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Thanks, Obama: USA Basketball survives rust, roster drama in exhibition win



Thanks, Obama: USA Basketball survives rust, roster drama in exhibition win

LAS VEGAS — Heavy favorites make for big targets.

The United States men’s basketball team found itself entangled in a chaotic mess as it took the court to launch its run to the Paris Olympics: Two stars were injured and missing in action for the opening exhibition; a third was quickly swallowed up by foul trouble; and Grant Hill, the director of USA Basketball, had just faced difficult questions about a last-minute roster change and allegations of sneaker company bias from a snubbed NBA Finals MVP. Meanwhile, the Americans’ surprising starting lineup stumbled out of the gate against a pesky rival intent on playing spoiler in front of a glitzy courtside contingent that included former president Barack Obama and dozens of hardwood legends.

The walls easily could have caved in around LeBron James, Stephen Curry and their national team counterparts, but order was quickly restored during the United States’ 86-72 victory over Canada at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday. This was a flawed debut for the gold medal favorites, but one that should be regarded as comforting given the night’s off-court distractions, on-court sloppiness and immense expectations.

“It was a slow start, which wasn’t surprising,” Coach Steve Kerr said. “You could see the rust on the offensive end. A lot of turnovers in that first half, especially. But I love the defensive intensity and the work on the glass. We needed to set a tone for how we want to play, and I think we did that.”

In the hours before tip-off, USA Basketball announced Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard would be replaced by Boston Celtics guard Derrick White on the 12-man roster. According to the program’s statement, the decision to remove Leonard was jointly reached by USA Basketball, the Clippers and Leonard because of ongoing concerns about his recent knee injury. Hill said Wednesday that he and USA Basketball’s coaching staff had evaluated Leonard’s play and progress during a four-day training camp before parting with the six-time all-star.

“Ultimately, he was sent home,” Hill said, noting the taxing logistics of the month-long Olympic run. “This is a sprint, not a ramp-up. We were open, honest and understanding through it all. Your heart goes out to him. We have to do what’s best for the team, protect the team and give ourselves the best opportunity for success. We just felt we had to pivot. We all tried. We gave it a valiant effort.”

USA Basketball believed that White, a reliable outside shooter and skilled defender, can fill the same role in Paris that he held during the Celtics’ championship run. His case was aided by his previous experience playing in the 2019 FIBA World Cup and his availability on short notice. The 30-year-old guard is expected to join his new teammates in Abu Dhabi, the next stop on their five-game exhibition slate.

Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, however, seemed dissatisfied with the decision. Despite winning NBA Finals MVP and Eastern Conference finals MVP, Brown was passed over by USA Basketball, even though three of his teammates — Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday and White — are headed to Paris.

Brown had previously criticized Nike, the official apparel supplier of USA Basketball, and its founder, Phil Knight, following the company’s decision to part ways with then-Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving following a 2022 antisemitism controversy. On Wednesday, Brown implied on social media that Nike was behind his snubbing: “Nike, this what we doing?” Brown posted.

Hill said that while USA Basketball was “proud of its partners,” his focus had been to “put together a team that complements each other, fits and gives us the best opportunity for success.”

“One of the hardest things is leaving people off the roster that I’m a fan of and that I look forward to watching throughout the season and playoffs,” he added. “Whatever theories that might be out there, they’re just that.”

Without Leonard and Kevin Durant, who continues to nurse a minor calf injury, Kerr started James, Curry, Holiday, Devin Booker and Joel Embiid against Canada. That lineup, which was designed to counter Canadian guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray, started 0 for 6 from the field and fell into an 11-1 hole. James and Anthony Davis were both on the receiving end of hard fouls from the Canadians, who made up for their lack of size by forcing turnovers and playing aggressively.

Embiid fouled out midway through the third quarter of his national team debut. The 2023 NBA MVP departed with just five points and six rebounds in 12 minutes, a worrisome start for a player who is central to the Americans’ ability to match up with international stars such as Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Wembanyama.

“This is my first time in FIBA, so I’ve got to get used to it,” Embiid said. “Especially for bigs, as soon as you try to be physical, you get penalized for it. Tonight was one of those nights. I’m a quick learner. I’ll adjust.”

Curry helped relieve the pressure by hitting a three-pointer midway through the first quarter, and Anthony Edwards came out firing to lead the second unit and help the United States take a 41-33 halftime lead. The Canadians never mounted much of a counterpunch in the third quarter, as the Americans gradually pressed their talent and depth advantages. Curry and James connected on a lob that drew a loud ovation from more than 20,000 fans, and Edwards finished with 13 points to lead all scorers.

“There’s a temptation to defer and overthink every possession because everyone can make a play,” said Curry, who added 12 points and three assists. “That first unit, we struggled with that. Once we got settled in, everyone got more comfortable as we got deeper into the game.”

Obama cheered along throughout the night from a courtside seat near the television broadcasting crew, and dozens of former USA Basketball players — including Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Cheryl Miller and Lynette Woodard — were recognized at midcourt during stoppages in play.

With his team on its way to shooting just 7 for 33 (21.2 percent) from outside and losing ground, Canada Coach Jordi Fernandez rested his starters throughout the fourth quarter. As the U.S. stars acknowledged the crowd after dispatching their neighbors to the north, the arena’s disc jockey indulged in a victory lap by playing Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us” — a vicious track targeting Canadian rapper Drake.

Though many in the crowd sang along, James and Curry were in a serious and reflective mood now that their Olympic run was officially underway. Both stars praised a motivational address Obama gave to their team Tuesday night: James said the former president is “one of the greatest people this world has ever seen” with a “vision, mind-set and words [that] are always resonating,” while Curry described getting “goose bumps” when Obama discussed the unifying power of sports.

A simple mission rose to the surface at the end of a long and complicated day.

“He wants us to win,” Curry said of Obama. “That’s what the U.S. is known for.”

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