Column: A friendly blowout for US basketball team
If there was ever such a thing as a friendly, this was it.
Things were so chummy Thursday night at the Manchester Arena that one of the best players on the British men's basketball team took the microphone before the game and thanked the U.S. collection of NBA superstars for stopping by on their exhibition tour to play. You half expected Pops Mensah-Bonsu to join the crowd as it applauded the dazzling assortment of passes and dunks put on display by an American group that seems to be growing increasingly comfortable with each other.
Not much was expected out of this matchup other than a good show, and LeBron James and company came through in what ended up as a 118-78 blowout of a completely outmanned Great Britain squad. The sellout crowd loved every minute of it, giving both teams a standing ovation as time thankfully ran out for the beleaguered Brits.
What the U.S. did in only its third game together as a team wasn't hard to figure out. They overwhelmed a team with only two NBA players, using speed and precision and a variety of different - but all effective - lineups.
What was harder to figure out was what it meant. After struggling at times against Brazil a few days ago in Washington, D.C., the Americans had an easy mark in front of them and they responded in proper fashion with a drubbing that even surpassed the expectations of British oddsmakers - who had made them 31 1/2-point favorites.
They may not rival the original Dream Team of 20 years ago, as Kobe Bryant has suggested. But it's hard to imagine a team this immensely talented not winning the gold medal in London a few weeks from now despite all the warnings about Spain and France and the always-improving caliber of international basketball.
Bryant scored only 5 points in a little over 18 minutes, but it hardly mattered. Not with James, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant all in double figures and the reserves more than matching the starters in both intensity and performance.
''Their bench could be a starting five,'' said Luol Deng, the British star who plays for the Chicago Bulls.
Things are expected to get tougher as the road tour continues with games in Barcelona against Spain - which gave the U.S. a tough game in the gold medal final in Beijing - and Argentina. After that it's on to London, where the U.S. opens with France as a prohibitive favorite to win a second straight gold.
''We've got a long road ahead of us,'' James said. ''The gold medal is not guaranteed. But our chemistry is getting better and better with each game and each practice.''
The lesson learned in the win against Brazil - a game in which the U.S. trailed early by 10 points - was that as talented and creative the Americans are offensively, they will need to play harder on defense to make sure they're not upset. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said the team watched film of Monday night's game and used it as motivation to be better against Britain.
They were, though some sloppy early play still led to easy baskets that might have been more of an issue against a better team.
''We know we can be beat if we don't come to play,'' said Williams, who was presented a giant trophy on the court afterward as the MVP of the game for his 19 points in his first start. ''We're not going to overlook anybody.''
That seems to be the overriding theme for this team, mainly because being overconfident may be the only way the Americans are going to lose. To a man they talked afterward about playing hard, getting better as a team and not overlooking any of the clubs put in front of them no matter how lopsided the disparity in talent might be.
It was lopsided against Britain, something even British fans not used to watching basketball could easily see. Even if the arena announcer had to explain some of the rules of the game to them before the opening tipoff, they knew coming in the Americans were loaded with superstars.
The crowd cheered loudest for the names they recognized - and almost all of them belonged to the visitors. Bryant drew the biggest cheers, but even James Harden got a bigger reaction than the players who comprise the first British team to play in the Olympics since the London Games of 1948.
It was a friendly, as soccer matches that don't count in the standings are called in this country, and it served as a barometer of sorts for a British team that played decently in last year's European championships and is striving to be competitive internationally in a game not played on many playgrounds in this country.
What they found out was that there's a huge difference between playing the U.S. and playing everyone else in the world. The Americans are more gifted to begin with, and they just don't let up, all the way down to last-minute addition Anthony Davis, who played a quite respectable 12 minutes.
''We are awake. We've never been asleep,'' said Krzyzewski, rejecting the notion the team wasn't ready for Brazil in an 80-69 win. ''We're not going to look great all the time because the rest of the world is that good.''
Make that the rest of the world minus Britain. They were never good enough to turn this into a contest, though they and the crowd were cheered by U.S. players at the end.
A friendly night for all.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg