ANDREW BAGNATO AP Sports Writer
Sooner or later, people will stop measuring every U.S. Olympic basketball squad against the Dream Team. U. S. coach Mike Krzyzewski is hoping it's sooner. "There's only one Dream Team," said Krzyzewski, an assistant coach on that fabled squad. "That was '92. The mistake that our American people make is calling every team after a 'dream team.' This isn't Rocky I, II, III and IV. "It's Dream Team I forever and then the next teams have to get their own identity," he said. "This team will work at developing its identity." A lot has happened in 16 years. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and friends have moved on. More important, the world has caught up to the United States in the game it invented. In its last three major international competitions, the U.S. has brought home two bronze medals. To put that in perspective, consider that Lithuania won the bronze in 1992. The Americans beat the Lithuanians by 51 points in the semifinals. The 2004 U.S. Olympic team lost three times on its way to third place. The Americans had lost two games, total, in the previous 14 Olympics. That's not a dream, it's a nightmare. The mission for this team as it goes to Beijing? Simple. Restore what Americans believe is their rightful place atop the international hoops podium. "It is redemption," said guard Dwyane Wade, one of four holdovers from the 2004 Olympic squad. "That's what it is: a road to redemption. 2004 was a hurt year for a lot of us not for just the players but for the world. A lot of people were hurt by it. So this is a redemption year. This is to let our fans (know) that we're the best in basketball still." It's one thing to say it. It's another to prove it. "They're expecting us to just walk on the court and just win the game," said forward Carmelo Anthony, another 2004 Olympian. "We've got to work at it. Nothing's going to come easy for us." The Americans lead the world in sneaker commercials. But when it comes to international (read: team) basketball, they have slipped into the pack. And let's define "pack" as Puerto Rico, Greece, Argentina and, yes, Lithuania, all of whom have defeated the U. S. in major tournaments in the last four years. The U.S. taught the world basketball. Now, in a bit of irony, it is trying to learn from the top international programs, which have long stressed continuity and roster stability. That's why USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo, the former Phoenix Suns owner, demanded a three-year commitment from players when he took over in 2005. He knew the U. S. approach drafting an all-star team, getting fitted for uniforms and then heading into competition no longer worked. "I have always been a firm believer that basketball is the ultimate team sport and that the more you play with one another, the better you can become and that a good team can beat a group of all-stars," Colangelo said. Greece made that painfully clear in the Americans' most recent major international competition, when it defeated the U.S. 101-95 in the semifinals of the 2006 world championships in Japan. Before that game, the U.S. players put on a jam session for the fans in Saitama, a Tokyo suburb. As the crowd roared with delight, the Greeks lined up at the other end and shot free throws. Showmanship vs. fundamentals. Guess which won out? "I think we showed everybody that maybe we're not very good athletes like them, but we know how to play the game," Greek guard Theodoros Papaloukas said afterward. "All these players are big stars, but you have to do small different things." That loss taught the Americans a couple of valuable lessons. First, they realized they needed more shooters. The Americans shot 50 percent from the floor that night, but only 32 percent from beyond the arc. The U.S. believes it addressed that problem with the addition of Michael Redd, a career 44 percent 3-point shooter in international play, as well as Kobe Bryant, who shot 45.9 percent from beyond the arc in last year's Olympic qualifying tourney. Second, the Americans realized they needed to defend the screen-androll, a staple of the international game. The Greeks used the play to create wide-open lanes to the bucket and wideopen looks on the perimeter, shooting a stunning 63 percent from the floor. That led the U.S. to select a set of taller, more physical guards, including international veteran Jason Kidd and Deron Williams. "We know defense and rebounding wins championships, whether it's the Olympics or the NBA," Bryant said. "So we're going to put a lot of emphasis on that." They've also put an emphasis on maturity. The 2004 squad averaged 23. 6 years, the youngest of the five U.S. Olympic teams comprised of professionals. This year's team averages 26.08 years and its spiritual leader is the 35-year-old Kidd, a veteran of five U.S. teams, including the 2000 Olympic gold medal winner. Kidd's message to his teammates is simple. "I think it's just understanding that every time we take the floor, that everybody's watching and that we want to show the world that we can play the game the right way, and play as a team," Kidd said. "I think that's what the international teams have started to understand to play as a team and win as a team." As always, the U.S. appears to have plenty of talent. If it has one apparent weakness, it's a lack of size; 6-foot-11 Dwight Howard is its only true center. For Krzyzewski and his staff New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni, Portland coach Nate McMillan and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim the biggest challenge will be molding an all-star-laden roster into a team. The team-building process has evolved over the last three years. During a workout in Las Vegas in late June, Krzyzewski noted many of his players already have played together in international competition. The question is whether it translates into gold in Beijing and puts this team on par with the Dream Team in the most important category. "I think it's the commitment we needed to make to put us in a position we'll have the best chance to win," Krzyzewski said. "Now we have to follow through and win."