BEIJING The five-date slate of preliminary pool games for the 12 men's basketball teams at the Beijing Olympics has accomplished its purpose providing the seeding for the eight quarterfinalists and reflecting how dominant the favorite United States squad really is.
But once in the quarterfinals, a slip here or a misstep there can result in an upset loss, which in the quarterfinals means elimination, in the semifinal finals means bronze medal at best, and in the championship game means a tarnished silver.
Up first for the United States in Wednesday's quarterfinals is Andrew Bogut-led Australia, which after opening the Games with a pair of listless performances ripped off three dominating victories in Group A.
Other quarterfinal pairings: Spain meets up-and-down Croatia, Lithuania faces host China, and defending champion Argentina takes on Greece.
After the U.S. struggled to a 5-3 record and a much-maligned bronze at the 2004 Athens Games, anything short of gold for star-studded Team USA will earn public rebuke. The United States' thrashing of its Group B peers did nothing but fuel the fire of public expectations.
And the efforts of opponents to knock them off, as U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski has warned.
"Every team we play from here on, coach said was going to be like a 'game seven' and we have to stay focused," center Dwight Howard said.
Focused is what the Americans were through five pool games. Consider the numbers:
• Scoring The United States is first in points scored at 103 a game and tops in points allowed, only 70.8. And the five margins of victory were impressive 29 points in the opener against China, followed by a charitable 21 against winless Angola, then 23 versus Greece, 37 in blowing out then-undefeated Spain, and 49 in the finale with Germany.
• Shooting After a couple of off outings, the U.S. ended up shooting a collective 55 percent from the floor and allowing opponents just 37 percent shooting. That's 64 percent to 43 on two-pointers and 36 percent to 27 percent for 3-pointers, the latter an area where critics wondered if the Americans could stop the international sharpshooters.
• Defense The United States has created 114 turnovers but committed just 69, tripled the amount of steals made versus given up (72 to 24) and blocked 21 shots to having been stuffed 14 times.
• Balance Unlike other Olympic squads, the U.S. is not counting on just one or two mainstays. Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are ninth and tied for 10th in scoring average, respectively, but both are in the top six in field goal percentage and total field goals made. And when it comes to unselfishness, the U.S. has three players James, Chris Paul and Deron Williams ranked in the tournament's top 10 in assists.
As the Americans and Aussies get set to square off in their quarterfinal, both teams temper acknowledgement of the opponent with some quiet confidence.
"Australia plays a completely different style of game than we played (against Germany)," Kobe Bryant said. "They run a continuity offense and they are very proficient at it, and they run hard cuts and set hard picks. They are real smart, so it will be a different ball game."
Countered Bogut: "I have not seen them play with such a chip on their shoulders since the Dream Team of '92, especially with Kobe running the show. They have a different mentality. They are trying to kill teams, and they are going to try to knock us out with the first punch, but we have to stay calm."
Even the coaches got into the act.
"They are probably playing their best basketball at the moment, and they can put points on," Krzyzewski said of Australia.Said Brian Goorjian, his counterpart, "We get a chance to step up to the plate and have a swipe at the big dog. I don't know if we can or can't beat them, but I like how Australia's playing. I'm confident we will get out and play ball."