BARCELONA — There was a time not so long ago, in 2008, that Carmelo Anthony declared to a foreign media contingent that he actually liked FIBA basketball better than NBA basketball.
That is not the case anymore, he said Tuesday night. But we went on to acknowledge that his best NBA seasons have come after playing in FIBA competitions. (There’s a lil’ something for the Knicks fans back home).
And with the way he played off the bench in a 100-78 victory over Spain, he may be starting to fall in love with international ball once again.
Team USA was getting dunked on and looking decidedly deficient in the first quarter of its final tuneup game prior to the London Olympics, with Serge Ibaka putting on a one-man dunking exhibition and the Americans walking the ball upcourt instead of doing what they do best – creating turnovers, wreaking havoc on the defensive end, and using their athleticism and quickness to their advantage.
They were down 9 early, but then Anthony checked in with 6:05 left in the first quarter and changed the game all by himself. He had 10 points by the end of the quarter, making both of his 3-point attempts, and had 23 at halftime, including five 3-pointers, as the Americans surged ahead, 48-40.
Offensive bursts from Kevin Durant in the third quarter and LeBron James in the fourth helped Team USA pull away, and it will be heading into London with a head of steam after playing their best exhibition game yet in their final “friendly.”
“We’ve gotten better, and we need to use pool play to get five more international games under our belts, and I thought we reacted better tonight than we did two nights ago (against Argentina) to the international game, and we have to keep working it out,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The Americans did not face a Spanish team playing at full strength. Marc Gasol sat out with a shoulder injury and Juan Carlos Navarro played only 22 minutes because of nagging foot and back injuries.
Coach Sergio Scariolo also did not use Pau Gasol and Ibaka as a tandem outside of the first quarter and the game’s final three minutes, and he had some success early showing the Americans different looks on defense each time downcourt – switching from zone to man to zone as Team USA was struggling to get into its comfort zone.
But that comfort zone is no longer exclusive to being able to produce points by playing the speed game.
These Americans can shoot it, and Anthony’s 5-for-8 shooting from 3-point range led a 13-for-23 performance from the arc.
“Carmelo is as versatile of a guy after LeBron as we have,” Krzyzewski said.
Indeed, Anthony played at the 3, 4 and 5 positions, and James spent more time defending Pau Gasol than did starting center Tyson Chandler (five fouls and two points in 8 minutes). Kevin Love also had his best game of this summer with 9 rebounds in 13 minutes, spending some of his time on Ibaka and Gasol. Anthony (27 points) and James (25 points) were named co-MVPs of the game.
If there was a lesson to be learned from this final exhibition, it is that although the Americans are vertically challenged – to put it politely – they are also a matchup nightmare for opposing big men who are unaccustomed to playing perimeter defense.
James plays some center for Team USA. Anthony plays some center. Love plays some center. Durant plays some 4.
All of them can drain it from deep.
All of them are playing with supreme confidence – something you could see when James found himself isolated at the top of the key against Gasol midway through the fourth quarter, got him to bite on a dribble-drive fake and then stepped back and drained a 3.
“I don’t know what people are saying. I know what I believe,” Scariolo said. “They are very, very aggressive defensively, and they are the best team in the world. There is no question about it. The biggest problem for the opponent is how to solve the dilemma (of defending the Americans’ smaller 4s and 5s on the perimeter).”
The Americans will not play another game until Sunday, when France will be the opponent in a game that will count.
Between now and then they will pack up for London, get their rain gear back out, march in the opening ceremony and squeeze in as much practice time as possible.
They learned in Barcelona that the Argentines (who they play a week from next Monday) are a team that will never quit, and this Spanish team, with Ibaka, has a height advantage that will only be a factor if Spain can feed the ball to those bigs deep in the low post.
But again, those bigs have to cover a lot of unfamiliar ground on the other end of the court. And on nights when the Americans are shooting the ball well, they are virtually unbeatable.
“Their athleticism and quickness makes up for the lack of size. Interior players are not used to guarding players 20 feet away from the basket, so it’s sort of a double-edged sword,” Gasol said. “You have to try to punish them at one end, then adjust at the other end. And they’re loaded, so you have to be alert at all times.”
The thing is, there are going to be nights when the 3-point shots aren’t falling. If that happens against Tunisia or Nigeria, it won’t matter. But if it happens in the knockout round, which begins Aug. 8, the Americans are capable of being beaten — and they will be the first ones to tell you as much.
But when they are locked in, as Anthony was in his new role as sixth man (the job Dwyane Wade held in Beijing), they are as fine of a team as America has put together since professionals started competing in basketball 20 years ago in this very same city.
In two weeks, maybe Anthony will be back to loving FIBA basketball the way he once did.
“I don’t like it better than NBA basketball. I play NBA basketball, that’s my career, that’s my life blood,” Anthony said. “But FIBA basketball allows me to play multiple positions and do a lot of different things out there on the basketball court than I do in the NBA. I’m in a different position, I play the 3, the 4, the 5. I don’t play the 5 back in the NBA. Over here, with these guys on the team, it’s more playing off of them, doing some dirty work, when the ball comes to you trying to knock down shots, rebounding. Most of the times I’m playing against 4s and 5s, and it’s a much more physical game than in the NBA. I won’t be playing the 5 in New York, I know that.
“But this whole experience, every time I come back and play USA basketball, my mindset is a lot different. The team-oriented atmosphere I bring back to my team, the focus I have, my conditioning, and carrying that into the regular season, it’s like I’m getting an early start. Look at what happened the year after we won the gold medal. In 2009 I had one of my best seasons with Denver and we went to the Western Conference finals. My body felt great, my mind felt great – and that’s something I keep in the back of my mind coming out of USA Basketball.”
As you can see, Anthony drifted pretty far ahead in answering that question.
The hardest part is still ahead, with the fatigue yet to set in, and the need to be at your best when you are most exhausted will have to be summoned and harnessed. But Anthony, James, Bryant and everyone else on this American team (with the exception of 11th man James Harden and 12th man Anthony Davis) has been though these competitions before, so the need to peak at the end, not the beginning, is something for which they are already prepared.
And judging from how they turned things around against Spain, they are ready to show the world just how good they are.
But we’re still a long ways away from the gold medal game, and you never know what might happen along the way.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every version of Team USA since 1996, covering them at the Olympics in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens and Beijing, as well as the World Championships in Indianapolis, Japan and Turkey. Follow him on Twitter.