WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama was on Kiss Cam, smooching his wife Michelle, when the outcome was no longer in doubt.
The First Family’s date night had a happy ending, but it was perilous along the way as Obama and vice president Joe Biden watched from courtside seats across from the Brazilian bench.
The home team struggled coming out of the gate, was outsized and outcrafted and trailed by 10 points at the end of the first quarter. Even when Obama was in the locker room at halftime, schmoozing the players, this was still only a 5-point game.
The president stopped on his way back out for a quick chat with coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“I told him he should have said something to them like ‘Start making some shots,” Krzyzewski said following Team USA’s last game on home soil, an 80-69 victory over Brazil that exposed the Americans’ flaws, showcased their strengths and taught them a lesson about how difficult the road ahead of them could be over the next month as they head to the London Olympics.
Team USA surrendered 27 points in the first quarter and trailed by 10, then held Brazil to 5 second-quarter points to catch up and overtake them for good.
It was the first time since the semifinals of the 2006 World Championship (against Greece) that Team USA played from behind for an extended stretch of time.
Think about that — six years these guys have gone without trailing for more than a minute here and a minute there.
Even in the epic gold medal game against Spain four years ago in Beijing, the Americans played with a lead almost the entire night as the two teams racked up an astonishing (for a FIBA game) 225 points in the Redeem Team’s 118-107 victory.
This game was nothing like that game, and the Americans learned exactly how critical it is going to be for them to let their defensive intensity dictate their offensive opportunities.
If they can crate havoc, poke balls away and create transition opportunities, they will run all over you.
If they are slowed down into a halfcourt game, they are vulnerable inside against teams with the type of size Brazil has with three NBA bigs — Anderson Varejao, Tiago Splitter and Nene.
It is no secret around the world, and it should he somewhat of a cause for alarm back home as the countdown to the Olympics continues. Tyson Chandler is their only legit center. Anthony Davis is going to be the 12th man. Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant are going to be matched against taller, stronger players on the defensive end — and it is going to impact how well they are going to be able to play on the offensive end.
If Team USA dictates the pace and style of the games, the gold medal should be a lock.
If Team USA does not, there are too many good teams with too many good players for this to be a cinch.
Just listen to what Brazilian point guard Marcelinho Huertas said after carving up Team USA in the halfcourt for 13 assists.
“We know this is a team that likes to go in transition very fast, they don’t like to go 24 seconds. They’re the only team that don’t have many systems on offense, they play one-on-one, which is to their abilities, and on defense the same. They try to steal the ball, get in the passing lanes all the time. So whenever you get a team that’s used to playing like this, you make them play 24 seconds on defense and chase you around, and don’t let them run, make them play 5-on-5, that’s when you can prosper in a game like this,” said Huertas, who would have an NBA job by now if he didn’t have a 7 million Euro buyout in his contract with Barcelona that still has three years remaining.
Of course, those things that Huertas spoke of are easier said than done.
The challenge for Team USA against their good opponents (and there will be plenty of them, beginning with exhibitions next week against Argentina and Spain, then in the first round of the Olympics against France, Lithuania and Argentina) will be imposing their will.
That’s what Krzyzewski was taught at West Point — hit ‘em hard with your best weapons and annihilate them. Keep other tactics in reserve, but go full force with your best stuff right from the get-go and put the opponent on the defensive.
You will see Team USA succeed with that type of attack Thursday night against Great Britain, and in Games 2 and 3 of the first round against Tunisia and Nigeria.
Will you see it against the others?
That’ll dictate whether we see close games or blowouts.
From a talent standpoint, no one can match what the Americans are bringing.
From a tactical standpoint, there are several teams that are capable of knocking them off.
As much as these guys like to make comparisons between themselves and the original Dream Team, the entire argument is silly. Twenty years ago, no team could keep up with America’s best. These days, America’s best can be beat if they are not playing their A game. It hasn’t happened in six years, but it can certainly happen again against the caliber of players and the wily coaches they will be going up against.
If you couldn’t see that against Brazil, you were blind.
“I felt our defense won the game, it was outstanding for three quarters. We didn’t hit a lot of shots — we missed dunks. But I liked the mental toughness of our team and reminded them if we’re not doing it on offense, don’t let it affect defense,” Krzyzewski said. “We learned a lot, we grew. And to win a game like this, when we’re not hitting, is a good thing for us.
It was especially good because losing on home soil in front of the president, his wife, his daughter and the vice president would have been a debacle.
But the mystique surrounding this version of Team USA was wiped out in Monday night’s first quarter, and the mystery of how to beat them is a mystery no more — just make them play in the halfcourt, keep the turnovers down and use whatever size advantage you have. It ain’t rocket science, and a half-dozen teams in the tournament are capable of doing it. (Can they do it for a full 40 minutes? That is a good and pertinent question moving forward. We shall see.)
So as the Americans left the arena and headed for their flight to England, only one mystery endured: What the heck type of sneakers was Obama wearing along with his blue jeans and his casual shirt (which had a Nike swoosh on the sleeve)?
“I took a look but I couldn’t do it (identify them),” Kobe Bryant said. “I’m definitely sending him some Mambas, some presidential Mambas.”
So I guess the question that has to be asked is this: Will those presidential Mambas be highlighted with gold, silver or bronze?
After this game against Brazil, you had to acknowledge that the lower two classes of those colors could be the fate of this American team if they cannot dictate the way every game will be played.
If some opponent can protect the ball, slow the pace, knock down shots and outrebound the smaller Americans, they most certainly can lose.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every U.S. Olympic and World Championship team since 1996.