Monday, August 16, 2010

Team USA turns the page

By John McMullen

New York, NY - With Mike Krzyzewski at the helm of USA Basketball, the operative word is always going to be "team."

You probably aren't going to describe the 2010 USA Men's World Championship club with the adjective "dream" before that aforementioned "team," but Krzyzewski has put together another imposing bunch in preparation for the 2010 FIBA World Championship, set to begin Aug. 28 in Turkey.

The NBA's superstars restored order in the basketball world back in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when a star-studded team let by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Chris Bosh brought back the gold medal to the United States for the first time since 2000.

Success in the World Championships has been tougher to come by, however. The same players that won the gold in Beijing, minus Bryant, were only able to take home a bronze in the 2006 World Championship, and the U.S. hasn't won a gold there since 1994 when Shaquille O'Neal was in his prime and dominating for
the Americans.

The 2010 version of the U.S. National Team probably has the least amount of star power since the professionals started playing for USA Basketball. Most of the NBA's superstars took a pass this time and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo, along with Krzyzewski and his assistants, Jim Boeheim, Mike
D'Antoni, Nate McMillan and Jay Triano, cobbled together what can best be described as an NBA B-team.

Coach K started Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, Dallas' Tyson Chandler, Denver's Chauncey Billups and Boston's Rajon Rondo for the team's first official exhibition game on Sunday in front of a sold-out crowd of 19,763 at Madison Square Garden.

The only true superstar in that bunch is Durant but that didn't stop Team USA, from blitzing a French team featuring NBAers Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Ian Mahinmi and Alexis Ajinca, 86-55.

The USA squad was led by 19 points off the bench from Memphis' Rudy Gay, while Durant added 14. Billups, who notched 17 points as the off-guard flashed his vaunted leadership skills, was named Player of the Game.

"This is a really good experience for us," Krzyzewski said. "It's our first game, and I thought our defense was outstanding throughout and our effort was outstanding throughout. France played well and I thought we had a little bit of jitters to start off the game.  It's the first time for most of these guys to play for our country and in a game.  That's why these exhibition games are so important for us."

The team is clearly still a work in progress and Krzyzewski may have to tweak his rotation a bit, especially to start. Team USA made just 6-of-16 shots in the first quarter with defenders like Iguodala and Rondo on the floor. In fact, France led 15-11 before Gay broke loose for a slam on the break and followed that with a 3-pointer.

But, depth is what differentiates the U.S. from the rest of the world. Warriors sharp-shooter Stephen Curry, versatile big man Lamar Odom of the world champion Lakers, Chicago point guard Derrick Rose, Indiana scorer Danny Granger and rising stars Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City, Kevin Love of Minnesota and Eric Gordon of the Clippers, along with Gay make up Krzyzewski's bench.

"Our depth, I think we're going to find that every game there might be two different people who like today Chauncey and Rudy were outstanding," Krzyzewski said. "Yesterday when we scrimmaged, Granger was 9-for-12; he didn't score today but he still played hard. So that type of thing is good."

Four USA players scored during the first four minutes of the second quarter as America went on top for good, 29-19. France did manage to muster a 7-2 run to close to within three points, 29-26, with a little over four minutes to play before intermission, but the U.S. responded and led 39-30 heading to the locker room.

Billups the hit a pair of threes in the early moments of the second half and the U.S. was off to the races.

"No one is going to play over 20 minutes here," Rondo said. "So you have to go all out. Not that I'm pacing myself like in the NBA games. It's a long season. This is only nine games. We have six guards here, five are points and a combo. For the most part I'm trying to go all out. I'm coming out within four minutes."

That means the defensive screws can be put on at all times and, more often than not, will wear down the opposition. The USA forced 21 French turnovers on Sunday and finished the afternoon with 12 steals, outscoring France 22-9 in the all-important fourth quarter.

"I thought our defense kept us in the ballgame part of the second quarter, and then for the rest of the game," remarked Krzyzewski. "I thought we really played well offensively and ran good half-court offense. The main thing we like about it is the fact that we can keep up constant pressure defensively."

So, while the star power may be lacking, the chemistry sure isn't.

"I think this group is really a good group," Krzyzewski said. "I can tell you intangible-wise it's off the charts with attitude, team, hard work, 'I'll do anything', all that.  That's a good place to start."
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