by Lang Whitaker

So that was easier than anyone thought. After Slovenia jumped ahead to a few leads early on, their largest lead being 5 points, Team USA’s pressure defense kicked in and the Nats blew Slovenia off the floor through most the last 14 minutes of the first half. The US led 66-49 at the half, got up by 29 in the third. Slovenia cut it to 11 with 2:27 left, but that was mostly because Team USA subbed in Chris Bosh and Brad Miller, who have both been disappointing, and then just tried to hang on and run out the clock for the win, which they got, 114-95.

Slovenia played a lot of zone, and the US acquitted themselves fairly well versus it, at least early on when it mattered. Dwyane Wade has visibly improved game by game at finding gaps and attacking the rim. Perhaps he’s become Team USA’s designated zone-buster.

ESPN’s announcers said over and over that Slovenia had seven players that had been selected in the NBA Draft. Well, guess what? Team USA had 12. Anyway, Freddy Weis and Carl Lewis were each drafted by the NBA, but whether or not you were picked by an NBA team is really irrelevant — the question is, How good are you at basketball?

Some random thoughts from an early morning watching the game…
• Dwight Howard was once again terrific inside. He got whistled for a foul just deconds into the game, but he settled in and really controlled the interior, including a mighty swat into the seats that he followed with a salute (with a huge smile on his face) to the bench. He got another one in the second quarter that he threw out to halfcourt, with consecutive blocks on the next two plays. Dwight just has too much energy and drive for the other post players, who looked exhausted just minutes into the game. He also had a ridiculous dunk on a rebound over Milic, which Fran Fraschilla, channelling Tim Hardaway on the old NBA Jams video, accurately described as a “tip jam.” Dwight’s going to have another incredible season.

• By the way, let’s keep an eye out to see who the first person will be to write a predictable column about how the World Basketball Championships are going to tire out the players for the NBA season.

• Coming into the game, Chris Paul had a gaudy 17-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and he finished this game with 1 turnover. What’s interesting is that CP3 isn’t really outrunning guys, but if you watch him closely he’s just playing with a ton of savvy.

“I feel like I’m not overly fast,” Chris told me out in Vegas. “I’m not as fast as a lot of the guards in the League. I know I’m not as fast as a guy like TJ Ford, Tony Parker, those guys. Them guys are unbelievably fast. What I try to do is just keep guys off-balance, have them not knowing what I do next. I just try to do a great job of changing pace, going from fast to slowing down to speeding back up again. I feel like that’s when I’m most effective.”

That’s what he’s been doing thus far in this tournament. By the way, Howard and Paul are the youngest guys on Team USA.

• I also love the way LeBron’s been playing. He’s not calling for the ball, not concerned with trying to establish himself offensively. Instead, he’s playing tough defense, throwing the ball out on the break and getting points in transition. His versatility and skill have really been amazing.

• Two other guys who had games worth mentioning: Joe Johnson and Elton Brand. JJ forced a few steals and was knocking down his jumpers. And with his size and strength, he’s able to defend anyone, at least for a few moments at a time. Elton is proving himself more and more important, as his ability to nail jumpers from the free throw area and out draws the defenders out away from the paint. He played the best all-around game I’ve seen him play yet.

• Props to Fraschilla, who asked the million dollar question: Does Kobe Bryant fit on this team? Something we’ll talk about here a little later on today.

• Nice team photo, USA. Carmelo’s hair is a little bit out of control, no?

• Over at True Hoop, they’ve been debating Team USA’s defensive philosophy, namely the idea that the US might be gambling too often. The announcers and some international pundits (including my main man/comedic foil George Eddy over at NBA.com) have said the US needs to play more zone defense. But if you look at the numbers, the US has by far the best assist/turnover and steal/turnover ratings, and they forced 25 turnovers against Slovenia. Why mess with something that’s working so well thus far?

I was thinking the other day about how people have adopted a sky-is-falling mentality with this team. If they get down early in games, even by two or three points, the announcers wonder what’s the matter. Look, there’s going to be some close games in this tournament, and the US probably won’t lead every game from start to finish.

• One thing I’ve noticed is that Team USA is terrible at defending at the end of quarters. I have no concrete evidence for his, but I think they’ve had at least one last-second shot made against them in each game in the tournament.

• There are stickers on the backboards that read, “Clean Game.” That’s an ad for FIBA’s anti-doping campaign.

• This sets up the best game thus far for the USA tomorrow morning: US versus Italy, two teams that are each 3-0.