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LAS VEGAS – Heavy favorites make for big targets.

When the United States men’s basketball team took the court to begin its run to the Paris Olympics, it was engulfed in chaos: two stars were injured and missing in the opening exhibition; A third was quickly swallowed up by a terrible problem; And USA Basketball director Grant Hill faced tough questions about last-minute roster changes and allegations of bias from the NBA Finals MVP from the sneaker company. Meanwhile, the Americans’ surprising starting lineup stumbles out of the gate, playing a devastating opponent in front of a vibrant court team that includes former President Barack Obama and dozens of hardwood legends.

The walls could have easily fallen around LeBron James, Stephen Curry and their national team counterparts, but order was quickly restored as the United States beat Canada 86-72 on Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena. It was a first-time mishap for the gold medal favourites, but it should be taken as a consolation given the night’s off-court distractions, on-court struggles and high expectations.

“It was a slow start, no surprise,” coach Steve Kerr said. “You can see the rust on the striker end. Lots of changes in that first half especially. But I like the defensive strength and the work on the glass. We had to set the tone for how we wanted to play, and I think we did that.

In the hours leading up to the tip-off, USA Basketball announced that Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard would be replaced by Boston Celtics guard Derrick White on the 12-man roster. According to a statement from the program, the decision to step down Leonard was made jointly by USA Basketball, the Clippers and Leonard due to a recent knee injury. Hill said Wednesday that he and the USA Basketball coaching staff evaluated Leonard’s play and development during the four-day training camp before parting ways with the six-time All-Star.

“He finally got sent home,” Hill said, referring to the taxing logistics of the month-long Olympic run. “This is a run, not a run. We were open, honest, and understanding on all sides. Your heart goes out to him. We have to do what’s best for the team, protect the team and give ourselves the best chance of success. We just felt like we had to turn around. We’ve all tried it. We made a valiant effort.

USA Basketball believes White, a reliable outside shooter and skilled defender, can fill the role he played during the Celtics’ championship run in Paris. His case is understood by his experience playing in the 2019 FIBA ​​World Cup and his short presence. The 30-year-old guard is expected to join his new teammates in Abu Dhabi, on the next five-game exhibition schedule.

Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, however, seemed unhappy with the decision. Despite winning NBA Finals MVP and Eastern Conference Finals MVP, Brown was passed over by USA Basketball, even as three of his teammates — Jayson Tatum, Jrue Holiday and White — headed to Paris.

Brown previously criticized Nike, the official apparel supplier of USA Basketball, and its founder, Phil Knight, following the company’s decision to part ways with current Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving following the 2022 anti-Semitism controversy. on wednesday, Brown has gone viral on social media. Nicky was behind him: “Nicky, what are we doing?” Brown posted.

While USA Basketball is proud of its partners, Hill said, the focus was “putting together a team that supports each other, fits together and gives us the best opportunity for success.”

He added: “One of the hardest things to do is to be left on the list of people who I’m a fan and I look forward to watching the season and the playoffs. “Whatever theories are out there, they are just that.”

Without Leonard and Kevin Durant, who is still dealing with a minor calf injury, Kerr started James, Curry, Holliday, Devin Booker and Joel Embiid against Canada. That lineup, designed to counter Canadian guards Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jamal Murray, fell into an 11-1 hole after starting 0 for 6 from the field. James and Anthony Davis both drew hard fouls from the Canadiens, who made up for their lack of size by forcing turnovers and playing hard.

Embiid fouled out midway through the third quarter in his national team debut. The 2023 NBA MVP was separated by just five points and six rebounds in 12 minutes, a tumultuous start for a player who has the potential to match Americans with international stars like Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Wenbanyama.

“This is my first time in FIBA, so I have to get used to it,” Embiid said. “Especially for older people, as soon as you try to be physical, you’re punished. Tonight was one of those nights. I am a fast learner. I’ll fix it.”

Curry helped relieve the pressure with a three-pointer midway through the first quarter, and Anthony Edwards hit a layup to lead the second quarter and give the United States a 41-33 halftime lead. The Canadians didn’t mount much of a comeback in the third quarter as the Americans slowly pressed their talent and depth advantage. Curry and James connected on the lob to the rousing applause of more than 20,000 fans, and Edwards led all scorers with 13 points.

“There’s a temptation to slow down and think every possession because everybody can play,” said Curry, who had 12 points and three assists. “The first class, we struggled with that. Once we settled down, everyone got more comfortable as we dived into the game.

Obama cheered throughout the night from a courtside seat near the telecast, and dozens of former USA Basketball players — Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Patrick Ewing, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, Cheryl Miller and Lynette Woodard — were at center court. Home has been recognized. During game stops.

Canadiens coach Jordy Fernandez rested his starters in the fourth quarter as his team shot 7-for-33 (21.2 percent) from the field and lost ground. As the US stars acknowledged the crowd after dispatching their neighbors to the north, the stage’s disc jockey took a victory lap by playing Kendrick Lamar’s “Not Like Us” – a nasty track aimed at Canadian rapper Drake.

While many in the crowd sang along, James and Kyrie were in a serious and beaming mood now that their Olympic run had officially begun. Both stars praised Obama’s pep talk to his team on Tuesday night, with James saying the former president was “one of the greatest people this world has ever seen” with “vision, thought and words.” [that] Obama always echoes Curry’s description of the presence of “goosebumps” when talking about the unifying power of sports.

At the end of a long and complicated day, a simple mission rose to the surface.

“He wants us to win,” Curry said of Obama. “This is what America is known for.”