First Time Out
Posted Aug 23 2007 3:45AM
With so many new members, the U.S. men used their opening game to get comfortable playing together
LAS VEGAS, August 22, 2007 — In a tournament where most participating teams are lacking star power, the U.S. men's senior national team took center stage Wednesday night and put on a show to make even a glitzy town like Las Vegas proud. En route to winning its first contest in the FIBA Americas Championship 2007, 112-69 over Venezuela, the host team did what most expected: Open up a big lead early and cruise to the victory.
With a balanced scoring attack, strong defense and all-around hustle, the U.S. opened up a 54-34 advantage at the break, a margin that would be doubled only 10 minutes later.
But not all was smooth sailing for Team USA. The early minutes were marked by some sloppy play, loose balls and missed free throws.
"I didn't think we were slow offensively," USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said as explaination for why his team only scored 21 first quarter points. "I thought we missed free throws and we missed some great shots, including a couple dunks. But offensively, I was pleased."
Much of that can be attributed to the fact the team is still learning how to play together, even after a week of practice. "I thought our team tried to play each possession hard and if we do that we're going to keep getting better," Krzyzewski said. "This was really our first game. This was the first game that these guys have played together. We have eight new guys on this team. Actually this is the first international game I think for seven of our players."
There wasn't really confusion on the floor so much as unfamiliarity, especially as they dialed up the speed of their attack. Even so, the team was able to light up the scoreboard, even on broken plays.
During one stretch in the second quarter, the team looked out of sync only to turn miscues into how'd-they-do-that type plays. With the U.S. ahead, 29-11, early in the second, Kobe Bryant flicked an alley-oop in transition to Dwight Howard. Or was it LeBron James? Both players rose up for the dunk, with Howard officially getting credit for the conversion.
Moments later, Bryant was on the receiving end after Jason Kidd tracked down a loose ball in the left corner. The Nets point guard made the save with a pass to Carmelo Anthony back out to half court. Anthony zipped a pass through the lane to LeBron James who promptly re-directed it behind the back to a cutting Bryant for the two-handed dunk.
It was defense, rather than scoring, that set the tone for the night, demonstrated best by Kobe Bryant, who was all over his man ... and the floor. In only 16 minutes of action, the Lakers All-Star tallied five boards, three steals and a block to go with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting.
"When you play like that -- Kobe was the one who made it tonight -- but any one of our guys can make defensive plays," Coach K said afterward when asked about Bryant's defense. "And the fact that he wanted to play defense, I mean, really wanted to play defense. When you have a guy who has a lot of 50 point games and he wants to play defense, that's pretty nice."
It's also nice when that 50-point scorer just so happens to be a repeat All-Defensive Team member and leads your team in assists, as Bryant did with a game-high five dimes.
More telling, though, than awards and stat lines was that only one minute into the game Kobe dove head-first for a loose ball which would have resulted in a Venezuela turnover. He corralled the ball but was whistled for traveling, giving it back -- not to mention leaving some skin on the hardwood at mid-court.
The very fact that players with household names like Kobe Bryant are putting it all on the line this year just to qualify for the Olympics and continue toward their goal of a gold medal in Beijing a year from now should have the world taking notice -- even if 43-point winning margins here do not.
Critics and detractors, however, will point to those players who are not suiting up. The defending Olympic champs, Argentina, are here minus Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto and Walter Herrmann -- all active NBA players. Canada has no Steve Nash. And the truth of the matter is, without those players those teams should be nowhere close to the red, white and blue by the time the final buzzer sounds. Nevermind thinking one could pull off an upset.
And if Team USA continues to improve as a team and play with the energy it displayed tonight, there will be no upsets on home soil this year.