LONDON — LeBron James probably can’t remember the last time he walked off of the court after a 29-point thrashing of a quality opponent and had to answer questions about why the game was so close during the first 20 minutes and if his team is defending well enough to win it all.
Well, then again, before he led the Miami Heat to a Larry O’Brien trophy, he probably fielded questions of that sort on a regular basis.
But with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team an overwhelming favorite by most to capture the gold medal here at the Olympics and the world wondering if anyone, or anything, can stop them, the U.S. Team’s “flaws” have become a hotter topic than any of the facts surrounding this group.
Aside from that 99-94 win over Lithuania, the U.S. basically demolished the competition in their five games of pool play. The U.S averaged 117.8 points in those five games, the all-time U.S. Olympic record belonging to the original Dream Team (117.3). A staggering 77 made 3-pointers and a 46 percent shooting stroke should impress anyone, but not the critics of this team, who suggest that maybe the U.S. shoots too many.
If this is the basketball world’s way of doing its duty and trying to keep the U.S. humble, they’re wasting their time. James and his teammates already understand their own hoops mortality. They realize that a subpart performance against Australia Wednesday in the quarterfinals means an early trip home, the same fate for any team that doesn’t show up focused and ready for the elimination round.
“We’re very beatable. We don’t feel unbeatable,” he said. “We’ve just got to continue to get better, continue to work our habits, both offensively and defensively. But every team is beatable in this tournament and we know that as well.”
Whatever defensive deficiencies were exposed in the first half against Lithuania and even Argentina, they are at least correctable. The fact is, no other team in this competition will magically produce five NBA All-Stars that can come off of their bench and help turn games upside down.
James has served as the catalyst for the U.S. after halftime of both of those games. And he didn’t need any prompting from U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski or anyone else. Both Lithuania and Argentina had success forcing the U.S. into a pace and tempo that suited their styles more than the breakneck pace on both ends that the U.S. seems to prefer.
“It wasn’t like we had a different focus,” James said. “We knew defensively in the first half we didn’t play to our capabilities. We allowed them to get a lot of open shots, a lot of open looks, a lot of layups and that’s not how we play the game of basketball defensively. We came out with a sense of urgency in the third quarter to step it up defensively, play more solid and not gamble as much. And, then execute a little bit more on the offensive end.”
It helps to have game changers like James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony to erase some of those early mistakes with abilities that no one else in the field posses.
Yet that’s not enough to completely ease those fears about the U.S. being vulnerable if they don’t start the game with the proper focus.
“Yeah, it’s a little concern,” Durant said of the uneven starts. “We always do a good job of bouncing back. Our defense in the second half was great. We were swarming, getting deflections, steals, getting out and getting easy points. If we do that, we’re a problem. But we found out that we can be beat if we don’t come out and play the way we’re supposed to play. We’ve got to always turn it on. We can’t try to turn it on in the third quarter. From the beginning of the game, we got to be focused and ready. It was a good lesson for us, especially that Lithuania game.”
The U.S. learned plenty about the competition in pool play, but they also learned a few important things about themselves and what it is they will need to do take care of their business in the medal round with Australia as the first hurdle.
“We definitely are ready,” Kevin Love said. “We know it’s one and done now. We know where we want to be on August 12 and that’s in the gold medal game at 3:00. We want to be standing at the top of the podium at the end of the game. We know what it’s going to take and we need to play like we did in the second half [against Argentina].”