Beijing There is no second place for the USA Basketball team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Still, as much as they don't want to harp on it, a slow start in a 21-point win over Russia on Sunday and poor shooting and lackluster ball movement in an 11-point win over Australia on Tuesday were no way to come into the one tournament, the Olympics, the Americans know and say they must win.
"We won some games that we played well in and we won some games where we didn't do so well," said USA guard Dwyane Wade, who led the team in scoring (18.0 points per game) during its 5-0 exhibition schedule.
"We understand we could have played better. ... We know that once we move the ball on offense and all play together then we're an unbelievable team. When we don't, we become just as good as anyone else. That's the most important thing we figured out."
Trying to win an Olympic gold medal for the first time since 2000, the U.S. opens Pool B play against China at Wukesong Indoor Stadium this morning.
The Chinese have not beaten the United States in the Olympics in four tries, but USA assistant Nate McMillan dismisses the idea that the U.S. is a runaway favorite.
"Teams are not in awe of us as much as they were with the Dream Team," said McMillan, a Raleigh, N.C., native who played at N.C. State. "They've seen us. They know us. They want to play us. They feel they can beat us and that's OK. We have to get it done."
Playing its fourth game in six days against Australia, the U.S. missed 10 free throws and went 3-for-18 from beyond the arc.
That can't happen for the U.S. in this tournament. The U.S. struggled to hit 3s at the 2004 Athens Games, where it won the bronze medal. Then, as now, teams will want to keep the U.S. athletes out of the paint and force them to shoot the long ball.
But the U.S. thinks the cold night was more about ball movement and getting better-looking 3s than merely missing 3s against the Aussies.
USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said the trick with this squad is getting them to replicate how well they play offense when they're facing their own defense in practice.
"They know they need to use everyone to score," he said. "That's the point we're trying to get across. If we can run offense like we're playing against ourselves, that's much better."
The game has so many subplots - the NBA invading the China market, Houston Rocket Yao Ming coming back from injury to play for his country in his country, the U.S. beginning its search for gold - it's hard to keep track.
Krzyzewski said all that drama and hype and potential angst is perfect for his group.
"It's a huge game for them and for us," he said. "All these guys would rather play in big games. They're ready to play Olympic basketball games for the U.S."
China features 7-footers Yao (7-6) and Yi Jianlian. Yao and U.S. center Dwight Howard are two of the best centers in the NBA.
When asked if China could win, USA guard Kobe Bryant, who averaged 13.2 points and 3.6 assists during the exhibition schedule, said absolutely.
But Bryant thinks the U.S. has another gear that will reveal itself during this Olympic run.
"These games are so hyped and there's so much pressure around it that it will fine-tune our focus," Bryant said. "We've been working so hard to be the best team but so has everyone else so we'll see."