Putting this up a day early because tipoff is Sunday morning 7:15 California time (Sunday night 10:15 Beijing time):
Big game for Team USA. Not because the opponent, China, is a serious medal contender, but because China has experience, talent and height with 7-5 Yao Ming, 7-0 Wang Zhizhi and 6-11 Yi Jianlian and lack of size is one of the few question marks as the United States opens as the favorite for gold.
China doesn't have the guard play to rate a legitimate threat and Kobe Bryant will make it his personal mission to deny every entry pass, so good luck getting the ball inside. The U.S. will also out-quick everybody and leave tire tracks on any opponent that gives it an opening to play in transition, and so that probably doesn't bode well for pounding it into Yao and former NBAer Wang either.
This is a decent pool-play test, though, because China has at least the potential to make the U.S. appear vulnerable on the size issue, and because Team USA is coming off an uninspired showing against Australia on Tuesday in Shanghai in the final tuneup and the Chinese will obviously be amped with the marquee event in front of the home crowd.
The zip-less performance in the 87-76 victory Tuesday was like the final stop for an NBA team on some six-game trip and just wanting to get home. The U.S. just wanted to get to Beijing and have the games count already. It will probably become a blip in that way -- the previous four outings on the tour showed the level of passion of a roster taking this seriously, particularly on defense, in the wake of the bronze in the 2004 Olympics and the 2006 world championships.
The Team USA personnel guys, particularly former Suns boss Jerry Colangelo as managing director and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski as coach, spent years shaping the roster. Even if Kevin Garnett did shun them, loading up with guards and wings was intentional to prepare for international play, knowing the U.S. would face a lot of zones and have to defend a lot of pick-and-rolls. This is no place for the famous NBA isolation game or the immobile.
The final roster has 6-11 Dwight Howard and 6-10 Chris Bosh and no one else taller than 6-9, and things get more interesting if either gets hurt the next two weeks. Right on schedule, Lithuania zoned last week and stayed in the game deep into the third quarter without Darius Songaila (injury) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (not playing at the request of the Cavaliers), and then Russia zoned. Whatever it takes to neutralize the superior athleticism.
It'll be two more weeks of that, of course. By the time this is all over, the Yanks will be having dreams of housekeeping doing their rooms in a 2-3.
If the U.S. doesn't shoot well, it could lose when the level of competition climbs to Spain next week in pool play and later potentially against Argentina or Lithuania or Russia in the single-elimination medal round. If the U.S. doesn't defend the pick-and-roll, as has been the case in past international competitions in an impetus to Colangelo and Coach K going small, it could lose. It is possible, as if anyone connected to Team USA needs reminding.