By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
LAS VEGAS, Aug. 27 -- The ever-present focus and intensity that defined the United States men's basketball team as it steamrolled through the preliminary round of the FIBA Americas Championship was evident only in spurts Monday against Mexico.
The Americans still won in blowout fashion, 127-100, but often appeared uninterested as the second round of this Olympic qualifying tournament began. Carmelo Anthony again led the team in scoring with 28 points. Kobe Bryant had 21, and LeBron James and Dwight Howard had 19 apiece, but the United States failed to win by at least 40 points for the first time.
Before the game, U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski greeted a familiar foe with a huge hug before the game began. Nolan Richardson, the former Arkansas coach who is leading the Mexican national team, had the highlight of his career against Krzyzewski, defeating Duke for the 1994 NCAA championship. He has brought his "40 minutes of hell" philosophy to Mexico, and his team stayed within 20 points for most of the game before falling into purgatory.
Mexico got within 15-11 in the first quarter, but the United States closed out the period on a 30-12 run that featured seven dunks -- including three each by Anthony and Howard -- and two three-pointers.
But the Americans' intensity level dropped considerably in the second period, and they appeared to become complacent in anticipation of an inevitable romp. They got caught up playing one-on-one and forced tough shots on offense and surrendered easy baskets on defense.
Bryant let his frustration show as he attempted to drive through former UNLV star Romel Beck (20 points) and tossed a forearm into Beck's chest. Beck got some payback when he buried a three-pointer at the end of the first half to bring Mexico within four points at 65-51.
Then, in the third quarter, Beck threw Bryant off-balance with a crossover dribble and sank a three-pointer as Bryant fouled him. Fans at Thomas & Mack Center immediately begged for retaliation by chanting, "Ko-be! Ko-be!" It never came, but Bryant got the win.
Krzyzewski, who has continued to say he has seven starters, made a switch as the second round began. Chauncey Billups and Amare Stoudemire replaced Jason Kidd and Howard in the starting lineup. Tayshaun Prince was in uniform but sat out to rest his sprained left ankle.
Next up for the Americans is Puerto Rico, which defeated Brazil, 97-75, on Monday.
Puerto Rico handed the United States its worst defeat in international competition: 92-73 at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Carlos Arroyo led his team with 24 points and defiantly lifted his jersey and tugged at the words "Puerto Rico."
"That's always in the back of your mind," Arroyo said with a smile.
The teams had a rematch last year at the world championships in Japan with the United States winning by 11 points. But Arroyo, now a backup point guard for the Orlando Magic, said this team is better than previous versions he's faced.
"It's a more mature team, a team with a lot of confidence -- and a team with Kobe Bryant," Arroyo said. "We know what the United States is, we've got to play perfect and hope for the best. You've got to give yourself a chance before you start. You can't already think that you're going to lose by 30, 40 points. That's what we did in 2004."