CHICAGO – They came for one of Chicago’s own and got wowed by another.
As important as the exhibition game might have been to USA Basketball and the Brazilian national team for all the expected team-building and measuring-stick reasons heading toward the 2014 FIBA World Cup tournament, Team USA’s 95-78 victory at United Center was mostly a framework for the fans to do some star gazing.
The brightest lights were on Derrick Rose, the Chicago Bulls’ MVP point guard who is starting his second comeback in as many years from season-ending knee surgeries. As frustrated as some Bulls fans had grown with Rose during his extended layoffs – Rose had played only six games on the UC court since April 2012 – the folks who packed the joint Saturday night flexed oohs, aahs and MVP chants that were no more rusty than the hometown kid’s game.
Anthony Davis crashed their little party, though, turning in the most impressive performance of the night. Like Rose, Davis grew up in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Unlike Rose, whose high school (Simeon) is one of the city’s basketball powerhouses, Davis’ Perspectives Charter School didn’t even have its own gym.
But the New Orleans Pelicans’ 21-year-old center made United Center his own against Brazil’s imposing front line, scoring 20 points on 10-for-16 shooting, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking five shots.
Local fans who’ve paid attention to Davis’ career – his single season and NCAA championship at Kentucky, his No. 1 draft selection in 2012 by New Orleans – might have been just as hungry to see him play. Davis missed the game in Chicago as a rookie while recovering from a concussion, then sat out the Pelicans’ visit last season with a broken hand.
So this was Davis’ first game back home since high school and he put on a show. He had several throw-down dunks battling Brazil’s NBA bigs Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Nene. He ran the court with ferocity and, in the second half, turned in two of his most impressive plays defensively. On one, he blocked a driving foe’s shot, saved the ball from falling out of bounds and pumped his fist when James Harden finished at the other end with a fast-break layup. On another, Davis crashed over a woman in the first row, catching one foot on the chairs and taking impact where, er, men don’t like to take impact.
“I’m good, I’m fine,” Davis said afterward. “I hope she’s fine, because that was 240 pounds coming right at her. That’s the type of plays we need, hustle plays, and that really got us going.”
Said Rose: ” ‘Ant’ played great. That’s what we need from him. We didn’t know how he was going to play with the bigs that they had, because he’s kind of smaller than they are weight-wise. But he came out and hooped.”
Rose’s numbers were more modest: seven points, just five field-goal attempts, four boards, two assists and three turnovers in 24 minutes. He even missed a rushing, two-handed dunk in the second quarter.
But his two buckets were memorable. The first came just before the half ended, when he streaked downcourt and put up a running bank shot. In the third quarter, Rose got isolated on the left wing against Brazil’s Raul Neto and spun him silly, crossing over and changing hands for a lefty layup. Both were flashes of what Chicago fans remember and look forward to again.
That one normally would have brought Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau to his feet, if he hadn’t been planted on the USA bench as an assistant on Mike Krzyzewski‘s staff. Still, it – and Rose’s overall play since the first workouts in Las Vegas three weeks ago – had Thibs excited. Much of the NBA is pulling for Rose to stay healthy in 2014-15 but no one more than his head coach.
“He’s steadily getting better,” Thibodeau said. “This is the perfect setting for him. I think his first [USA] experience in 2010 was a springboard to his MVP season. It was so positive for him. And I know how important it is to him.
“He went through the comeback last year and I think he learned a lot from it. And I love the way he’s playing. He’s finding the rhythm of the game. He’s playing to his strengths and he’s recognizing who’s on the floor with him and what their strengths are. He made several good plays, particularly against the zone in the fourth quarter. He showed great patience.
“He’s shaking some rust off. His explosiveness is back. He’s playing well off the ball. I think he’s in a really good place. He’s prepared himself extremely well. It’s unfortunate what he’s gone through, but that adversity has made him a lot stronger.”
The first tuneup game provided a baseline for the USA team, with Krzyzewski most satisfied with the effort and the defense. His squad led by 14 at the end of the first quarter, settled for jump shots and let the lead slip to just two in the second. It was 68-63 through three quarters, after which the home team pulled away.
Davis’ production, on an every-night basis, might spoil the USA coaches. Then again, their team might need it, given the absence of bigs such as Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard. DeMarcus Cousins sat out Saturday’s game with a bruised knee and Kevin Durant, who at least has length, withdrew from the competition last week.
Davis worked himself into the game offensively after a poor shooting start. “Kyrie [Irving] asked me, ‘Are you going to stop shooting the ball because you missed three jump shots?’ ” Davis said. “I told him no. We came out and ran a play for me and made the first one, and he said, ‘That’s all you needed.’ Then I hit the next three or four, whatever.”
Not that Krzyzewski needed any convincing.
“He’s one of the best players in the NBA,” the Duke University coach said. “Anthony is one of the emerging stars. We hope that, like what happened to a lot of those guys in 2010, will happen to him in this competition. Where we just watch what should be kind of a storied career form.”
That’s when the native Chicagoan in Krzyzewski seeped out, as he played to the home media. “Another great guy,” he said of Davis. “You talk about these two Chicago guys, he and Derrick. The best guys, easy to coach, team guys. Dreams to coach, both those guys.”
Said Rose, all smiles at the end: “I probably won’t get any sleep tonight. I’m excited for the city.”
The city is excited back. And New Orleans should be too.