- 10 Aug 08, 10:55 PM
Wukesong Arena, Beijing
For 15 minutes, it was a contest.
China, starting with their totemic leader Yao Ming, were raining them in from deep while the "Redeem Team" played "me ball", each member of the cast trying to outdo the other like an Olympic version of A Bridge Too Far.
But it couldn't last - LeBron James and Dwyane Wade saw to that - and with an estimated audience of one billion at home, and one head of state in the house, American authority was emphatically underlined. Or was it?
In fact, for that thrilling half an hour of real time, this game followed a similar course to the game within the Games. The one the Chinese really believe they can win.
The superstars of America's brilliant but brittle team were taking turns to score breathtaking dunks, while the less gifted but more patient Chinese were working space for their three-point shooters to pull the trigger.
At 29-29 with five minutes to play in the first half, the US was walking the highlights competition but China was still in the game.
A glance at the medal tally will reveal a similar story - for all your Michael Phelps and Kobe Bryant moments, a gold medal in the basketball is worth the same as a gold medal in the shooting, and China has won two of those already.
Not that the US basketball boss Mike "Coach K" Krzyzewski will be counting any chickens yet. This game had considerable symbolic value (and no doubt financial value too) but little merit as a genuine test of his team's mettle.
Those tests will come soon enough and teams with more serious credentials for extending America's dire run in men's hoops (no gold in any global competition since 2000) will have learned plenty from the early exchanges on Sunday.
If the US shoots that poorly against the likes of Argentina, Lithuania or Spain, they could be heading for further international embarrassment.
But I don't see that happening, largely because this team is able to take a greater number of high-percentage shots (and there is no more high-percentage shot than a slam dunk, even the reverse dunks Wade enjoys so much) than any other side in the competition.
The speed of their counter-attacks, the crispness of their passing and power of their trips to the basket cannot be matched by anybody. They've got an extra gear on defence too.
The US outscored China 24-4 on the fast break and claimed 60% of their points from inside the paint. Wade (who was perfect from the free-throw line too) was seven for seven from the floor and Chris Bosh four for four. But when all your shots are dunks, they should go in.
The hosts, on the other hand, made six of their first 10 three-point attempts and only four of their next 17.
Where the Americans could struggle, however, is against a team as organised as China, that stays hotter longer and does not rely so much on one player in defence.
Yao, who nailed the first three-pointer of the game, could not have given more for his team in terms of effort but what they needed was beyond even his powers.
Only back from a long injury lay-off last month, the 7ft 6in centre had to play all 40 minutes, bottle up the lanes America's high-wire acts wanted to attack, boss the boards and provide a serious inside threat on offence.
He tried but fatigue, foul trouble and Wade landing on his injured foot, meant he had to do too much leading from the sidelines. When China's flag-bearer was on the court it was almost close, when he wasn't it got far too easy for the US to showboat.
After the game, Krzyzewski denied suggestions his team had been showing off - "I don't know what your definition of showing off is, I would call that going to the basket hard" - and he also shot down (with a smile) talk of needing to "kill off super-egos" in his team.
But there was no doubt some of his players had been over-egging it, Bryant being the worst culprit. Too many no-look passes and rebounds tipped, not caught.
But more worryingly for his team, he was totally out of sorts from range. The LA Lakers superstar eventually stopped shooting and stuck to Wade-Bosh methods. In fact, it wasn't until the first string had sat down with the game safely in the bag that the second string started to hit some jump shots.
A far better performance than crowd favourite Kobe's was put in by LeBron. A Cavalier by trade and method, the 6'8" forward is a beguiling mix of finesse and force.
There were at least two surges to the hole that took the breath away, his passing skills are almost Magic-esque and defensively he is immense. He actually plucked one Chinese lay-up clean out of the air.
And that is how the basketball numbers stack up for these two teams at the moment. The Americans can afford to have one of their sporting gods take a day off; China cannot, even if his foot is hurting.
But for how much longer will that be the case? The reaction the US team received at the opening ceremony and as they took to the court on Sunday reveals just how popular basketball is in this country of 1.3 billion potential sports fans.
The National Basketball Association has been canny in selling the league's brand here and not the competing religions of its teams. The Rockets, Yao's team, are probably the most popular but not to the detriment of any other NBA outfit.
The American league has also been cuter than the Premier League, for example, in setting up a Chinese operation with local money and staff. There is now talk of NBA China putting a basketball court in every village.
With ambition like that the numbers start to change. How long can it be before China fields more than one Yao or perhaps a LeBron with a Beijing accent?
In the meantime, the US and George W should enjoy these wins in the big Olympic set-pieces, it's the bleeding from the smaller skirmishes they need to worry about..
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