France first foe for U.S. men's basketball team

    LONDON — As the Americans put together a breakaway run in the second half, Kobe Bryant told U.S. assistant coach Mike D'Antoni, "This is the most fun I've had."

    And he didn't mean just this week.

    Even a 23-point exhibition victory over Spain in Barcelona, as meaningless as it was, gave America's most celebrated and richest players a rush as they prepared to win their second consecutive gold medal.

    The real stuff begins Sunday with a game against France, featuring the Spurs' Tony Parker.

    Coach Mike Krzyzewski complimented the rest of the Olympic field Friday at a news conference, but did say, "As far as our offense and defense goes, we're ready," and that does not leave much else.

    The U.S. beat Brazil by 11 and Argentina by nine before the Spanish conquest, which the Clippers' Chris Paul called "a friendy game."

    "I think we played three of the very best teams," assistant coach Jim Boeheim said.

    But the U.S. will not meet Spain or Brazil until the medal round. Its pool partners are France, Argentina, Lithuania, Nigeria and Tunisia.

    LeBron James has led the U.S. in scoring with an 18.6 point average in the exhibitions and a .590 shooting percentage. Bryant has averaged 8.2.

    With neither Dwight Howard nor Andrew Bynum here, the only true center is Tyson Chandler. Anthony Davis, the top choice in the NBA draft, will be up front as well, but nobody on the American side seems terribly concerned.

    "You have to make other teams adjust to you," Paul said. "If you want to put a real big guy on LeBron or Melo (Carmelo Anthony), we get to see the real big guy guard them, too."

    "It's more of an advantage than a disadvantage," Boeheim said. "International big men don't play like traditional big men. They don't go inside that often. If they do, they're out of their game. Spain has the two Gasols (Pau and Marc) and Serge Ibaka, but they only will play two at a time. We can do things defensively with smaller guys up front."

    It is a point Krzyzewski has always made. Everyone on the periphery of basketball is far too hung up on a player's position. These days, it's important to switch defensively, and that's more difficult for a down-low center.

    Boeheim did regret that Chris Bosh isn't on this team. "He was a guy who helped out defensively," he said, "and he was very big for us in Beijing."

    Bryant said he wished the team was staying in the Olympic Village so he could compare notes with other athletes. The team has visited the Village and will again.

    Paul said he planned to "watch everything" when he's not practicing or playing, noting that he met Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in China. "I saw boxing, beach volleyball, tennis, soccer, swimming," Paul said, referring to 2008. "This time I want to see track and field, especially (hurdler) Lolo Jones."

    Although NBA commissioner David Stern is sympathetic to the idea of restricting Olympic play to those 23 or under, he gets little support here.

    "The Olympics are supposed to be about the best athletes competing," Bryant said. "If you don't want to play and you'd rather prepare for the (NBA) season, you have that choice."

    "If they did that (went to a U-23 system), the whole team would be from Oklahoma City," Paul said.

    Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are Olympic rookies who, Boeheim said, comprise the main reason this team is better than '08. Unleashing the quickness of Westbrook will be a secret delight for the U.S.

    "He's always fast," Paul said. "He doesn't even have to warm up. He can get us easy baskets, which we need because we're not a team that's been together for 3-4 years.

    "He makes me feel old and I'm only 27."

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