Luke DeCock

Even without big names, U.S. faces big expectations – DeCock

Kyrie Irving #10 of the United States Men's National Team dribbles the ball against the China Men's National Team during the first half of a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Kyrie Irving #10 of the United States Men's National Team dribbles the ball against the China Men's National Team during the first half of a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) Getty Images

LeBron James said no, although no one could fault him for it after playing in three straight Olympics and six straight NBA Finals.

But so did Steph Curry. And Chris Paul. And John Wall. And Russell Westbrook. And Blake Griffin. And Anthony Davis. And James Harden. And others.

When Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski got far enough down their list to call Bradley Beal – and he too said no! – it was fair to ask if the United States was going to be able to fill out a team for the Olympics, let alone preserve its status as gold-medal favorites.

Even Carmelo Anthony, who was debating whether to play in his fourth Olympics, wondered who his teammates would be, among other things, while making his decision.

“Who was going to be on the team?” Anthony said. “And the same worries everybody else has. Not just the athletes going over there, but the rest of the world. I watch the news. I watch what people write about Brazil, everything that’s going on over there, the viruses, the economy. So those things came into play about my decision.”

Anthony committed. So, at the last minute, did Kyrie Irving, delivering the United States a much-needed point guard. And after four exhibition games before heading to Rio de Janeiro – the final sendoff is Monday in Houston against Nigeria – it’s abundantly clear that any hand-wringing over the U.S. talent level was a bit overwrought.

For one thing, the star power of Kevin Durant and Anthony continues to shine. For another, what this team lacks in experience – 10 of the 12 players are first-time Olympians – it makes up in energy and athleticism. It might even be the best defensive group of the three Olympic teams Krzyzewski has coached.

The question facing the United States now isn’t talent. It’s how quickly a very young roster will adapt to the unique circumstances of the Olympics: the international game, a variety of opponents playing the game of their lives, living in a foreign country, albeit on board a cruise ship moored in Rio’s harbor, the nationalistic fervor.

“They need to know it’s just basketball at the end of the day,” said Durant, an Olympian in 2012 who nearly made the team for Beijing as a 19-year-old. “They’re pros. They’ve been playing it their whole lives. It’s not that difficult. The international game is a little different. Once they get that down, it is what it is. My first time, after the first two exhibition games I felt comfortable with the system and the different rules. Those guys, they know how to play ball.”

They seem to be catching on. The U.S. team has cruised through its pre-Olympic exhibitions, beating Argentina by 37, China by 49 and 50 and Venezuela by 35 on Friday, the last despite shooting rather poorly from the field. The No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the FIBA rankings (Spain, Lithuania and Argentina) are all in the other group in Rio, so the best team the United States will face before the quarterfinals is fifth-ranked France.

Having seen the team play, with the inside presence of DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, the versatility of Durant, Anthony and Draymond Green and a wide array of shooters, the United States appears better positioned than anyone thought to deliver Krzyzewski and Anthony their third gold medals.

“Anytime you get a chance to play with some of the best guys in the world, the game becomes easier for you,” Anthony said. “You want that experience. But also winning, getting that winning feeling back again, I enjoy playing USA Basketball. I have fun with it. I enjoy it. And obviously I have a good chance to do something special for me.”

There’s always pressure wearing the U.S. jersey – coming off a disappointing bronze in Athens in 2004, the U.S. team is 79-1 under Krzyzewski with two gold medals and two world championships – but this team appears to be ready to meet those expectations, despite how it may have looked when the roster was finalized.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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