U.S. shows up late to World party, survives Puerto Rico
SAPPORO, Japan -- Puerto Rico was scoring so easily against the United States, maybe the Americans should have considered playing 6-against-5.
The United States wanted to make a statement as it opened the World Championships against Puerto Rico. However, it took the Americans most of the first half Saturday to get it going.
To read Chris Sheridan's analysis of the U.S. opener, click here.
Actually, they tried that, too.
The U.S. eventually overcame a slow start that included a strange sequence in which Carmelo Anthony inbounded the ball despite being out of the game, settling down to beat Puerto Rico 111-100 on Saturday in the opening game of Group D in the World Championship.
Anthony led the U.S. with 21 points. LeBron James and Kirk Hinrich each added 15 for the Americans, who found things to be much tougher than they were during a 45-point rout in an exhibition game at Las Vegas earlier this month.
"We got a slow start but we picked it up in the second half," James said. "We were able to keep them in front of us and we got a win. It doesn't matter how many points you win by, as long as you get a win."
Carlos Arroyo of the Orlando Magic scored 23 points for Puerto Rico, which looked capable for much of the first half of a second straight major upset of the United States in international play. The Puerto Ricans shocked the Americans 92-73 in the opening game of the Olympics two years ago in Athens.
Anthony, James and Dwyane Wade, the three U.S. captains, were there for that loss, which sent the Americans on their way to a disappointing third-place finish.
"Now I'm kind of one of the leaders of this team along with Dwyane Wade and LeBron, so I've got to go out there and do what I have to do to pick this team up any way possible," Anthony said.
Apparently, that includes trying to make a play even when he's not in the game.
Anthony was the central figure in the game's most bizarre sequence, which led to a technical foul on the Americans. After picking up two quick fouls, he went to the bench, but chose to stand in front of his chair instead of sitting.
When a ball went out of bounds near the U.S. bench, both the nearest referee and U.S. guard Kirk Hinrich didn't seem to realize Anthony wasn't in the game. So the official handed the ball to Anthony, the closest player to him, and with no other U.S. players coming back for it, Anthony simply passed it in, giving new meaning to the term "sixth man."
"The referee threw me the ball, so I just threw it in bounds," Anthony said. "He didn't even know."
The ref eventually figured it out when Anthony didn't run up the court with the rest of the players, and a technical foul was called. Arroyo hit both free throws to tie the game at 17, and an irate coach Mike Krzyzewski loudly scolded his players sitting on the bench.
"I'm used to that after four years at Duke, so I knew where he was coming from," Shane Battier said. "In a situation like this, with a team that on paper you're scheduled to beat, if you give them confidence, strange things can happen in the game of basketball.
"Against teams you should beat, you have to go out early on, impose your will, and send a message that 'Hey, we're here to play.'"
The Americans eventually did that in the second quarter. Anthony returned early in the period and scored nine points, helping the U.S. turn a four-point deficit into a 57-51 lead at the break. He converted a three-point play and fed James for a fast-break dunk on consecutive possessions early in the third as the U.S. pushed the lead into double digits for the first time.
"I think from the second quarter on the defense was good," Anthony said. "First quarter we kind of gave them too many points. We let them score, we let them get to the middle of the court a lot, but we sat down at the end of the first quarter and said if we wanted to win this game we have to do it on the defensive end."
The Americans will have to do it better, though, after allowing Puerto Rico to shoot 54 percent from the floor and make 10 of 16 3-pointers. But the Puerto Ricans didn't have nearly enough depth to keep up their fast start, especially when Arroyo was on the bench.
Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro said the U.S. defenders, "have to keep growing and getting better in their man-to-man matchups, the matchup zones, closing lanes."
The American players partially attributed their poor start to the quiet environment inside the arena. The public address announcer's call that it was time to meet Team USA during pregame introductions was followed by almost complete silence, though cheers eventually came for James and Wade.
The U.S. moved on to play China in its second game on Sunday morning. The Americans are playing in a relatively weak group, which should give them plenty of time to clean things up before the later rounds.
"Our defense will get better as this tournament goes along," Wade said. "That will be our game. We've got guys that can get out to the open court. Once we can do that, we're a pretty good ballclub."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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