MANCHESTER, England – The United States basketball team warmed up for their Olympic title defence by winning hearts and minds, as well as a warm-up game against the Great Britain team, at Manchester’s MEN Arena on Thursday.
The US ran out comfortable 118-78 victors against the Olympic hosts, 10 days short of their opening pool game in the tournament against France.
But they also proved extremely popular victors among a sell-out 17,000 crowd in Manchester, the local fans cheering more loudly for the visitors, in particular the LA Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, than home players such as the Chicago Bulls All Star forward Luol Deng and emerging big man Joel Freeland.
Premier League footballers Joleon Lescott, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley, Fabrice Muamba and Jordan Henderson – along with rugby’s Danny Cipriani and boxer Amir Khan – were among the NBA fans who watched the first appearance of the full US international team in this country since the 1948 Olympics.
Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony joint top scored for the Americans with 19 points while Deng showed his international class with a game-high 25 points and Pops Mensah-Bonsu added 12 and nine rebounds.
The USA, who will open the Olympics as one of the most prohibitive favourites in any event, have now won 52 of the 53 games they have played since they were surprisingly beaten three times at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Freeland, the Great Britain forward who will be joining the USA players in the NBA next season as a new member of the Portland Trailblazers, scored the first basket of the night to give the hosts a 2-0 lead.
And, with the Americans apparently keen to entertain the Manchester audience with a wide range of tricks, the British were able to keep the score close throughout the opening minutes at least.
Kevin Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward, was guilty of missing an acrobatic dunk attempt and an easier lay-up as the home crowd responded with excitement to every American offence.
Back-to-back dunks by GB’s former NBA player Mensah-Bonsu kept the hosts to within three, as did a three-point shot from Deng.
But two spectacular breakaway dunks by the 6’3″ Russell Westbrook and consecutive three-point baskets from Carmelo Anthony stretched the Olympic champions’ lead to 33-20 as they ended the first quarter with a 10-0 run.
The visitors did not relent at the start of the second period, placing full-court pressure on the British guards and exposing their weakness at that position.
After falling behind by as many as 17 early in the second, four consecutive free-throws from Deng cut the deficit to single figures but, as had been the case earlier, the US ended the period in emphatic fashion, two dunks from Durant, and a third from LeBron James, helped extend the advantage to 55-37 at the half.
James and Deron Williams opened the third period with an extraordinary barrage, scoring 10 and 14 points respectively as the Americans’ vast superiority in every department began to tell in the form of a 77-46 lead.
The British, at least, managed to find some positives with young college player Andrew Lawrence, a surprise inclusion in GB’s Olympic squad, hitting a pair of impressive three-point shots as the hosts tried to keep the scoreline respectable.
But the fourth quarter continued the one-way momentum with the US setting off on an 8-0 run that merely underlined their vast superiority.