The last U.S. basketball team was so stacked that Dwyane Wade was the sixth man. Chris Paul and Chris Bosh were also part of that second unit, one good enough to beat any starting five in the world.
When Mike Krzyzewski looked down at the bench he has now Monday, it sure didn’t seem he liked what he saw.
After the reserves faltered, the U.S. coach stuck with the starters for nearly the entire second half to pull out a 70-68 victory over Brazil that kept the Americans unbeaten in the world championship.
Krzyzewski and his players said they learned something from their first test in this tournament. But was one of those lessons this: All these youngsters on the U.S. roster can’t be trusted when times get tough.
“I don’t know if they tensed up, but they honestly didn’t play as much tonight as they did in the last few games,” veteran guard Chauncey Billups said. “But they’ll have more opportunities and they’ll do a better job next time.”
After Group B’s off day Tuesday, the reserves should get plenty of time in the Americans’ final two group games. They face the bottom two teams in the pool, starting with Iran on Wednesday before closing against winless Tunisia.
Things should become more difficult with the arrival of the knockout round, which means the starters are going to need some help. Krzyzewski believes all his players now see what it takes to provide it.
“We’ve only been together for a few weeks. I don’t know until you’re in these situations if we’re going to have the character to win when you can’t hit a shot, when someone is playing such good defense,” he said after the game. “Tonight I found that and that’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing to find out about our team.”
Krzyzewski made his normal early substitutions in the first half, but the subs struggled to defend Brazil’s pick-and-rolls. Realizing the game was going to be won with defense, he had starters Billups, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Lamar Odom and Andre Iguodala on the floor for at least 15 minutes a piece after halftime to win a thriller.
“Wow what a game USA vs Brazil. Way to find a way to get that W y’all. Keep it going,” LeBron James, a starter on the Olympic team, wrote on his Twitter page.
To do so, the guys who were on the floor realize they’ll need the ones on the bench. After all, depth is supposed to be one of this team’s strengths.
“We just have to take the last two games again one at a time try to get something done,” Iguodala said. “Give everybody some key minutes in the next two games and everybody get their confidence where it needs to be going into the elimination round.”
The Americans are inexperienced internationally beyond Billups, Odom and Tyson Chandler. They’re still adjusting to the nuances of the game, such as the traveling violations they’ve repeatedly committed.
The entire Olympic team had competed previously and was well-versed in FIBA play. The current group lags far behind a team such as Brazil, which played together last summer while winning the regional qualifier for the world championship.
“It is a different team. It is a lot of young players, I think the first time that they come to the world championships,” said Brazil guard Leandro Barbosa, citing everything from the ball to the calls as differences from the NBA game.
“I think that causes a little problem for them, being different games. So in that situation, we’ve got a little advantage, so it’s good for us.”
Neither of the remaining pool opponents has the talent to exploit that. The main interest in the Iran game comes from local journalists trying to hype it because of the political tensions between the countries, but Krzyzewski downplayed that.
“This is a sporting event,” he said. “We have respect for Iran. I actually played in Iran in the 1970s when I was on the U.S. Armed Forces team. I have great feelings for their country. They’re sportsmen and so are we. We’ll have a great game.”
It shouldn’t be close, but another might be later in the tournament. The Olympic team never had that concern, but these Americans say they don’t mind.
“We can’t worry about how much we win by, winning the same fashion as other USA teams. All of that’s out the window,” Billups said. “All we need to do is get wins. Win every game we can and we’ll worry about everything else later.”