When Mike Krzyzewski visited Hampton in April, recruiting for Duke at the Boo Williams Nike event, we spoke briefly about the United States national team he was set to coach for a second consecutive Olympics. Center Dwight Howard was sidelined with a back injury, and the Americans' front line appeared thin.
Not to worry. As skilled and imposing as Howard is, Krzyzewski explained, he isn't nearly as proficient at defending the pick-and-roll, a staple of the international game, as the leaner, quicker Chris Bosh.
But for fleeting moments Tuesday at the London Games, overmatched Tunisia, a speed-limit underdog (55 points) exposed some half-hearted U.S. defense.
The Americans not only corrected course but also nearly covered, cruising to a 110-63 victory. Still, Krzyzewski was not pleased when his squad allowed more 3-pointers in the opening five-plus minutes (three), than it did in 40 minutes Sunday against France (two).
Using the pick-and-roll to free shooters, Tunisia made 7-of-16 from beyond the arc in the first half and trailed by "only" 13 at intermission.
Krzyzewski promptly benched his five starters — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler — to open the second half. Sparked by reserves such as Kevin Love, James Harden and Andre Iguodala, the U.S. blitzed Tunisia 39-14 in the third quarter.
"In the second half our defense picked it up and did not give the open looks and created turnovers, which produced offense," Krzyzewski said during his postgame news conference.
But Krzyzewski insisted there was no message, overt or otherwise, sent with his mass substitution.
"We've done that before," he said. "My goal tonight was to try to get kind of an equal number of minutes for everybody in the game and to try some different combinations. …
"Like in Andre's case, he hadn't gotten as many minutes. Kevin Love is continuing to improve so we wanted to make sure he got his minutes. Anthony Davis. James Harden. Those guys got extended minutes. And it's better to have extended minutes sometimes if you go in with a new unit, and so that was the only significance of any unit substitutions that I did."
The players saw more.
"He held us accountable for what we were doing out there," Carmelo Anthony said during the presser. "The game was kind of slow."
"In the first half we switched a lot (on screens)," Bryant said, "and I think because of it our defense was a little softer and gave them a lot more space. In the second half we came out and put bodies on bodies and put a lot of pressure on them."
As with all masterful coaches, Krzyzewski has won championships with (Duke 1992 and 2001) and without (Duke 1991 and 2010) the best talent. In the 2008 Beijing Games and again in London, he clearly had/has the premier team.
Still, in opening pool-play routs of France — San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker leads the French — and Tunisia, Krzyzewski's influence has been evident. In short, he has NBA all-stars playing for team and country.
Against France, the U.S.'s whiplash ball movement produced an outrageous 27 assists on 31 field goals. The leader of the pack, with eight, was James, a three-time league MVP and newly minted NBA champion.
Tuesday the Americans assisted on 27-of-43 buckets, 17-of-24 after halftime. Krzyzewski said that's due, in part, to stability of coaching staff — he and assistants Mike D'Antoni, Jim Boeheim and Nate McMillan — and players.
"In Beijing, I had not coached those guys in the Olympics before," Krzyzewski added. "Now, I've coached five of them. And, I coached five of them in the (2010) World Championships in Istanbul, so there's a familiarity with our staff and our players, which lends itself to greater camaraderie and I think we have that on this team.
"Not that we didn't have good camaraderie in '08 and '10, but I think it's even better now."
National pride is paramount to Krzyzewski, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Pride not only in winning, but also in representing the U.S. gracefully on and off the court.
Not coincidentally, his players are out and about in London, supporting U.S. teams in other sports.
"Personally, what I try to do is raise the awareness of the other sports that don't get a lot of recognition," Bryant said during a news conference Sunday. "They've been training for four years as well and deserve all of our support. We get the bulk of the attention, but it's very important for us to not keep that attention on ourselves, but to try to deflect it to the other athletes who are training just as hard."
Grace and selflessness don't assure the U.S. a second consecutive gold medal. Lithuania and Argentina await in pool play, as might Spain in the medal round. Each could be formidable.
But thanks to Krzyzewski, the U.S. is far less vulnerable.
"We have a really good bond with one another," Iguodala said. "Everything is a team setting. … We're trying to build chemistry and that team feeling, and being together does that. So those are the moments that we're all going to cherish when we're done playing basketball."