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U.S. hoops still has some work to do

Washington Post: The most watched basketball game in human history had a fundamental problem. China's game needs a little work. And so does the Americans'.

As you wander through the Forbidden City, China's center of power throughout centuries of emperors, nothing seems out of place. You walk backward in time to an era of eunuchs and eight levels of concubines. Then near Tiananmen Square, you pass through one more arch into another ancient quadrangle. And you gasp. Or laugh. Before you, amid all the classic architecture, are — basketball courts. One with perfect grass surfaces, like Wimbledon, one with normal playground concrete.

The Forbidden City guards play pickup games there. And nobody says "Bu [no]." Those incongruous courts tell you the most basic sports story in this country: 300 million play basketball, as many as the total population of the United States. China is utterly nuts for hoops. Soccer is in second place now.

All that passion for the sport, and ambition to become a power in the game someday, were on display in the jammed Wukesong Stadium on Sunday as China tried gamely to give the best NBA players a battle while the crowd chanted something that sounded like, "Add gas," which translates as, "Go, China." All in all, the enthusiastic atmosphere before a packed house approximated a spirited NCAA tournament game or early-round NBA playoff contest.

However, the most watched basketball game in human history had a fundamental problem. China's game needs a little work. Call back in 2020 for a rematch. By then, given China's desire, the NBA stars may have all they can handle. On this night, the U.S. team, playing its flashiest and most crowd-pleasing version of the game, crushed the hosts, 101-70.

Few were more entertained than the sports-adoring Bush family, including the president, his father and his brother. All sat on the edges of their seats, but the president frequently stood, grinned or clapped for spectacular plays. Perhaps there's a code that demands a president leave early if his country leads 77-48 after three quarters. So, Bush did.

For those who suspect the United States will have several routs but at least one life-or-death game with its gold medal chances in the balance, this was only a mildly encouraging start. As coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "Both teams played extremely hard. I was proud of our effort." This is what Coach K often says when everything about his team's play — except its intensity — appalls him.

Krzyzewski's biggest fears were obvious. The United States was awful from beyond the mere 20-foot 6-inch international three-point line while allowing China 27 shots from behind the stripe, very few of them closely defended. "We were 1 for 15 on threes before we started hitting some," said Krzyzewski, aware that this very weakness has doomed past U.S. teams. "And more than half their points [in the first half] were on threes."

Perhaps in an effort to please the roaring, generous Chinese crowd, the Americans played in much the same individualistic manner that has led to repeated mortifications in international play since 2002, including sixth- and third-place finishes in the world championships and a bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics.

The NBA stars had more than 20 dunks against a foe that could hardly cover anybody, except for the occasional interior intimidation from 7-foot-6 Yao Ming or 7-foot Yi Jianlian.

"There was no 'showing off,' " said Krzyzewski, mildly annoyed by a question suggesting exactly that. "To me that's hard basketball. Don't confuse hard with showing off."

The U.S. team's greatest concern may be that it let a Chinese team with no remote medal hopes stay fairly competitive until midway in the third period. What confidence must that give Spain, Argentina and Greece. Despite its depth, the United States got 71 of its first 74 points from just five players and seemed indifferent to defending the perimeter whenever China got the ball into the post.

For a team as small as the United States, with no first-rate center except Dwight Howard, every foe is going to dump the ball into the pivot then kick it out for three-pointers, trying to trade wide-open threes for the Americans' acrobatic two-point dunks.

Okay, say it: Once again the United States looks like it's built to win frequently but, on a night when Howard gets in foul trouble and the three-point shots aren't falling, could lose a heart-breaking, close game.

One factor mitigates against that fear. The U.S. stars are appalled at the thought of losing. As Kobe Bryant said a few days ago: "People ask me and I joke around, but if we want to remain U.S. citizens we got to win gold. [If we don't], I'll be an Italian. You'll be calling me Kobe Giovanni."

More than anything, this game was anticipated for its jubilant atmosphere and long-term symbolism. When 1.3 billion people decide to master an activity that only requires five men at a time, what's going to stop them?

China thinks in terms of dynasties that last centuries, so the concept of working for decades to reach dominance in a discipline is a familiar cultural concept. But the Chinese also expect progress.

"Our switches were not good," said China's coach, Jonas Kazlauskas, a former head coach of the Lithuanian national team. Asked what he thought about a rematch for the gold medal against the United States, he said: "This is a good dream you are having. But to tell the truth . . . "

Don't do anything that rash, coach. Let China enjoys its fantasies. Someday they'll probably come true.

Perhaps the true mark of a sports aficionado is unbiased appreciation, even occasional adoration, for the truly magnificent visiting team. The Chinese fans showed just such sophistication and generosity.

Even during player introductions, the crowd cheered more loudly for Bryant, a Middle Kingdom icon, than Yao, China's flag bearer. During warmups, the fans kept their eyes riveted on the Americans, roaring when LeBron James threw down a one-handed slam off a high rebound and positively erupting when Bryant treated them to a Slam Dunk Contest-quality two-handed windmill slam.

Unfortunately for the obliging hosts, James (18 points), Dwyane Wade (18), Bryant (13) and Howard (13) kept the dunkathon going all night.

One image from this game will continue to be worrisome until the gold medal work is done here. In pregame warmups, James, who has sworn to be the team's unselfish, fundamentally sound leader, spent all his time practicing "jump shots" from a few feet inside mid-court to excite the crowd or attempting over-the-backboard shots from 10 feet out of bounds.

This game was for laughs. What happens when things get serious?