LONDON – The Wednesday agenda for the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team is a blank page.
There’s nothing there. No meetings. No team functions. No mandatory appearances. For the first time since they convened for training camp in Las Vegas four weeks ago, the next 24 hours are free.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time, according to Carmelo Anthony, who along with LeBron James and original Dream Team member David Robinson, has done this — the Olympic experience — more than any other basketball players in the history of the program.
There is only so much of the buildup and competition that an Olympic team can take before a simple day completely off is warranted. That day is now for this team, as was evident from their lackluster start that preceded their monstrous finish in Tuesday night’s 110-63 blowout win over Tunisia.
Don’t let the first seven minutes of the game fool you. The 47-point victory margin was indicative of exactly what went on in the game. But it’s what goes on between now and Thursday’s tilt against Nigeria that might be most important for this team.
Anthony bypassed the King’s English and kept it real when asked if it had to be now?
“Hell yeah, yeah,” he said and then smiled. “We’re still going to be around each other in the hotel or whatever sightseeing or other [Olympic] events we might get into. We’ve been going since Vegas non-stop and putting in a lot of work. I think [Wednesday], we definitely need that day.”
So don’t take the uneven start or U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski‘s decision to start his second unit after halftime or anything else you saw for anything other than what it was. Everything that went on Tuesday, including the announcement hours before the game against Tunisia that they’d have Wednesday off, was done with the bigger picture in mind.
Kevin Love banging knees in the third quarter and giving the U.S. bench a scare when he limped off was the only part of the evening that didn’t go according to the script. (Love was fine after getting an ice pack for his right knee. He even came back into the game and stuck a corner 3-pointer with 4:15 to play that ended any suspense with the U.S. ahead 102-56.)
With all due respect to Tunisia, Krzyzewski had no intention of letting his team loose on them the way he would have against a different opponent, say one of the handful of teams that pose a legitimate threat to the mission.
“This isn’t a sprint, it’s a longer race and there is a lot of things that have to be done before the medal round,” Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t get anybody hurt tonight, even though with Kevin we were concerned. I think you have to always look at it … I know people critique, what is it, quarter by quarter and minute by minute. But that’s not the way you develop a team. What did we get accomplished tonight? We won by almost 50 points against a team that really wanted to play hard against us and wanted to play zone.”
Shuffling his lineup the way he did also allowed Krzyzewski to manipulate some minutes for Love, Anthony Davis, Andre Iguodala and James Harden, guys he’s been trying to integrate into the fabric of this unit without the luxury of the normal minutes you’d be allowed to handle such a thing.
“Sometimes finding minutes for 12 people is not easy,” Krzyzewski said. “I thought Andre really did a great job. He got the minutes and responded. James hit his shots. Kevin Love hit his shots. I thought our guard play was good. We got a chance to rest Kobe [Bryant] and LeBron, not play them as much. So it was good … I mean, it’s not going to be a perfect thing. But we won 110-63. You can nit-pick and whatever, but look, we’re much better than they are athletically and experience wise. You’re trying to get minutes and combinations and make sure no one’s hurt and we’re in shape. There’s more of that going on tonight.”
Using the second unit the way he did was a calculated move that will pay dividends later, if Krzyzewski and his staff have this thing mapped out properly. That’s why Davis played extended minutes, as well. But mostly it was about Love, Iguodala and Harden and making sure they are ready.
“You don’t know who it’s going to be that might help us win the gold medal,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, if you look at the gold medal game against Spain in ’08, Tayshaun Prince gave us eight points in an abbreviated role that were huge for us because LeBron and Kobe had two quick fouls in that game. If you don’t give these guys that level of experience over an extended time, they may not be ready for those moments. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
The veterans on this team understand that better than anyone. Bryant, James, Anthony, Chris Paul and Deron Williams. They were all there in Beijing. They know the rhythm and the flow that is needed in a competition of this sort.
They understand that Tunisia knocking down a few 3-pointers in a preliminary round game, while exciting, does not mean the same thing as Spain, Argentina, Russia, Brazil or Lithuania doing it. There is a hierarchy in Olympic basketball, same as there is any other tournament setting.
That’s why you see everyone looking to set Davis up when he’s in the game and the entire bench swarming Love when he goes down the way he did. There is an inter-connectivity, a zone that they must all occupy together over the course of the next 12 days, if this ride is to end in the way they all expect it to end.
So no, the second unit starting the second half wasn’t a slap in the face to the first five. And yes, the news that Wednesday would be an off day, a blank page, if you will, was embraced for what it is, nothing more and nothing less.
“It’s not dangerous for us at all,” James said if knowing about it before a game against a lesser opponent could have caused their shaky start against Tunisia. “We came out a little sluggish but that’s okay. It’s always fun to get a little bit of a break but also to get better. And we were able to do both. It took us a little bit to get warmed up and the second group did a great job and we were able to finish the deal. We got better today and now we get a little break tomorrow and get ready for the next one.”