LAS VEGAS — The world will never know if the current incarnation of the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team would have any chance of defeating the original Dream Team, a cultural phenomenon of Hall of Famers which ushered NBA players into international competition in dominant fashion in 1992.
Kobe Bryant started the unnecessary debate this week by claiming that the 2012 team would win a head-to-head battle against the team whose legacy and influence has reached mythical proportions. Bryant’s comments yielded rebuttals from Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley, among others, and laughter from Michael Jordan.
Chances are, the Dream Team never would have found itself trailing the Dominican Republic, as this year’s Team USA did in the first few minutes Thursday at Thomas and Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. But the team that thrashed the Dominican Republic, 113-59, in its first exhibition game before the London Olympics is certainly one of the more intriguing collections of talent to represent the country.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski unveiled a unit that had a glut of versatility and athleticism, several interchangeable parts, no post presence — and could signal a future game of basketball that is no longer confined by positions.
Kevin Durant, a small forward in the NBA, came off the bench to play center and scored a game-high 24 points after connecting on his first five attempts from beyond the international three-point line. Andre Iguodala, a wing player who can defend at least three positions, chipped in 18 points - including four-three-pointers - and two steals and was given player of the game honors afterward.
“You see that when we have certain lineups in there,” Iguodala said. “One lineup we had LeBron [James] and KD, and I was guarding the four and KD was guarding the three, but on the offensive end we’re interchangeable. We just play basketball.”
Carmelo Anthony had 13 points and Kevin Love had 11 as the Americans overcame an early 4-2 deficit to demolish an opponent that featured NBA all-star center Al Horford. Horford had a forgettable game (seven points on 1-for-12 shooting), with the United States using a relentless, trapping defense that forced 27 turnovers, resulting in 38 points.
With considerable depth and quickness, the Americans overwhelmed an overmatched Dominican team that barely missed out on an Olympic berth at last week’s qualifying tournament in Venezuela.
“They don’t put a weak player on the court,” said Dominican Republic Coach John Calipari, fresh off winning a college national championship at Kentucky. “Everyone that’s on the court can do things with that basketball, can score. Obviously, they are going to get better and better, but they are really, really good.”
Team USA dealt with adversity early in the day, when all-star power forward Blake Griffin was forced to return to Los Angeles after developing soreness and swelling in his left knee. Anthony Davis, last month’s No. 1 overall draft pick of the New Orleans Hornets, was called in as a replacement to help a team that doesn’t have much size beyond 7-foot-1 center Tyson Chandler.
The Los Angeles Clippers released a statement that ruled out Griffin from the Olympics with torn meniscus in left knee that will require surgery. USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo said he couldn’t officially add Davis to the team until Griffin informs him personally that he has withdrawn, which hadn’t happened as of late Thursday.
Colangelo added that Davis would be the only alternate considered to take Griffin’s place.
“He’s such a terrific kid. He has certain qualities that you just never know,” Colangelo said of Davis. “In a game situation, he might be called upon to do something. But he’s not a replacement for Blake. They are two different kind of players. Blake gave us size and strength and experience, obviously, and you just move on.”
The 6-foot-11 Davis flew in Thursday morning from Los Angeles, where he attended the ESPY awards the night before, but didn’t appear fatigued, as he scored nine points, including a four-point play, in just 10 minutes.
“He made the three and said, ‘That’s something you didn’t let me do,’ ” Calipari joked about Davis, whom he coached last season at Kentucky.
After a grueling, week-long camp in Las Vegas that was affected by the free agent signings of Deron Williams and Griffin and a thumb injury to Chris Paul, the Americans will take a day off to travel to Washington. They will hold two practices before hosting Brazil in an exhibition on Monday at Verizon Center.
“We were really pleased with our effort,” Krzyzewski said. “There have been a lot of distractions. Not Vegas distractions, but contract, injury situations, those first eight days. But overall, one of the things we wanted to accomplish was really good camaraderie. Guys, you could see, really get along well. They pull for each other and play hard.
Krzyzewksi started Paul, Chandler, Anthony, Bryant and James, but the offense didn’t get started until Durant, the three-time scoring champion, came off the bench and buried a three-pointer. He outscored the Dominican Republic 13-12 in the first period.
“It was actually fun for me. I’m up for anything,” Durant said of playing the role of sixth man. “I just want to go out there and help the team win. I was joking around with James [Harden, the reigning sixth man of the year], and said, ‘I’m going to ask [Oklahoma City Coach] Scott [Brooks] to bring me off the bench next year.’ But I don’t think that’s going to work out too well.”
Durant and Williams (10 assists) replaced Paul and Chandler at the start of the second half, giving Krzyzewski the chance to have a more dogged defensive unit come off the bench. With a lineup of Chandler, Love, Iguodala, Russell Westbrook and Harden, Team USA barely let the Dominican Republic cross half court.
The Americans outscored the Dominican Republic by double figures in all but one quarter, pouring it on with a 34-point fourth quarter. As for the debate about which team was better — 1992? Or 2012? — James said, “What do you want me to say, that we’ll to lose? Doesn’t matter how much we debate about it, it’s never going to happen. I would’ve loved to play against that team, but I’m going to ride with us. I’m not going to say we’d lose to them. That doesn’t make any sense.”