BEIJING - The shots weren't necessarily falling, but for Team USA, the cheers unexpectedly never stopped raining down.
In what many regarded as the most-watched basketball game the world has ever seen, the United States opened Olympic play by topping China, 101-70, yesterday.
In the first major basketball matchup of the Summer Games, the mood was electric throughout Olympic Basketball Gymnasium. While the crowd boisterously rooted for China, they also respectfully cheered on the United States. In fact, when the starting lineups were announced, Kobe Bryant's reception nearly matched the one showered on native son Yao Ming.
"We had the Chinese fans with us. We had the USA fans with us," Team USA forward Carmelo Anthony (Towson Catholic) said. "And I'm pretty sure we had a couple of other cultures out there cheering for us, too."
Seeking redemption after a bronze-medal finish at the 2004 Games, this Olympic squad got off to a much better start. Four years ago, the United States opened Olympic play with a 21-point loss to Puerto Rico. They were booed throughout that contest. Opening up against the host country this time around, the Americans made easy work of the Chinese and were somewhat surprised to find such a welcoming crowd.
"Four years ago, we weren't getting no cheers from nobody," Anthony said. "Now, we don't just have our people, we have China, we have different countries that are out there cheering for us."
While the result was certainly reassuring - especially considering the United States might not face another team as tall as the Chinese - two of Team USA's starters failed to top three points, including Anthony, a Baltimore native.
Jason Kidd played only 13 minutes and never attempted a field goal, and Anthony was 0-for-3 from the field - including 0-for-2 from behind the three-point line - and was hardly a factor for most of the night. His three points came from the free throw line.
The United States was led by Dwyane Wade, who scored 19 points and played his first minutes since returning from a knee injury, while LeBron James chipped in 18. While the American team gave up size to China's big men, Team USA actually outscored their opponents in the paint 60-26. Behind the arc, though, it was a different story.
Team USA was 7-for-24, and only Michael Redd managed more than one three-pointer (3-for-7).
"Shots were wide open," Anthony said. "I'll shoot those shots if I have them all the time. They just weren't dropping."
At one point, Anthony failed to pull in a rebound and served as a mere launching pad for Yi Jianlian, who leaped over the Denver Nuggets star and notched a resounding dunk, much to the delight of the 11,083 fans.
Anthony had led the U.S. team in scoring the past two summers. Despite last night's showing, he wasn't especially worried after the game. He said he would just keep firing the ball at the hoop. "Maybe I've never been this open before," Anthony said.
For China, Yao scored a team-high 13 points, shooting just 3-for-10 from the field, including a three-pointer that opened the game. He also had a game-high 10 rebounds.
Though last night's performance had its flaws, Team USA's prospects at these Games continue to look promising. In fact, Argentina, the gold-medal winner in 2004, lost its opening-round game, 79-75, to Lithuania.
The United States continues pool play tomorrow against Angola, 95-66 losers to Germany yesterday.
As Team USA challenged China last night, the arena was packed, and flags for both teams waved in the stands. President Bush was in attendance and spoke with the players before the tip-off. Both teams seemed to realize the magnitude of the contest, which was televised in prime time throughout China and in the morning in the United States.
"We have made history," said Bryant, who finished with 13 points but was just 1-for-7 from behind the three-point line.
Added Anthony: "We sent a real strong message out there tonight. We let people know that were coming to reclaim our spot. We feel we're still the best players in the world. I think getting that gold medal will solidify that."