For USA hoops, it's one down and two to go on the road to redemption. In their first game of the medal round in Olympic basketball where it's win or go home the NBA stars blew open a competitive game at the start of the second half and coasted to a 116-85 win against Australia. And for the first time in these games, Kobe Bryant by far the biggest fan favorite among foreign athletes in these Games had a break out game. He shot beautifully from long range (four of seven from three point land) and threw in a mix of acrobatic drives to the hoop to lead Team USA with 25 points.
The Utah Jazz's Deron Williams nailed a three pointer at the buzzer to end the first half with the score at 55-43 and give the U.S. some much needed breathing room. Team USA had led by just one at the end of the first quarter, and the quick silver Australian point guard Patrick Mills "an NBA player for sure," said the admiring U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski afterwards was giving them cause for concern, and ended up with 20 points.
But led by Bryant, who hit a deep three to start the second half, the U.S. came out of the locker room smoking. Carmelo Anthony followed with another three, Bryant then scored on a drive after a diving save on a ball headed out of bounds by LeBron James, before Jason Kidd drove the length of the floor for a lay up. Just two and half minutes had gone by and suddenly it was 64-43. The game was effectively over. "Our biggest strength is our depth," Bryant said after the game, asked if the U.S. was concerned by how competitive the first half had been. "We will try to pressure you, and wear you down eventually."
Australia's coach, the American born Brian Goorjian, agreed that the depth, intensity and athleticism the U.S. has brought to Beijing makes them tough to prepare for let alone defeat. "When I sat up last night thinking about the game, I thought, can you play a team at that level for 40 minutes? They are playing great together, and everyone's contributing. They're going to be very, very tough to beat."
The Australians, in the first half at least, might have given the remaining teams in the tournament (Spain, Lithuania and the defending champs Argentina, who beat the U.S. in the semifinals in Athens, and meet them at the same stage this Friday) at least part of a road map for how to compete against the "Redeem Team." On offense, "we didn't try to beat them off the dribble," said point guard Mills. They passed and cut to the hoop with precision and shot well from behind the three point arc. Nor did they ever allow the U.S. to turn it into a track meet. Fast break points were almost evenly distributed, the U.S. scoring 14 off the break to Australia's ten. (Against Spain last week, that figure was 32-zip in Team USA's favor.)
But ultimately Wednesday, the U.S.'s sheer talent was too much with Bryant leading the way, to the delight of the mostly pro U.S. Chinese crowd. Asked if he was concerned about the possibility (and that's what it remained, as they have been eliminated) of playing Greece again in the tournament the U.S. blew them out last week but lost to them in the World Championships two years ago Bryant deadpanned, "we're scared to death."
He was kidding, and the way the U.S. has played so far, he had good reason to be.