If ever there was an air of invincibility surrounding Lebron James and Kobe Bryant’s Team USA, the Australia Boomers hacked it away Tuesday in Shanghai, China, in the final pre-Olympic “friendly” game for both teams. Despite a notable lack of energy and poor shooting games from Kobe, Carmelo Anthony and the Bucks’ Michael Redd, the U.S. held on to win 87-76.
Redd played only eight minutes, scored two points and missed all three of his three point attempts. Australia played without Bucks center Andrew Bogut, nursing a rolled ankle, but the Aussies roared out of the second half with a 13-2 run and refused to go away until the final minutes.
I know, I know, I wrote in my last post that Bogut was almost certain to play. I seem to have fallen prey to the old American attitude about Olympic basketball — I just don’t take it as seriously as the rest of the world does. I see it as a fun tournament, a celebration of basketball worldwide played by teams that wouldn’t beat the Boston Celtics. It only matters if or when the U.S. loses. Then the fun stops.
Tuesday’s game could well have been the only time the U.S. and Australia meet in China (they’re in different groups and Australia is not a medal favorite). So I also figured the Bucks center wouldn’t let a minor injury keep him out of a matchup against All-NBA Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, who’s outplayed Bogut nearly every time they’ve faced each other.
Wrong. Too much NBA thinking. The Aussies, who have never won an Olympic men’s basketball medal, have other ideas. They think the Beijing Olympics are their best shot to date and decided to take a “precautionary” measure in a game that didn’t count by resting Bogut, who rolled his ankle last week against Angola. How do we know this? Aussie coach Brian Goorjian finally — five days after the injury — gave reporters a Bogut update in the postgame interviews (find audio here). Goorjian also guaranteed that Bogut would play Sunday in Australia’s first Olympic game against Croatia:
“He’s had an ankle problem after the Angola game and we played him against Argentina in the first half and it swelled up and was a problem. So he hasn’t trained since then and we set our target for him to come back for the Croatia game. It would have been nice [had he played against the U.S.] because the team has played very little with him but it was too big of a risk on that ankle for him to play. But he will play in game one against Croatia.”
Reporter: Any doubt he’ll play against Croatia?
“There is no doubt. It was precautionary. It’s swollen and it blew up after [the Argentina game]. We don’t know how it will go after that point but he will definitely play against Croatia.”
Reporter: Was Goorjian worried that it would flare up during the game?
“He rolled it pretty good and it’s a concern. With this team the one positive is we’ve had him very little and, as you saw tonight, we had [big men] David Anderson and Matt Nielson in [foul] trouble — those are really our profile guys — and those younger guys have been playing a lot together before they arrived. We’ve developed a style of play without Andrew that is competitive. If we get Andrew, we feel like we’ve got a chance. We’ve got our fingers crossed, but he will play against Croatia and, hopefully, it will grow from there.”
Would Bogut have helped the Aussies against the USA? Somewhat. He would have been tangled up in the paint with Howard, and the trapezoidal lane of international ball doesn’t help either player offensively. But Bogut’s presence might have freed other players for Australia and forced US Coach Mike Krzyzewski to play less smallball. As it was, Lebron got minutes at center against Australia 7-footers Chris Antsey and Anderson, and 6′ 11″ forward Nielson. Toronto forward Chris Bosh spent three-fourths of the game on the bench. Utah’s Carlos Boozer didn’t play at all.
The game was rough and foul-marred, with the teams missing a combined 20 free throws and Kobe and Antsey squaring off in the second quarter — typical stiffarm Australian stuff. The Aussies turned the ball over 18 times but Team USA countered by misfiring jumpers all game long, shooting just 3-18 from behind the arc against Australia’s sagging man-to-man defense. Steals and transition made the difference, as Dwyane Wade led all scorers with 22 points. Lebron had an interesting line: 16 pts, 4 assists and 5 steals in 33 minutes.
From the Australia perspective, the whistles blew on them far too often again — a trend that international refs will probably continue into the Olympics — and they turned the ball over too much, especially in the first half as the U.S. took a 15-point lead into halftime. But the positives far outweighed the negatives: the Aussie shooters shot well, point guard Patty Mills’ quickness off the bench surprised the U.S. guards, and five players scored in double figures, led by Mills and Antsey with 13. Their best player didn’t play, yet they shocked Team USA to start the second half and made it a game. If the Aussies were a sleeper pick for a medal before the game, they may have lost that status.
So Team USA got a bit of a reality check in a game that didn’t count. The “Redeem Team” got lazy against an opponent that can shoot and play defense. There are better shooting teams than Australia in the Olympic games — Spain, Greece and Argentina come to mind. There is no team in the Olympics, however, that D’s it up like Australia does, Detroit Pistons style. It didn’t seem to bother Lebron and D-Wade much but Kobe got caught up in the physical play. And Carmelo? After a while the Nuggets forward looked liked he’d just as soon be somewhere else, kind of like he did in the playoffs against the Lakers. … If these two teams don’t get a rematch in the Olympics with Bogut on the court, it’d be too bad
USA women top Australia Opals 71-67: On the women’s side, the USA-Australia dynamic is a bit more intense. They’re the hands-down favorites for a third straight Olympic gold medal matchup, with the edge to the US. It’s the usual star WNBA suspects, some of the best female players ever. Lauren Jackson for the Aussies and Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker and Sue Bird for the U.S. The warmup game yesterday in Haining, China, was a scrapfest until it ended, with Aussie point guard Penny Taylor, another WNBA star, finishing with a black eye on her way to leading all scorers with 19. Leslie led the way for the US with 13.
Yes, the Australian mag cover’s four years old, and it is truly a shame that the photo spread inside cannot be posted here.