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USA officially begins quest for world title
SAPPORO, Japan -- After mowing down five exhibition opponents by an average of 34 points, the U.S. is ready to re-establish ownership of international basketball.
The exhibitions demonstrated that the Americans are treating the world championships as the start of a larger mission that, if all goes as planned, will culminate in a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But first comes the world championships, which have long been emphasized by foreign teams and overlooked in the United States.
"You have to understand to some of these players this is their NBA championship, this is their ultimate goal -- to win these games," forward Elton Brand said. "This is as important as any game they have played so we have to take it as that also."
The U.S. flew to Sapporo on Thursday from Seoul, where it wrapped up a 5-0 exhibition schedule with a 116-63 victory over South Korea. The Americans appeared loose during a light evening workout at Sapporo Arena.
"We're not overconfident," coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Thursday's practice. "We respect every one of these teams. Who's to say who's the best teams? We certainly haven't seen all of them."
Opposing teams certainly will see plenty of Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade -- named team captains on Thursday by Krzyzewski.
"It's a big responsibility for us three being captains and going out and representing our country in the right way," James said in a USA Basketball statement. "You've got to show leadership on the court and off the court, and you've got to show responsibility."
The first order of business will be Puerto Rico in Saturday's opener. The U.S. is 7-1 against the Puerto Ricans in world championship play and defeated them 114-69 in an Aug. 3 exhibition in Las Vegas.
The Americans made it look easy in a five-game exhibition sweep of China, South Korea, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Lithuania. China and Puerto Rico are in the Americans' Group D, along with Senegal, Italy and Slovenia. After a week of round-robin play, the top four teams advance to the knockout round at Saitama, near Tokyo.
"The level of play is going to pick up, intensity is going to pick up, and we have to do the same," guard Kirk Hinrich said.