USA Basketball may soon learn that defense not only wins championships, but gold medals, too.
With such NBA superstars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade, scoring will not be a problem for the Americans during the upcoming Beijing Olympics. But without a strong defense, Team USA will be playing with fire. And as a constant reminder about how important defense is in hopes of winning its first major competition since 2000, all Team USA has to do is look at its defensive struggles in the last Olympics.
"We know that this team is not going to have a lot of problems scoring the ball, putting the ball in the basket," said guard Deron Williams. "Pretty much everybody here is the leading scorer on their team. What we're working on here is a lot of defense, defending people, because I know that's something some of the previous teams had trouble with."
Team USA lost three games and took home a disappointing bronze medal in 2004 at Athens. The Americans ranked 10th out of 12 teams in defensive field goal percentage, as their opponents shot 48.2 percent from the field. Team USA also ranked last in opponents' 3-point percentage (44.1).
Led by coach Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA improved dramatically at the 2006 world championships, ranking first in steals (10.8) and second in turnover margin (plus-7.4) per game, and second in blocked shots (4.9) in the 24-team tournament. But Team USA suffered a stunning 101-95 loss to Greece in the semifinals. After opening the game by missing 8 of 12 shots, the Greeks shot a blazing 62.5 percent from the field and made 8 of 18 3-pointers. Team USA also forced just two turnovers in the second half, and eventually left with another bronze medal.
The Americans played smothering defense in the 2007 FIBA Americas championship to win a gold medal that clinched their Olympic berth. But with no major threat in the tournament, Team USA's defense wasn't tested strongly, playing against teams that, other than Argentina (which played without star Manu Ginobili), wouldn't qualify for the Olympics.
Even so, Team USA's defensive play in the FIBA Americas was the foundation of what is needed to win Olympic gold. And from the start of training this summer, the Americans have repeatedly talked about the need to play strong defense in China.
"That's one thing that we love," said guard Wade. "We love defense as a team because we have a lot of guys who can get at it defensively, cause some havoc, and make a lot of plays. Our best offense is off our defense."
Said Krzyzewski, "We think we have a team that can score points, so we want to make sure that we can defend."
Team USA enters today's exhibition game against Russia in Shanghai allowing only 77 points per game and averaging a 41-point margin of victory in exhibitions against Canada, Turkey, and Lithuania. While blowout wins over Canada and Turkey were expected, the 120-84 decision over medal contender Lithuania in Macau, China, Friday showed how good Team USA's defense can be.
The US caused 23 turnovers while limiting Lithuania to 16 assists, and got off to a strong start with a 31-15 first quarter. Lithuania shot 41 percent overall and had only one player score more than 11 points (Rimantas Kaukenas with 17).
Tony Ronzone, USA Basketball's director of international player personnel, recently ranked Lithuania as Team USA's second-toughest Olympic opponent after Spain.
"Our defense is always top priority," said Bryant. "It's something we continually work on, communicate through, and make adjustments to. Our offense kind of takes care of itself. We move the ball, hit the open man, execute well. On defense we have many options, and it's on us to read the offense and see what we can take away."
And with strong defensive focus in the Olympics, the Americans should take away the gold medal.
Kaman wouldn't let his chance be clipped
American Becky Hammon has been called a traitor for deciding to suit up for Russia's women's basketball team in the Olympics after receiving a passport. American Chris
When talk of Germany being interested in Kaman surfaced during the NBA season, the Clippers center said Team USA had shown no interest. But USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo recently said Kaman declined an opportunity to play for the select team of NBA players that practiced and scrimmaged against Team USA last month in Las Vegas. Had Kaman played for the select team, he would have been a candidate for future USA Basketball teams.
"There was conversation about Kaman being on the select team and he was interested in that," Colangelo said. "But from what we understood, he wasn't going to play with the German team. So, that was a last-minute change. That's an individual decision people have to make."
Kaman's great-grandparents are German. Upon learning that, Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, a German, lobbied for Kaman to be put on the German team, and eventually a passport was granted.
Top-scoring performances for Team USA in the Olympics:
|31||Stephon Marbury||Spain||Aug. 26, 2004|
|30||Charles Barkley||Brazil||July 31, 1992|
|30||Adrian Dantley||Yugoslavia||July 27, 1976|
|28||David Robinson||Yugoslavia||Aug. 3, 1996|
|28||Jerry Lucas||Japan||Aug. 27, 1960|
By the numbers
The year Larry Bird became the only player to compete in the Olympics as a Celtic.
"That's what I said. I am a confident player and a lot of people might look at it like, 'Oh, another cocky attitude,' but I don't look at it that way. I have an opinion, I have a right to have one, and that's the way I feel. I felt I've played against the best over the years and felt right now that I'm the best player in the world."
Celtics forward Paul Pierce, explaining to the Orange County Register a recent comment in which he said he believed he is the world's top player.
Gone, and forgotten: So, where is Dwyane Wade's bronze medal from the 2004 Athens Olympics? "I have no idea where that thing is," the Team USA guard said recently. "I don't know. You could probably find it as quick as I could if you came to my house. I remember packing it in my bag, and I don't remember what happened."
Hot dates: The NBA's 2008-09 schedule is expected to be released soon, with the holdup because of the Sonics' move to Oklahoma City. The Celtics are expected to open the season Oct. 28 at TD Banknorth Garden, at which time they will receive their championship rings and hoist banner No. 17 to the rafters. There are also rumors the Celtics will play the Lakers Christmas Day in Los Angeles.
Ripped off?: Two NBA sources said former UConn team manager Josh Nochimson has been decertified as an agent by the players' union in large part because he has been accused of stealing about $500,000 from Pistons guard Richard Hamilton, a former UConn star. Nochimson also is no longer the agent for Bulls forward Luol Deng, who last week signed a six-year, $71 million contract extension.
Paying no mind: On speculation that Pistons guard Chauncey Billups could be traded this offseason, teammate Rodney Stuckey said, "I don't pay attention to it. As far as I know, Chauncey is still a Piston. That's our point guard right now. Whatever happens, happens. But as of right now, he's still a Piston."
Peace corps: Celtics forward Brian Scalabrine, Lakers guard Jordan Farmar, and NBA rookies Derrick Rose (Chicago), D.J. Augustin (Charlotte), Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City), and Brook and Robin Lopez (New Jersey and Phoenix, respectively) attended the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield, Maine, last Monday to promote teamwork and fundamentals for 160 kids from Middle Eastern countries. "It feels great just seeing where they come from," Rose said. "Some of the girls told us some stories about how it was over there and how kids react to things."
Dream scenario: Although the original "Dream Team" dominated the Olympics to win the gold medal for the United States in 1992, then-assistant coach Mike Krzyzewski believes it could have been a lot tougher if the world landscape hadn't changed. "Everybody talks about '92, but remember, Russia split up and Yugoslavia split up," said Krzyzewski. "I'm not saying we would have lost, but it would have been closer."
Marc J. Spears can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.