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On the road to the gold

Look deeper than the highlights to appreciate the U.S. men’s basketball victory over China

The hunter and the hunted. The gangster and the mark. The bully and the — hold up, China was no weakling against the United States Olympic men’s basketball squad. China had heart. But China also had a starting backcourt that got swallowed by the Americans’ superior wingspan, speed, strength, quickness, jumper range and bank account decimals. United States 119, China 62. Seven more wins for the gold.

This is how it feels to be the hunter in these Olympics:

“You’re able to see how aggressively we come out, especially defensively. We try to feed off that, getting stops, running, try to build the lead,” said DeMar DeRozan, whose intense backcourt pressure alongside various combinations of Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant blew the game open Saturday night.

This is how it feels to be the hunted:

“The game was very physical. I didn’t fit in well with the competition at the beginning. I need time to fit into such level of games,” the 7-footer Wang Zhelin, drafted this year by the Memphis Grizzlies with the 57th pick, said through a translator.

“The American defense is much better than in China,” said Zhao Jiwei, China’s 20-year-old starting point guard. He finished the game with three points, six rebounds, five assists, five turnovers and a heavily bandaged left shoulder.

“There is a lot of fast breaks. There is a lot of transitions,” Jiwei said. Like when the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Jiwei missed a contested 3-pointer from the left wing in the second quarter, hustled back against the break and for some reason challenged DeRozan (6-foot-7, 220 pounds) at the rim. DeRozan’s slam almost knocked Jiwei all the way back to Liaoning, China, where he plays for the mighty Flying Leopards.

I asked DeRozan how dunking on Jiwei felt different from dunking in the NBA. His reply indicated that for this team the Olympics are much more about an experience — playing for a feeling instead of money, respect or brand – than the formality of actual games against forgettable names.

“When you look down, you see USA across your chest,” DeRozan replied. “When you look to your right and your left, you see Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, you see all these guys you’re used to competing against out here on one team, and they cheering for one another. That’s awesome.”

Durant expressed that same feeling. He heated up in the second quarter with three straight 3-pointers, the last one making the score 55-27 with 2:50 left until halftime. Did that heat check seem different here in Rio de Janeiro?

“When you get hot, you want to see your bench getting excited for you. I think that’s better than making the shot, to be honest,” said Durant, who finished with 25 points and a game-high six assists. “To see my teammates get excited for me, that’s what kept me going. So after the first one, they just kept telling me to shoot the ball. Kyrie [Irving] was trying to come to me every time.”

DeAndre Jordan, who mashed home two alley-oops but missed seven of his 10 free throws, said his dunks felt different because “it’s not just Clipper fans in the arena, [Saturday night] it was fans in the arena from all over the world. … It was amazing, man. I watch a lot of soccer, and that’s what it felt like to me. They’re always chanting, it’s always something going on, it’s never a dull moment in the stands. When you have a crowd like that, it amps the game up even more.”

China isn’t good enough to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, let alone compete with this billion-dollar bomb squad — go ahead, add up the 12-man U.S. team’s combined salaries. But the Chinese team wasn’t in awe of the Americans, and after the game many of them looked depressed, as if the 57-point pummeling could have been avoided.

“I’m not satisfied with my performance,” said Jiwei, the point guard. Well, neither was Gen. Custer.

These are not going to be normal basketball games in Rio. Less than two months after the Golden State Warriors went to war against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, it feels strange to see Green pass to Kyrie Irving for a 3-pointer and then slap hands. It’s odd to watch the starting five – Irving, Klay Thompson, Durant, Carmelo Anthony and DeMarcus Cousins – begin the second half on the bench. And up close, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s hair still looks way too black.

So we will have to enjoy things that can’t be captured in highlights, like a third quarter against China in which every U.S. basket was assisted.

“I think it’s a test for 12 players to come together as one,” DeRozan said. “All these guys have a great load on our respective teams. To bring that together in one and kind of put something you specialize in to the side and try other things to make the team gel — that’s the biggest challenge.”

Next up, Venezuela, on Monday, at 6 p.m. EST.

Seven more wins to the gold. To watch 10 young men experiencing their first Olympics, Durant blossoming in his second and Anthony savoring his fourth. To witness a team of stars bringing themselves down to earth.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.