US Basketball Team Beats Canada With Barack Obama on the Sidelines

LAS VEGAS — Big favorites make for big targets.

The U.S. men’s basketball team found itself in a chaotic mess as it took the court to begin its race to the Paris Olympics: Two stars were injured and missed for the opening game; a third was quickly consumed by fouls; and Grant Hill, the president of USA Basketball, had just faced tough questions about a last-minute roster move and accusations of sneaker-maker bias from a spurned NBA Finals MVP. Meanwhile, the Americans’ surprise starting lineup stumbled against a pesky rival bent on playing spoilsport for a glittering courtside group that included former President Barack Obama and dozens of hardwood legends.

The walls could easily have come crashing down around LeBron James, Stephen Curry and their national teammates, but order was quickly restored during the United States’ 86-72 victory over Canada at T-Mobile Arena on Wednesday. It was a flawed debut for the gold medal favorites, but one that should be considered reassuring given the evening’s off-court distractions, on-court sloppiness and immense expectations.

“It was a slow start, which wasn’t surprising,” coach Steve Kerr said. “You could see the rust on the offensive end. A lot of turnovers in that first half, especially. But I like the defensive intensity and the work on the glass. We had to set a tone for how we want to play, and I think we did that.”

In the hours before tipoff, USA Basketball announced that Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard would be replaced by Boston Celtics guard Derrick White on the 12-man roster. According to a statement from the program, the decision to cut Leonard was made jointly by USA Basketball, the Clippers and Leonard due to ongoing concerns over his recent knee injury. Hill said Wednesday that he and USA Basketball’s coaching staff evaluated Leonard’s play and progress during a four-day training camp before parting ways with the six-time All-Star.

“Ultimately, he was sent home,” Hill said, noting the arduous logistics of the month-long Olympic run. “This is a sprint, not a buildup. We were open, honest and understanding through it all. Your hearts go out to him. We have to do what’s best for the team, protect the team and give ourselves the best chance to succeed. We just felt we had to pivot. We tried everything. We gave it a valiant effort.”

USA Basketball believed White, a reliable perimeter shooter and capable defender, could fill the same role in Paris that he did during the Celtics’ championship run. His case was helped by his previous experience playing in the 2019 FIBA ​​World Cup and his availability on short notice. The 30-year-old guard is expected to join his new teammates in Abu Dhabi, the next stop on their five-game exhibition slate.

Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, however, seemed unhappy with the decision. Despite winning NBA Finals MVP and Eastern Conference Finals MVP, Brown was passed over by USA Basketball, even though three of his teammates — Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday and White — are headed to Paris.

Brown had previously criticized Nike, the official apparel supplier of USA Basketball, and its founder Phil Knight after the company’s decision to part ways with then-Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving amid an anti-Semitism controversy in 2022. On Wednesday, Brown suggested on social media that Nike was behind his ouster: “Nike, this is what we do?” Brown posted.

Hill said that while USA Basketball is “proud of our partners,” his focus was on “putting together a team that complements each other, fits together and gives us the best opportunity for success.”

“One of the hardest things is taking people off the list that I’m a fan of and want to see all season and the playoffs,” he added. “Whatever theories there are, they’re just that.”

Without Leonard and Kevin Durant, who is still nursing a minor calf injury, Kerr started James, Curry, Holiday, Devin Booker and Joel Embiid against Canada. That lineup, designed to counter Canadian guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray, went 0 of 6 from the field and fell into an 11-1 hole. James and Anthony Davis were both fouled hard by the Canadians, who made up for their lack of size by forcing turnovers and playing aggressively.

Embiid went down midway through the third quarter of his national team debut. The 2023 NBA MVP left with just five points and six rebounds in 12 minutes, a troubling start for a player central to the Americans’ ability to compete against international stars like Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Wembanyama.

“This is my first time in FIBA, so I have to get used to it,” Embiid said. “Especially for big players, as soon as you try to be physical, you get punished. Tonight was one of those nights. I’m a quick learner. I’ll adapt.”

Curry helped ease the pressure by making a three-pointer midway through the first quarter, and Anthony Edwards came out of the blocks to lead the second unit and help the United States secure a 41-33 halftime lead. The Canadians didn’t put up much of a fight in the third quarter, as the Americans gradually capitalized on their talent and depth advantages. Curry and James scored a lob that drew a loud applause from more than 20,000 fans, and Edwards finished with 13 points to lead all scorers.

“There’s a temptation to delay every possession and overthink it because everybody can make a play,” said Curry, who added 12 points and three assists. “That first unit, we struggled with that. Once we got settled, everybody got more comfortable as we got deeper into the game.”

Obama cheered all night from a courtside seat near the television crew, and dozens of former USA Basketball players — including Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Cheryl Miller and Lynette Woodard — were honored at midfield during stoppages in play.

With his team shooting just 7-of-33 (21.2 percent) from outside and losing ground, Canada Coach Jordi Fernandez rested his starters for the fourth quarter. As the American stars greeted the crowd after beating their neighbors to the north, the arena’s DJ indulged in a victory lap by playing Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us” — a venomous track aimed at Canadian rapper Drake.

While many in the crowd sang along, James and Curry were in a serious and reflective mood now that their Olympic run had officially begun. Both stars praised a motivational speech Obama gave to their team Tuesday night: James said the former president was “one of the greatest people this world has ever seen” with a “vision, mindset and words [that] always resonate,” while Curry described getting “goosebumps” when Obama discussed the unifying power of sports.

At the end of a long and complicated day, a simple mission emerged.

“He wants us to win,” Curry said of Obama. “That’s what the United States is known for.”

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