July 24, 2012; Barcelona, SPAIN; USA guard Russell Westbrook (7) carries the ball away from Spain forward Rudy Fernandez (5) during the second half of an exhibition game in preparation for the 2012 London Olympic Games at Palau Sant Jordi. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

Olympic Basketball 2012: How Russell Westbrook can help Team USA win gold

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Jerry Lai-US PRESSWIRE

The 2012 London Olympics are now underway and Olympic basketball will begin Sunday, July 29. The United States are the favorites to win the gold medal and will play their first game against France at 9:30 a.m. EST.

Team USA features three Oklahoma City Thunder players on its roster in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Durant will be a starter and one of the best players on the team along with LeBron James while Harden won’t see a lot of run as he was one of the last players chosen for the team.

Westbrook has the chance to be a sort of X-factor for the team. Coming off the bench for Team USA, Westbrook’s role has already been compared by Kobe Bryant to the role Dwyane Wade played for the 2008 Olympic team.

Wade was quite possibly the best player on the 2008 team despite coming off the bench in every game and Westbrook has a chance to do something similar for the 2012 team.

Westbrook will be playing closer to his natural position as a two-guard for Team USA as opposed to the point position he plays in OKC. So we will see a little different version of Westbrook than we are used to in the NBA.

Westbrook will not be as much of a high-volume shooter that he is in the NBA for this team as every player is sacrificing the role they play in the NBA to some degree. Westbrook will be called upon to bring energy to the floor when he checks in, to play the passing lanes on defense and lead a very potent fast break attack for the United States.

Westbrook can do all of these things but as is the case with Westbrook, he’s a little bit of a loose cannon with potential for high-turnover numbers and bad decisions as well. The key for Westbrook in this reduced usage rate role is to highlight the good of what he does while minimizing the bad.

This won’t be the easiest thing in the world for Westbrook who is used to having free reign in OKC to make mistakes and then make up for them with spectacular athleticism.

Team USA is going to need for Westbrook to show up though. They could still probably win the gold if he isn’t playing his best but the competition is very tough for them this year and Westbrook is a very important ingredient for this team reaching its potential.

Westbrook played 17.6 minutes per game in Team USA’s five exhibition games and averaged 9.4 points per game which was fourth on the team behind Durant, LeBron and Carmelo Anthony. Westbrook only shot .410 percent from the field though, second worst on the team ahead of just Kobe Bryant who shot .400 percent.

Westbrook struggled from deep too going 2-for-10 on threes but was second on the team at getting to the line going 13-for-15 from the stripe.

There will be moments in these Olympics where things aren’t going great for Team USA. They’ll start to miss threes, they won’t be forcing turnovers and they will be exploited inside for their lack of size. These will be the moments when Westbrook will be called upon to step up and give the U.S. a spark of energy from the bench.

No country has players in their backcourt used to seeing Westbrook on the floor. Westbrook has been called and rightfully so, the best athlete on this team and perhaps in the world. The kind of defensive pressure he can apply on opposing guards will be maybe the greatest value he can bring to the United States.

That’s what Wade did in 2008, playing the passing lanes better than anyone and getting run-out, easy dunks on a regular basis. Westbrook needs to do this for Team USA and showed some glimpses of it in the exhibition games.

The United States will likely close out games with a lineup of Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Westbrook likely won’t be joining them but the minutes he plays leading the second unit will be crucial for the U.S. to bring home gold.

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Tags: 2012 Olympics James Harden Kevin Durant Kobe Bryant LeBron James Russell Westbrook USA Basketball

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