Russia contained the speedsters. Controlled the backboards. Everything a team needs to do to beat the United States.
Except stop Kobe Bryant.
Bryant provided the offense in the U.S. Olympic team’s first defensive struggle, scoring 11 of his 19 points in the third quarter of an 89-68 victory on Sunday.
“They had some gaps there and I just took advantage of them. The ball found me and I was able to make them pay,” Bryant said. “In that kind of situation where the game is kind of seesawing back and forth, we have so many weapons. It could be LeBron, it could be D-Wade, one of us is going to kick into high gear.”
The sellout crowd of 14,523 at this arena built for tennis clearly favored the U.S. team, and Bryant clearly was the fans’ favorite. They chanted “MVP!” when he went to the free throw line, booed when he was called for an offensive foul in the second quarter, and generally oohed and aahed whenever he squared up to take a shot.
“It feels like home away from home,” Bryant said. “It’s great to be so far from Staples Center and still have so much support. I feel like I’m home.”
Carmelo Anthony added 17 points in what was by far the Americans’ most competitive tuneup yet for the Beijing Games.
The United States had been scoring 118 points per game while winning its first three exhibitions by an average of 41 points. Russia allowed far fewer fast-break baskets than the previous U.S. opponents, successfully keeping the game in the halfcourt by grabbing 12 offensive rebounds and forcing the Americans to run more offensive sets.
It was the perfect blueprint to beat the gold medal favorites—and the Russians still lost by 21. But can other teams in Beijing pull it off?
“They can try,” James said. “Russia did a good job of slowing us down a little bit, but we still made our run at the end of the third quarter.”
Dwyane Wade continued his strong play off the bench with 16 points for the Americans, who play their final exhibition game here Tuesday against Australia.
Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko scored 18 points and American point guard J.R. Holden added 17 for the European champions.
“If you take a look, in past games, the American team, most points they score is fast breaks and its dunks. I think for the most part we contained the ball,” Kirilenko said. “For the most part I think we did a pretty good job to stop them.”
The defensive tone of the game brought an early entrance of Tayshaun Prince, who had played little in the first three games. Kirilenko had an early block on Anthony’s shot, but the Americans pulled away to a 29-17 advantage on Deron Williams’ 3-pointer with about 4 seconds left.
Russia kept the deficit right around 10 for most of the second quarter before Wade gave the Americans some breathing room before the half. He followed his soft running jumper with a steal and dunk, making it 43-29, and his free throw in the final second extended the lead to 46-31.
The Americans were held to just 17 points in the period, their worst quarter yet, after sprinting past Canada, Turkey and Lithuania in their first three games.
“I think that’s why they schedule these games,” Wade said. “Russia is a team we could see in the gold medal game and a team that’s been playing very well of late, so it was good competition. They made us run some sets, slow us down a little bit, but I think overall we played good defense.”
Bryant hadn’t been looking for his offense on the tour, averaging only 11.7 points—sixth-best on the team—while focusing his efforts on defending the top perimeter threat. But it was needed Sunday, since he’s the Americans’ best halfcourt player.
“That’s where he shined tonight. Halfcourt offense,” U.S. guard Michael Redd said. “Just did a great job of being aggressive, so he played well.”
Bryant’s 3-pointer early in the third gave the Americans a 20-point cushion, but Russia cut it down to 12 barely two minutes later. Bryant responded with the next three U.S. buckets to keep it from getting any closer, and Wade and Redd combined for the final 10 points of the period to bump the lead back to 71-51.
Wade came in averaging 17.3 points in only 18.7 points per game, showing he’s fully recovered after missing the last 1 1/2 months of the NBA season due to his surgically repaired left knee.
James finished with 10 points and Williams had nine assists. Williams and fellow point guard Chris Paul got extended minutes in the second half, with starter Jason Kidd not playing at all after halftime.