Tougher test awaits U.S. on Thursday

Adrian Wojnarowski
The Vertical

BEIJING – Armando Costa was 9 years old when Charles Barkley infamously thrust that elbow into the chest of a poor Angolan named Herlander Coimbra. As it turned out, that was the unforgettable moment of the original Dream Team’s victory over a neophyte basketball nation.

This time, there was no such humiliation in the United States’ 97-76 victory Tuesday night in a Group B game.

“They were more friendly,” Costa said.

And Angola was much tougher, surprising itself that it could score 76 points on the Americans. So far, the United States hasn’t been as impressive as its hype in these Games, but Thursday delivers some drama into the pool play. Here comes unbeaten Greece, the source of the U.S.’s freshest embarrassment in international play.

Two years ago, Greece beat the United States 101-95 in the semifinals of the World Championships in Japan. Since then, the loss has hung over USA Basketball. There was no mystery to the loss: Coach Mike Krzyzewski had his players unprepared to defend such a potent pick-and-roll offense and had no adjustments, no answers, to stop it.

“We’ve had it circled,” Carmelo Anthony said. “I’ve been waiting two years to play them again.”

Everyone wants to thrust the blame on Team USA’s youth two years ago, but it wasn’t so simple. The loss pushed the program’s managing director, Jerry Colangelo, to recruit Jason Kidd for the 2008 Olympics and bring a stronger, more veteran presence to the guard play. Still, Chris Paul was a young kid then, and he’s a far more mature, far savvier player now. What’s more, Kobe Bryant now changes the game so much on the defensive end.

“We didn’t have the vocal leadership that we have now,” LeBron James said. “I’ve developed a lot in that way. There’s a lot more communication on the court now.”

Through two games, the elite teams in the tournament haven’t been as sharp as they’ve wanted. Spain needed a frantic fourth-quarter comeback to beat China 85-75 on Monday, and Argentina, the defending Olympic champion, lost its first game to Lithuania. For the United States, Greece is a hurdle it’s been waiting a long time to clear.

“Even though Carmelo, Dwyane and LeBron were two years removed from Athens, they were still young,” Colangelo said. “But the big thing that summer was we learned a lot about ourselves and the international game. We missed a lot of free throws. They had a five- or six-minute stretch where they hit every shot. And that cost us the game.

“In retrospect, it was a blessing. Just not when it happened. But I look at it as another part of the growing that needed to be done.”

How far the Americans have come burns clearer on Thursday night.