USA Basketball beat Canada with Barack Obama sitting on the court

LAS VEGAS — More options make bigger goals.

As the U.S. men’s basketball team took the court to begin its run to the Paris Olympics, it was mired in chaotic chaos: two stars were injured and missing in action for the opening exhibition; A third was quickly swallowed up by the wrong problem; And USA Basketball Director Grant Hill faced tough questions about the NBA Finals MVP’s last-minute roster change and allegations of sneaker company bias. Meanwhile, the Americans’ surprising starting line-up stumbled against a pesky rival intent on playing spoiler in front of a glitzy courtside panel that included former President Barack Obama and dozens of die-hard legends.

The walls could have easily crumbled around LeBron James, Stephen Curry and their national teammates, but order was quickly restored during the U.S.’s 86-72 victory over Canada on Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena. It was a flawed debut for the gold-medal favourites, but one that should be taken as consolation given the night’s off-court distractions, on-court laziness and overwhelming expectations.

“It’s been a slow start, which is no surprise,” coach Steve Kerr said. “You can see the rust on the offensive end. A lot of turnovers in that first half, especially. But I like the defensive intensity and mirror work. We had to set the tone for how we wanted to play and I think we did that.

Hours before tipoff, USA Basketball announced that Boston Celtics guard Derrick White would replace Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard on the 12-man roster. According to the program’s statement, the decision to fire Leonard was reached jointly by USA Basketball, the Clippers and Leonard because of ongoing concerns over his recent knee injury. Hill said Wednesday that he and USA Basketball coaches evaluated Leonard’s play and progress during the four-day training camp before parting ways with the six-time All-Star.

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“Eventually, he was sent home,” Hill said, noting the taxing logistics of the month-long Olympic run. “It was a sprint, not a ramp-up. We were open, honest and understanding. Your heart goes out to him. We have to do what’s best for the team, protect the team and give ourselves the best chance to win. We felt we had to lead. We all tried. We gave it a valiant try.

USA Basketball believes White, a reliable outside shooter and skilled defender, can fill the same role he played in Paris during the Celtics’ championship run. His case is 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, was unhappy with the outcome. Despite winning NBA Finals MVP and Eastern Conference Finals MVP honors, Brown was passed over by USA Basketball and three of his teammates — Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday and White — headed to Paris.

Brown previously criticized USA Basketball’s official apparel supplier Nike and its founder Bill Knight following the company’s decision to part ways with then-Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving in 2022 following an anti-Semitic controversy. On Wednesday, Brown pointed out on social media “Nike, what are we doing?” Brown posted.

USA Basketball is “proud of its partners,” Hill said, adding that his focus was “putting together a team that complements each other, fits together and gives us the best opportunity to win.”

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“One of the hardest things is leaving people off the roster that I’m a fan of and look forward to watching throughout the season and the playoffs,” he added. “Whatever theories are out there, they are just that.”

Care, who continues to nurse a minor calf injury and is without Leonard and Kevin Durant, started James, Curry, Holiday, Devin Booker and Joel Embiid against Canada. The lineup, designed to counter Canadian guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamaal Murray, fell into an 11-1 hole after going 0 for 6 from the field. Both James and Anthony Davis faced tough fouls from the Canadiens, who made up for their deficits by forcing turnovers and playing aggressively.

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

“It’s my first time at FIFA, so I have to get used to it,” Embiid said. “Especially for adults, once you try to be physical, you get punished for it. Tonight was one of those nights. I’m a quick learner. I’ll fix it.”

Curry helped ease the pressure by hitting a three-pointer midway through the first quarter, and Anthony Edwards led the second unit with a breakaway to help the U.S. take a 41-33 halftime lead. The Canadians never mounted a counterpunch in the third quarter as the Americans gradually pressed their skill and depth advantage. Curry and James connected on a lob that drew loud applause from more than 20,000 fans, and Edwards scored 13 points to lead all scorers.

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

Obama cheered on television crews from courtside seats throughout the night, and dozens of former NBA players — including Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Cheryl Miller and Lynette Woodard — were recognized at midcourt. During pauses in play.

With his team shooting just 7 for 33 (21.2 percent) from the outside, Canada coach Jordy Fernandez rested his starters throughout the fourth quarter. As the American stars acknowledged the crowd after sending off their neighbors to the north, the arena’s disc jockey took a victory lap by playing Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us” — a nasty 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 was officially underway. Both stars praised Obama’s motivational speech to his team Tuesday night: James said the former president was “one of the greatest men this world has ever seen.” [that] Always resonate,” while Curry described getting “goosebumps” when Obama discussed the unifying power of sports.

A simple task rises to the surface at the end of a long and complicated day.

“He wants us to succeed,” Curry said of Obama. “That’s what America is known for.”

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