RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — “Go get him!”
Tom Thibodeau’s booming, baritone voice knifed through the air inside sold out Carioca Arena on Saturday as the U.S. men’s basketball team dropped back to play defense early in its Olympic tournament opener against China.
“Stay home!” he barked. “Back, back!” ”Get up!” ”By yourself!”
Thibodeau didn’t stop, and his commands could even be heard by fans sitting in top rows of the upper deck.
From the opening tip to the final horn in the 119-62 blowout, Thibodeau, a hard-driving, hoops lifer who prides himself on teaching the old-school way, screamed instructions at the American players. They have quickly learned that their Team USA assistant coach — and the new head man with the Minnesota Timberwolves — is demanding when it comes to defense.
“I’m used to Thibs, man,” U.S. center Demarcus Cousins said with a laugh. “That’s Thibs in walkthrough, so we’re used to it.”
And the rest of the world better get used to this U.S. team playing lock-down defense. Armed with unmatched offensive firepower, the Americans, seeking their third straight gold medal, are creating an identity with their backs to the basket.
They got after China from the outset. Warriors forward Klay Thompson, one of the game’s elite perimeter defenders, made a steal on China’s first possession and the U.S. finished with 15 steals, forced 24 turnovers and held China to 30 percent shooting.
With another roster of NBA stars, there is a continuous red-white-and-blue wave of players flooding in from coach Mike Krzyzewski’s bench. When the U.S. starters needed a break against China, Krzyzewski sent in a fresh group and Thibodeau made sure they knew what they were doing defensively from the moment they stepped on the floor.
From his seat next to Coach K’s, Thibodeau pointed like a traffic cop at a busy intersection, and of course, made certain his demands were heard.
“Thibs is going to lose his voice by the time this is over with,” four-time Olympian Carmelo Anthony said. “I think everybody in the world can hear Thibs on the sideline. It’s motivation for us, to know that we have somebody on the sideline that’s in tune to it. He’s pushing us and he’s keeping us uplifted.”
The U.S. plays its next game on Monday against Venezuela, a team it beat by 35 last week despite a poor shooting performance.
Thibodeau, fired in May by the Chicago Bulls after five solid seasons, is relishing his role as the U.S. squad’s minister of defense. This is what he lives for, and the chance to mesh a group this talented to play team defense is as good as it gets.
And it’s already apparent that Thibodeau’s message has gotten across as the U.S. players, some of whom are not exactly known for their defensive skills, are being more vocal on the floor. During the win over China, the Americans were calling out screens, switching and looking to help each other whenever possible. They’ve clearly bought in.
During the first quarter against China, Cleveland point guard Kyrie Irving poked the ball away before diving headfirst on the floor trying to come up with the steal. As he laid face down, Thibodeau clapped in approval.
Floor burns are a badge of honor to Thibodeau, who feels the U.S. team is embracing his principles.
“The strength is our versatility,” he said. “We have 12 guys who play hard and play for each other and they are committed to doing that. It started the first day and there’s no let up so when we go to our bench there’s is no drop off. Every one of these guys is a great player and is s starter, so when we sub that pressure is going to remain and we’re going to keep coming for 40 minutes.”
Kevin Durant, who along with Anthony is the only returning player from the 2012 London team, said he and his teammates know that when the shots aren’t falling, they can always fall back on their defense.
“Defensively, we’re pretty good,” he said. “When we put Draymond out there and just start switching everything, that makes us even better and then we got two guys that are different rim protectors in Marcus, who takes charges and covers the paint, and DJ (DeAndre Jordan) who blocks shots at the rim. We just got every area covered. And we got long defenders on the wing and great point guards that use their hands, so we got to continue to lean on that.”
Thibodeau will make sure of it.