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U.S. shows up late to World party, survives Puerto Rico

SAPPORO, Japan -- Puerto Rico was scoring so easily against
the United States, maybe the Americans should have considered
playing 6-against-5.


Actually, they tried that, too.

The U.S. eventually overcame a slow start that included a
strange sequence in which Carmelo Anthony inbounded the ball
despite being out of the game, settling down to beat Puerto Rico
111-100 on Saturday in the opening game of Group D in the World
Championship.

Anthony led the U.S. with 21 points. LeBron James and
Kirk Hinrich each added 15 for the Americans, who found things to be
much tougher than they were during a 45-point rout in an exhibition
game at Las Vegas earlier this month.

"We got a slow start but we picked it up in the second half,"
James said. "We were able to keep them in front of us and we got a
win. It doesn't matter how many points you win by, as long as you
get a win."

Carlos Arroyo of the Orlando Magic scored 23 points for Puerto
Rico, which looked capable for much of the first half of a second
straight major upset of the United States in international play.
The Puerto Ricans shocked the Americans 92-73 in the opening game
of the Olympics two years ago in Athens.

Anthony, James and Dwyane Wade, the three U.S. captains, were
there for that loss, which sent the Americans on their way to a
disappointing third-place finish.

"Now I'm kind of one of the leaders of this team along with
Dwyane Wade and LeBron, so I've got to go out there and do what I
have to do to pick this team up any way possible," Anthony said.

Apparently, that includes trying to make a play even when he's
not in the game.

Anthony was the central figure in the game's most bizarre
sequence, which led to a technical foul on the Americans. After
picking up two quick fouls, he went to the bench, but chose to
stand in front of his chair instead of sitting.

When a ball went out of bounds near the U.S. bench, both the
nearest referee and U.S. guard Kirk Hinrich didn't seem to realize
Anthony wasn't in the game. So the official handed the ball to
Anthony, the closest player to him, and with no other U.S. players
coming back for it, Anthony simply passed it in, giving new meaning
to the term "sixth man."

"The referee threw me the ball, so I just threw it in bounds,"
Anthony said. "He didn't even know."

The ref eventually figured it out when Anthony didn't run up the
court with the rest of the players, and a technical foul was
called. Arroyo hit both free throws to tie the game at 17, and an
irate coach Mike Krzyzewski loudly scolded his players sitting on
the bench.

"I'm used to that after four years at Duke, so I knew where he
was coming from," Shane Battier said. "In a situation like this,
with a team that on paper you're scheduled to beat, if you give
them confidence, strange things can happen in the game of
basketball.

"Against teams you should beat, you have to go out early on,
impose your will, and send a message that 'Hey, we're here to
play.'"

The Americans eventually did that in the second quarter. Anthony
returned early in the period and scored nine points, helping the
U.S. turn a four-point deficit into a 57-51 lead at the break. He
converted a three-point play and fed James for a fast-break dunk on
consecutive possessions early in the third as the U.S. pushed the
lead into double digits for the first time.

"I think from the second quarter on the defense was good,"
Anthony said. "First quarter we kind of gave them too many points.
We let them score, we let them get to the middle of the court a
lot, but we sat down at the end of the first quarter and said if we
wanted to win this game we have to do it on the defensive end."

The Americans will have to do it better, though, after allowing
Puerto Rico to shoot 54 percent from the floor and make 10 of 16
3-pointers. But the Puerto Ricans didn't have nearly enough depth
to keep up their fast start, especially when Arroyo was on the
bench.

Puerto Rico coach Julio Toro said the U.S. defenders, "have to
keep growing and getting better in their man-to-man matchups, the
matchup zones, closing lanes."

The American players partially attributed their poor start to
the quiet environment inside the arena. The public address
announcer's call that it was time to meet Team USA during pregame
introductions was followed by almost complete silence, though
cheers eventually came for James and Wade.

The U.S. moved on to play China in its second game on Sunday morning. The
Americans are playing in a relatively weak group, which should give
them plenty of time to clean things up before the later rounds.

"Our defense will get better as this tournament goes along,"
Wade said. "That will be our game. We've got guys that can get out
to the open court. Once we can do that, we're a pretty good
ballclub."