LONDON – The question was whether the U.S. Olympic basketball team could be beaten.
“Sometimes a team wants to show that this is their tournament,” French coach Vincent Collet said Sunday, after getting blown out 98-71 in Sunday’s opener. “They did it today.”
Those were the last two sentences of his answer. The first was how he hoped to have a chance to try again. The dozen or so in between were how Collet had hoped to accomplish it the first time around. All of them can be summarized by something heavyweight-turned-thespian Iron Mike Tyson once famously said:
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
In Collet’s case, his plan was to limit turnovers on one end by having his players protect the ball and second-chance points on the other by controlling the defensive boards. The French succeeded at neither, largely because their opponents played without much in the way of opening-night jitters and with way more defensive intensity than some of the packed-with-NBA-superstar squads that USA Basketball sent to the games in the past.
That said, it’s not as if the French didn’t know what to expect. They boast a half-dozen NBA players of their own, the second-largest contingent in London, and were the darlings of the U.S.-can-be-beaten crowd. But after hanging tough early – France trailed by a point at the end of the first quarter – the opportunistic U.S. defense and their own frigid shooting from beyond the 3-point arc (2 of 22) doomed any hopes of an upset.
Afterward, the same question put to Collet was put to a few of his players.
Tony Parker pronounced the U.S. team would be “very, very tough to beat,” and none of his teammates objected very loudly. Boris Diaw, who claimed a starting spot alongside Parker in San Antonio for the stretch run of the NBA season, said: “Definitely not by shooting 10 percent from 3-point range. And we turned it over (18 times) way too much.”
The most optimistic assessment, ultimately, came from the young and freshly minted Portland Trail Blazer millionaire Nicolas Batum. Even so, it was nothing you haven’t heard before.
“You have to play a 40-minute game, really” he began. “Play a 40-minute game, continue to rebound. Take care of the ball and play good defense.
“Some teams can do it, you know? I think some teams can beat them,” Batum added, trying to pump himself up. “Really.”
Besides his own team, Batum nominated Spain, Argentina and Brazil. That’s no coincidence, since all three gave the U.S. side some trouble on the road to London. After one period Brazil was ahead by 10 and Spain by 1; Argentina cut a 20-point deficit to four. All three eventually got punched in the face.
Those moments of vulnerability are why few people – other than Kobe Bryant – have been willing to compare this bunch to the original Dream Team. Well, that and the fact that the first edition featured a then-and-still-without-peer Michael Jordan in his absolute prime, a still capable Magic Johnson and a much, much deeper and more reliable bench.
When Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are all in sync and on the floor together, the comparison doesn’t seem unreasonable. But put together a different combination – say Bryant with Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook, none of whom would ever be mistaken for a “pass-first” player – and one ball is never going to be enough.
So it might not take a perfect storm to sink the U.S. gold medal cruise. Maybe they get into foul trouble early, or fall in love with the three-point shot on a night they’re not falling. Maybe they run into a team with a point guard who doesn’t turn the ball over and deftly finds his big guys underneath, where the U.S. team has no true center other than Tyson Chandler.
Sounds a lot like Spain, when Jose Calderon is handling the ball smartly and feeding big men Pau and Marc Gasol on a regular basis. That scenario might have come true, too, in a pre-Olympic game not too long ago – except Calderon eventually needed a breather and the U.S. defenders feasted on his backup, Victor Sada. That would have been much harder to do if Minnesota Timberwolves guard and Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Ricky Rubio wasn’t sidelined with a knee injury.
Of course, that composite team sounds a little like France, too, if you substitute Parker for Calderon and Ronny Turiaf for the Gasol brothers. But Turiaf himself doesn’t buy the argument the U.S. team is short on big men, or that it can’t beat any rival playing small ball.
“They are so versatile that, for me, it’s a false debate,” he said. “If you can foul out Tyson, so what? In comes Carmelo or LeBron. And really, who’s going to take advantage of them?”
“It’s a case of … of …” Turiaf paused, looking for a phrase. He didn’t look pleased, either.
“A case of ‘pick your poison?’ ” someone offered.
“Exactly,” he said, nodding gravely. “Pick your poison.”