Shoals Unlimited: Olympics Proving That NBA's Style of Play Still Rules the Hardwood

Welcome to Shoals Unlimited, where Bethlehem will post a long-form piece on basketball once a week.
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↵When Jerry Colangelo set out to save USA Basketball, he made sure the public understood two things. One, the road back would not be a cakewalk. And two, international competition is not the NBA. This message was cruelly hammered home in the 2006 Worlds, when the New Team USA fell to Greece -- a team adept at sinking jumpers and concocting zone defenses. And that was after Colangelo supposedly picked a roster ideally suited for the exotic challenges of non-NBA ball. ↵

↵Well, here we are, just shy of the medal round that gives the Redeem Team a chance to earn its name. They've faced little in the way of real opposition and, while LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the rest haven't been flawless, they've certainly dominated and enthralled millions. Dunking at will, wreaking havoc on defense and spending about two-thirds of each game in transition -- and covering up their weaknesses with raw ability and invention -- it's some of the most exhilarating basketball in recent memory. ↵

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↵Sounds a lot like the NBA, doesn't it? Or -- even worse -- an idealized version of the All-Star Game. ↵

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↵We were told that, to take back America's honor, the NBA would have to get over itself, put its bad habits behind it and acknowledge the plurality of basketball in the world today. After 2006, it was hard not to believe it. Despite the Murderer's Row of All-Stars assembled for the Beijing Games, still you had Coach K preaching team unity and, supposedly, fundamental basketball. ↵

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↵And yet somehow, we've gotten the opposite. Up to this point, Team USA has restored the NBA as the center of the hoops universe, even as the league loses rotation players to European leagues. For proof of this, look no further than Dwyane Wade. Still recovering from injuries, a shadow of himself for much of last season, and rumored to have been included only for sneaker company reasons, Wade is arguably the star of these Olympics. LeBron may actually contribute more, and Kobe's two-way ferocity has made up for some inconsistent shooting. ↵

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↵But no one has looked as energized, produced as many highlights, or scared the bejesus out of the field quite like Wade, a player some worried would now be forever compromised by injury. After all, Wade's entire game is premised on athleticism, speed and explosion. His shooting leaves much to be desired, and whether he's driving the lane or going for the steal, opponents know exactly what's coming. They're just powerless to stop it. In short, no Olympian is more "NBA" than Wade. ↵

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↵So what a surprise to see Wade not only healthy -- reborn, even -- but absolutely demolishing everyone in sight, when he's supposed to be poorly-suited for this foreign basketball soil. LeBron, too, is doing much of his damage on ferocious drives and other outlandish physical feats. It's almost like this team has rebelled against, or rejected, the theory that they have to play “international” to win. They're NBA-ing it up with a vengeance, and it's hard to argue with the results. ↵

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↵There's also the strange case of Carmelo Anthony. In last summer's Tournament of the Americas, Melo was right up there with LeBron and Kobe when it came to on-floor potency. Anthony's style, which includes a variety of crafty moves with the ball, polished post play, a good feel for the flow of a game and solid jump-shooting from anywhere on the floor, was a natural fit for international competition. It didn't hurt that, for the oft-maligned Anthony, the chance to get away from the floundering Nuggets and skeptical American crowds brought a measure of freedom, or relief. Some have even suggested that he might be the superstar to jump overseas, so at home is he in that version of basketball. ↵

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↵But this summer, Anthony has fallen back down to earth. That's not to say he's embarrassed himself, or doesn't still look like a smarter, more efficient player than he does in Denver. Just that he doesn't epitomize the NBA style of play the way Wade does. And so far, it's Wade's dynamism that's come to symbolize America's romp through the field. In a way, it's the worst nightmare of purists: Team USA can destroy the world by leaning heavily on the supposed weaknesses, or over-indulgences of the NBA. ↵

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↵For other countries, though, the message is clear: The Association's brand of basketball rules the roost, defines the game, and until someone can stop Dwyane Wade, everything else is strictly junior varsity. ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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