On Friday Night, a sellout crowd at Chicago's United Center hosted a showcase between Team USA's Men's Basketball Team and Venezuela. Thanks to the generosity of Fear the Sword's own Carter Rodriguez, I was in attendance in lower level seats, directly across from the USA bench. What follows are some notes from USA's 80-45 victory:
Wanting the full fan experience, I lined up at the gate two hours before tip-off to catch pre-grame warmups. As fans lined the lower bowl and launched a hundred simultaneous Facebook Live broadcasts, the glory of Team USA dawned on me. There was DeAndre Jordan putting in 200-some free throws as DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry traded threes from the corner, and Draymond Green and Demarcus "Boogie" Cousins taught a pair of 3-foot ball boys the fundamentals of perimeter defense. I had seen just a handful of the NBA's best players up to that point, and here in an FIBA exhibition game, I was about to check off over half the players on my list of "Before they retire..."
And I had not even seen Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant or Paul George yet. Nationalism is infectious, especially in sports. So when America is as good at a sport as they are at basketball, it's extremely fun to root. And for me, "U-S-A" chants trump "Let's go Cavs", because of the sheer body of work behind it. Watching the entire team lined up for the Anthem under Jordan's Bulls banners with Dwyane Wade and Scottie Pippin watching courtside, it was the full American experience and it was pretty great.
Warm-Ups are a Thing
With 30 minutes remaining before tip off, the teams cleared off and Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson came out and ran through warm-up routines on opposite sides of the court. It was a fairly low-key routine, no contact or drives, just shots from the block slowly cascading out to three point arc. The excitement for the two NBA Finals stars was fairly electric as fans continued to shout their names hoping to catch a moment of eye contact and acknowledgement.
Meanwhile, the remaining fans waiting outside the tunnel for Durant, George and Anthony were left waiting until tip off, as all three players opted out of warm-ups, although they may have got shot up before the public was allowed in. And considering George sat with a DNP while Anthony and Durant were a combined 0-9 from behind the arc, it looks like warm-ups are very much a thing. The two leading scorers for Team USA? The same two players that were out putting up shots before tip-off - Irving and Thompson - finished with 13 points each.
And yes, it was still just an exhibition game on a Friday night in Chicago, I'm not worried that the two leaders of Team USA will continue this shooting drought in Rio.
Make America Dunk Again
Perhaps the biggest disappointment the showcase outside the poor shooting numbers was the lack of highlights. With all respect to Venezuela and their defense, it appears their game plan included taking away Team USA's fast breaks by fouling before the highlights could develop, even when down by almost 30 points. The Americans managed just a handful of dunks on the night, most in just the final minutes of play.
And I get it, Venezuela is a competitive basketball team that will be playing in the same group as Team USA in just a couple weeks. No baskets are free, and capitalizing on a off-shooting night by taking away fast break points is a valid strategy, but it is a bit frustrating for a sell out crowd watching (likely) their only opportunity to catch Team USA live before they make a run at the Gold Medal in Rio. After back-to-back weeks of convention speeches and a heatwave that caused me to buy my first air conditioner, I was looking forward to Team USA transforming the Chicago Metropolitan area into "Lob City" for just one night.
And yet, the best dunk came with 40 some seconds remaining in regulation on an outlet pass to DeMar DeRozan for a windmill dunk. The second best dunk? Just 30 seconds before that when Kyle Lowry ran through the baseline to tip a loose ball back in play on a fast break for Jimmy Butler's homecoming two-handed slam. It was great, and after sitting for 35 minutes, it was necessary. Seriously, by then Wade and his kids, who showed up courtside to catch a peak at the team and his new teammate, had already left the building. All Bummer 2016.
The real highlight of the game came in the fourth period, when I watched Irving and Durant converse next to each other on the bench. For as much that will be written about the competitive nature of these players, now on opposite sides of teams that have split back-to-back Finals, in the summer and on Team USA, they are just friends and teammates cracking jokes on a bench.
And that speaks to the opportunity on hand for Irving. After making the shot that put the Cavaliers ahead in Game 7, Irving went from the Duke prodigy handed a Pepsi ad and Nike shoe on a lottery team to the Commander in Next. He's the presumptive nominee for the continuation of the clutch gene after the retirement of greats like Kobe and Tim Duncan, and he's only 24 years old. On Team USA he gets a chance to win gold for his country, but more importantly has has an opportunity to build the friendships that make the NBA so fun. What floating fruit will take shape for Durant, Irving, and others as the embark on their journey? A cantaloupe canoe? A grapefruit gonadala? Whatever the vessel, it's exciting to see Irving cementing his place in the NBA on Team USA and the friendships that come with that.
I need a Photo Opportunity
If anything speaks to this Summer of Kyrie, it's that at the end of the game, after the teams shook hands and conversed, Irving was the last player off the court. The Venezuela National Team had held him back for a photo opportunity at halfcourt. For as much as Irving is a NBA/U.S. ambassador in the Olympics, he is also the sole representative of the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
That comes with it's own photo opportunity, as Kyrie already took his shot at redemption.