x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Olympics: No defending US men's basketball team's style

Try as he might, US men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski cannot convince his team they need to focus a little more on defense. As long as they keep out-scoring opponents, that will not be a problem.

Mike Krzyzewski, centre, has continually asked his team to play more defense but with scorers such as Chris Paul, left, Kevin Durant, second from the left, and LeBron James, right, the US men's basketball team has paid little attention.
Mike Krzyzewski, centre, has continually asked his team to play more defense but with scorers such as Chris Paul, left, Kevin Durant, second from the left, and LeBron James, right, the US men's basketball team has paid little attention.

Mike Krzyzewski, the US coach, keeps saying people tuning into the Olympic men's basketball tournament have no idea - let alone respect - how much harder it is to beat the rest of the world now than it was when he was an assistant on the original Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992.

Hate to break the news to Krzyzewski, but his own players probably belong near the top of that list.

Not that it has made much of a difference so far. The Americans still have not played defence with the same sense of urgency they did in their opener against France and as of Friday, it still has not cost them a win. They remain undefeated heading into Friday night's semi-final against Argentina.

They love trading offensive punches and the latest team to stand in with Americans long after they should have been knocked out was Australia. It was not until a left-right-left combination of late three-pointers from Kobe Bryant - six in all - decisively settled what turned into a 119-86 quarter-final win.

"I don't believe the final margin of victory was indicative of the game," said Brett Brown, the Australia coach.

No doubt, but one of the Americans' six opponents - Nigeria were beaten by 83 - feel the same way.

And yet only Lithuania, who were on the verge of pulling off the upset of these Olympics before LeBron James made four big baskets down the stretch, were really close enough that it mattered.

And now that Bryant has emerged from hibernation, nobody is likely to get that close again.

Australia made it close by rolling up 11 successive points to start the second half and cutting the Americans' lead to three.

There are moments that Krzyzewski must be ready to pull out what remains of the dark black hair on his head, and that was no doubt one of them.

He keeps ticking off the reasons it is dangerous to count on outgunning every opponent, yet the leaders of his squad keep talking about how they play defence only as hard as they have to. Their offence, on the other hand works, always works like a microwave.

Need a dozen points fast? Set the timer to 2:30, select "LeBron James", "Kevin Durant", "Bryant" - take your pick - and stand back.

"What gave you the lift tonight?" Bryant was asked afterward.

A few minutes earlier, Carmelo Anthony tried to claim credit for pushing Bryant's button, saying to Kobe at one point: "Let's see what we see during the season."

Not exactly, said Bryant, who added that "by that point, I was already revved up".

"So what lifted you?" he was asked.

"Just kind of searching for something to get me going," Bryant said, "for something that would activate the Black Mamba, as coach calls it." (Bryant has earned the nickname for striking like the deadly snake on the court.) Of course, if Krzyzewski was actually calling all the shots, he would be calling for a more intense and consistent effort on defence from start to finish - much like the one that put France on their heels right from the outset.

When asked after the Australia game to name the best stretch of defence the Americans played, Krzyzewski brushed off the "I'm 65; I don't remember what I did last week" reply, praised his players for a few defensive stands midway through the third quarter and then went off on a lengthy ramble about how gutsy the Australians were.

"Did a pretty good job of avoiding the question, didn't I?," he chuckled at the end.

Absolutely. And while we are on the subject of responsibility, it should be noted that Krzyzewski has not done a much better job holding his players to the defensive standard this US team set in Beijing. Whatever message he keeps trying to send is not getting through.

So when Anthony was asked about weaknesses, he looked at the questioner with a sly smile and said, "We don't have none."

"And when was the last time you could say that about a team," came the follow-up.

Anthony stifled a laugh and then finally said "2008".

We will see if that is true soon enough.

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