LONDON – Chris Paul was to the point in the huddle.
“During one of the timeouts, I told Coach K, ‘I’m not running any other plays except the one for ‘Melo,’ ” Paul said Friday morning, before the U.S. men’s Olympic team meeting at their cozy hotel downtown. It was a third-quarter huddle of Thursday’s game with Nigeria, when Carmelo Anthony was in the process of losing his mind (scoring-wise).
Anthony is paid to score by the Knicks, so getting 37 points in a game isn’t a big deal for him. But he’s rarely been as efficient as he was in Thursday’s 156-73 (156-73! it boggles the mind and fingers just to type that!) dismembering of Nigeria at the Olympic Park Basketball Arena, helping set all manner of U.S. individual and team Olympic records. And the U.S. team is showing signs that, just as in 2008, it’s rounding into shape at just the right time to win the gold medal.
There was some concern early in the training camp process for this team about how the cores of the 2008 Olympic team and the 2010 World Championship team would blend. The ’08 “Redeem Team” that won the gold medal in Beijing featured Anthony, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James; the ’10 team that won gold in Turkey was led by the new jacks: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love. It’s not that anyone was going to be churlish about minutes; these are all mature guys. But any time a player is used to performing star turns, it’s sometimes hard to be “Guy Catching a Cab” in the closing credits.
But after Durant looked less like himself coming off the bench in the early exhibitions, Mike Krzyzewski made a switch in the starting lineup, bringing Anthony off the bench and starting Durant. Those small adjustments seem to have helped. Durant started out hot Thursday, hitting three 3-pointers in the first six minutes, and after Kobe Bryant scored 14 points early as well, they handed the baton to Anthony. He was white-hot from minute one.
“Carmelo would have like a 60-point game, I think … if we didn’t limit him,” Krzyzewski said late Thursday at the team hotel. “And the neat thing about that is that everybody on the team wanted him to shoot the ball.”
Anthony made 13 of 16 shots, including 10 of 12 from behind the arc. He’s gotten hot before, but it almost always involves some posting up or driving to the basket, where he uses his strength to get to the foul line. Thursday, though, almost all of his makes were from skeet-shooting distance. When you score 37 on 16 shots (in just 14 minutes), you’re doing it right.
“I was at a loss of words watching,” Love said. “I was telling Craig Sager, every time (Anthony) went up, I just stood up, held up three points in the air. I knew it was in. When a guy gets in a rhythm like that, everything seems to go in.”
Nigeria isn’t as talented, obviously, but it has players with NBA experience — like former Warriors lottery pick Ike Diogu — on the roster. But there isn’t a team on Earth that would have stayed with the Americans on Thursday. Not only was Anthony unconscious, but the U.S. defense was at its ball-hawking best, with James and Bryant taking turns overplaying passing lanes for steals and runouts.
But Anthony’s acceptance of his new role has made the gears run smoother, too.
“I’ve been in (hot-shooting) situations like that before, but I think the circumstances right now makes it that much more special,” Anthony said late Thursday at the team hotel. “Being part of the USA team, being able to utilize the minutes that I’m playing, and just the way that we did it — sharing the basketball, getting wide open shots. It felt good out there tonight.”
Krzyzewski was also pleased with the play of his point guards Thursday, who pushed the ball at every turn, flattening Nigeria’s defense and creating wide-open threes. Paul ran the same ball screen over and over again for Anthony in the third quarter, and Anthony’s scorching hand allowed James and Bryant to rest the whole second half. Nobody played more than the 23 minutes Thursday.
In the first three games of the Olympics, Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams have a combined 3.46 assist-to-1 turnover ratio, with Williams posting an incredible 7-to-1 mark (21 assists, three turnovers) by himself. They have all been deadly in the screen-and-roll game.
Krzyzewski canceled practice Friday, in part so that the players could get one last opportunity to see some of their athletic brethren in events. Kobe Bryant took in Roger Federer’s tennis match at Wimbledon, while many other players were planning to see Michael Phelps’ last swim meet in Olympic competition Friday night.
Gradually, the basketball team is turning it on in all facets. The Americans didn’t play great for 40 minutes in Tuesday’s 110-63 rout of Tunisia, with the second unit having to pick things up for the starters in the first half. Yes, it’s hard to find fault in a 47-point win; Krzyzewski said it was a more all-around solid performance than the media gave the team credit for. But Anthony allowed that the starters had room for improvement.
“We talked about it,” Anthony said. “Even though we won by a large margin against Tunisia, there was certain spots of the game that we thought we could have played better. We talked about it. (Thursday) we was really locked in from all aspects.”
The gold medal isn’t being handed out just yet, of course. The U.S. team still has to play Lithuania on Saturday and Argentina on Monday before medal play starts. And even though the Americans routed Spain in an exhibition weeks before the start of the Games, one suspects Spain will be playing in a different gear should the teams meet again here in the gold medal game.
But the Americans could well be playing at another level by then as well.
Other than Anthony Davis forgetting to put on his jersey and thus not being able to check into the game late in the first half — which will ultimately draw repercussions from his elders (“that’s undisclosed information,” Anthony said, “but we’ve got a while to go here”), Thursday was as smooth a sail as you’re going to get, even in the preliminary round.
“Camaraderie-wise, we had (chemistry) from day one of training camp,” Krzyzewski said. “These guys have been fully committed, selfless, and really pull for one another. And then it’s a matter of getting to know how one another plays. And adjusting to the international game. We’re still adjusting to it. When you’re hitting 3’s and stuff like (Thursday), you’re not as worried about any adjustments, because you’re ahead by so much. But we’ll have closer games, and we have to keep learning. We have two more pool games to learn before it’s one and done.”
The first of those is Saturday against a talented and dangerous Lithuania team. Even though the Lithuanians are just 1-2 in Pool A after losing Thursday to France, they have talent and NBA experience and — the biggest challenge to this U.S. team — size in the middle. The Lithuanians feature the Raptors’ Linas Kleiza, who’s averaged 16 points a game so far in the Olympics, and NBA-quality depth with the likes of ex-NBAers Darius Songalia and Sarunas Jasikevicius.
Their young center, Jonas Valanaciunas, hasn’t played in the NBA yet; he’ll be a rookie this season with Toronto, which drafted him No. 5 overall in 2011. He spent this past season playing for Lietuvas Rytas, making the all-Eurocup team. And Valanciunas isn’t a focal point offensively for the Lithuanians, who shoot it well from the perimeter. But 6-foot-11 skilled players can pose problems for the Americans; even the 6-foot-7 Diogu had success (27 points) in the paint against them Thursday.
“Well, we’ve played against Lithuania quite a bit, and I know their coach real well, and one of my former players is on their team, Marty Pocius,” Krzyzewski said. “But Kleiza is the guy they start off with. He’s capable of a big performance. And they’re deep. They’ll play all 12 guys. It’s a country that loves basketball and has had great success, and a lot of pride. They play good continuity stuff, and we just have to be prepared. It’s our next game and you forget about this one and get our fourth win in pool play.”