There was a moment on Saturday night where the US’s basketball game against China was actually something resembling a competition.
This was just after the tip-off when Klay Thompson took a wayward three-pointer and China’s forward Yanyuhang Ding was fouled and hit two free throws. A huge roar filled the crowd in Carioca Arena 1. Many of the fans jumped to their feet as if somehow, improbably the game would actually be close.
Then the US started to run. And run. And run. By the time it was over, they had beaten China 119-62 in a game that was nowhere as close as the score.
The idea that anyone in these Olympics can somehow challenge the US’s basketball superiority is ridiculous. China aren’t one of the best teams in the tournament, but they are young and fast and have some intriguing players. And yet whatever promise China might have was lost in a flurry of long passes and dunks by the US players, who seemed almost to hold back rather than humiliate their vanquished opponent.
After starting slowly, the Americans turned a 6-4 lead into a 22-6 advantage in a little more than five minutes. That became 30-10 at the end of the first quarter and 59-30 at half-time. If you looked down for a minute you’d miss three baskets. The rare China score would bring an interested murmur from the crowd.
No one on China could match the power of DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan. They stood near the basket and grabbed errant shots, easily putting them back for layups. There weren’t answers for players like Kevin Durant or Carmelo Anthony who dropped long jump shots over defenders who couldn’t keep up. It was such a farce that after the game a reporter ran up to Jordan and asked, excitedly, if he could dunk even more during the Olympics.
Jordan smiled and turned to guard Kyrie Irving who was standing nearby. “Can you pass the ball more so I can slam dunk more?” Jordan asked.
Irving laughed. “Sure!’ he said.
Durant, who looked so comfortable shooting agains essentially no defense, at one point took an attempt two steps over the half court line as if he was his new team-mate Steph Curry. He finished with 25 points, four rebounds and six assists.
The frightening thing is this isn’t even the US’s best team. There was some speculation before the Olympics that perhaps the Americans would struggle without players like Curry and LeBron James, who both chose not to play. It didn’t matter. Based on Saturday night the US will not need Curry or James to run over the rest of the world. Even Jordan’s horrific free throw shooting (he went three for 10 from the line) could not derail the US.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski later said his second team was so good that when they got into the game “they looked like seven players on the court” instead of five.
Late in the first half, China put together a small run, a couple of baskets. A hum filled the arena. A chant of “China! China!” wafted up towards the rafters. The mostly-Brazilian crowd started to sing. They did the wave.
Then Durant hit a three and Jordan flew so high to dunk an alley-oop pass he nearly banged his head against the rim. There would be no upset. Nothing even close. After supposed medal favorite France were destroyed by Australia earlier in the day, there doesn’t look like any true competitor to the US. Every one of their games might look like this: a montage of steals, dunks and numbers on a scoreboard that keep going up and up and up.
“I think you never get bored with the process,” Jordan said when asked if he grew weary of such blowouts. “You don’t want to disrespect your opponent and anyone who wants to play USA basketball by not playing hard.”
This article was written by Les Carpenter in Rio de Janeiro, for theguardian.com on Sunday 7th August 2016 01.12 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010