Switching off

'Melo and men's hoops team focusing on defense

On Carmelo Anthony

Beijing 2008

August 20, 2008|By RICK MAESE

BEIJING - It's not that the numbers lie. They just might not illustrate the story particularly well. Often, you can dissect the basketball box score and re-create the game. But that's just not the case at the Olympics.

If we went solely by the numbers, you would think Carmelo Anthony might be pouting again. His statistics aren't blowing anyone away. His offensive production thus far doesn't scare the rest of the world. And three reserves are averaging more minutes.

But just look at Anthony, not a bad thought running through his head.

"Loving every second," he insists, and there appears to be pretty good reason for that.

The next couple of days will tell us whether this is really true, but Team USA seems to have figured something out about international play. If they want gold, a dozen of the NBA's best must play as if they have no recollection of how an NBA player typically plays.

That might not sound like too tall a task for some, but the knock against Anthony (Towson Catholic) is no secret. He has been branded. Defense has always been regarded as his brussels sprouts.

"What's probably impressed a lot of people or shocked a lot of people - and I don't know why - but he's been playing solid defense," Kobe Bryant says of his teammate's Olympic play. "The other night, he did a phenomenal job on Dirk Nowitzki. People try to criticize him about that, but he's been doing a phenomenal job defensively for us."

Bryant is not the only one heaping praise on Anthony for adjusting his game. His coaches all seem to agree that Anthony has assumed a role the Americans need to achieve gold. They might not be as flashy as the Dream Team, but the landscape has changed. And finally, Team USA has adjusted. The Redeem Team is doing what it takes. It has won all five games and faces Australia today. The winner advances to the semifinals. The loser goes home.

Anthony is sixth on the team in scoring (8.6 per game) and third in rebounding (4.8). While he has started all five games, Deron Williams, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul have seen more playing time. (That doesn't seem to bother Anthony, and, in truth, it doesn't mean a whole lot. The Americans are beating teams by an average of 32 points, and the bench has racked up plenty of late minutes.)

Maybe it's a bit twisted, but Anthony's low numbers are actually a good thing for Team USA. If he were scoring more, it would probably mean he was focusing too much on offense.

"We've been in the situation for a long time," Anthony says. "We know how it is to come on a team like this with 12 of the best players in the world and not have to score 30 points a night. We dream about the day that we can play on our own [NBA] team and not have to score 30 a night and hope to get a win."

The question was never whether Anthony was capable of scoring 30 a night; rather, was anyone really sure what he would do with the energy he normally devotes to scoring?

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has been an assistant with Team USA for the past three years. That first year, he says, Team USA really struggled. No one seemed to value defense.

"We were just outscoring people," he says.

A loss to Greece in the world championships served as a wake-up call for the young players on the American team. They realized how much their style of play was killing them, that they couldn't simply outscore the world and that their defense had become a major liability. Boeheim says no one has improved more defensively than Anthony and LeBron James. "One hundred percent" was his precise estimate.

"In the NBA, guys are paid to score," Boeheim says. "They play 44 minutes every other night. It's hard to play that many minutes in three or four games a week and play both offensively and defensively. It's very difficult. All of these guys, when you watch them, they're putting most of their energy on the offensive end. That's what their teams need. Here, we don't need that."

Any debate over whether replacing an NBA coach (Larry Brown) with a college coach (Mike Krzyzewski) was the right thing for USA Basketball has been quashed. It turns out a college coach was exactly what this team needed, someone who would stress fundamentals and defense, someone who didn't bring an NBA mentality to international play.

"We know that we can score the ball better than anybody out there in the world . . . but if we don't stop nobody on this team, we don't win," Anthony says.

They've been talking about this for quite a while - since that loss to Greece. But the time to show they've actually heeded it is now.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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