Four Takeaways From Team USA’s First Exhibition Against Canada

LAS VEGAS — The United States men’s Olympic basketball team gathered for training camp in Las Vegas this weekend, with a significant showcase on the schedule for Wednesday evening at T-Mobile Arena. Following four days of practice and a roster swap involving Kawhi Leonard and Derrick White, Team USA faced off with one of its top Olympic challengers, Team Canada, in a friendly before heading overseas to continue their exhibition tour ahead of Paris. After a hiccup out of the gate, Team USA assumed control for most of the evening, eventually leading by 15 points at the end of the third quarter and cruising to an 86-72 win.

It was a comfortable win, but one that also comes with plenty of talking points, and here we’ll look at four takeaways from our first official look at this year’s U.S. Olympic squad.

No Worries About A Slow Start

The first few minutes were pretty rough for the home team. Team USA trailed 11-1 to begin the game, even as Canada wasn’t exactly throwing 100 miles per hour on the corners. The Americans missed their first six shots and committed two turnovers before a badly needed three-pointer from Stephen Curry almost five minutes into the game. That wasn’t the end of the uneven play, as Team USA committed eight (!) turnovers in the first quarter, scoring only 14 points.

Alas, it looked to be the product of rust and perhaps the realization that Team USA actually had to ramp things up from an intensity standpoint in this setting. That happened quickly in the second quarter, as the Americans made 12 of their next 17 shots after the 0-for-6 start, and a 14-4 run to begin the second period helped to push Team USA into a solid halftime lead. Steve Kerr did note prior to the game one of the challenges for this team would be stars who are used to feeling their way into games needing to be more aggressive early as they’ll play in shorter bursts, but it seemed that got message got received after the first stint.

Who’s The Fifth Starter?

Intel on the ground in Las Vegas points to most assuming four starters are at least fairly entrenched for Team USA — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, and Joel Embiid. While some may attempt to argue against that choice, Durant is perhaps the best player in Team USA history, James is James, and Curry is Curry.

Embiid is a little bit different, of course, but Team USA did woo him a year ago to get him to play, which shouldn’t be forgotten from a context perspective. Embiid also didn’t play very well for most of Wednesday (he fouled out by the mid-third) and he seemed a bit clunky at times with the other starters, which could cause a bit of attention on his placement in the lineup. With that said, the recent MVP probably isn’t coming off the bench. At least that’s the feeling around the team.

All that to say, there is a spot open. Durant was sidelined with what the team has called a minor calf injury on Wednesday, and Steve Kerr elected to start Jrue Holiday and Devin Booker on the wings. While no one would argue Booker and Holiday were the best overall players available in a vacuum, they were both key cogs of the gold medal-winning team in Tokyo, which is something Kerr likely was weighing.

From there, Anthony Edwards would be another logical candidate to start after he was arguably the centerpiece of the 2023 World Cup team, and he looked the part on Wednesday.

Oh, and Team USA also has Jayson Tatum coming off a championship run with a game that fits snugly.

The fifth starter battle will generate plenty of attention. Does it matter? Maybe not. Regardless, Kerr will receive feedback from all corners on this one and the decision may stretch all the way out until the group stage in Paris.

Team USA’s Stars Are Known For Offense, But Defense Is This Team’s Biggest Strength

As with any team comprised of star-level players, Team USA has a few guys who skew toward the offensive end. No one would confuse Stephen Curry with prime Tony Allen, even if he is more than respectable on defense, and Tyrese Haliburton is perhaps a step or two down from Curry’s defensive baseline. Still, most of the roster is (very) capable of ramping things up, and that was on display against Canada.

Admittedly, it wasn’t an “every second of the game” effort from Team USA, but the highs were very high. Canada’s offensive numbers reflected that impressive defensive performance on the whole, especially inside the arc. The Canadians shot just 34 percent from the field, including a dismal 43 percent on two-point attempts. Team USA also generated 11 steals and blocked nine shots, creating general havoc throughout the night.

There is probably a conversation to be had on how Kerr will handle the rotation of Embiid, Anthony Davis, and Bam Adebayo in the frontcourt, as playing two of them together may have offensive drawbacks. Still, Team USA will always have a high-level anchor at the center spot, and the wings are all terrifying. An engaged version of James is tremendous on defense and gets to play short bursts on this team. Tatum has always been quite good. Edwards has the ability to simply overwhelm opponents with physicality and athleticism. Jrue Holiday is fantastic, as is his Celtics backcourt mate Derrick White who arrives soon. Kevin Durant, when he returns, has the wingspan of most centers and the ability to deploy it effectively.

There were moments in this contest in which it seemed like a talented Team Canada had no chance to score. That is worth remembering amid what will almost certainly be extensive discourse about how the American squad looks on the other end of the court. Also, that defensive ceiling is a big part of the transition advantage that Team USA has over anyone on the other side of the floor, and it should also produce fireworks on a regular basis.

LeBron James and Stephen Curry Playing Together Is Extremely Fun

Team USA hasn’t made its way to Paris just yet, but Wednesday provided a glimpse into one unique dynamic. LeBron James is indisputably one of the greatest players of all-time and, while he is seemingly immune to aging, one could assume the 39-year-old will be appearing in his final Olympics. James also hasn’t played for Team USA since 2012 and, if the game against Canada was any indication, James isn’t fooling around — his teammates voted him as the best player in camp over the weekend.

He looked dynamic and burst-y, using his physicality to his advantage and playing with the off-the-charts basketball IQ that basketball observers have come to expect. In addition, James isn’t having to carry a massive workload on a team like this, and in short spurts, he can ramp it up on the biggest stage. It was hard to avoid thinking ahead to the medal round when watching him turn on the jets in an exhibition.

Curry’s journey is different in that he has never played in the Olympics. That alone is a major storyline for the greatest shooter ever, and at age 36, this might be a “one last ride” for Curry, even in his first experience. His translation to the FIBA game is clean in that Curry’s shooting plays anywhere and he can also function off the ball with enough size to get by. Plus, well, it helps to have a guy that no one on the planet wants to leave open for even a millisecond.

Then, there is the pure appeal of James and Curry suiting up together. Obviously, they are not the only superstars in the mix here, but this marks the first time they will play together in any meaningful competition, much less on a stage like this. Durant is the player that mostly closely resembles James or Curry in terms of longevity and impact but, of course, he didn’t play on Wednesday and Durant is also a firm Team USA staple who has earned “American hero” status more than a few times on the court.

Ironically, James and Curry fit perfectly together on a basketball court, but the first time seeing it in this form (i.e., with real intensity and not just in an All-Star Game) was something of a “wow” moment for basketball sickos.

Cinema, indeed.