Commentary

LeBron sets the tone

Facing first true exhibition test against Brazil, Team USA overcomes a slow start

Originally Published: July 16, 2012
By Jared Zwerling | ESPNNewYork.com

WASHINGTON -- It was only a matter of time before Team USA was challenged on the court.

That came Monday night in the nation's capital in only its second exhibition game, with President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle, daughter Malia and Vice President Joe Biden looking on from courtside. After the Americans routed the Dominican Republic 113-59 on Thursday night in Las Vegas, they slugged through an 80-69 victory against the big and physical Brazilians at the Verizon Center.

"It was our first real test," Team USA center Tyson Chandler said.

LeBron James offered a similar description.

"This was a big test for us," he said. "Just from a standpoint of playing against a team that had mostly bigs that could post up, that could set screens and was very active out there."

In the first quarter, Team USA didn't look ready for what was to come -- maybe believing every team was far inferior like the Dominican Republic. But if that mindset existed, it was erased very early on. Brazil jumped out with a high motor on both ends of the court, winning the rebounding margin (12-8) and then pushing the ball quickly up the court to find small forward Alex Garcia in the corner for two 3-pointers. Team USA found itself getting dusted, mostly because the players were rushing -- and missing -- outside shots and not concentrating enough on defense. At the end of one, Brazil was up 27-17.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesLeBron James led Team USA past Brazil and his former Cavaliers teammate Anderson Varejao, who had a game-high 13 rebounds.
That's when Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski told his team that whatever happened on offense, it had to focus on making stops.

"I liked the mental toughness of our team in that we kept reminding them we're not doing it on offense, so don't let it affect defense," he said. "And I thought it didn't. To win a game like this when we're not hitting is a good thing for us."

Team USA stole the momentum in the second quarter, sucking the wind out of the Brazilians' transition game and forcing them into more half-court sets. That's where Team USA made nothing easy for Brazil's pick-and-roll game and became a pack of thieves, led by Chris Paul (four steals) and Russell Westbrook (three steals).

Then, once Team USA had possession of the ball, James heated up his championship-like competitive fire, scoring seven points in the period. He said that he wanted to make his mark in multiple ways -- in the paint, driving and posting up -- to get his teammates more into the flow of the action. From there, Team USA kept grinding away and used its versatility and athleticism -- its two best attributes -- to overwhelm the more position-defined Brazilians.

After the game, Krzyzewski showed the utmost respect for James, who scored a game-high 30 points while pitching in six rebounds and four steals.

"LeBron played great," he said. "I think LeBron is not just a great player; LeBron's a great competitor. When he goes to the basket, he doesn't get the call even when he finishes because he's so strong. He goes through contact. His will to win was the most inspiring thing that we had on our team. It was a very, very competitive game by our best player."

Although James is clearly the star on the team -- like Michael Jordan was on the Dream Team -- the team learned lessons Monday night, including not taking any opponent lightly and bringing it defensively right from the start and for four quarters. Krzyzewski added, "If we win the gold medal, it will be because of how well we played defensively."

James agreed.

"That's where we're going to make our mark," he said. "We need to defend, we need to rebound and we need to move the ball offensively and get good shots. I felt like we got great shots tonight -- we didn't make a lot of them -- but we got great looks. But defensively, we picked it up, and that's what it's all about."

Brazil was an important test, as Chandler and James put it, because Team USA will play a similar opponent in Spain on July 24 in Barcelona. Although Brazil featured Nene and Anderson Varejao, Spain features the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc. Many international hoops experts agree that if Team USA wants to win gold, it will have to get by Spain first -- likely its toughest competition when medal play begins in London.

After Monday's experience, you can bet that game July 24 now has double the number of circles around it on the schedule.

"It's on us to kind of learn from [the Brazil game]," said Kobe Bryant, whose team was outrebounded 38-30. "And when we face the next team with size, we'll make our adjustments."