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LAS VEGAS – Clear favorites are big goals.

The U.S. men’s national basketball team found itself in a chaotic mess heading into the Paris Olympics: Two stars were injured and missing the opening game, a third was quickly plagued by foul trouble, and USA Basketball director Grant Hill was facing tough questions about a last-minute roster change and allegations of sneaker-maker bias from a snubbed NBA Finals MVP. Meanwhile, the Americans’ surprise starting lineup stumbled out of the gate against a pesky rival that was looking to play spoilsport in front of a glamorous courtside crowd that included former President Barack Obama and dozens of basketball legends.

The walls around LeBron James, Stephen Curry and their national team colleagues could easily have crumbled, but order was quickly restored in the USA’s 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 viewed as reassuring given the off-court distractions, on-court sloppiness and enormous expectations.

“It was a slow start, which was not surprising,” coach Steve Kerr said. “You could see the rust on offense. There were a lot of turnovers, especially in the first half. But I love the intensity of the defense and the work at the basket. We had to set a tone of how we want to play, and I think we did that.”

In the hours before the game began, USA Basketball announced that Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard would be replaced on the 12-man roster by Boston Celtics guard Derrick White. According to the program’s statement, the decision to remove Leonard from the roster was made jointly by USA Basketball, the Clippers and Leonard due to ongoing concerns about his recent knee injury. Hill said Wednesday that he and the USA Basketball 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, referring to the grueling logistics of the month-long Olympic race. “This is a sprint, not a warm-up. We were open, honest and understanding the whole time. I feel sorry for him. We have to do what’s best for the team, protect the team and give ourselves the best chance to win. We just felt like we needed to pivot. We all tried. We tried valiantly.”

USA Basketball believed White, a reliable long-range shooter and skilled defender, could fill the same role in Paris that he did during the Celtics’ championship run. His previous experience at the 2019 FIBA ​​World Cup and his availability on short notice worked in his favor. The 30-year-old guard is expected to join his new teammates in Abu Dhabi, the next stop on their five-game exhibition series.

Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, however, seemed unhappy with the decision. Despite being voted both 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 going to Paris.

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

Hill said that while USA Basketball is “proud of its partners,” its focus has been on “building a team that complements each other, fits together and gives us the best chance of success.”

“One of the hardest things is cutting guys from the roster that I’m a fan of and enjoy watching throughout the season and the playoffs,” he added. “Whatever theories there are, they’re just theories.”

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

Embiid was ejected for a foul midway through the third quarter in his debut for the national team. The 2023 NBA MVP left the game with just five points and six rebounds in 12 minutes, a worrying start for a player central to the Americans’ ability to compete with 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 with the big guys, as soon as you try to play physical, you get punished for it. Tonight was one of those nights. I’m a quick learner. I’ll adapt.”

Curry helped relieve the pressure by hitting a three-pointer midway through the first quarter, and Anthony Edwards came out firing to lead the second unit and help the United States take a 41-33 lead into halftime. The Canadians were unable to counterattack much in the third quarter as the Americans gradually capitalized on their talent and depth advantages. Curry and James hit a lob that drew loud cheers from more than 20,000 fans, and Edwards finished the game with 13 points, making him the leading scorer.

“It’s tempting to delay and overthink every possession because anybody can make a play,” said Curry, who had 12 points and three assists. “We struggled the first session. Once we settled in, everyone got more comfortable as we got further into the game.”

Obama cheered throughout the night from a courtside seat near the television broadcast crew, and dozens of former U.S. basketball players – including Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Cheryl Miller and Lynette Woodard – were recognized on the halfway line during stoppages.

With his team in the midst of shooting just 7 of 33 (21.2 percent) from outside and losing ground, Canada coach Jordi Fernandez rested his starters for the entire fourth quarter. While the U.S. stars thanked the crowd after knocking off their neighbors to the north, the arena’s DJ took a victory lap by playing Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us” – a vicious song that takes aim at Canadian rapper Drake.

Although 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 Obama’s motivational speech to their team on 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 mentioned the unifying power of sports.

At the end of a long and complicated day, a simple mission came to the surface.

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


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