US routs China 101-70 in historic Olympic opener

Published 6:33 pm Sunday, August 10, 2008

BEIJING – In one heartpounding minute in the first half, LeBron James dunked off a nifty underhanded feed from Dwyane Wade. Then Kobe Bryant flew in and jammed. Then it was Chris Bosh’s turn to rattle the rim.

As the backboard swayed, some might have recalled the fabled Dream Team. The final score – U.S. 101, China 70 – might also draw comparisons.

Who’s worried about the 7-for-29 shooting from beyond the arc? Just toss it up and throw it down.

This was the biggest basketball game in China’s history and perhaps the most-watched basketball game ever î and the U.S. wanted to turn in a performance to match the moment as it took its first step toward Olympic hoops redemption.

“I’ve never felt an environment quite like this,” said Bryant, a veteran of five NBA Finals. “I’ve played in many big games, but the energy tonight was different.

“I think they knew that history was being made tonight,” Bryant said. “Obviously, it was a proud moment for their country as it is for ours. You could feel the electricity.”

Two nights after China put on a spectacular opening ceremony, it shared the spotlight with the nation that invented basketball.

The sparkling Wukesong Indoor Stadium began to buzz an hour before tipoff. But it didn’t feel like much of a homecourt for the Chinese. Team USA took the floor to a roar that was every bit as loud as the cheer when China came out of the dressing room. Bryant got as much applause as Chinese icon Yao Ming during pregame introductions.

“The excitement of it, the anxiousness of it, the anticipation was just crazy,” said Dwyane Wade, who led the U.S. with 19 points off the bench. “I’m kind of glad it’s out of the way now. This game was just over the top.”

With President Bush and his father watching alongside Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi, this was as much a spectacle as a basketball game. The president visited with the U.S. players in the locker room before the game.

“He basically came up to us and said, ‘I’m here to support you, our country supports you, and so go out there and kick some butt,’ ” Bryant said.

The U.S. did that eventually. But for one half the game met, and perhaps even exceeded, the expectations of the hosts.

“Many things we learned from those guys,” China coach Jonas Kazlauskas said. “So I think that it will be good for us.”

The Americans may be treated like rock stars here, but they suffered from a bit of stage fright early on. The U.S. turned the ball over on its first possession, and the Chinese grabbed a quick 3-0 lead on a 3-pointer by Yao from the top of the key.

“He scripted it perfect,” Wade said. “You just had to smile because you couldn’t write it any better.”

In the past, the Chinese might have been tempted to call timeout and take a picture of the scoreboard. But China has improved under Kazlauskas.

After the U.S. forged a 28-21 lead early in the second quarter, China tied it at 29-29 on a 3-pointer by Sun Yue with six minutes to play in the first half.

That’s when Team USA began to flex its superiority. The Americans responded with a 16-3 run capped by a trio of thundering dunks – by James, Bryant and Bosh – on its way to a 49-37 halftime lead.

The Americans struggled with their long-range shooting, an ominous sign for a team that has been dogged by shooting woes in past international tournaments. The U.S. went 1-for-12 from beyond the arc in the first half.

The Chinese, by contrast, hit eight of their first 12 shots from beyond the arc. But when their 3-pointers stopped falling, the Chinese had no answer for the U.S.’ defensive pressure, not to mention its superior depth.

China has more than a billion people, but there’s not an elite point guard among them. If they ever find one, the Chinese might begin to close the oceanic gap between them and the Americans.

The U.S. had beaten China in each of their first nine meetings by a combined 363 points. In their last meeting, the Americans blasted China 121-90 in the world championships two years ago in Sapporo, Japan, harrying the Chinese into 25 turnovers.

Although the U.S. won this game by 31 points, the Chinese hoped to send a message. They’re relative newcomers on the international hoops stage, but they aren’t going away.

Yao, who led China with 13 points, seemed to make that point as he came off for the last time with 4:43 to play and China trailing 87-54.

Yao raised his right fist to the crowd, sparking a long, loud ovation.

China had lost. But basketball won.