LONDON — If beating France by 27 points is “less than stellar,” as I’ve read more than a few times today, then there is no margin of victory short of 100 that will impress the critics observing the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team tonight against Tunisia.
They are already 55-point favorites against the African champions. But even if they won by 155 points, someone would find fault in their performance.
So it goes for the U.S. Team in this or most any other international competition when a roster stocked with NBA All-Stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony and others are present.
This is the thankless duty those superstars signed up for when they committed themselves to the USA Basketball program. And even though they won’t admit it, there has to be a part of them that enjoys showing up to every gym walking the tightrope between the Avengers and the villains on a nightly basis.
You know the original Dream Team relished and even embraced that role 20 years ago in Barcelona, it’s part of what made their gold medal jaunt the cosmic ride we all remember two decades later.
Bryant’s been doing it for years with the Los Angeles Lakers, showing up in hostile arenas where the fans don’t know whether cheer or boo him. James had joined in the fun the past two years in Miami. (It’s an edge that has produced championships for both of them and it might be god to rub a little of that off on Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and some of these other youngsters on this current team.)
So why should it be any different at the Olympic Basketball Arena tonight …
— FOURTH QUARTER —
0.0: 110-63 is the final. The second unit saves the day with Melo and Love leading the way with 16 points each. Durant added 13, Davis chipped in with a spectacular 12, he was a perfect 5-for-5 from the floor, and Westbrook tossed in 11 for good measure. Next up Nigeria Thursday night, after a day off Wednesday.
4:15: Corner 3 from Love, 102-56. That ought to do it!
6:48: Lebron is on the bench stretched out, Davis knocks down two more free throws (10 points and four rebounds in no-time) and the lead is a hefty 43 points. Still no “USA” chants, though.
8:05: Love is apparently fine and back in the game. We’ll get an explanation afterwards, but you know there had to be some serious concern for a few minutes over there.
8:57: Harden drains a corner 3-pointer. If this beating is good for anything, it’ll be for getting Harden’s confidence back in his shot. He struggled in The Finals and throughout the exhibition portion of the summer with this team. But they’re going to need him to heat up between now and the end of this trip. 90-48 U.S.
9:21: Durant loves throwing oops to Davis. Must be a tall and skinny guy thing. 87-48 U.S.
— THIRD QUARTER —
3.2: Just in case anyone was wondering about the reinforcements, in case Love isn’t available against Nigeria Thursday night, Davis jams home another oop, this time from about 12-feet out, and with one hand, as he was flying backwards in the air. 85-47.
23.4: LeBron drains a wing 3. He hasn’t forced anything since this team gathered in Las Vegas. Wearing his championship gloss rather well, don’t you think?
1:01: Davis with another oop, this one from Durant for the 80-44 lead. He’s having Kentucky flashbacks now.
1:47: Harden finally drains a 3-pointer. Love has ice on that right knee. 78-43.
2:28: Anthony Davis gets in on the alley-oop action with a nice one from Paul for a 75-41 lead.
3:53: Iguodala’s put back slam off a Durant miss pushes the lead to 71-36. Bench roars its approval, Love too. He sat back down and continued to adjust the sleeve on his right knee and appears to be fine … for now. Bench is chuckling and relaxed. This is an exhibition game.
5:08: After a ridiculous tomahawk dunk on a break from Westbrook the ‘USA” chants crank up again. But all eyes remain on Love on that bench. He’s moving his leg and seems to be okay. But he hasn’t stood up yet. You know the Timberwolves’ front office is scrambling to their phones trying to get an immediate update.
5:51: Love lands awkwardly after making a layup in traffic and limps to the bench holding his right knee. Not a good sign for a U.S. Team already low on big men. Stay tuned. The U.S. lead is 65-37.
6:31: 14-2 U.S. run fueled by Melo!
8:20 Second unit has the lead up to 55-33. The U.S. team cancelled Wednesday’s practice hours before they showed up here tonight. Should have saved that news until after the game.
9:37: Westbrook with the layup and foul, 49-33 U.S. And I have to commend Coach K for pulling this age-old trick out of his coaching bag. I know it seems a bit elementary, but sometimes it’s needed. The cute stuff and acting like you are too cool to put your foot on another team’s neck is what landed Coach K the job in the first place. I covered the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis. They got complacent, the NBA stars that were in the system then, and the world kicked cracked them right between the eyes.
10:00: Second unit to start the second half. Message sent!
— HALFTIME —
Guessing that halftime speech was short and to the point, you go ahead and fill in the blanks yourself …
Tunisia is 7-for-16 from deep and has been the beneficiary of some sloppy play (seven turnovers) from the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.S. is just 2-for-12 from beyond the 3-point line and ignoring the fact that they are literally unstoppable when they attack the basket. Sound familiar?
— SECOND QUARTER —
0.0: Harden’s halfcourt heave off the glass after the buzzer delights but doesn’t come close to counting. U.S. leads 46-33 at halftime and actually hears some boos as they leave the floor. Told you, the lead needed to be 50 to satisfy most folks. And you better believe the original Dream Team would have been up by … haha. Never mind!
5.7: Chris Paul picks up his third foul on another charge. Not the sort of performance he was hoping for. But unlike the point guards we’ve seen all day, the ball hasn’t been in his hands a ton tonight. Other teams put the ball in the hands of their point guards relentlessly. The U.S. doesn’t play that way, not with so many of these stars used to freelancing the way they do.
2:08: Durant’s 3-pointer provides another double-digit lead, 42-30.
2:43: James Harden‘s eruo-step and drive for a layup pushes the U.S. lead back to 39-30. But their effort is beyond lackluster tonight. This is exactly what Coach K talked about yesterday … “you have a performance to give.” Well, his team is not living up to its own hype tonight. They’re clearly playing at less than full tilt. Human nature? I think so. There is certainly no sense of urgency to dispense with a Tunisia team that did not come here for autographs.
3:31: Kechrid with another 3-pointer cuts it to 35-30. The U.S. better listen to Coach K and “perform.”
4:35: Ben Romdhane with a dunk brings Tunisia to within striking distance at 33-27.
5:50: Ben Romdhane is a baller. Goes through LeBron for the layup and the foul. misses the FT but Tunisia gets the long rebound. 33-25 U.S.
6:13: LeBron runs the floor and delights the crowd with a tomahawk jam off of a pretty feed from Durant. 33-23 U.S.
6:56: Another 3-pointer for Kechrid (after his wicked ball-fake) gets the crowd going, and cuts the U.S. lead to 29-23.
7:23: A 30-footer off the glass for Marouan Kechrid tops all of Tunisia’s previous 3-pointers.
8:04: Tunisian 7-footer Salah Mejri had his dunk attempt pinned between the rim and the backboard by James and barked at the official about it all the way down the floor. Well, until he got the get-back block on Durant at the rim on the next possession.
8:49: Romdhane Ben scores on a perfect pass (turnover actually) from Westbrook to end the drought for Tunisia. They needed that one, 26-17 U.S.
9:13: Westbrook knocks down the pull-up jumper, 26-15 and the second unit smells blood on their current 13-0 run.
9:43: No sign of that inner villain from the first unit for the U.S. But Carmelo Anthony and the second unit have embraced the dark side. Melo’s 3-pointer makes it 23-16.
— FIRST QUARTER —
0.0: Well, the suspense was fun while it lasted.
31.2: Russell Westbrook goes coast-to-coast and finger rolls the bunny for a 21-15 U.S. lead that serves as the final count after the first 10 minutes.
1:13: Andre Iguodala‘s put-back dunk of a Love miss on a corner 3 gives the U.S. the 18-15 lead, making sure we avoid an international crisis (had the U.S. been trailing that deep into this game).
2:39: The U.S. vowed not to take it easy on Tunisia, but they are clearly playing without the sort of energy and tenacity, particularly on the defensive end, that you know they would have come out with against a more formidable opponent. 15-12 little guys, by the way.
4:03: Tunisia’s 13-12 lead is no mirage. That’s why Coach K has five subs headed into the game.
7:04: And now a coast-to-cast, fast break dunk on Kobe from Ben Romdhane … priceless.
7:28: Move over Rzig, Makram Ben Romdhane wants in on the Q rating action with a 3-pointer of his own.
8:49: Amine Rzig is already a hero in his native Tunisia, he is the captain of the team. But draining that 3-pointer to give his team its first (and perhaps only) lead of the night has to do wonders for his Q rating back home.
9:20 on game clock: Kobe makes up for that 3-pointer he jacked up 28 seconds earlier with a pretty reverse baseline layup.
— PREGAME —
Justin Gatlin and other members of the U.S. Men’s Track and Field team make their way up the stands to catch their first live glimpse of new-fangled Dream Team. Guess we don’t get any First Family attendees tonight.