside the arc, the defense was poor), he's warming up just in time for what will be a contentious semifinal game against Argentina. Crazy Kobe is Good Kobe, just as long as there's not too much Kobe.
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Paul's turn, to start a fourth quarter that saw Team USA more than double up the Aussies with a 35-16 period, was nearly as pivotal. Steal after steal as he overplayed and took chances — the sort of defensive risk-taking that can either let a team back in a game, or put it away for good. Five steals for the Los Angeles Clippers star, as the Aussies turned it over 18 times overall.
James was the straw that stirred it all, starting several breaks with long defensive rebounds (he had 14 caroms, overall) with 12 assists (no turnovers) and 11 points. His work made life easier for Kevin Durant (who, like Kobe, struggled with just one made 2-pointer while nailing four 3-pointers) and Carmelo Anthony (the opposite, just about, hitting 4 of 5 within the line but 2-7 outside of it).
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By the fourth quarter, Australia's legs were shot; and the team managed just 33 points after that initial 11-0 burst in the first few minutes of the second half. San Antonio Spurs guard and Boomers point man Patty Mills did well to find open spaces on his way toward spotting up for four made 3-pointers (26 points overall), and Joe Ingles was often Johnny On the Spot with 20 points in 40 minutes, but the turnovers and tough looks just led to a frustrating night on the scoreboard. And once Team USA's threes started falling, the pack-it-in defense lost its way. Centers David Andersen and Aron Baynes (quite the foul mouth on that one!) seemed particularly displeased by the way they were unable to score on a Team USA squad that only played Chandler eight minutes.
From here, Argentina waits on Friday. A veteran group that dumped Team USA in the 2002 World Championships and 2004 Olympics, and one that hasn't been kind in its previous defeats to Team USA in both exhibition and Olympic play. Combatants for years, and now about to play each other three times in 19 days. It will be a nasty, and likely fantastic, game.
One of potentially two left in Team USA's run to the gold medal. Bummer.
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