LONDON — The game plan doesn’t change for any specific team or player for the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team.
They go into every game with the same mission, and that’s to “cut off the head of the snake,” meaning the opposing team’s point guard, according to their own superstar point guard Chris Paul.
So even if Sunday’s Olympic opener against France pits Paul and fellow All-Stars Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook against another NBA All-Star in Tony Parker, he could be one of two dozen point guards in this competition and the agenda would be exactly the same.
“To tell you the truth, our first priority going into every game is to limit the point guards, every game and every team,” Paul said. “That’s the head of the snake. And it’s that way with France probably more with any other team because we know how dangerous Tony can be. But when we played Spain our focus was on [Jose] Calderon. And when we played Argentina it was on [Pablo] Prigioni. So all of these different guys are running their teams and you have to worry about stopping them first.”
It’s like the focus they would use in the NBA. Point guard is arguably the deepest position in the league. And nowhere is exceptional point guard play more important than it will be in this competition.
On a team loaded with NBA talent of its own, the U.S. has to be careful about game planning for just one player, even one as accomplished as Parker, a three-time NBA champion with the San Antonio Spurs who led France to a runner-up finish to Spain at EuroBasket last summer.
“I think he’ll take up most of the conversation about how to prepare for their team,” U.S. assistant coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But everybody game plans for him and he’s still Tony Parker. So you have to be a little careful. What you try and do is make sure nobody else beats you and you keep him contained as best you can. Don’t put him on the foul line, don’t let him get in transition in the open floor and you try to cut that down. You know he’s going to score and do his thing and run his team. And you can’t forget the other guys, because every name we put up on the board our guys knew them. They are a dangerous team and Tony Parker is the head of the snake, so you have to do your best to contain him.”
No one could slow Parker down during the NBA season as he put together arguably the best year of his career before the Thunder knocked the Spurs off in the Western Conference finals.
But it was a summer incident, off the court, that threatened to derail Parker’s plans for this competition and potentially beyond. In June Parker suffered a freak eye injury during a melee at a New York City nightclub involving the entourages of R&B singer Chris Brown and rapper Drake.
A shard of glass hit him in the face during the bottle-throwing fracas and he ended up with a piece of glass embedded in his cornea. Parker said doctors later told him that he was “two millimeters away of losing my eye.”
Told he could not fly and had to stay away from light of any kind, Parker was held out of practices for weeks as the French team prepared for the Olympics. He’ll wear his new goggles, another mandate from his doctors, throughout the competition.
“I just started training like 10 days ago so I’m not 100 percent,” he told The Associated Press. “I’m not even close to being in shape. We had a terrible preparation but we’re going to try to do the best we can.”
France is also playing without Bulls center Joakim Noah, who was injured during the playoffs. But Paul, one of Parker’s best friends, and the rest of the U.S. team will treat him with the same respect they always have when things tip-off Sunday.
“You know he’s going to do what he always does and that’s go hard,” Paul said. “He knows like everybody else that once that ball goes up in the air it’s anybody’s game.”
A game the heads of the U.S. snake must dominate to make sure they come out on top.
“We’re going to come out, play aggressive and force them to react to us and dictate the game,” U.S. swingman Andre Iguodala said. “Tony is on the attack more with France, he doesn’t have Tim Duncan out there with him. He’s looking to finish more, get to the foul line more and make things happen for his team. It all starts with him. So it’s our job, all of us, to stop him … or at least slow him down.”