LONDON — The hiccups outnumbered the highlights, and for a while the U.S. racked up fouls faster than points.
The opener wasn’t artistic.
However, it was enough – easily enough.
Kevin Durant scored 22 points in his Olympic debut, Kevin Love added 14 and LeBron James had eight assists as the American men’s basketball team overcame some sloppy moments with a 98-71 win Sunday over France.
“We know everybody else expects us to win by 40 points,” said Carmelo Anthony. “For us, a win’s a win. We expect every game to be like this one.”
Seeking a second straight gold medal to match the redemptive one they captured in Beijing four years ago, the Americans expected a tough test from a French team featuring San Antonio guard Tony Parker and five other NBA players. And although the U.S. was never in real trouble – it only led 22-21 after one quarter – there were enough flaws (14 turnovers, 26 fouls) to keep coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff busy and this superstar-laden squad from feeling too comfortable.
“It wasn’t perfect,” said James, who only took six shots while setting up his teammates. “We’ve still got room for improvement. We had too many turnovers, too many fouls and we had a couple of defensive rebounds we could have come up with. But overall, we played a pretty good game for as close to 40 minutes as possible.”
Kobe Bryant had said this team could beat the 1992 Dream Team that changed international hoops forever at the Barcelona Games. That matchup is mythical, but the London Games aren’t and this U.S. team will have to play much better in upcoming games if it plans to maintain American dominance.
“We know we have to keep going for 40 minutes and play hard,” said Bryant, who only played 12 minutes.
Afterward, Parker, who nearly missed these games after undergoing surgery for a freak eye injury, didn’t want to concede anything to the Americans. But when asked if the U.S. team can be beat, he took a contemplative pause before responding.
“They’re going to be very, very tough to beat,” Parker said.
At times, the Americans’ offense was erratic. The U.S missed its first six 3-pointers and settled too quickly for jump shots instead of driving to the basket. But France wasn’t able to capitalize as the U.S. turned up its pressure on defense and forced 18 turnovers.
With first lady Michelle Obama on hand to cheer on the U.S., Durant, Anthony and Tyson Chandler added nine rebounds apiece for the Americans, who will next play Tuesday against Tunisia, beaten 60-56 by Nigeria in the tournament opener.
As they left the floor, the U.S. players stopped to hug Mrs. Obama, who can report back to her commander in chief husband that his favorite team has taken its first step toward gold.
Parker, playing with goggles to protect a surgically repaired left eye, scored 10 points but France fell to 0-5 in Olympic competition against the USA. Ali Traore scored 12 points to lead France, which got few uncontested looks from the outside and missed 20 of 22 3-pointers.
“They pressured us from the start until the end,” said France coach Vincent Collet.
With the U.S. leading 52-36 at halftime, Durant opened the second half with a 3-pointer, Bryant dropped one from long range and after James dunked an alley-oop pass from Deron Williams, the Americans led 64-43.
Au revoir, France.
The U.S. team’s lead ballooned to 78-51 after three quarters, allowing Krzyzewski to rest Bryant, James and Durant for most of the fourth quarter. With the game well in hand, Krzyzewski even gave 19-year-old Anthony Davis, the top pick in June’s NBA draft, his first taste of Olympic play.
Durant had struggled to score during a recent exhibition tour, prompting James to give his close friend and teammate a pep talk.
“I told K.D. to be himself,” James said. “We need the K.D. who scores. We don’t need the K.D. who defers.”
Unlike his peers, Krzyzewski has the luxury of a deep bench and he was forced to go it early and often in the first half, when the Americans got into four trouble. They were called for 18 personals and complained about some of the calls. Anthony and Russell Westbrook spent the final six minutes of the second quarter on the bench after picking up their third fouls.
“There were a lot of calls that didn’t seem right,” Anthony said. “One time down the floor they called it this way and one time they called it that way.”
Along with the questionable calls, the Americans took some curious shots early on, and when France’s Yannick Bokolo drained a 3 in the final second of the first quarter, France was within 22-21.
Nicolas Batum, who plays for Portland, thought the U.S. might “panic.”
But James opened the second quarter with a 3, the U.S. quickly went on an 11-0 run and by midway through the third, Bryant and Co. restored order.
As the U.S. reserves scored on dunk after dunk in the fourth, James and Bryant lounged on the bench.
They know there will be tougher games ahead.
The first one, though, was over.
“We knew this game wasn’t going to be easy,” Durant said. “We know even if we don’t start well we can finish.
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