Zach LaVine & Team USA to begin Olympic journey against France

LaVine set to make Olympic debut with Team USA against tough opposition in France as the Tokyo games get underway.

L'habit ne fait pas le moine.

It means clothes do not make the man, the rough French equivalent of our phrase to not judge a book by its cover. Don't be fooled by the sound of "French basketball." USA Basketball should know that after its quarterfinals defeat two years ago in the basketball World Cup. Early Sunday morning U.S. time, Zach LaVine and USA Basketball begins its Olympic gold medal quest with what may be one of its most difficult games, against France.

"We know how good they are," LaVine said early Saturday morning on a Zoom conference from Tokyo. "We also know how good we are, too. We went over the film and understand what they do. But I think we're more focused on what we do. Because if we do what we do good, I don't think there's any team out here that's going to come close to us. As long as we go out there and execute, be Team USA, I think we'll be alright."

LaVine, for his part, has tested all right following another virus health and safety protocols scare that forced him to remain in the U.S. after the team left Monday for Japan. It turned out, LaVine said, to be more contact tracing caution even as LaVine already contracted the Covid-19 virus actually during the time when he was getting the vaccine after the NBA players first became eligible.

"I was a little shocked," LaVine admitted. "Obviously didn't think I could get it. But they have to be careful with everybody coming over here. It made sense. I just pretty much had to do my time and jump through a couple hoops to get here. I had to quarantine for a couple days, get a numerous amount of negative tests. I didn't want to be at harm. So we just had to make sure everything was OK before I got here. Flew to LA. Then flew to Tokyo on a regular flight. But there was really nobody there. I think just because of the lockdown they're not letting a lot of people into Tokyo. There might've been six people on the entire flight. So felt like a private flight."

LaVine since participated in the opening ceremonies "It was really cool, really powerful," LaVine said. "Just being around all the different athletes from all the different countries and all the different sports. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. It's a giant event with a lot of history and I just tried to soak it all in. It was a lot of fun. Long day (after the delayed plane flight from the U.S.) though, I'll tell you that.

"We went over (to the Olympic village) before the ceremonies," LaVine said, the U.S players staying in a hotel. "We took some pictures with the other athletes, got to see what they were doing and just walked around the site. It was really cool. We talked. We mingled with all the other athletes, gave them respect and took pictures. It was really cool to experience that. It was a little surreal walking through the opening ceremonies, just seeing how many people were there and the history in it. It's just like, ‘Wow, I'm really here.' So I guess that could be a pinch-me moment.

"We're all here doing the same thing, representing our country in different sports," said LaVine. "It's eye opening just to see the sports you have from all the different countries, the respect you give each other and then knowing you're fighting for the same thing, your country and your pride as well."

The USA team is going to have a struggle. All the long international winning streaks—currently 25 straight Olympic game wins—have been ending less because of the NBA talent playing for the U.S. than the NBA talent around the world.

Consider that the best player in the recently completed Finals was from Greece. The top two in MVP voting this season and four of the top six are not from the U.S. The top two and five of the top seven in all-defense voting this season were not U.S. born players. That Defensive Player of the Year winner, and for the third time, was France's Rudy Gobert, who two years ago with 21 points and 16 rebounds ended USA's 58-game winning streak in non-exhibition international games at that World Cup.

And it's not just Gobert facing a particularly undersized USA team.

France's team features five current NBA players also with Nic Batum, Evan Fournier, Frank Ntilikina and former Bull Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and three players who have played in the NBA, including another seven footer, Vincent Poirier, who played briefly for the 76ers and Celtics.

A loss isn't fatal. Yet.

Olympic basketball for these games starts with three groups. The U.S. is in a group with France, the Czech Republic with its only NBA player Tomas Satoransky of the Bulls and Iran. The top two teams advance to the quarter finals after a round robin series of three games against the other teams. The top two third place teams also advance. So the USA team should move onto the quarterfinals beginning Aug. 2. The USA plays Iran Wednesday and the Czech Republic next Saturday.

The quarterfinals Aug. 2 and Aug. 3 is the so called knockout phase with a loss meaning elimination. Four teams will come out of that for an Aug. 5 semifinals. The gold medal game is Aug 6. There will be a bronze medal game Aug. 7.

The USA team is rated No. 1 coming into the tournament followed by Spain, Australia and Argentina. But France should be a difficult opponent for the USA team with its size and veteran NBA players who, unlike these USA players, have played together for many years in international competitions.

In addition, the USA team Saturday was expected to add the three players from the Finals, Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. It was uncertain how much they would play. The U.S. team was outrebounded by about seven per game in the four exhibition games in Las Vegas last week in which they went 2-2. That included against the aging Gasol brothers and not the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

"I think (my role) is still the same," said LaVine. "It's just whatever I've got to get done. We're not all going to play our regular starter minutes. I might come off the bench some games. I might start some games. I'm here to bring energy. Obviously, when I need to score and put the ball in the hoop, I can do that. But try to bring energy and change the pace of the game, pick up guys, be a menace out there. "I feel fine," LaVine added. "I had to sit out a couple days with some extra travel and things like that. It's nothing we're not used to. Obviously, it's a much longer flight than we're all used to. I think we're all still adjusting to the time change and the travel and things like that. But for basketball, once we get on the court, I think I'm alright and ready to go. Teamwise, we haven't changed a lot. We might've put in an extra play, but I can catch on pretty fast."

As the French say, vouloir, c'est pouvoir.

To want is to can.

As we say, where there's a will there's a way.