Vegas, Day Three: Team USA vs. Puerto Rico

by Lang Whitaker

Before we get rolling on the game notes, I heard one member of Team USA was walking through the casino at the Wynn and he stopped and plunked down $9,000 on one hand of blackjack. He lost.

On to the game notes, live from the Thomas & Mack Center in Vegas…

— Raucous crowd tonight here in Vegas.

— A staff sergeant from the Air Force performs the National Anthem and brings the house down. Large military presence here in Nevada. Jermaine O’Neal enters the stands during the anthem and finds a place in the stands and forgets to remove his hat. Wonder when the last time was Jermaine was in the stands at an event during the National Anthem?

— Team USA huddles up and does a Miami Heat-style swinging back and forth thing.

— USA Starters are no surprise: Melo, Bron, Wade, Chris Paul and Bosh, a mix of the two teams that ran in the scrimmage. Every guy was born after 1984.

— Puerto Rico wins their first jump ball of the last 5 quarters.

— Bosh gets a ticky-tacky foul called early. Arroyo responds with an airball, then Bosh takes a ridiculous three. LeBron hits a long two to make it 2-0.

— Ayuso gets called for a carry, then the Puerto Rican coach gets a quick technical foul. Not a bad idea, considering the crowd is all over them already. Melo knocks down both free throws.

— They’ve run two plays for Bosh already where he gets freed up at the free throw line to go one on one, which seems odd.

— Wade goes baseline and hits a floater over Carmelo Lee, who looks kind of like Tayshaun Prince. Time out called, 6-0, USA with 7:53 to go. This could be a long one.

— Doctor J is introduced to the crowd and he looks surprised as the camera focuses in on him. He hops to his feet and gives a big wave.

— Full court press by the USA, and PR breaks it easily.

— Bron dumps it to Bosh who misses an awkward lay in. Ball pops out to Melo who drains a three. PR responds with a hoop, then Santiago (Private Santiago?) dunks it home.

— Bosh and Wade come out for Dwight and Jamison.

— Melo gets called for a walk, a questionable call. But it’s good they’re calling this tight, because that’s how FIBA will be for the USA. 9-8, USA.

— Melo gets a steal on defense, then comes down and outworks Private Santiago for an offensive rebound.

— Bosh and Dwight seem rather nervous.

— Carlos goes And 1 on everyone and gets to rim for a layup, which he misses. Bron leads a break back and Jamison blows a lay-up. Gets bailed out with a foul call, he makes one of two. The second one sits on the rim and Santiago wipes it away, which is of course allowed in international ball. The crowd gets all upset though, not understanding there’s a difference in rules.

— Apodaca wets a three. Melo gets a two. Arroyo drives in and Melo drills him, but no foul is called.

— Bosh comes in for Dwight, and Dwight is walking to the bench when he decides he needs to give Bosh a pound. So he turns and runs back and gives him a reluctant pound.

— PJ Ramos! The man who’s head is so large that one of his teammates once said that when Ramos got cornrows, the hairdresser must have got carpal tunnel.

— Chris Paul makes back-to-back brilliant passes for easy baskets. Bosh comes down and gets up near the rim and Ramos crushes him. He hits both shots to make it 21-20.

— US doesn’t seem to be able to get anything going inside, or outside for that matter. Lots of free throws being taken, which I suppose benefits the US, depth-wise. PR is pushing the tempo whenever it can.

— Apodaca pushes the tempo and drives hard, and Bron throws it into a row of soldiers courtside.

— D-Wade walks but then completely demolishes PJ Ramos. It doesn’t count, but the place goes nuts. NBA photographer Nat Butler later tells me he missed the shot (I was asking for Slamadamonth) because Wade “jumped too high.”

— PR is running guys in and out like crazy. Chris Paul goes down on a three attempt and gets the call on Angel Figueroa. CP’s been watching Reggie Miller tapes, it appears.

— Wade hounds Apodaca and pokes the ball loose, then steals is again and gets Melo a wide-open dunk.

— Next time down, Coach K stands and yells “Trap! Trap!” The USA traps, and Arroyo calmly passes it out to the three-point line across the court, where Apodaca swishes a wide-open three.

— 29-26 after one, and Battier, Hinrich, Joe Johnson, Brad Miller and Gilbert Arenas are loosening up on the sideline. I guess there wasn’t anyone else more boring than Gilbert available to team with those guys.

— Santiago completely uses Battier on back-to-back plays. Remember, two more US guys have to be waived before they get to Asia. Shane? Coach needs to see you in his office. Yeah, and bring your playbook, please.

— Santiago mows over a moving Battier. Good news is that’s a foul on Battier. Five more and the US can put in a good player to replace him. Like Elton Brand, anyone?

— Arroyo hits a runner to make it 33-29, PR. A B-Miller fadeaway cuts it to 33-31.

— Elton Brand and Bruce Bowen check in for Miller and Hinrich. Arenas wets a three. 34-33, US.

— Shane! He dives in and knocks a ball loose from Santiago. Elton hits a baseline shot. 5-0 run, USA.

— Arroyo breaks the run. Joe Johnson answers. 38-35.

— During a timeout, a guy in a white beret and a red sparkling jacket runs out and tries to hype up the crowd. We can’t escape horrible on-court entertainment, even in Vegas.
— Dope collection of retired jerseys here: Rickey Sobers, Reggie Theus, Glen Gondrezick, Stacey Augmon, Larry Johnson, Sidney Green.

— Puerto Rico comes out of the TO and traps the US, and Bowen turns it over. Ayuso misses a three by about two feet.

— I think PR has 15 fouls thus far. Make that 16, as our man Shane! Draws a charge. He is getting mad burn.

— Joe Johnson freaks Carmelo Lee and gets baseline and sinks the two. And one, good.

— Private Santiago takes the charge against Gilbert Arenas.

— Former USA members “here to show their support” — or just to come to Vegas for a few days — are introduced: Lenny Wilkens, Spencer Haywood, Chuck Daly (in shades), Clyde Drexler and Scottie Pippen, who gets a wild ovation. I nearly throw my Sidekick at Coach Lenny for ruining the Hawks.

— Take it back, take back what you said about Battier! Dude is hustling like Rick Ross out there.

— Santiago is out of gas. All of sudden the US is up 48-35. That’s a 14-2 run, peoples.

— Arenas runs down a loose ball from behind and flies into the crowd saving it. He gets a nice standing O from the crowd.

— 48-35 at the half. US outscored PR 19-9 in the second.

— Third starts with Joe Johnson, Hinrich, Dwight, Bron and Wade, small but lethal lineup. Is Bron the power forward? They begin with back-to-back steals. Hinrich wets a three. 55-35.

— Another steal. Bron tomahawks it down the lane. 9-0 run to start the third. First “U-S-A!” chant of the night.

— Coach K talked the other day about not having time to work on offense much yet, and it looks like it, because a lot of the halfcourt offense is guys dribbling around. The US is much more effective in transition. 58-35, by the way. LeBron with another layup, 60-35. That’s a 12-0 run.

— PR finally scores to make it 60-37. US is still playing fullcourt man to man. Ayuso up for the jumper and LeBron spikes it into his head like he’s Karch Kiraly.

— Santiago is not playing for PR. Must be saving him for the fourth. Battier and Bosh in for the US.

— LeBron kills Latimer in the post with an up and under. Yes, Bron can play the four. In PR, at least.

— 62-40 right now.

— Rick Apodaca hacks Bron hard, and the scoreboard cuts to a shot of Scottie Pippen yukking it up on the sideline.

— By the way, the trainer for Team USA is my favorite trainer in the League, Rockets doc Keith Jones.

— Wade gets shoved out of bounds under the basket and tried to throw a shot up that hits nothing but the basket support.

— The Maloofs are here, or at least two wax figures resembling the Maloofs. The crowd gives them some halfhearted jeers, probably because they’ve all lost money at the Palms.

— Oh! Ramos tries to tomahawk one on Shane Battier but misses. Vicious attempt, though.

— By the way, at halftime I saw Pat Riley in the stands, being accosted by Jim Gray and looking nervously for a way to escape.

— 64-45 with 3:52 left.

— LeBron mows over Angelo Reyes and gets called for the charge, and the crowd protests vehemently.

— D-Wade picks the ball clean and windmills one in the open court. Battier responds with a three next time down. 73-45. Dwight gets a dunk. 75-45.

— Dwight posterizes Private Santiago. Or should we say, He delivered the Code Red!

— Joe Johnson wets a three. 80-47.

— The crowd gets a full-on “USA!” chant going, and Private Santiago bursts free for an open dunk. D-Wade flies in out of nowhere and blocks it with two hands, taking the foul and drawing cheers from an appreciative crowd.

— This is silly. With the clock running down at the quarter, Wade hits a loooong three, so long that the mostly staid PA announcer goes, “Whoo!”

— 83-48 after three. That’s a 35-13 quarter, which means the second and third equal a 54-22 US run.

— Bron and Chris Paul were working on a little handshake thing earlier in the week that the whole team breaks out: two slaps and a salute to each other.

— Two guys dressed like the Blues Brothers come out before the fourth and sing Soul Man, and the crowd doesn’t give a crap. Pretty funny reception, actually.

— Coach K assembles a relatively impotent lineup: Jamison, Bowen, Brand, Melo and Chris Paul.

— Melo freaks Angel Figueroa, catching, pump-faking and jacking a three. No dribble, no movement, a tough shot to hit. Net.

— These guys are still playing hard, up 36. Chris Paul is just suffocating the ballhandlers.

— With the game out of reach here, let’s try and guess which two players aren’t going to make the team. I’d say Battier and Bowen are kind of the same player, at least the way the US is playing, and Coach K appears to love Battier — he led the US in minutes in the first half. So maybe Bowen, although Bowen is probably the best all-around defender on this team. The other guy who doesn’t seem to have a place here, at least in this game, is Gilbert Arenas. Hinrich and CP are the two true point guards, and Bron and Joe Johnson can both play the position, too. So unless Arenas really steps up his D he seems like an odd fit. Miller and Brand also seem redundant, although I’d be inclined to think you can’t have enough big guys on the roster. I brought this up with other informed observers and they agreed that Bowen is probably on the brink, though they also think Antawn Jamison is on the bubble.

— 96-58 right now, with 6:19 to go, and the US is trapping and playing full-court defense. PR is shooting 34.2 percent from the floor for the game, and the US is at 50.8. The only thing I think Coach K can complain about is free throws, because the US is at 70-percent for the game right now. That’s not horrible, but it should definitely be higher.

— Melo gets a pick from B-Miller, turns the corner and tries to smash one on PJ Ramos. Right as Melo goes to the line, the scoreboard shows Coach Tarkanian in the crowd, and everyone starts cheering loudly as Melo is shooting. Nice.

— 103-65 with 4:46 left, and the crowd starts filing out.

— PJ Ramos tries to dunk again, this time over Elton Brand, and Elton sends him to the line.

— CP3 drops a nice behind-the-back dish to Jamison.

— Bill Raftery is in the house! Mantoman!

— The US is up 40 with 2 minutes left, and Coach K puts Melo and Elton in. A “USA! USA!” chant returns and fades away.

— Someone calls a timeout with 1:37 left and the score 110-67. I wonder how this will be accepted by the general sports viewing public. I’d think the US losing in 2004 will kind of help here, because there might be more interest now. And these guys really seem not only glad to be here, but they want to make this a team that people remember as a dominant team. These guys were kids when the first Dream Team dominated in Barcelona in 1992, and they want to make their mark, too.

— And we have a final score: USA: 114, PR: 69. The US gets a standing ovation at the buzzer. PR played well early on but the US just had too much energy and depth for PR to hang with them.

— Post game, the guys from Team USA are all giddy. Dwight Howard says he was so excited to wear the USA uniform that when he got his actually uniform earlier in the day he put it on and ran around his hotel room a little bit. Gilbert Arenas spend the day seeing some show called “La Reve” at their hotel, the Wynn, though he has trouble pronouncing the name of the show.

The most impressive player for the US was probably Carmelo Anthony, who finished with a team-high 18 points, was everywhere on both ends, and is a totally different player now than he was even a year ago. Bruce Bowen said he thought Carmelo really lets the game come to him now, and Carmelo agreed with that assessment. He doesn’t have to force anything, and even though the other teams are concentrating on him, he’s able to get off whatever he needs to. I don’t think he’s on LeBron’s level yet as an all-around great player, but…well, remember this time last year when I started talking about how Dwight Howard was going to have a breakout season? It’s Melo’s turn. He still hasn’t been an All-Star, remember. Coach K can’t stop raving about him.
On Friday morning, the guys from Team USA were going to hop on a plane for a 14-hour flight to China. Gilbert said their plan was to stay up as late as they could, hopefully all night, so they could get on the plane and get a ton of sleep in.

Staying up didn’t look like it would be too hard, because every one of the guys, from Brad Miller to LeBron James, was in a great mood. Chris Paul said his favorite part of the game was hearing the fans chant “USA, USA…,” particularly the way the chant would start with just a few fans and then grow and billow and swell into something loud and, honestly, a little bit thrilling.

Even to a jaded writer like myself.