Team LeBronze, aka team USA, overcame a sluggish start and opened the 2006 FIBA World Championships with a solid 111-100 hoops victory over Puerto Rico this weekend in Japan. Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony paced the American squad with 21 points, but the win was particularly bittersweet for Spurs fans. Prior to the contest, San Antonio forward and defensive guru Bruce Bowen was dropped from the US’s final roster, and Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who was representing his homeland of France, exited the tournament after suffering a fracture to his right index finger.
The injury to Parker, a durable quarterback for the Spurs, came as a shock to many, but for Bowen, perhaps, the writing was on the wall when Phoenix Suns chairman Jerry Colangelo was announced as the architect of the American basketball program. By more or less instantly naming Duke icon Mike Krzyzewski as the head coach of the U.S. squad, Colangelo served up a direct snub to Western-Conference rival Gregg Popovich, whose deliberate attention to the international game has helped yield three NBA championships for the Spurs. Bowen was invited by Colangelo to join the team thanks to his reputation as a tough perimeter defender and accurate outside shooter, attributes that were sorely lacking in the most recent Olympic effort. Under Coach Krzyzewski, he saw limited minutes and was overlooked in favor of Shane Battier (a Duke alum, coincidentally) and Antawn Jamison (another ACC baller) before he was cut.
Following the win against Puerto Rico, Coach K reflected on the challenge facing his team. “We have to understand that everybody that plays against us plays like they have nothing to lose,” said Krzyzewski. “So you have to pressure their shots more, because there is no pressure on them when they are shooting the ball. Puerto Rico made some big threes; that’s the most threes we’ve given up. In the five exhibitions we hadn’t given up that many open shots, but today we did. I think it’s a good thing to get adjusted; now let’s get on to China.”
Despite the presence of 7-foot-5 Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, the U.S. overwhelmed China in a 121-90 rout. Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade sparked the team off the bench with 26 points, and is attempting to emulate Spurs guard Manu Ginobili’s feat of following up an NBA championship with a gold medal in international competition.
“I think this was my best performance so far,” said Wade after the game. “I’m trying to get my legs under me, coming off a long season. But I’m just out there trying to `do` what I can do with my teammates. Tonight I just got it going early and finished it. Our whole team came out aggressive early on and put pressure on and made shots. And once you make shots you get into a rhythm. We played great defense from the start and that’s how you build a good lead.”
Over the next week, Team USA will match up against Slovenia (which features Spurs back-up point guard Benu Udrih), Italy, and Senegal before (probably) moving on to the September 8 finals. The quarterfinals will follow on the 29 and 30 of this month, with the medal round taking place soon after. The most daunting challenge for the team will come in the form of Olympic-Gold-Medal-winners Argentina, led by Ginobili. Manu appeared to regain his aggressive, hyperkinetic form in Argentina’s opening win against France, in which he led his team in scoring, with 25 points. Spurs foward Fabricio Oberto contributed 9 points and 5 rebounds in the victory, and the team has since coasted in wins against Lebanon and Venezuela.
Despite the losses of Bruce Bowen and Tony Parker (Parker is expected to recover in time for the opening of NBA training camp), Spurs fans can still root for Argentina and Slovenia in addition to Team USA. Much like with the NBA, key factors to FIBA success include chemistry, injuries, and the always-sketchy interpretation of rules and fouls. The Miami Heat captured the NBA crown last season without a single international player on their playoff roster, and the Americans are looking to build in their quest for world hoops dominance. Sizing up his team’s chances of spoiling the U.S.’s coronation, Ginobili offered this: “There is no doubt that we have one of the deepest benches in the league, and it’s really great for us, because there are a lot of games to be played if we want to go all the way to the final.” l