SAPPORO, Japan — After mowing down five exhibition opponents by an average of 34 points, the United States is ready to re-establish ownership of international basketball.
The exhibitions demonstrated that the Americans are treating the world championships as the start of a three-year mission. If all goes as planned, the mission will culminate in a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But first comes the world championships, which have long been emphasized by foreign teams and overlooked in the United States.
"You have to understand to some of these players this is their NBA championship, this is their ultimate goal — to win these games," forward Elton Brand said. "This is as important as any game they have played, so we have to take it as that also."
The U.S. flew to Sapporo on Thursday from Seoul, where it wrapped up a 5-0 exhibition schedule with a lopsided 116-63 victory over South Korea. The Americans appeared loose during a light evening workout at Sapporo Arena.
"We're not overconfident," coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Thursday's practice. "We respect every one of these teams. Who's to say who's the best teams? We certainly haven't seen all of them."
Opposing teams certainly will see plenty of Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade — named team captains on Thursday by Krzyzewski.
"It's a big responsibility for us three being captains and going out and representing our country in the right way," James said in a USA Basketball statement. "You've got to show leadership on the court and off the court, and you've got to show responsibility. We have to approach the game the right way and take care of business."
The first order of business will be Puerto Rico in Saturday's opener. The U.S. is 7-1 against the Puerto Ricans in world championship play and defeated them 114-69 in an Aug. 3 exhibition in Las Vegas.
The Americans made it look easy in a five-game exhibition sweep of China, South Korea, Puerto Rico and Lithuania (twice). China and Puerto Rico are in the Americans' Group D, along with Senegal, Italy and Slovenia. After a week of round-robin play, the top four teams advance to the knockout round at Saitama, near Tokyo.
"The level of play is going to pick up, intensity is going to pick up, and we have to do the same," guard Kirk Hinrich said.
Krzyzewski stressed defense during the exhibition tour, and the U.S. limited opponents to 40 percent shooting and just under 76 points a game. The Americans had 74 steals and 17 blocked shots.
Hinrich said the U.S. is intent on "setting the tone defensively and forcing our will on every team we play."
The best defenses develop over time as players learn to work as a team. The Americans are still adjusting to each other on defense, but Krzyzewski is pleased with the effort.
"Our guys have not had one minute where we haven't played hard defensively, so that's there," he said. "There's a little bit of familiarity to be developed. I would like our guys, if they are beaten on the drive, to rely a little bit more on our shot-blocking ability. Hopefully we won't get beaten too much by the dribble."
Starting with James, Wade and Anthony, the U.S. has plenty of players who can beat opponents off the dribble. But the U.S. also has to prove it can score consistently against zone defenses, which international teams have deployed to try to force the Americans to shoot from the perimeter.
That's been a weakness for the Americans in recent years, but this team has shot better. The Americans shot 41 percent from beyond the 3-point arc during the exhibition series. In the 2004 Olympics, the U.S. shot 31 percent from 3-point range on its way to a disappointing bronze medal.
Anthony, the team's leading scorer, and Antawn Jamison each hit 8-of-17 three-pointers (47 percent). Brad Miller is 6-of-7 (86 percent) and Wade 4-of-7 (57 percent) from beyond the arc.
"We've shot the ball very well," Krzyzewski said. "We do have really good shooters on the team. Carmelo has been unbelievable. I guess on any night or any afternoon something can change, but we feel that we have good outside shooting."
If the U.S. can keep hitting shots, it will be tough to beat in this tournament.
Fans' expectations for U.S. basketball are always high. But with five confidence-building exhibitions behind them, the team's own expectations are soaring as the tournament tips off.
"I don't think any of us will be satisfied until we can play well and hopefully win the gold," Shane Battier said.