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Redeem Team looks unbeatable — they're not

Celizic: Don't be deceived by all the dunks, there's a way to beat the Americans
Olympics Day 6 - Basketball
Team USA guards LeBron James, right, and Kobe Bryant celebrate during their victory over Greece.Jeff Gross / AP

The United States is looking unbeatable again on the basketball court. They’re playing aggressive team defense, forcing turnovers, throwing down spectacular jams and piling up blow-out win over blow-out win.

But if there’s anything the years since the United States last won an international tournament at the 2000 Sydney Olympics should have taught us, it is that there’s no such thing as an unbeatable basketball team.

“I don’t think any team in any sport is unbeatable,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said after his Team USA rolled to a 23-point win over Greece, which beat the Americans two years ago at the World Championships. “We felt that the Greek team can beat us, and that’s the way we approach every game.”

It’s a good approach for the NBA All-Star team assembled here to restore the United States to what it feels to be its rightful place atop the hierarchy of international basketball. It’s also a necessary one.

If this team really wants to be the Redeem Team, the last thing it can afford is to start thinking it’s as good as the sportswriters are saying they are. The United States lost its spot atop the hoops world because it believed itself to be unbeatable. The only way it will get back to the top is to keep drinking Krzyzewski’s Kool-Aid and keep thinking every team they play is the one that can knock them on their well-compensated butts.

“Don’t confuse this game as being not a tight game,” Coach K said of the 92-69 win.

You could read that as one of those reverse psychology ploys coaches like to use. Keep talking up the underdog and trying to scare your team into taking its work seriously. But there’s a reason coaches keep talking that way. And this Olympic squad had better keep listening – and believing.

Krzyzewski was right in saying that the game wasn’t quite the blow-out the scoreboard suggested it to be. Greece is an outstanding international team that unraveled at the end of the first quarter and then again in the second half of the second quarter. Faced with smothering defensive pressure, the Greeks committed a few turnovers that turned into spectacular breaks and jams that led to more turnovers and more jams and just kind of snowballed. The halftime lead was 19 points, and it didn’t change much the rest of the way as Greece regrouped and played a tighter game.

Their coach, Panagiotis Giannakis, made it clear that for all the speed and athleticism the United States possesses, they’re not invincible. His team reacted badly to the defense thrown at them, was uncharacteristically off-target from behind the arc, and still managed to play the United States even in the second half.

“I think we learn a lot,” he said of the game. “Today was difficult. I think the next game we play will be different. Maybe after five, six nights, you can see something different.”

He was referring to the medal round of the tournament, which will be upon us next week. And he was saying he doesn’t care what Thursday night’s result was, he still thinks the United States can be taken down.

Before you say somebody should check what he’s smoking, remind yourself that basketball games are won by great teams and not necessarily by great athletes. The Americans are by far the greatest athletes in the tournament. There wasn’t a single Greek player who had the speed and moves and leaping ability of the players with USA on their chests.

It’s easy to watch the alley-oop passes and the thunderous slams and the lightning reflexes and figure these guys are unbeatable. That’s what previous American teams have thought for the past eight years. And they keep thinking wrong.

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are incredible basketball players who created a number of highlight-reel moments against Greece. But neither dominated the game the way they dominate NBA games, with Kobe picking up 18 points and LeBron finishing with 13. That’s because the teams in this tournament play zone defenses that negates the athleticism gap. You don’t score in this game with individual moves. You do it as a team.

The Greeks hit only four of 18 three-point attempts Thursday night and they committed 25 turnovers while the United States had 15 steals. They can shoot better from outside and they can take better care of the ball. They and a couple of other teams, including defending World Champion Spain, can still give the Americans trouble.

Giannakis said that the more often you play a team, the better equipped you are to counter its strengths. It was clear he viewed Thursday night as a learning experience for the medal round that both teams will advance to.

“If you don’t let them to have so much speed, you can play against anybody,” he said. In other words, slow the Americans down. Make them play a half-court game. Don’t let their aerial circus off the tarmac.

“If we meet them more often, it’s going to make it more difficult for them to play against us,” Giannakis said.

You can call that wishful thinking if you want, but you’d be wrong. Looking unbeatable and being unbeatable are not the same thing, and Krzyzewski is using every psychological trick at his disposal to make his team believe that.

It is only by understanding that they can lose that the United States players can hope to earn their nickname and finally redeem American basketball.