US men's basketball unbeaten, says not unbeatable
The question sounded more like a concession.
The U.S. men's Olympic basketball team had come to Barcelona and put a 100-78 beating on Spain, the country given the best chance of stopping the Americans' bid for a second straight gold medal. It was such a dominating performance over the final three quarters Tuesday that it was hard to imagine what could be much different if the teams meet again in London.
So, one Spanish journalist asked Chris Paul, is this U.S. team invincible?
''No,'' Paul said. ''I mean, I wish we were. We'd get to live a long time.''
OK, so they're not immortal, either.
What the Americans have, after a five-game exhibition schedule, is a team that is unbeaten, though not unbeatable. The Americans have a weakness that can be exploited, though also the ability to turn it into a strength.
They head to London as the clear favorites, and maybe among the few who believe winning gold again will require much more than just showing up.
''I think for us, it's about going out there and playing the right way and worrying about us,'' Paul said. ''We go into games, fortunately we know that we're probably going to be the most talented team there, but that doesn't always win games for you.''
It worked during this tour, which started nearly three weeks ago in Las Vegas and ended with an off day Wednesday in Barcelona. The U.S. flies to London on Thursday, then plays its Olympic opener Sunday against France.
Games against overmatched Britain and the Dominican Republic weren't competitive, but the Americans were challenged at times during the three contests against medal contenders. Brazil had a 10-point lead after one quarter before the U.S. won by 11. Argentina cut a 20-point deficit to four in the final minutes of the Americans' 86-80 victory here Sunday. And Spain was ahead by nine points in the opening period before the U.S. got the game under control.
''We got better. We got better and at the end of the day that's what it's all about,'' LeBron James said of the pre-Olympic schedule. ''We've got to continue to improve and it was a good test.''
The biggest question - maybe the only one - facing the Americans since they assembled their team was how they would overcome their size problem. Spain had NBA big men Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka on their front line Tuesday, an advantage that seemed even bigger when starting center Tyson Chandler quickly went to the bench with two fouls.
Carmelo Anthony came in and played on the front line with James and Kevin Durant. That made the Americans vulnerable on defense but unguardable on offense, forcing someone who would rarely find himself on the perimeter suddenly having to check one of the NBA's top scorers out there.
''Their athleticism and quickness makes up for the lack of size. Interior players are not used to guarding players 20 feet away from the basket, so it's sort of a double-edged sword,'' Gasol said. ''You have to try to punish them at one end, then adjust at the other end. And they're loaded, so you have to be alert at all times.''
While Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo called the U.S. the best team in the world, the Americans were a bit more cautious, perhaps because they remember what happened against Spain four years ago in the Olympics. The U.S. won by 37 points in pool play, then held only a four-point edge down the stretch before pulling away to a 118-107 victory in the gold-medal game.
Spain didn't use All-Star center Marc Gasol or backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez on Tuesday, and Scariolo said the Spanish would be ''more ready than tonight'' if the teams meet again in London. The Americans don't view a victory in a rematch as inevitable.
''No, some people may think that, but we certainly don't think that,'' Kobe Bryant said. ''We know how tough Spain is, we know how good they are. We know how they're excellent passers, excellent shooters and very big. So we knew it was something that we're going to have to deal with.''
The U.S. averaged 99.4 points and shot nearly 52 percent in pre-Olympic play, seemingly settling on a rotation with Anthony as the sixth man. The Americans' leading scorer in tournaments in 2006 and '07, he scored 27 points Tuesday.
All impressive, but ultimately unimportant. Gold may be conceded to the Americans, but they can't claim it for themselves until Aug. 12.
''It's exhibition,'' Durant said, ''so the games start to count on Sunday.''
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