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U.S. shoots down conspiracy theory, wins in front of record crowd — PHOTOS

Updated July 10, 2024 - 11:49 pm

The decision to replace an injured Kawhi Leonard with Derrick White on the Olympic roster came down to fit and not footwear, USA Basketball managing director Grant Hill said.

Leonard’s nagging knee injury forced the Los Angeles Clippers star off the roster in a decision announced hours before Team USA played its first exhibition game Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing once the game tipped off either, but Team USA opened its exhibition slate with an 86-72 victory over Canada, the second choice on the betting board to challenge the Americans for gold in Paris.

The game drew 20,756 fans, surpassing a 2021 game between Gonzaga and Duke for the largest attendance for a basketball game in T-Mobile Arena history.

The record crowd — including former President Barack Obama — got to see one of the best collections of talent in Team USA history shake off a bit of rust after just four practices in Las Vegas.

Defensively, the team showed flashes of the elite level it’s capable of reaching. The offense isn’t likely to be too far behind.

“We had a slow start, which wasn’t surprising given that we’re just getting started here,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But the defense of the second group picking up the pace for us in transition made a few good plays to really jump-start our offense, and that got us into the game.

“It was a good first effort. We needed to set a tone for how we wanted to play and I think we did that.”

Anthony Edwards led the way with 13 points and Stephen Curry had 12, with Anthony Davis adding 10 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in just 19 minutes of action.

“To have that type of young energy around is amazing,” LeBron James said of Edwards. “I’m super excited to continue to work with him throughout the summer. He’s such a great young talent. We’re happy to have him.”

It was more than enough to account for the absences of Leonard and Kevin Durant, the national team’s all-time leading scorer in Olympic competition, who did not play due to a sore calf but is expected to return during next week’s stop in Abu Dhabi leading up to the Olympics in Paris.

Leonard’s knee did not respond quite as well.

‘In our best interest’

After four days of practices at UNLV, Leonard, USA Basketball and the Clippers came together to decide it was in the star forward’s best interest not to continue with the team. Hill said the final decision rested with him and USA Basketball.

“We just felt we had to pivot,” Hill said before the game. “We just felt it was in our best interest, but also the Clippers and Kawhi’s best interest, to move in a different direction. I think we all tried and gave it a valiant effort. Unfortunately, we have to move forward.”

Hill credited Leonard for trying to compete despite his obvious physical limitations.

“He wanted to be here,” Hill said. “I know what it’s like to want to do something and your body’s just not right. I’ve lived that personally. I applaud him for coming here and being willing to sacrifice, give up his summer and represent our country and play for our program. Ultimately, it just didn’t work out.”

Curry expressed disappointment Leonard wouldn’t be able to pursue a first Olympic gold medal, but believes it’s important the veteran finds a way to be healthy for the upcoming NBA season and beyond.

“Hopefully for the long term he’s in a good place because the game needs him,” Curry said. “When he’s not out there, you’re missing an all-time great. So hopefully he’s ready for the season.”

Leonard’s departure left Hill and the rest of USA Basketball to decide on a replacement, a spot that went to White.

While White had been previously reported as the first alternate, his Boston teammate Jaylen Brown appeared to be unhappy with the snub after he was named NBA Finals MVP last month.

‘Have to build a team’

Brown implied he was passed over because he is not signed to Nike, one of the team’s primary sponsors.

Hill suggested it was much more about what type of player he felt the team needed to complement all of the superstar players on the roster.

“You get 12 spots and you have to build a team,” Hill said. “One of the hardest things is leaving people off the roster that I’m a fan of and that I look forward to watching throughout the season. Guys who have been Finals MVPs and been part of the program and won gold medals that I respect and admire. But my job is to put together a team that complements each other and fits and will give us the best opportunity for success.

“Whatever theories might be our there, they’re just that. It’s tough to tell people they’re not on the team, but I’m trying to win and to put together the right pieces that fit and give us a chance to do that.”

White is expected to join the team in Abu Dhabi.

Without him and Durant, the short-handed Americans got off to a slow start. They fell behind 11-1 before Curry hit a 3-pointer for the team’s first field goal 4:35 into the opening quarter. They took their first lead midway through the second quarter when Devin Booker’s short jumper off the glass put them up 35-33.

“There’s a temptation to defer and overthink every possession because every guy on the court for your team can make a play,” Curry said. “Once we got settled, it seemed like everyone started to get comfortable. Hopefully the next exhibition games, you’ll see more progress.”

Team USA has four more exhibition games before opening the Olympics against Serbia on July 28 in Paris.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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