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ISTANBUL -- Wouldn't have mattered if they had lost.
Wouldn't have mattered if Leandro Barbosa's last-second shot went in and forced overtime.
Doesn't really matter much that they won.
What matters is what Team USA learned about itself in Monday night's thrilling 70-68 victory over Brazil.
And the lesson the players took back to their hotel was that even the tough ones can still go their way.
Clearly, they still have plenty to learn. And the good thing for Team USA is it has a full week to work on what needs to be worked on before it plays another team anywhere near the caliber of Brazil.
"This game right here was an eye-opener, where we know that teams are really coming here to try to win this tournament, and we're here to do the same," said Derrick Rose, who was a big part of the problem for an American team that was nearly undone by its own mistakes, the most egregious of which was trying to play too fast in transition when the circumstances called for it to slow things down, relax and show a little poise.
The two teams combined to score only 49 points in the second half, and both scored just nine points in the final quarter.
The end of the game was riveting, with Brazilian captain Marcelo Huertas going to the foul line with 3.5 seconds left with a chance to tie the game by making two free throws. But he missed the first, then intentionally missed the second by throwing it hard off the left front of the rim. Huertas mmediately ran to the spot where he expected the ball to carom, which was exactly where it did.
After grabbing the offensive rebound, Huertas fed Leandro Barbosa under the basket. But tightly defended by Kevin Love, Barbosa put a little too much spin on his shot from almost right under the basket, and it spun off the rim at the buzzer to give the Americans a victory that all but assures they will finish atop Group B. (Their remaining pool play games are against Iran and Tunisia on Wednesday and Thursday.)
"We've only been together for a few weeks, and you don't know until you're in these situations if we're going to have the character to win when we can't hit a shot, when someone's playing such good defense, and tonight I found that out," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "So that's a good thing, a really good thing to find out about our team."
Krzyzewski had told the players to expect an atmosphere and a competitive spirit akin to what they'd expect from a Game 7 in an NBA playoff series, and it was kind of like that.
The difference, however, was that this game was still a preliminary round game. And the truth of the matter is that the real pressure games won't come until next week, when the single-elimination knockout round of 16 begins.
"Adversity makes a family tougher," Lamar Odom said. "You have to go through some things in life. It was good for us to have a challenge and be pushed to the limit."
The Americans saw a different style from this opponent than what they've seen from the European teams they have been playing throughout their exhibition schedule and the first two games of this tournament. The Brazilians were much more of an athletic team, did not rely too heavily on the pick-and-roll and played a brand of gambling defense that more often than not made the Americans look sloppy.
Marcus Vinicius hit a 3-pointer as the 24-second clock expired to make it 62-62 with just over eight minutes left, and the Americans scored the next four points on two bad offensive possessions followed by two good ones to go ahead by four.
They then started making mistakes again -- Rose throwing an alley-oop pass to no one, Chauncey Billups missing a chippy underneath, Kevin Durant (team-high 27 points in 39 1/2 minutes) getting his shot blocked by Vinicius, Odom stepping out of bounds as he tried to drive past Tiago Splitter -- but for the most part they were mistakes made while playing in their half-court offense.
And each time they stumbled, they made up for it with a defensive stop.
"We just stayed poised, everything was cool. We relaxed and let the defense win the game for us, and we did," Odom said. "Play with energy, and play smart, take your time and we'll be all right."
Rose's two free throws with 3:54 left were followed by six missed shots from the Brazilians (who went 7-for-11 on 3s in the first half to hold a 46-43 lead at intermission), but the Americans couldn't pull away. Billups was called for a charge (he seemed to think it was a flop), Durant was whistled for the type of FIBA traveling violation these Americans are still trying to get used to, Odom missed a layup and Rose lost the ball off his foot out of bounds. And when Durant goaltended a shot by reaching through the inside of the cylinder in an effort to block a shot, Brazil was down just 68-66 with 1:04 left.
Billups scored on a driving layup while closely guarded with 51 seconds remaining, but Barbosa answered right back. And when Billups missed a 3 with 14 seconds remaining and Brazil rebounded, the Brazilians had a chance to go for the tie or the win.
They got neither, and Krzyzewski congratulated his team afterward for persevering through such a frustrating but competitive evening in a game in which neither team ever held a double-digit lead.
"They were the South American champions, they were 9-0 and won a tournament in Puerto Rico last year with the same team they have for this tournament, so they're seasoned together," Krzyzewski said, although he omitted the fact that Anderson Varejao (ankle) was out after being told by team doctors earlier in the day that he'll have to wait two more days to make his debut in this tournament.
"And I thought our defense, we only allowed 22 points in the second half. And when your offense isn't going very well, to still play great defense shows that you have great character. And I told them I thought they showed the character to win, because it was not easy to win tonight. They had to do it through some really tough things."
If they can do the same next week when the games really matter, it'll be meaningful.
For now, it was another night to learn. And Team USA now realizes, even more than it did before, that this thing will be won with character as much as anything else.
"This is a game we needed," Durant said.