The USA Olympic basketball team escaped with an 80-69 victory against Brazil in exhibition play that should wake up the team before the real games begin.
Facing a 10-point deficit early in the contest, Team USA, led by a 30-point effort from LeBron James, rallied to overcome Brazil on Monday night.
After surrendering 27 points in an embarrassing first quarter, the United States played stifling defense in the following period, allowing only five points. In a dreadful shooting display, the US shot 40.8 percent from the floor and hit a mere six three-pointers in 24 attempts.
The victory certainly was not pretty, but the near defeat should humble Team USA and prevent them from becoming complacent in London.
Only for US basketball can a double-digit victory seem like a narrow win, but the squad possessing the world's biggest stars is expected to dominate every game. And when one of your stars declares that this squad can beat the 1992 Dream Team, who averaged a 43.8-point margin of victory, the bar is set awfully high.
Although Bryant probably just wanted to cause a stir and rile up the Dream Team's veterans, the younger stars might not have taken his words in jest. Bryant implanted thoughts of immortality before the official competition even began.
This exhibition game showed that Team USA is not invincible. They cannot sleepwalk their way to another gold medal.
While Brazil boasts a frontcourt with NBA talent, a team with James and Bryant should not struggle to top Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter. Brazil also nearly upset the US during the 2010 FIBA World Championship, where they lost a 70-68 nail-biter.
With Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh and Blake Griffin all out due to injury, Tyson Chandler is the team's only true big man. In a game where Kevin Love only netted 5:35 minutes off the bench, James was the largest man on the court for the US when Chandler rested.
The US might have defeated the Dominican Republic in more convincing fashion, but they looked sluggish out of the gate. They often settled for jumpers, which was especially frustrating to see James do after he regularly drove to the basket with ease during the NBA postseason.
James redeemed himself with a magnificent performance that saved Team USA from a humiliating loss. Despite Bryant's bold claim, he is carrying over his postseason struggles to Olympic play. Bryant nailed only three of 11 attempts—seven of which were shots from long range.
Team USA had better hope that his lackluster performance—along with all the backlash regarding his Dream Team remarks—awakens the Black Mamba in time. Knowing Bryant's fierce competitive nature, there is a good chance it will.
By the time the U.S. squad steps on the court in London, they should be locked in and focused on bringing home the gold. Had they won every exhibition game by 50 points, they would have started the Olympics with arrogance and risked getting caught off-guard in a game that mattered.
When playing on a team that demolishes the competition, it's easy to get a big ego. Now that Team USA has felt the cusp of defeat, they should return with more focus and avoid taking any competitors for granted.
The sooner everyone drops the Dream Team comparisons, the better off this team will be in the Olympics. Brazil reminded Team USA that they are not the best team ever assembled, but merely a really good, flawed, star-studded squad.
That realization is just what they needed to avoid a disappointing Olympic finish.