WASHINGTON -- They flew overseas with the personal blessing of their president and a look that resembles no previous team of Americans in their pursuit of an Olympic gold medal in basketball. It's a team that represents the skills and style of LeBron James, who is unlike all of the other stars who have preceded him to the medal stand.
"His will to win was the most inspiring thing that we had on this team,'' said U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski after James scored 30 points on 20 shots to help beat Brazil 80-69 on Monday.
It is a case of fantastic timing that James won his first NBA championship one month ago, just in time to bridge this injured and undersized Olympic team to London. The first game was 11 days away as the buses left this downtown arena toward the airport and the overnight flight to England to continue the Americans' five-game tour of exhibitions and minicamps.
Instead of worrying about their early play that left them in a 27-17 hole to Brazil after the first quarter, the Americans have earned the sense of confidence that comes with having the best player in the world. If they're in trouble, they'll always have James. After two games it is both obvious and comforting for the U.S. that its team is an extension of LeBron.
It takes after him at both ends of the floor. When the U.S. was in trouble early, Krzyzewski inserted Russell Westbrook, who is to point guards what James is to small forwards. Westbrook disrupted the Brazilian backcourt and provided the example of how the U.S. was not only going to win this game but also fulfill its ultimate mission in London. It is going to have to attack and control every game defensively before the bigger teams are able to exploit the Americans' lack of size under the basket.
Krzyzewski insisted that Brazil's supersized trio of 6-foot-11 Nene (eight points), 6-11 Tiago Splitter (six) and 6-10 sixth man Anderson Varejao (12 points and 13 rebounds) was not beating his interior defense.
"They got through our full-court defense too quickly and caused a numerical advantage in their favor,'' Krzyzewski said, essentially admitting that they'd beaten his press, so to speak. "And once we made that correction it become a little bit more difficult for them to score.''
To say the least: In the second quarter the Brazilians committed more turnovers (12) than they attempted shots (nine), and they were outscored 20-5. Brazil scored 27 points in the opening quarter, but it needed 22 minutes, 37 seconds to score its next 28. That's because the U.S. is playing defense according to the example of LeBron, by using its athleticism to not challenge shots vertically so much as to extend the defense and pressure the ball horizontally.
A half-dozen Brazilians committed turnovers in the second quarter, and by halftime Westbrook, Paul, Kobe Bryant and Chandler combined for 10 steals. Guard Raul Neto was particularly vulnerable, surrendering four turnovers in the quarter alone. His dribble was stripped from behind by Paul, and later, when Williams was all over him in the frontcourt, the distracted Neto was set up for LeBron to blindside him and strip his dribble clean for a breakaway dunk that ended the half at 37-32 for the U.S.
President Barack Obama, his wife, Michelle, his daughter Malia and his vice president, Joe Biden, were sitting courtside when Bryant drained a three from their corner of the floor. It was another setup: Bryant bent down to tie his shoe before sprinting to half-court to force a turnover from Larry Taylor, a 31-year-old Chicagoan recently naturalized to Brazil.
For those who too easily take the gold medal for granted, this evening was defined by the president's misunderstanding of the Kiss Cam. When Michelle Obama showed up midway through the second quarter, the Kiss Cam zeroed in on her and him as the crowd roared at the JumboTron for a consummation.
"It's all for you,'' the president appeared to be saying to his wife as he hugged her, but when the Kiss Cam was turned off to enable coverage of the game to resume, the crowd responded with a kind of hysterical booing, even though in my opinion it is not so bad a thing that the president has not invested the time to understand the Kiss Cam.
On this matter I like his priorities. In fact, it would be a reason to worry if the president showed he knew all about the Kiss Cam. But it being an election year, a horde of cameramen were recalled to gather around the Obamas during a subsequent fourth-quarter timeout for a re-enactment of the Kiss Cam, for which this time they got their act together.
At halftime, Obama met with the U.S. players in their locker room.
"He was just socializing with us,'' Krzyzewski said . "I'm not sure he knew the score of the game.''
It was a five-point lead to the favor of the home team, despite the Americans' shooting 38.5 percent. Outside the paint they were a lousy 2 for 15.
"He wished us Godspeed,'' Krzyzewski said. "I said, 'You should have told them just a bit to start hitting shots.'''
There were two reasons this game wasn't closer. One was Brazil's absence of reliable ballhandlers besides point guard Marcelo Huertas (13 assists and 11 points), who has signed to play for Barcelona next season. He dribbled and decoyed as if playing with a yo-yo, and he found the backdoor cutters and trailing big men in much the same way as the current Brazilian coach Ruben Magnano was drawing it when he was in charge of Argentina's gold-medal run at the 2004 Olympics. It was during Huertas' 10 minutes of rest that the U.S. cleaned up defensively.
The other, larger reason was because of James' impact offensively. Brazil had played through Nene and Varejao to pull within 65-59 a couple of minutes before James took it upon himself to outscore Brazil 12-8 over the final 4:17. It was the kind of closeout performance that defines him now as he enters the peak years of his career. In the absence of a traditionally scoring big man, he is the biggest paint presence on this team, and its best hope when trouble comes.
At this early moment in its training, speed is the strength and weakness of the U.S. Speed creates turnovers defensively, but it also leads to mistakes at the other end, where the Americans too often play in too much of a hurry.
"It got us down and we let our offense mess with our defense early on,'' James said.
But those are the kinds of mistakes they can live with, because they have LeBron to clean them up.