LONDON – US NBA stars and European champions Spain each overcame slow starts to win their Olympic openers with ease on Sunday, serving notice they remain the teams to beat in the fight to reach the gold medal game.
With US First Lady Michelle Obama among those watching, Kevin Durant scored 22 points and grabbed nine rebounds to lead the Americans to a 98-71 win over France, with the US players adapting to more stringent officiating than found in the NBA.
“It seems like we get better as the game progresses,” said US starting guard Chris Paul. “We have to get better at the start.
“We learned a lot of different things about how the game will be officiated. You have to adjust every game.”
The US multi-millionaires’ lineup, assembled just over three weeks ago, took time getting to grips with referee ideas over what was a violation, leading to some early foul woes before the NBA players found peak form in the second half.
“We were just trying to figure out how they were going to call the game,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Throughout the course of the game we had no clue. In the third quarter the whistle wasn’t blowing as much. We were able to stop them.”
Kevin Love added 14 points for the US while Kobe Bryant had 10 points. James and Carmelo Anthony each had nine as the Americans rose to 55-1 since revamping the team after taking bronze at the 2004 Olympics.
“We’re not going to look great all the time because the rest of the world is that good,” US coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’re not going to assume anything. Hopefully the way we’re playing will translate into a gold medal.”
The Americans hope to simply put the polishing touches on their teamwork over the next week before the medal playoffs begin August 8.
“We’re close,” Durant said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but that’s the beauty of it all. We’re all coming together in such a short time.”
NBA Los Angeles Lakers star forward Pau Gasol scored 21 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to spark the Spaniards to a 97-81 victory against China despite game highs of 30 points and 12 rebounds for China’s Yi Jianlian of the NBA Dallas Mavericks.
“We were missing a little bit of rhythm, but we will fix it and get better as the days go by,” Gasol said.
Apart from the USA’s defeat of France, other Group A results Sunday saw Nigeria beat Tunisia 60-56 and Argentina defeat Lithuania 102-79 in a rematch of the 2008 Olympic bronze medal game won by the South Americans.
Group B winners besides Spain were Brazil, who defeated Australia 75-71, and Russia, who routed hosts Great Britain 95-75.
NBA standout Leandrinho Barbosa scored 16 points and Marcelinho Huertas added 15 to spark Brazil, which needed two free throws from Huertas with five seconds remaining to escape the Aussies.
Patrick Mills, an NBA guard, led Australia with 20 points while Joe Ingles added 15 points and David Andersen contributed 14 for the Boomers.
Alade Aminu scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds while NBA player Ike Diogu added 13 points and 10 rebounds for Nigeria, who have not lost to reigning African champion Tunisia in international competition since 1987.
“We showed everyone we’re the best team in Africa,” Diogu said.
Former NBA player Andrei Kirilenko scored 35 points and Alexey Shved added 16 points and 13 assists to spark Russia’s victory over Britain.
British captain Luol Deng, an NBA standout for the Chicago Bulls, scored 26 points and ex-NBA big man Pops Mensah-Bonsu had 22 points and nine rebounds for the Olympic hosts.
Luis Scola scored 32 points and Manu Ginobili added 21 to lead Argentina’s victory over Lithuania. They are among five players on the South American squad who won 2004 Olympic gold.
Round-robin play resumes Tuesday with the US NBA stars playing Tunisia, Lithuania against Nigeria and France facing Argentina in Group A while Group B has China versus Russia, Britain against Brazil and Spain taking on Australia.