by Peter Walsh / @goinginsquad
Over the last week, Team USA has been out in Las Vegas training for what is shaping to be, at least on paper, an incredibly competitive Olympic stretch. With so much talent on the floor, putting the ball in the basket wasn’t the number one concern heading into camp.
The team’s main goal was to build team camaraderie and, while it’s obvious that the team still needs work when it comes to the Xs and Os, one thing is for sure: Everyone on this team genuinely likes each other and will play hard to achieve their ultimate goal.
The best part of last night’s dominating 113-59 win over the Dominican Republic wasn’t the spectacular dunks (which there were plenty of) or the tremendous defense (which will cause fits in London), but the guys cheering each other on from the bench and playing unselfish basketball.
Since camp opened, Coach K has stressed that he wants his team to play for each other, not with each other.
“They really like one another, you can see it,” Coach K said after last night’s victory. “They’re really good guys. Durant and LeBron are really close and Kobe has done a great job [helping the guys]. There are no cliques and they’re and I think that translated to how hard they played tonight and how unselfish they were with each other.”
With so many distractions surrounding the week-long camp—from the Strip to injury and trade talk, to contract negotiations taking place during practice—keeping focus and a winner’s mentality could have been a potential problem. Not with this group, though. Not when they are representing something bigger than themselves and especially not with Coach K at the helm.
“It’s not hard to focus at all,” Kobe said earlier this week at practice. “Coach K does a great job of surrounding us with motivation. You see some of the Armed Forces guys here who talk to us almost every day and share their stories about how they protect our country. This is our job, this is our way of serving this country. The motivation and the goal never gets lost.”
Last night, that focus was put on display as the United States never took their foot off the gas against an overmatched Dominican team.
Playing in front of a packed house that included NBA legends Gary Payton, Bill Russell, Scottie Pippen and Dominique Wilkins among countless others, Team USA got off to a slow start—which wasn’t overly surprising considering it was the first time these guys have played with each other in an actual game setting.
The slow start turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the team was able to showcase its defensive prowess, especially on the perimeter. Though they are thin down low, especially now that Blake Griffin has gone down with a knee injury, Team USA is downright scary on the perimeter. They are a long, fast, ball hawking group that will force a ton of turnovers that will lead to fast break opportunities.
And with Chris Paul and Deron Williams running the point and LeBron and Durant filling in on the wings, fans are in store for an incredible array of highlight reel alley-oops that will all start with a strong defensive effort.
“If you have team defensive rebounding, you have a chance to push on the other end and this part of our offense,” Coach K explained. “We have some halfcourt offensive sets, we just didn’t have to run it much tonight.”
One of the more fascinating aspects of last night’s contest was the tinkering of lineups by Coach K throughout the game. Without many options at the center position, the team used a plethora of different lineups that saw Andre Iguodala, Durant and James all getting a turn at the 5.
While the lineups worked last night against a much weaker Dominican team, Team USA will surely have matchup problems against bigger teams like Spain and Russia.
“They looked really good against us so it’s not such a fair gauge,” Dominican Republic center Al Horford said. “But having already played against those other teams and seeing them, they’re going to have their hands full with Spain and Russia… If they can speed up the game, I think they’ll have an advantage against those bigger teams, but if they play a smash mouth game, I think they’ll have a harder time.”
While Horford predicts that Team USA will face problems against bigger teams, he was quick to credit them for their intimidating defense.
“They can create problems with their defense,” Horford said. “We played Russia and all those other teams and we could get into our offense. Tonight, we couldn’t even get into our offense.”
After it was revealed that Blake Griffin would not be traveling to London with the team, the issue of size was the hot topic during last night’s postgame, and for good reason. With Griffin out, Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love (man, is it going to be fun watching him throw full-length outlet passes to his explosive teammates) will now shoulder an even bigger load. It’s highly likely that Anthony Davis will be added to the team, and even though he is an amazing talent, it cannot be forgotten that he is only one year removed from high school and playing on that type of stage will surely be overwhelming.
“I thought he (Davis) played extremely well and we rallied around him just like we rally around everyone else—but him in particular since he’s so young,” Kobe said.
“He looked fine to me out here, practice will be the big key when he goes up against us and we can put a body on him but I don’t think he’ll have much of a problem,” he continued. “You always want more size, but we’re happy with what we have. We really used our speed with LeBron at the 5, Melo at the 4, KD at the 3, myself and Russ. [Losing Blake], it’s very big. I wish he was still with us. We’ve all become close over this week in Vegas playing with each other.”
Fortunately for Coach K, the team is loaded. They will certainly miss Blake’s presence down low but to think that it will kill their chances of winning in London is absurd. This may be one of the most versatile teams ever assembled, with guys who can play a multitude of positions.
It will just be a matter of getting creative and finding the right lineups for this team to succeed. “We’re going to have to play some different lineups,” Coach K said. “You’re not always going to see a 7-footer out there… Iguodala, Carmelo, LeBron and Kevin [Durant] all played big, they all covered 4s and 5s and we have to get comfortable with that.”
The players echoed their coach: “You got guys that can switch,” Chris Paul added. “If we really want to go big, we can go Bron, KD, Kobe, Melo and Tyson Chandler and that’s probably the five biggest guys that would be on the court at the same time.”
The matchup that everyone—from players to media to fans alike—is looking forward to is the showdown with Spain. The Spanish team is talented and very strong up front and the ’08 Medal Game is still fresh in everyone’s mind.
“We learned how to handle adversity [from that game],” LeBron said. “That game was a very close game, and it almost got away from us. The fact that it was a close game going down the stretch and we were able to pull away from them shows how mentally tough we were.”
“We’ll get a chance to play them in an exhibition game,” Melo said. “It was one of the greatest Gold Medal games and it’s going to be a tough matchup [this year] too, but we’re loaded too… That’s why we play the game, to see what happens.”
With all the hype and talk surrounding this year’s Olympic team, it’s refreshing to see them actually hit the hardwood and show what they are capable of. Team USA isn’t worried about all the media, internet and talking head discussions, they are solely focused on representing the United States of America and bringing home a Gold Medal.
“At the end of the day, we all have one goal and that’s to win a Gold medal,” LeBron said. “No matter what goes on, we have the same goal and we’re pretty excited about getting out there.”
And we’re pretty damn excited to watch.
Special thanks to the good people over at Team Refuel who allowed SLAM to cover this week’s training camp and exhibition game out in Vegas.