LONDON — Everyone has heard that old bit about how you’re supposed to turn your weakness into a strength when going into a job interview. By this, they mean that you’re supposed to say things like: “I work too hard. I lose all perspective, and work weekends and holidays. It’s ridiculous.” Or: “I’m too much of a perfectionist. I just can’t let go of anything.” Or: “I’m a stickler for the rules, even to my own detriment.”
Of course, that’s not really turning weaknesses into strengths. That’s just talking. Really doing that — really turning your greatest weakness into a strength — is much, much harder.
That’s why, no matter how you might feel about it or what it represents, you have to give it up for the U.S. men’s basketball team. It beat France 98-71 on Sunday, which is no surprise. France has some good players — in particular, Spurs star Tony Parker — but it is not quite world-class, and it was clearly overmatched by this U.S. team.
No, it was HOW the U.S. team won that meant something. Eight or 10 years ago, when the United States’ basketball team was getting beat in international competitions and clearly had lost its way, what was the biggest complaint? That the players were selfish? Check. That they didn’t play defense? Check. That there was no unity among them? Checkmate.
That’s what made Sunday’s game so interesting. Because, first of all, this team plays absurdly great defense. It blocks shots, of course, and it picks off passes, of course. But it always did those kinds of showy things, even in the rough times. This team digs deep into its defense, and so it can do what the greatest defensive teams do: use its strength, speed and quick hands to pressure opponents into bad decisions and rushed shots, even when they’re open. France made just two of 22 three-pointers.
“With closeouts,” French coach Vincent Collet said of U.S. defenders rushing at a three-point shooter, “they are the best in the world by far.”
Second, this team plays defiantly unselfish basketball. On Sunday, the U.S. made 31 shots — 23 two-pointers and eight three-pointers. And it had 27 assists. That is absolutely amazing: 27 assists and 31 makes. It’s almost unheard of. France, by comparison, had just 10 assists and 26 made shots. In the game before, Brazil beat Australia with 13 assists on 28 made shots.
That’s pretty reflective of how this U.S. team plays now. I have to say — though it hurts my Cleveland heart to say it — that LeBron James is the driving force behind this style of play. He’s such a good passer; every time he touches the ball, everyone on the team makes their hardest cuts, knowing that the pass will be there if they break free. Whatever the reason, this team plays team basketball with very few players taking anyone one-on-one. Very few wasted possessions.
And both of these things have happened — strong defense and newfound unselfishness — I think, because coach Mike Krzyzewski, his staff and the nation’s best players have figured out, well, yes, how to turn their overall greatest weakness into their greatest strength. That is to say, maybe the reason they’re playing great defense now, maybe the reason they’re playing so unselfishly now, is not so different from the reasons why they were playing such lousy defense and selfish basketball before.
Think about this: These guys know that they’re the best players in the world. They’ve always known that. For so long, perhaps, that led to the wrong kinds of consequences. Maybe knowing that they were the best led to overconfidence. Maybe it led to a bit of laziness. Maybe it led to players overvaluing their own importance. When the U.S. lost to Puerto Rico in that famous game in 2004, they shot 35 percent. The Americans jacked up 24 three-pointers and made only three. Allen Iverson, Richard Jefferson and Shawn Marion all tried to take on Puerto Rico one-on-five, and as the game slipped away, their frustration grew. The story wasn’t much different in losses to Lithuania and Argentina.
Now, though, the U.S. players STILL know that they’re the best in the world … but they seem to pull better truths from it. They trust each other a lot more, knowing that everybody on this team is a superstar. They take pride in their greatness, which seems to push them to new levels on defense. And even Coach K — who has been careful not to compare this team to any other — admits that the players seem to like each other more than they have in his many years of coaching.
Of course, none of this guarantees anything. This U.S. team can still go into shooting slumps, and it’s still facing what is almost certainly the best field in Olympic history. And frustration — should a team take a lead on the U.S., should the officiating become a distraction — can be a powerful thing.
But it’s striking how all those clichés about American basketball are fading away. This team is not selfish or lazy or lax on the defensive end. On Sunday, Kevin Durant scored a game-high 22, Tyson Chandler had four offensive rebounds, LeBron had eight assists, Kevin Love played a big game and there were All-Stars galore just chipping in.
Afterward, someone asked Collet if he would change plans if he could play the Americans again. He had a bemused look on his face and said that France’s plan wasn’t bad. It wanted to avoid turnovers. It wanted to keep the U.S. off the offensive glass. It wanted to make a high percentage of the open shots it got. It wanted to keep the U.S. from running on the break. No, it wasn’t a bad plan.
He shrugged. There’s a long road, he said, between a plan and action.