Team USA's Gold-Medal Chances Hinge on Defense

Adam MillerCorrespondent IAugust 16, 2008

The USA's 119-82 thumping of Spain represented more than another win. It was a message, as Chris Paul said in a postgame interview.


“We took [the Spanish guards] as a personal challenge,” Paul said.


If you told Allen Iverson in 2004 that a point guard who doesn’t play defense and a 17-year-old kid could possibly beat Team USA, he would shrug it off and laugh.


But when Paul, Jason Kidd and Deron Williams heard about how Spain had three deadly point guards of their own—Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro—they made sure to strip whatever confidence the Spanish guards had in their hopes of beating the U.S.


The U.S. (4-0) had its set-backs throughout the game, with Deron Williams fouling out and earning four fouls each from Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard. LeBron James couldn’t stop jawing at the wildly inconsistent refereeing, and the U.S. allowed Spain to go on a 6-0 run late in the first quarter.


Team USA didn’t seem to care, as they were on a mission to show the world that they are the only team deserving of the undefeated title. Their latest casualty on the road to redemption was Spain (3-1), as they succeeded in making the FIBA World Champions look like Angola, with 39 percent shooting and 21 percent from three-point range.


The Americans ruled with their defense (16 steals) by taking Spain’s big men right out of the game. Even Pau Gasol, the top non-U.S. big man, had no luck offensively against the Americans, with five turnovers and 13 points.


When the U.S. chose its team, much of the focus was on how Team USA improved its offense with three true point guards and a go-to player in Bryant.


U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski had other plans for him, as Bryant told Coach K he wanted to guard the best perimeter player on the opposing team.


He has shown no difficulties living up to that task, forcing the opponents he guards to 40 percent shooting and 13.5 points per game. Keep in mind those stats are a little inflated because of Angola’s Armando Costa’s 24 points against an American team that relaxed for most of the game and waited for the opposition to miss.


Today’s casualty was Rudy Fernandez, who scored an Olympic low of eight points. Bryant’s defensive contributions usually don’t show up on the box score—like James does with blocks that continue to awe the Chinese. But that doesn’t seem to bother him.


When he gets back to the NBA, Bryant will be the man on the Los Angeles Lakers and will be putting up impressive stats. But during the Olympics, Bryant isn’t the top scorer, although he is certainly the most talented player.


Bryant will never match Michael Jordan’s defense at the Olympic games in 1992, where keeping his man scoreless was too easy, and instead he tried to keep his man from taking a shot.


The international competition is still too good for that sort of dominance, and Bryant is not a better defender than Jordan, but Bryant will assert his version of dominance against whomever Team USA faces.


All Coach K wants is for Bryant to stop potential threats such as Manu Ginobili and Sarunas Jasikevicius from torching the U.S. beyond the arc, so that Team USA can get more wins like it did today against Spain.


Bryant’s defense-first mentality has rubbed off on the players like Williams and Paul, who are so committed to winning that they will defend Rubio as if he’s Steve Nash. This attitude allowed the U.S. to shut down Spain’s point guards, holding them to 17 percent shooting.


While today’s rout over Spain was convincing that the Americans have what it takes to win the gold medal, they know that every team will bring it up a notch during the medal round. Unless Lithuania decides to take the day off against Australia on Monday, the U.S. should get another shot against Patrick Mills and the Aussies.


The Americans look a step-and-a-half ahead of the rest of the field, but they don’t plan on relaxing until the "Star Spangled Banner" is playing as a gold medal is wrapped around every player’s neck on Aug. 24.


One of the best NBA coaches, Larry Brown, couldn’t get his egotistic superstars to play defense, but an NCAA coaching legend with no NBA experience convinced the league’s top player to dedicate himself to stopping the opposition’s best player, instead of leading the team in scoring. That is what being a gold medalist is all about.