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U.S. gets by on way to Games

Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI -- So much for off-Broadway, or as they say here, off-Tiananmen Square.

The U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team has had enough of the provinces. Showing the Americans are ready for prime time . . . or bored . . . they beat undermanned Australia on Tuesday night, although not by a lot and not impressively, winning, 87-76, to finish their exhibition season 5-0.

It was the closest game the U.S. has played in two summers. No one had come closer than 21 points this summer. The closest any team came in last summer’s Tournament of the Americas was Argentina, which lost, 91-76.

Not that a lot is expected of the U.S. but Coach Mike Krzyzewski was asked afterward whether his team is ready.

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“We’re prepared for the Olympics,” said a bemused Krzyzewski. “It’s just a matter of you’re going to have some games in which you don’t play as well and if you can win those games when you don’t shoot well from the free-throw line [20 for 33] and you don’t hit threes [three for 18] and you still almost score 90 points, that means something good happened in the game.

“You can elaborate on all the bad things. . . . I’d be much happier if we had played great, but I would be much sadder if we had lost. . . .

“I told them, ‘Let’s just take it to Beijing.’ This was our worst effort, or not effort but performance. . . . I was concerned after our last game [a 21-point victory over Russia], our guys were already in Beijing.”

Counting their five days in Las Vegas, the U.S. players have now been on the road more than two weeks. If their heads were already in Beijing, their bodies will officially arrive today.

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Of course, they will then have to wait four more days before their eagerly anticipated opener against China with President Bush in attendance along with members of the Chinese Politburo.

In any case, the U.S. is going to see a lot of what it saw here, teams sagging back on defense or playing a zone, slowing the game down and making sure they protect the ball to keep the Americans from running off turnovers.

Like the Russians, who are coached by David Blatt, an American from Boston, the Aussies are coached by Brian Goorjian, an American from La Crescenta whose father, Ed, coached Loyola Marymount and whose brother, Greg, set a California state scoring record in high school.

“We talked all night about having four sets of shoes in the paint,” Goorjian said. “If you get beat, you want them to beat you from the outside. . . .

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“It’s not that they can’t shoot, but that’s really your only option. If you get spread, they’re so athletic and so quick, they’re going to get to the rim and they’re going to get to the foul line.”

Scrappy as always, the Australians stayed with the U.S. without their best player, center Andrew Bogut, who sat out with a sprained ankle.

They grabbed a 17-13 lead -- the Americans’ biggest deficit of the summer. The U.S. went up, 44-29, at halftime, only to see the Australians come out with a 15-4 run to cut the score to 48-44.

Then Carmelo Anthony made two free throws. The next time down Kobe Bryant made one of the Americans’ three three-pointers and Australia was never closer than six points again.

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Of course, the Aussies were never further away than 15, either.

Someone asked Krzyzewski what happened to their three-point shooting. “We missed,” he said. “I thought they were good shots, but that’s the beauty of basketball, you can hit and you can miss and tonight we missed and still won.

“To me, you can’t hang your hat on shooting or else we would have lost tonight. You have to hang your hat on defense and making tough plays when a team has a run on you.”

Of course, what would bother a bunch of guys who have a 3-foot-high blow-up kangaroo they call Boomer sitting in one of the assistant coaches’ seats behind the bench?

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“That’s our mascot,” Bogut said. “We can’t afford to bring a whole entourage of people. That’s all we have.”

Like Krzyzewski and Blatt, Goorjian said he was happy with what happened here. That’s what coaches say in preseason, which is why preseasons get old.

Now it’s on to Beijing for the Americans, their considerable entourage, the Aussies and Boomer, to see who laughs last.

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mark heisler@latimes.com


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