WASHINGTON — Tough start for the Americans. The Olympic basketball team couldn’t get a stop, the president couldn’t get a kiss.
Eventually, things worked out for both of them.
LeBron James scored 30 points and the U.S. rallied from an early 10-point deficit to beat Brazil 80-69 on Monday night in its final exhibition game on home soil.
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden watched the Americans get off to a dismal start, then turn it around by holding the Brazilians to two baskets in the second quarter.
“They came out really counterpunching and taking advantage of our aggressiveness on defense, and they’re well-coached. They came in with a great plan and executed their plan very well start of the game,” U.S. guard Kobe Bryant said. “We made our adjustments second quarter, kept them to five points, which after the 20-something point first quarter is pretty impressive.”
James helped the U.S. pull away in the final four minutes after they led by only seven with 4 ½ minutes left, getting his final point on a free throw with 31 seconds left as Obama departed.
James, who scored 14 points in the final period, said it was “humbling” and “overwhelming” to play in front of the president.
“You have dreams about being in the NBA. You have dreams about making the game-winning shot at the buzzer. You never have dreams about having the president actually watching you play, because you don’t think it’s possible,” he said. “It’s definitely humbling, to see him here, the first lady and their kids here to watch us play. Really, it’s amazing.”
Kevin Durant, a D.C .native, added 11 and Chris Paul scored 10 for the Americans, who will leave Tuesday for Europe to complete their Olympic preparations. They face Britain in Manchester, England on Thursday before traveling to Barcelona to play Argentina and Spain.
It’s a solid exhibition schedule, and this game showed the Americans have some work to do before they get to London. They were just 1 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half and struggled offensively when forced to play in the halfcourt.
“It felt good, though, to compete and stuff like that,” Paul said. “Like we said, our defense is what’s going to win games for us and obviously we imposed that after the first quarter.”
The president met with the men’s and women’s teams, who swept the doubleheader from Brazil. He received a loud cheer when he arrived but like the U.S. players got off to a slow start. He needed a second chance in the fourth quarter before first lady Michelle Obama would grant him a kiss on the “Kiss Cam” segment, the crowd booing when she wouldn’t allow him a smooch in the second quarter.
“You know, PDA is not for everybody, you know what I mean?” Bryant said. “But he makes the important decisions, so it’s all good.”
Players were just walking onto the floor for the jump ball when Obama and Biden emerged from the tunnel to take their seats. The start was delayed while they greeted fans, and perhaps the break had the U.S. players out of rhythm at the beginning of the game.
James hit two free throws to open the scoring, but the Americans didn’t make their first basket until more than 2 ½ minutes in after falling behind 7-2. Alex Garcia had two 3-pointers and two other baskets in the early going as Brazil pushed the lead to 17-7 barely five minutes into the game.
Indicative of the way things were going for the Americans, Russell Westbrook came up with a steal near midcourt and was all alone for a layup that he somehow botched. The Brazilians scored the final four points of the period, taking a 27-17 lead on Anderson Varejao’s jumper with 15.5 seconds left.
Brazil coach Ruben Magnano said through an interpreter the goal was “not to focus on the names on the jersey and play the game, and they did it for almost 40 minutes … head to head against the USA.
“It was a very important challenge to make the team ready for the Olympics,” he added.
But the Americans got the tempo they wanted in the second, simply wrestling the ball out of Brazilian hands to create turnovers and fast breaks. A 12-0 run fueled by steals and layups turned an eight-point deficit into a 33-29 lead, and James powered to the basket for the last two baskets of the half as the Americans went into the break with a 37-32 lead.
The Americans expected and got a much tougher game than their exhibition opener, a 113-59 rout of the Dominican Republic last Thursday in Las Vegas. Brazil has loads of NBA size to exploit the Americans’ biggest weakness, with Nene of the Washington Wizards, Varejao of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Tiago Splitter of San Antonio, plus experienced guard play.
Garcia scored 14 points to lead Brazil and Varejao finished with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Marcelo Huertas had 11 points and 13 assists.
Brazil gave the U.S. its toughest game at the world basketball championship two years ago, the Americans pulling out a 70-68 victory when Leandro Barbosa’s shot from the lane bounced off the rim as time expired.
Of course, that U.S. team didn’t have James or anyone else from the team that won the 2008 Olympic gold medal and are the favorites to repeat. The Americans believe they have a better squad than four years ago and maybe even could have beaten the Dream Team, but perhaps it’s time to end that debate.
The Dream Team never found itself in a six-point game with six minutes to go, as the Americans did after Varejao tipped in a miss. The U.S. finally pulled away in the final 4 minutes, started by consecutive baskets by James, a 3-pointer and a bucket in the lane
“I think we just had a slow start, missing shots, some shots that we make every single day in practice,” center Tyson Chandler said. “But the good thing about tonight is they showed us some looks that we haven’t seen so far and we’re learning defensively from it, and we’ll make shots.”
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