Team USA Olympic Schedule and PreviewTeam USA will begin Preliminary Round play at 10:15 on Sunday morning (Eastern Standard Time) versus host country China as Group B play opens. Jason Kidd recently said that this contest will be like "game seven times seven" because it may be watched by more people than any basketball game in history but the reality is that from a competitive standpoint it will be very anticlimactic. Although China has three players who are at least seven feet tall who are current or former NBA players (Yao Ming, Yi Jianlian and Wang Zhi-Zhi), their "triple towers" will hardly be invincible for two reasons: the FIBA game with its trapezoid lane is not geared toward post up play and Team USA's defensive pressure--spearheaded by Kobe Bryant--will make it difficult for the Chinese guards to get the ball up the court, let alone set up the seven footers in their comfort zones. Look for Team USA to get a lot of early deflections and steals en route to a blowout win.
Team USA's second game will be on Tuesday versus Angola, an African basketball powerhouse that will be completely outmatched by Team USA's size and speed.
Team USA will face its first challenge in this year's Olympics on Thursday when they battle Greece, the team that stunned Team USA 101-95 in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship. Bryant was not a member of that version of Team USA and you can bet that he will consider it a special challenge to make sure that Team USA avenges that loss. It will be interesting to see which player Bryant is assigned to take out defensively--point guard Theo Papaloukas or shooting guard Dimitris Diamantidis. The Greeks play together very well but I expect Team USA to win by 15 points.
On Saturday, Team USA will play Spain, the team that won the 2006 FIBA World Championship. The Spanish team is loaded with talent, including the two Gasol brothers, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Calderon, Jorge Garbajosa and exciting young point guard Ricky Rubio. Even more than the game with Greece this contest will really be a measuring stick for Team USA's chances to win the gold medal. If Team USA plays the way that they did in their final exhibition game versus Australia then Spain could beat them but I think that Team USA will win, though I would not be surprised if the game is competitive well into the second half.
Team USA wraps up Preliminary Round play on August 18 with a game against Germany, a team that features a pair of NBA seven footers in Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Kaman but is not good enough or deep enough to beat Team USA.
All that matters in Preliminary Round play is to win enough games to advance to the quarterfinal round. At that point, the event is an NCAA Tournament-style one and done affair. The top four teams from Group A will face the top four teams from Group B. To win the gold medal, Team USA will have to win three games in a row. The teams that will most likely be standing in their way at that stage include Spain, Greece and Germany from Group B plus Argentina, Croatia, Lithuania and Russia from Group A. Since the most important thing in the Preliminary Round is not to win every game but simply to advance to the medal round, it is possible that certain teams will save some wrinkles in their offensive or defensive schemes in order to spring them on Team USA in the medal round.
The semifinal round game has been Team USA's undoing in their past two major international competitions: they lost to Greece in 2006 at the FIBA World Championship and they lost to eventual Olympic gold medalist Argentina in 2004. The most important thing for Team USA, particularly in medal round play, will be to play stifling perimeter defense, shutting down the opposing team's three point shooters without allowing players to waltz down the lane for layups. Team USA may not dominate on the glass but they will not lose any games due to rebounding. Whether or not Team USA shoots a great percentage from the three point line will not be of primary importance, either.
Carmelo Anthony will probably be Team USA's leading scorer during the Olympics, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant following (not necessarily in that order) but Bryant's defense will be the most important factor for this team. James' improved defense and strong all-around game will be the second most important factor. One interesting storyline to follow will be the point guard situation. Jason Kidd will be the starter but he did not play a lot of minutes during the pre-Olympic exhibition tour, leading some people to believe that he is being phased out. That may be true or it may be that Coach Mike Krzyzewski was simply saving Kidd for the games that count. We will not really know which answer is correct until Team USA is seriously challenged, which will probably happen for the first time in the game against Greece. Look to see which point guard is on the court in money time in that game and which point guard gets the most minutes if the game does not become a blowout. I suspect that Kidd will play a more important role than a lot of other people seem to think that he will.
I expect Team USA to win the gold medal, Spain to capture the silver medal and Argentina to claim the bronze medal. Team USA will win most of their games by double digits but will have more than one game that is either decided by fewer than 10 points or is closer than 10 points well into the second half.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:26 PM