SAPPORO — Sometimes the first win can be tough to get, even for Carmelo Anthony and the United States basketball team.
Team USA overcame a slow first quarter and went on to defeat Puerto Rico 111-100 in the FIBA World Championship opener for both Group D teams Saturday at Hokkaido Prefectural Sports Center.
Anthony led the U.S. team with 21 points, and LeBron James and Kirk Hinrich followed him with 15 points each.
“I told our players they did a great job,” American coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We never lost control of the game, but Puerto Rico never quit. It was a hard-fought win for us.”
But, as Hinrich admitted, the United States was slow out of the gates, something it will have to improve on as group play continues.
The U.S. — which started Chris Paul, James, Anthony, Antawn Jamison and Elton Brand — began sluggishly, conceding a lead to Puerto Rico for most of the first frame.
But James, one of Team USA’s three co-captains, ignited his team with consecutive scoring plays.
The Cleveland Cavalier first made a spectacular layup and then dunked with less than two minutes left in the period.
The Puerto Ricans hung tough in the second quarter, mainly led by a point guard Carlos Arroyo, who plays for the Orlando Magic in the NBA.
The 26-year-old Arroyo was lively in the backcourt, outplaying Paul and Hinrich and looking flashy on dribble penetration.
Arroyo had a game-high 23 points and five assists in the game.
“(The U.S.) did a tremendous job, moving the ball and bringing a lot of intensity to the game,” Arroyo said. “But for my team, we did a hell of a job in the first half, containing the players of USA.”
The U.S. began taking over the game with about two minutes left in the first half, however, Atlanta Hawks sharp-shooter Joe Johnson drilled two baskets from the arch and ended the half at 57-51 in favor of the U.S.
In the second half, Puerto Rico seemed to be running out of gas and was losing its concentration, committing cheap turnovers and missing open shots.
After that the contest became a one-sided show by the stronger U.S. team.
“I give a lot of credit to the Puerto Rican team,” Krzyzewski said. “They shot the ball extremely well and gave us a tough game.”
Former Kansas standout Hinrich echoed his coach’s sentiments.
“Coming into this game, we knew it would be a tough test against Puerto Rico,” he said. “Their team can shoot from the outside, and they have guys on the inside who can score.”
Guards Christian Dalmau and Elias Ayuso backed up Arroyo, scoring 14 and 13 points, respectively, for Puerto Rico.
The U.S. will take on China at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, while Puerto Rico will play Senegal at 2 p.m.