Any team with Kobe Bryant and LeBron James in the lineup is going to score.
Sure enough, the United States had no problem doing so in the first quarter Thursday — but neither did Turkey. The Americans didn’t pull away until their offensive superstars decided to be defensive stoppers.
James scored 20 points and was a defensive force in his exhibition debut, helping the U.S. Olympic team overcome some early sloppy play to beat Turkey 114-82 in its first game in China.
James and Bryant both finished with five steals, leading a defensive effort that had 16 of them.
“We love defense as a team because we have a lot of guys who can get at it defensively, cause some havoc and make a lot of plays,” guard Dwyane Wade said.
James made them on both ends of the floor.
The NBA’s leading scorer was 8-of-9 and finished with six rebounds, five steals and four assists in 23 minutes, sitting out the fourth quarter.
“I think he played excellently,” center Dwight Howard said. “He passed the ball well, played great defense, ran the lanes. He played like LeBron James.”
Bryant was only 1-of-5 for seven points, but had seven assists with his five steals. Often considered the NBA’s greatest player, he wasn’t the dominant player on the floor this time.
“The best was LeBron James, who made a big difference,” Turkey coach Bogdan Tanjevic said.
Carmelo Anthony added 17 points and Howard had some powerful dunks while finishing with 14 for the Americans, who shot 69.5 percent (41-of-59).
They allowed 10 field goals in the first quarter, then only 10 combined during the next two periods. They improved to 2-0 in Olympic tuneup play and face Lithuania here Friday before moving on to Shanghai for their remaining two games.
“I think the first quarter was an adjustment period for us, we were getting used to what they were running, what their sets were,” Bryant said. “The second quarter we did a much better job of locking in and taking those away.”
James sprained his right ankle when he stepped on another player’s foot during a scrimmage early last week. The injury was considered mild and James likely could have played Friday against Canada, but the U.S. staff opted to rest him to avoid further swelling before the long flight to Asia.
“Obviously he’s healthy,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He got player of the game. I voted for him twice.”
James said before practice Wednesday he was ready and needed just seconds to prove it. Turkey won the opening tip and took a quick shot. James pulled it off the rim — illegal in the NBA but allowed defensively in FIBA — and took off for the opening score.
“I just used my reaction time,” James said. “Even some of the guys on Turkey were calling for goaltending. But it’s legal.”
The next 15 minutes were a struggle, even against an opponent without NBA players Hedo Turkoglu and Mehmet Okur.
The Americans yielded an alarming number of open shots and offensive rebounds for most of the first half and committed 10 turnovers. Even beating the quicker U.S. team downcourt on a couple of occasions, Turkey used a 10-2 spurt to grab a 27-24 lead on Ender Arslan’s 3-pointer with 1:42 remaining in the first quarter. The Americans were ahead just 31-30 after the period.
Turkey was still close late into the second before James seized control on both ends. He rebounded his own miss for a 10-point lead, came up with a steal and made a free throw, then leaped high for a one-handed dunk off an alley-oop pass from Bryant for a 50-37 lead. Another steal by James led to Howard’s dunk and a 15-point cushion.
“We allowed them to get into a little comfort zone because we’re trying to blow them out too fast,” James said. “Once we realized we just need to win the game and our pressure will automatically put pressure on the other team, we did a great job in the second quarter of bumping the lead up.”
James had 12 points in the half and added eight more and some of the game’s highlight plays in the third. Following a basket by Turkey, he took the ball out and whipped a pass to the other end of the court to a streaking Wade for a dunk. A minute later, James had another steal and passed ahead to Bryant, who bounced it in front of the basket to Anthony for a dunk.
Wade and Chris Bosh each scored 13 points and Chris Paul added 12 points and six assists.
Cenk Akyol had 22 points for Turkey. Turkoglu, the Orlando forward voted the most improved player in the NBA last season, shot around before the game and was introduced with the rest of the team, but Tanjevic held him out because of a lingering hamstring injury.
Turkey didn’t qualify for the Olympics but has an automatic berth into the 2010 world championships as the host country.
Credit: Associated Press