Sunday, July 14, 2024

Good start on golden road: Team USA puts on show defeating Canada in Vegas exhibition

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LAS VEGAS — Team USA knew they were in a city where everyone expects to be entertained.

They did not disappoint.

After a slow start, Team USA showed off its superior size, depth and athleticism to beat Canada 86-72, behind 13 points from Anthony Edwards and a dozen from Stephen Curry.

Nobody should read too much into an exhibition win, but the USA’s new star-studded, veteran roster comfortably handled the team that knocked them out of the FIBA World Cup a year ago.

“I love the defensive intensity and the work on the glass. So it was a good first effort,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We needed to set a tone for how we want to play and I think we did that.”

After much speculation, Kerr rolled out a starting five of Stephen Curry, Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday, LeBron James and Joel Embiid. That group didn’t start as planned, opening 0-of-6 shooting from the floor and fell down 11-1 out of the gate.

“There’s a temptation to defer, there’s a temptation to overthink every possession because everybody can make a play, Curry said. “And when you have an advantage, you try to keep the game as simple as possible. And that first unit, we struggled with that. And then once we got settled in, it seemed like everybody got a little bit more comfortable as we got deeper into the game and hopefully the next four exhibition games we have to see more progress.”

Curry eventually broke the slow early streak with a three. Kerr had warned this team of stars that this experience would not be like an NBA game where they can start slowly and find their rhythm as they go.

“All these players are used to getting 15-20 shots a game they might only get five or six with us, so they have to get acclimated to FIBA and to this style, this roster,” Kerr said after a practice this week.

What changed the game was the USA’s bench unit: Anthony Edwards, Jayson Tatum, Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo. That group brought the defensive intensity and then ran off of it, and the vibe of the game changed. Edwards’ athleticism is part of that.

The other thing that became clear in this first game was that Kerr learned his lesson from the World Cup a year ago, when he had a smaller roster and leaned into the small-ball style at times that his Warriors have thrived with. That doesn’t work the same way in the more physical FIBA games, so the USA returned this year with real size, starting with Embiid.

The USA dominated the glass and had nine blocked shots as a team.

The USA certainly had things to work on, starting with the 15 turnovers (11 in the first half).

Then there is Joel Embiid, who fouled out in 12 minutes of action. That included picking up an unsportsmanlike foul (the international equivalent of a flagrant foul) for elbowing Dwight Powell in the face. He is going to have to find a balance between his physicality and the inconsistent FIBA officiating.

Canada was led by the Knicks’ RJ Barrett who had a dozen, followed by Dillon Brooks — who was booed ever time he touched the ball — and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with 10 each.

The guard-heavy Canadian roster will be tough to beat on the nights they hit 3s, but they were 7-of-33 (21.2%) as a team, with Jamal Murray going 1-of-5.

Canada is better than this and has rust to shake off.

The USA is better than this, too. Kerr said to expect different starting lineups in the next couple of games as he tries to find the best chemistry but added he liked a lot of what he saw in this game.

The USA now flies to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates for more good tests: Australia and Serbia (with Nikola Jokic).

Three years ago for the delayed Tokyo Olympics, Gregg Popovich’s Team USA stumbled in some early exhibitions and even lost their first game of the Olympics, only to bounce back and win gold. They found their chemistry.

It’s just one game, but this USA team seems to be finding theirs sooner.

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