LOS ANGELES — For five ugly minutes, USA Basketball looked like it might have tempted fate by playing to the Staples Center crowd with its starting lineup versus China. But only for five minutes.
As the latest “Dream Team” cruised through L.A. on its march to the Rio Olympics, coach Mike Krzyzewski started Clippers center DeAndre Jordan and Southern California products Paul George and DeMar DeRozan, moving Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson to the bench. The makeshift group took turns missing jumpers—opening 2-of-12 from the field—and found itself mired in a 4–4 tie midway through the first quarter.
The sputtering start was enough to summon some concern from Krzyzewski, who hasn’t suffered a loss as USA coach since 2006.
“I don’t think there’s any coach who likes not to see the ball go in,” Krzyzewski said afterward. “There’s a part of all of us that says, ‘Will it?’ I don’t care what team you’re coaching, you would feel that way. … I worry all the time. Believe me. I worry, that’s part of being a coach.”
But Durant, and his new Golden State teammate Klay Thompson, needed exactly four possessions to erase any developing fear and send the exhibition on its way to the laughable rout everyone anticipated. Upon checking in, Durant produced 12 points in his first four trips down the court, setting up a Thompson three and a DeMarcus Cousins layup (plus the foul) before nailing back-to-back threes of his own.
That’s all it took on Sunday: USA was on its way to a 106–57 rout and Durant was on his way to a game-high 19 points (on just seven shots) and a game-best plus-37 (in just 18 minutes). With the 49-point victory, USA improved to 2–0 on into pre-Olympics exhibition tour after routing Argentina by 39 in Las Vegas on Friday.
“In the first game [against Argentina] the thing that opened it up was the offensive rebounding and inside scoring,” Krzyzewski said. “This game, it was the outside shooting. It shows that if we have some scoring slumps, where it’s not going in, we can come at it in different ways. [Durant and Thompson] are two of the best shooters in the world. Our guys want them to get shots. It’s neat that when they do shoot the whole bench wants that to happen. Hopefully they keep hitting.”
Durant and Thompson (17 points on 6-of-10 shooting) combined to hit 8-of-13 from deep on the night, winning over an L.A. crowd that had booed Durant and fellow Warrior Draymond Green during player introductions.
As USA built a lead that climbed as high as 54, Durant heard loud cheers when he finished a transition dunk during the second half. The sellout crowd included Hall of Famers Jerry West and Gary Payton, 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and Lakers coach Luke Walton.
Once the result was in hand, the door opened for Jordan to enjoy a moment in the sun. Often overshadowed by Clippers teammates Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, Jordan finished with 12 points, five rebounds and three blocks.
“I was just being myself, trying to limit those guys to one shot,” Jordan said. “Make it tough for them. Help us out any way I can.”
Jordan’s alley-oop finishes and highlight blocks produced some of the loudest cheers of the night and earned praise from his coach.
“As good as I thought he was on TV and on tape, he’s better,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s one of the great players in the league right now. …He does dirty work willingly, and he does it at the highest level.”
USA held an overmatched and inexperienced China team to 31% shooting and forced 26 turnovers. In a diabolical twist, Krzyzewzki utilized George as his primary on-ball defender, a move that maximized USA’s length and its ability to switch on all screens. Yi Jianlian, the only member on his team with NBA experience, led China with a team-high 18 points (on 4-of-14 shooting) and seven rebounds.
“We should have won, but the way we won was excellent,” Krzyzewski said, pointing specifically to his team’s defensive intensity and ball movement. “Our offense and our athleticism were a little too much for them.”
That figures to be a recurring theme over the next month given USA’s depth of talent relative to its upcoming competition. Honestly, Krzyzewski could have buried Durant and Thompson for the entire night and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Krzyzewski’s team will enjoy a day off before playing China again at Oracle Arena on Tuesday, in what will be Durant’s first game in Oakland since signing with the Warriors. If USA heavily features its Warriors trio in that game to court favor with the Bay Area crowd, the rematch against China could even be more one-sided.
“I hope we’re never challenged,” Krzyzewski said, looking ahead at the rest of the tour. “But there have been challenging points of each game.”
Whether any of those challenging points will take place as late as the second quarter, let alone the second half, remains to be seen.