The Americans survived their first tough test in Turkey, edging Brazil 70-68 on Monday when Leandro Barbosa‘s shot rattled out at the buzzer.
“This game right here was an eye opener,” U.S. guard Derrick Rose said.
Kevin Durant scored 27 points and Chauncey Billups added 15 for the Americans (3-0), who essentially clinched Group B with the victory. But they have bigger goals than a group championship, trying to end a 16-year U.S. drought in this event.
“We know that teams are really coming in here to try to win this tournament and we’re here to do the same,” said Rose, the only other U.S. player in double figures with 11 points.
After the Americans trailed most of the first 2½ quarters, Lamar Odom‘s dunk with 7:14 left put them ahead 64-62. But they couldn’t build on the lead during a tense final few minutes, and Brazil had two chances to send the game to overtime.
Following a miss by Billups, Brazil got the ball and Marcelo Huertas was fouled on a drive to the basket with 3.5 seconds remaining. He missed the first free throw and then the second intentionally, tracking it down in the corner and firing it underneath to Barbosa, who lofted a shot over Kevin Love, only to have it bounce off the back and front of the rim.
“I thought it was going to in, but it’s OK,” Barbosa said. “I think we did a great job, it was a great game. I don’t think the USA knew that we could cause problems for them and we did it.”
With NBA big men Nene, Anderson Varejao and Splitter, Brazil was considered one of the teams with enough size to topple the undersized Americans. Nene had to pull out with an injury and Varejao sat out again while continuing to rest a sprained right ankle, so the Brazilians turned to a speed game to lead for much of the game.
They just couldn’t finish the upset, leaving the Americans needing only a victory over Iran or Tunisia, the bottom two teams in Group B, or another Brazil loss to earn the top seed from the group and three full days off before meeting the No. 4 seed from Group A on Sept. 6.
The Americans have plenty to work on before worrying about that, after needing a huge night from Durant and 31 minutes from Billups, the old man of the team at 33 who had their only basket in the final 6:50.
“I knew that in the first half that this was going to be a fourth-quarter game, a last two- or three-minute game, and I was preparing myself to just be ready,” Billups said.
Nowhere was the difference between this team and its predecessor more apparent than in the matchup with Barbosa. When the teams last met, in their 2007 Olympic qualifier, Barbosa entered as the tournament’s leading scorer before Bryant led a defensive effort that held him to four points on 1-of-7 shooting in an easy U.S. win.
There’s no defenders like Bryant here, and Barbosa took advantage in the first quarter by making two 3-pointers and scoring eight points. Brazil made 12 of its first 16 shots in the period and its first four 3-pointers, streaks that were snapped when Barbosa was just short on a half-court heave at the buzzer, leaving them with a 28-22 lead.
Brazil extended its lead to eight early in the second quarter and was still up seven midway through the period, but with Splitter on the bench with two fouls, and Barbosa and Alex Garcia joining him, the Americans cut it to one a couple of times.
Splitter’s dunk sent the Brazilians to the half with a 46-43 advantage.
The Americans finally grabbed the lead midway through the third, extending it to 61-55 after consecutive baskets by Durant. Barbosa scored the final four points of the period, though, and pulled Brazil within two heading to the fourth.
The crowd grew solidly behind the underdogs, cheering loudly for Brazil baskets and booing loudly when a small “U-S-A!” chant broke out in the fourth.
Brazil is coached by Ruben Magnano, who guided Argentina to victories over the U.S. in the 2002 worlds and 2004 Olympics, when the Argentines won gold. He nearly authored another upset, as players on both teams thought Barbosa’s shot was going in.
“I had Durant right in front of me, I couldn’t see,” Huertas said. “I was in the corner but I saw the ball tipped on both sides of the rim and went out. It was a big disappointment.”
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski used his reserves liberally in the first two games, but gave much longer runs to the starters Monday after the backups were ineffective during their first stints.
Billups, who played in the 2007 victory over Brazil, thought it was good for his young teammates to have a close game so soon.
“We came out victorious, but for the young guys, just know how thin of a line it is. Possessions, turnovers, things like that that we talk about,” he said. “Now they can see it.”