LAS VEGAS – For now, the United States is again behind the rest of the basketball world.
While the opponents they will face in the Olympics have already been playing exhibition games, the Americans haven't even been able to practice the way they want, getting them off to a slow start on the way to London.
One of their top players, Deron Williams, even admitted he was "rusty" Wednesday, 18 days before the Americans' Olympic opener. So they were eager to pick up the pace Thursday night when they hosted the Dominican Republic in their first tuneup game.
"It's a slow start for us because of this summer," LeBron James said. "The free agency, D-Will hasn't been able to scrimmage yet, and just a couple of things going on with our team, so we're going to use these next couple of days. We're happy that tomorrow is our opportunity to see where we are right now. So it should be fun."
The Dominicans, coached by Kentucky's John Calipari and featuring NBA players Al Horford and Francisco Garcia, are in better game shape than the U.S. team. They just finished playing in an Olympic qualifying tournament on Sunday, falling one victory short of claiming the 12th and final spot in the London field.
Meanwhile, at least one-third of the U.S. team has been sidelined for at least part of training camp that began last Friday. The coaching staff has been giving James extra rest after his lengthy season ended with MVP honors in the NBA Finals. Williams couldn't take part in the contact portions of practice until Wednesday, after he had signed his five-year, $98 million extension with the Brooklyn Nets.
"I've been anxiously waiting for this day to sign and get out there and play because it hasn't been a lot of fun just sitting here watching," Williams said before practice Wednesday. "I haven't played 5-on-5 because of my contract situation since the season, so I'm probably a little rusty. Got to get the rust out."
Blake Griffin missed a day while returning to Los Angeles to deal with his contractual obligations before inking a five-year extension that will pay him about $95 million. Chris Paul sprained his right thumb on the opening day of practice, robbing him of scrimmage time and forcing him to the sidelines along with Williams.
"Sometimes it just happens. The two point guards that you're going to have, we haven't had them in the last four or five days and we need to rectify that," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
The U.S. has had to deal with changing plans all year. Injuries to Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose wrecked their intentions of naming their 12-man roster on June 18, and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh dropped out after the NBA Finals because of lingering injuries. So the roster wasn't picked until after the second practice, forcing the staff to sit out players who will be going to London so they could give longer looks to the guys who needed to make a last impression.
Even before that, they knew this year would be more challenging than 2008. The July 27 start of the Olympics is much trickier than the Aug. 8 start then, especially because the delayed NBA season didn't finish until June 22. That causes a delicate balance in trying to give players the rest they need, but knowing they have to be in top form quickly.
"It's a disjointed start because we had to use the first couple of days for selection, free agency and then injury. So the early start of the Olympics puts us in that window of the NBA free agency," Krzyzewski said. "In '08 our practices started the 20th. We never had to deal with that and we didn't have an injury at one position and free agency at the same position. So that has an impact. It's a negative impact that we have to overcome."
They probably will, expected to overcome all those obstacles and win gold again. The Americans felt they lacked practice time and preparation in 2004, when they lost three times and settled for a bronze medal. But that team was assembled poorly, short on talent and international experience.
This team has 10 players who have won gold medals in international competitions, and the belief that a less-than-ideal start won't impact the way they expect to finish.
"We have 12 really good guys that over the next couple of weeks we have to develop into a team," Krzyzewski said. "That's why we'd like to get everybody healthy and out of free agency so we can start the team-building process, do it a little quicker."
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