By Steve Silverman
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Better than the 1992 Dream Team?
The United States Olympic basketball team appears to be like well-appointed London tourists who have first-class tickets to all the prime Olympic events.
So far, the U.S. has showed up and won all its scheduled basketball games, but a 99-94 victory over Lithuania showed that LeBron James & Co. are simply there to cross off the games on the schedule as they wait for the next event to attend.
Kobe Bryant likes to go to swimming events and so does James. They get a big kick out of watching American swimmers –- Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin –- bring home the gold.
Perhaps we can find them at track and field or women’s soccer events over the next few days.
But as far as basketball is concerned, it seems that the U.S. team is just interested in showing up and waltzing through.
That’s just what would have been expected if Bryant had not said last month that this team would have been capable of beating Michael, Magic and Larry Bird if the legendary 1992 team could line up against the current Olympic team.
That prognostication seemed dubious at best. The biggest reason for that would have been the huge difference in the middle. Tyson Chandler is a hard worker and an effective defender and rebounder. He doesn’t compare to Patrick Ewing as an all-around player. And David Robinson would have punished Chandler as well.
But any team with Michael Jordan on it was not going to mail it in. For all the talk about how that team “meshed” so well together — and that players like Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Chris Mullin were on the squad — it was Jordan’s relentlessness followed closely by Jordan’s overwhelming talent that brought the most out of that team.
Jordan pushed the pedal down to the floor and he demanded that everyone else follow suit.
Nobody wanted any issues and they all followed Jordan’s demands.
When Bryant started talking about how good the current team could be, it seemed hollow. Besides the obvious deficiency in the middle, there’s no one with Jordan’s demanding ways. Certainly not James, who may have won his first championship with the Miami Heat this year but doesn’t come close to Jordan in hunger for control and will to win.
It seemed like Bryant might have been willing to take on the role of natural leader. He has more of that characteristic than any other player on this team, and is the squad’s elder statesman. But Bryant did not seem very demanding against Lithuania.
If he had been asserting himself, the defense would have showed up. Lithuania ripped through the U.S. defense, connecting on 38-of-65 shots. Any time an opponent connects on 58.5 percent of its shots, it means that the effort is simply not up to par.
Raise your hands if you had Linsa Kleiza (of the Toronto Raptors) in the leading-scorer pool. The Lithuanian sharpshooter was able to roam the court with freedom as he made 10-of-20 shots from the field and scored 25 points — five more than Carmelo Anthony and James.
While the U.S. was waltzing on defense, it was shooting the ball aimlessly from beyond the arc. After connecting on 63 percent in the gluttonous win over Nigeria two days earlier, the U.S. was 10-of-33 from beyond the arc against Lithuania.
The U.S. has an opportunity to play a full game against a real team on Monday. They get to face Argentina — led by Manu Ginobili, Luis Scola and Carlos Delfino — for a chance at redemption.
Redemption for an undefeated team? That’s what is needed. When you compare yourself to the greatest Olympic team of all time, you need to play with maximum effort every time you step on the court. That includes defense. That includes making the extra pass. That includes trying to better your effort in the previous game.
A top-level game against Argentina seems likelym since Bryant and James know they cut it too close against Lithuania. Beating Argentina decisively would get things back on track –- at least temporarily.
Then the alert level would go down, and Kobe and LeBron would be left to pick and choose what events they want to see next.
Do you agree that this team doesn’t have the heart that the Dream Team did? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…