Olympics 2012: LeBron James scores 30, Team USA pulls away from Brazil, 80-69

Brazilian big man Nene threw down a one-handed jam, silencing a stunned crowd at Verizon Center. Perhaps expecting the U.S. men’s national basketball team to go untested on its way to the gold medal in London, fans waited anxiously during a break in action and their attention was directed to the Kiss Cam on the screen above the court.

President Obama and his wife, Michelle, appeared on it. The president leaned and poked out his lips for a smooch, but the first lady resisted his advances and fans booed. When the United States returned from a timeout, it was even more assertive with its denial of Brazil, using suffocating defense to overcome a spotty offense, restore order and handily defeat the visitors, 80-69.

With the largest collection of talent this arena has hosted since the 2001 NBA All-Star Game, there was plenty of excitement and anticipation and three-time most valuable player LeBron James more than held up his end of the bargain, as he scored a game-high 30 points and was named player of the game. James certainly noticed the presence of Obama and his family sitting courtside.

“For me, for all of us to be in this position to have the president watch the game that we love to play,” James said, shaking his head, “you have dreams about being in the NBA. You have dreams about making the game-winning shot at the buzzer. You never have dreams about having the president actually watching you play, because you don’t think it’s possible. It’s definitely humbling.”

Kevin Durant, a native of the District, had 11 and Chris Paul scored 10 for the United States, which was playing its second of five exhibitions before beginning pool play on July 29 against France. The Americans started out sluggishly, missing easy layups and watching shots roll off the rim against a Brazil team that featured four NBA current players in the Wizards’ Nene, Leandro Barbosa, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter. But former NBA guard Alex Garcia gave the United States the most problems early, scoring 12 of his team-high 14 points to give his team a 10-point lead after the first quarter.

Nene (eight points) dunked to put Brazil ahead 29-21 and later blocked a shot by Kobe Bryant before the Americans responded with a vicious charge, scoring 12 unanswered points. Guilherme Giovanni ended the run with a three-pointer, but James responded with a layup, a steal and a dunk as the Americans led 37-32 at halftime. The United States limited Brazil to five points and forced 12 turnovers, which resulted in 13 points. Brazil had just nine field goal attempts in the period.

“I don’t think our team needs to be humbled. I think they are. They’re not going on the court thinking no one else is going to show up against them. They have deep respect for Brazil’s team,” U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I felt our defense won the game. I liked the mental toughness of our team in that we kept reminding them we’re not doing it on offense. Don’t let it affect defense, and I thought it didn’t.”

After smashing the Dominican Republic by 54 points last week in Las Vegas, the Americans were tested early by a team that actually had a considerable size advantage and will be in their same pool in the London Olympics. Point guard Marcelo Huertas had 11 points and 13 assists — two more than the Americans had combined. Varejao had 12 points and Barbosa had 10 for Brazil, which is coached by Ruben Magnano, who led Argentina to a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics.

That loss helped inspire the next wave of superstar Olympic teams, but after claiming the gold medal in 2008, and winning all but one of those games by at least 20 points, the Americans are already aware that the quest to stay at the top will not be easy. The United States shot just 40.8 percent, but with James leading a staunch defense that forced 26 turnovers, the Americans have to like their chances to claim another gold medal going forward.

After getting into a heated exchange with Varejao after Varejao hit him a little harder than he would’ve liked, Paul helped extend the lead to 13 when he knocked down a three-pointer and converted a three-point play. “Hard foul. That’s how it is in international ball,” Paul said, playing down the impact the encounter with Varejao. “I wasn’t thinking about him.”

Brazil would not back down, however, getting within six points on a Nene slam with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter before the Americans made another dramatic push. With the game essentially wrapped up, fans were again forced to turn their attention to the first couple as they again came up on the Kiss Cam.

The second time, however, the president would not be denied. He turned to his wife, leaned in and the couple locked lips. Their daughter, Malia, applauded as fans cheered.

“PDA is not for everybody, you know what I mean,” Bryant said with a laugh. “But he makes the important decisions, so it’s all good.”

Obama, who met with the U.S. team at halftime, left with a section of the crowd chanting, “Four more years!”

The United States scrimmaged in front of soldiers and participated in several community events throughout their three days in town. The left immediately after the game for Manchester, England, where the players will train for two days before playing Britain on Thursday in an exhibition.

“We think this is a team that is going to be fighting for a medal, Brazil. We were impressed with them, but it was good to take the shot and bounce back. It was a good learning experience for us,” USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo said. “It was great. I think it’s time for us, after all the stuff that we had to do, it’s time to get on a plane and go to work.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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