Kobe the Clear Difference for Team USA

Team USA won for the fourth time in a row yesterday, defeating Brazil 113-76 in their final game before the second round of the FIBA Americas Basketball Tournament. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony led the way by scoring 21 points each, but it was the defense of Kobe Bryant, who scored 20, that made the difference.

Bryant, who has volunteered to guard each team’s best player so far, was in charge of shutting down tournament leading scorer Leandro Barbosa, who scored 36 points in Brazil’s victory over the U.S. Virgin Islands on Saturday. The defensive prowess that was needed to slow down Barbosa was evident throughout the game and Bryant held Brazil’s leading scorer to 4 points on 1-7 shooting.

Team USA video coordinators put together a DVD for Bryant of Barbosa’s play for the Phoenix Suns and the Brazilian national team, as well as comprehensive statistics on which moves Barbosa likes to make in different places on the court. Bryant apparently studied quite a bit as Barbosa was lost on the offensive side of the ball for the entire game.

Bryant’s defensive aggressiveness isn’t lost on his teammates either. “For him it’s about playing defense, and he enjoys that challenge. He understands he doesn’t need to score 60 points to help us win, so he can use a little more energy on the defensive end than he’s done in the past,” Jason Kidd said. “He loves the challenge, and since the opening tipoff of that first game against Venezuela, he wants to take that best offensive player on the opposing team and make it as tough as possible. Against Barbosa, he did it again.”

It has become very clear that Bryant is the difference maker for Team USA this time around. Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James were unable to deliver Gold the last time they played for their country and both seem more determined now that Bryant is around. Players are more active during practice and have been showing an increased hustle during games unseen for years. With Bryant leading the way defensively, often diving for loose balls and gluing himself to the hip of his opponent, other players on the team seem to be following his lead.

Team USA has a 48.4 points per game margin of victory so far in the tournament, numbers not seen since the first Dream Team. I am not saying that this team even holds a candle to the 1992 Olympic Team, but they seem to be taking this tournament more seriously than previous squads. The last couple of star-studded teams that have been put together for Team USA appeared to have a swagger about them as if opponents would just roll over once they stepped on the court, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case. Bryant’s appearance on this team has ended that mentality.

Round Two will open up Monday against Mexico, followed by Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Uruguay on Wednesday and Argentina on Thursday. The semifinal match, if this week goes well, will be Saturday with an Olympic birth on the line (the top two teams automatically qualify for the Olympics in 2008). If the previous games have been any indication, Kobe Bryant will be the man to lead the team back to Olympic glory.

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