Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
LONDON – It’s go time for the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team. It’s gold time.
The challenging exhibition schedule is over, marching in the opening ceremony already is a memory, and the Olympic flame is burning brightly.
“We’re ready,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski.
They’d better be. Don’t expect any opponents asking for photographs or autographs – there are teams here that feel they can beat the Americans.
Although heavily favored to win the 12-nation tournament and capture gold just as they did four years ago in Beijing, the superstar-studded U.S. squad will face a talented field loaded with NBA players.
On Sunday, the U.S. opens pool play against France, an experienced squad led by San Antonio guard Tony Parker, who nearly missed the London Games because of a serious eye injury. Parker’s ability to break down defenses and create in the open floor could pose an early problem for the Americans. And he’s not the only headache for the U.S. as France’s roster includes Ronny Turiaf, Boris Diaw, Nicolas Batum, Kevin Seraphin and Nando de Colo – all currently on NBA rosters.
“It’s a big test for us,” U.S. forward Carmelo Anthony said, lacing up his sneakers Saturday before practice at East London University. “We’re going up against guys that we normally play on a night-to-night basis, and those countries have put them all together just like we have. And at the end of the day their main goal is to beat the United States.
“There’s going to be some good battles.”
France only will be the first. This isn’t going to be some easy sightseeing stroll along the Thames for the American team before stepping onto the gold-medal stand. Spain, Argentina and Brazil all are talented enough to not only compete with the U.S., but potentially upset the world’s No. 1 team.
That wasn’t the case four years ago, when the U.S. steamrolled through the field, winning by at least 20 points in each of its first seven games before beating Spain 118-107 in the final. Krzyzewski, who guided the 2008 “Redeem Team” to gold, believes a potential road to gold could have some dangerous bumps.
“The overall 12 teams are more talented, more seasoned,” he said. “Spain is just in the prime of their – 28, 29 (years of age). Brazil is in that wheelhouse. I think Russia’s really, really good. Obviously Argentina, everyone says they’re older, but their heart and talent has not gotten older, It’s just gotten better.
“There’s just more teams that feel that they have a chance to win the gold medal – and medal – than they did in ’08.”
Count the French among them. They finished second to Spain at last year’s European Championships and maintain they won’t be intimidated by the U.S. team’s collection of All-Stars, MVPs and household names. France’s players have no intention of being posterized on a dunk by LeBron James or Kobe Bryant the way 7-2 countryman Frederic Weis was famously embarrassed by a soaring Vince Carter in the 2000 Sydney Games.
France, 0-4 against the U.S. in Olympic competition, isn’t frightened.
“For us there is no fear factor because we play against them all the time,” said Parker, who will wear goggles to protect his surgically repaired left eye. “We know they are really, really good. But it’s not going to be like the other teams where they don’t see them and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m playing against Kobe and LeBron.’”
Bryant likened France’s offense to the one Parker runs with the Spurs. Everything starts with the ball in Parker’s hands, so the U.S. team’s challenge will be to make him give it up.
“Slow him down and surround him,” Bryant said. “Keep bodies in front of him at all times.”
This U.S. team, comprised of five holdovers from the ’08 squad, five from the 2010 world championship team and two newcomers, was loose and relaxed before Saturday’s workout, a final tune-up before beginning the five-game preliminary round. Durant and Anthony playfully horsed around in the foul lane and Bryant smiled amusingly as photographers jockeyed for position like paparazzi trying to record his every move.
The mood will be decidedly different Sunday.
That’s when everything change. That’s when it matters.
“Everybody expects us to win gold,” James said. “And that’s what we’re here for. Nothing else.”
In recent days, Bryant, James and the other U.S. players have been careful not to get trapped into making comparisons to the Dream Team. Bryant recently caused a stir by saying the 2012 Olympians could beat the 1992 version that included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Jordan called Bryant’s comments “not one of the smarter things he ever could have done.”
For now, the talk has quieted, the comparisons can wait. For this American team to be regarded among the others before them, there can only be one medal.
“The legacy will be determined if you win the gold or you don’t,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re not talking about legacy everyday, but it is. We’re here to win a gold medal, and if we do less than that, then it will be a big loss for us.”