By JIM LITKE, Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — The messaging has been anything but consistent. Same for the product on the floor.
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski keeps saying people tuning into the Olympic basketball tournament have no idea — let alone respect — how much harder it is to beat the rest of the world now than it was when he was an assistant on the original Dream Team at Barcelona in 1992.
Hate to break the news to Coach K, but his own players probably belong near the top of that list.
Not that it's made much of a difference so far. The Americans still haven't played defense with the same sense of urgency they did in their opener against France and as of early Thursday morning, it still hasn't cost them a win.
They love trading offensive punches and the latest team to stand in with Americans long after it should have been knocked out was Australia. It wasn't until a left-right-left combination of late 3-pointers from Kobe Bryant — six in all — decisively settled what turned into a 119-86 quarterfinal win.
"I don't believe the final margin of victory was indicative of the game," Australia coach Brett Brown said afterward.
No doubt all but one of the Americans' six opponents — Nigeria was beaten by 83 — feels the same way. But only Lithuania, which was on the verge of pulling off the upset of these Olympics before LeBron James made four big baskets down the stretch, was really close enough that it mattered. And now that Kobe Bryant has emerged from hibernation, nobody is likely to get that close again.
The Americans are so loaded that Bryant was effectively AWOL heading into the knockout phase of the tournament. Then he began this one by missing all four of his first-half shots. The Australians play smart man-to-man defense and the referees gave them the benefit of the doubt early, despite a variety of tactics — clutches, tugs, pushes and pulls — ripped from the pages of Aussie Rules Football.
So Bryant got tagged with an offensive foul for pushing off on his defender, trying to help break a full-court press just a few possessions into the game. Then, just inside the six-minute mark, Tyson Chandler, the Americans' only real big man, got tangled up with Australia's David Andersen, and whistled for an unsportsmanlike foul, the international version of a flagrant and his second of the game. With both watching much of the action from the bench, the Americans led by as many as 16 and a still-comfortable dozen, 56-44, by intermission.
"We felt like at halftime, we'd missed a lot of free throws and layups and we were right where we wanted to be," Aussie captain Matt Nielsen said afterward.
Then they got even closer still, rolling up 11 straight to start the second half and cutting the Americans' lead to three.
There are moments that Krzyzewski must be ready to pull out what remains of the dark black hair on his head, and that was no doubt one of them. He keeps ticking off the reasons it's dangerous to count on outgunning every opponent, yet the leaders of his squad keep talking about how they play defense only as hard as they have to. Their offense, on the other hand works, always works like a microwave.
Need a dozen points fast? Set the timer to 2:30, select "LeBron James," ''Kevin Durant," ''Bryant" — take your pick — and stand back.
"What gave you the lift tonight?" Bryant was asked afterward.
A few minutes earlier, Carmelo Anthony tried to claim credit for pushing Bryant's button, saying to Kobe at one point, "'Let's see what we see during the season.'"
Not exactly, said Bryant.
"By that point, I was already revved up."
"So what lifted you?" he was asked.
"Just kind of searching for something to get me going," Bryant replied coyly, "for something that would activate the Black Mamba, as Coach calls it." (Bryant's earned the nickname for striking like the deadly snake on the court.)
Of course, if Krzyzewski was actually calling all the shots, he'd be calling for a more intense and consistent effort on defense from start to finish — much like the one that put France on its heels right from the outset. When asked after the Australia game to name the best stretch of defense the Americans played, Krzyzewski brushed off the "I'm-65-I-don't-remember-what-I-did-last-week" reply, praised his players for a few defensive stands midway through the third quarter and then went off on a lengthy ramble about how gutsy the Australians were.
"Did a pretty good job of avoiding the question?" he chuckled good-naturedly at the end, "didn't I?"
Absolutely. And while we're on the subject of responsibility, it should be noted that Krzyzewski hasn't done a much better job holding his players to the defensive standard this U.S. team set in Beijing. Whatever message he keeps trying to send isn't getting through.
So when Anthony was asked about weaknesses, he looked at the questioner with a sly smile.
"We don't have none."
"And when was the last time you could say that about a team?" came the follow-up.
Anthony stifled a laugh.
"2008," he said finally.
We'll see if that's true soon enough.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.
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