LONDON — As much as they wanted to revel in the accomplishment and celebrate all of the U.S. and Olympic records that were toppled in their 83-point win over Nigeria Thursday night, in the minutes immediately following the game you could sense some growing disenchantment with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team’s 156-73 thrashing of Nigeria.
The line of questioning after the game, mostly from international journalists, was more about the U.S. abandoning the Olympic spirit in strangling an opponent than it was the nine records Carmelo Anthony and Co. set.
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski shook his head when the question was asked of both Ike Diogu and Nigeria coach Ayo Barake if they felt they were being purposely humiliated by the U.S. and their 29 made 3-pointers.
“Obviously, the first thing we did was not play LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant] in the second half,” he said. “Second thing, with Carmelo shooting the way he did, we benched him. We didn’t play [Kevin] Durant, we didn’t take any fast breaks in the fourth quarter and we played all zone. You have to take a shot every 24 seconds and it just so happens the shots we took hit. And I take offense to his question, because there’s no way in the world that our program in the United States is ever out to humiliate anyone. And Coach [Barake] would think it humiliating if we didn’t play hard. The score is irrelevant to us, we just want to play well and win.”
Krzyzewski nailed it on this one. The U.S. shouldn’t ease up on anyone. They are playing by the same rules every other team in this competition is playing by. Sure, they have a stacked deck for sure with the best roster of anyone here. But that doesn’t mean they have an obligation to show any restraint on the court. These are real games, with medals on the line for the winners. These aren’t “friendlies.”
And for anyone pining for a 23-under rule finding its way into the basketball competition the way they it has the Olympic soccer competition, you should know that the U.S. has gold medal teams at every age group. Oh, and the best 23-year-old player on the planet is Durant, the NBA’s reigning and three-time scoring champ.
So technically, there is no “fair fight” to be had in Olympic basketball. Not right now.
And as for these humiliation charges, both Diogu and Barake dismissed them.
They took responsibility for the loss, with Barake doing his best not to take anything away from the historic performance by the U.S.. He also took a few lighthearted jabs at the shame of being on the wrong side of the worst beating in Olympic history.
“Apart from the very good shooting percentage, we also didn’t do a good job of ball rotation,” Barake said, detailing all of the things his team did wrong in defeat. “Other than that, I felt we could won the game.”
Laughter filled the room when Barake smiled after delivering his punch line. But Nigeria was the victim of more than just the greatest shooting night in Olympic annals.
The U.S. was in full-blown assault mode. Point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams were following Krzyzewski’s orders to avoid running set plays and to push the ball relentlessly, thus forcing teams to deal with the U.S. team’s speed, athleticism and versatility.
“He told us to not call any sets,” Paul said. “So y’all noticed, even after free throws we pushed it, we pushed it. That’s why our team is so dangerous in this tournament — if we don’t call any sets and play off one another, the game’s a lot faster, a lot funner.’
Fun for the U.S. — and a nightmare for any opponent forced to deal with Bryant on one side of the floor, Durant on the other, James flashing from side to side with Paul controlling the action and Tyson Chandler anchoring the middle.
Those “trail 3s” — at least four of Anthony’s 3-pointers were shots he made off of a catch he made while the passer was pitching it back to him — are something you won’t see from any other team in this competition on a consistent basis.
Krzyzewski turned his focus to Saturday’s opponent, Lithuania, immediately.
But not before coming to the defense of Barake and Nigeria, having sensed the mood in the room shifting against his team as well as the inept performance from their victims.
“They did not qualify for the Olympics by being losers,” he said. “A winning team lost. The team that had to go to Venezuela and qualify, which is an incredible accomplishment, a team that won its first game in pool play. Whether they lost by one or by 50, it’s just one loss. They have a lot to be proud of. They played us hard. We were just incredible.”