LAS VEGAS — Anthony Davis was seated on the court, the best players in the world towering above him.
The NBA rookie had just been fouled while making a 3-pointer, falling backward toward the U.S. bench, looking up to see the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant dancing in celebration.
The Americans weren’t just giddy over the basket.
Their joy was in knowing they can count on the kid in the Olympics.
With Blake Griffin heading for left knee surgery that will keep him from London, Davis is expected to join the Americans as they chase another gold medal. He got his first taste of playing with them in a 113-59 exhibition victory over the Dominican Republic on Thursday night, which ended about the time the Los Angeles Clippers were announcing the news about Griffin.
“Hopefully he gets back quick and has a great season next year because he deserves it,” U.S. teammate Kevin Durant said. “You know he played so hard and he’s all about the team, and we’re going to string Anthony along and hopefully he comes in and fills a void.”
Durant had 24 points and 10 rebounds for the Americans, who will add Griffin to at least four other players who were knocked out of the Olympics because of injuries.
Griffin returned to Los Angeles on Thursday for further evaluation after reporting discomfort in the same knee that bothered him in the playoffs following Wednesday’s practice. The Clippers said he will require arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and he should be ready for the start of the NBA season.
“We’re relieved that this does not affect Blake’s ability to be ready in time for training camp,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said in a statement. “Missing out on the Olympic experience will be tough for him to take. I know how dedicated he was to doing that. We’re glad we can get this fixed now and take advantage of the available time for him to fully recover.”
USA Basketball officials said following the game they hadn’t been told Griffin would be forced to pull out. Once he does, the Americans will be able to replace him on their 12-man roster.
Davis, the national college player of the year who had failed to make the roster Saturday after a sprained ankle forced him to sit out scrimmages, was told to return to Las Vegas. He scored nine points in 10 minutes against the Dominicans, who were led by his college coach, John Calipari of national champion Kentucky.
“As far as I know I’m still an alternate. I’m not on the team yet, so got to keep working,” Davis said.
The Americans love Davis’ rebounding and shot blocking, but not his youth. Griffin is older and stronger, and coach Mike Krzyzewski noted he’s played against Spain center Pau Gasol in the NBA. Griffin was being counted on to play center and looked sharp earlier in camp, throwing down some of his impressive highlight dunks.
“Blake is a proven commodity, and if we don’t have him, it’s a big loss,” Krzyzewski said. “He was playing really well for us.”
The Clippers, who just signed Griffin to a 5-year, $95 million extension, will see another specialist Sunday, and surgery is expected to be scheduled soon. Once it was determined he was leaving, the U.S. staff told Davis to return from Los Angeles, where he had attended the ESPY awards Wednesday and was scheduled to meet with his agent Thursday.
And if he sticks with the Americans, Calipari will have to alter his summer plans after the Dominicans finished one win short of qualifying for the Olympics.
“If he’s on the team and he makes that trip then I’m probably going to have to make a trip to London, anyway,” Calipari said.
Davis’ defensive talents would be a welcome addition on a U.S. team that has New York’s Tyson Chandler as its only remaining center. Players can be replaced on the roster in case of injury any time up to 48 hours before the start of the Olympics.
The Americans lost two centers, Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh, to injuries before camp, along with Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade. Chris Paul, Griffin’s Clippers teammate, sprained his right thumb on the first day of camp and had been sitting out scrimmages.
Despite those losses, the Americans still consider themselves the best team in the world – and apparently, ever. Kobe Bryant created a stir when he said he thought this young, athletic U.S. team probably would have pulled out a game against the Dream Team, which didn’t sit well with his Hall of Fame elders.
“I absolutely laughed,” Michael Jordan said before playing in a celebrity golf tournament in Charlotte, N.C. “For him to compare those two teams is not one of the smarter things he ever could have done.”
Bryant wasn’t backing down, nor bothered by Jordan’s response.
“I’m not really tripping,” Bryant said. “The fact is they’ve got (Patrick) Ewing and (David) Robinson, those big guys. I mean it’s tough. But if you’re asking me if we can beat them one game, hell yeah we can beat them one game. You didn’t ask me if we could beat them in a seven-game series. One game, we could get them, no question about it.”
The Americans believe they can be better than the team that won the gold medal four years ago because of Durant, the NBA’s three-time scoring champion who seems even more dangerous in international competition. The 3-point line, just over 22 feet away, is an easy shot for him, and at 6-foot-9 he can play any frontcourt position – he entered the game the first time for Chandler.
Durant set U.S. tournament records two years ago in Istanbul with 38 points in a game and an average of 22.8 for the championship, leading a young U.S. team to its first gold medal in the event since 1994. He has transitioned easily to this veteran squad that returns five players from the gold medalists in Beijing, coming off the bench to shoot 9 of 11 from the field, making 5 of 6 3-pointers in 22 minutes.
About the only thing to question about the U.S. were their uniforms, featuring white tops with the pattern of an American flag faded into the back, and shorts that were white in the front and blue in back, making them look like the home team facing one direction and the visitors from behind.
The Americans head across the country Friday to continue their training in Durant’s hometown of Washington. They will play an exhibition game against Brazil on Monday before finishing their Olympic preparations in Europe.
The Dominicans lost former Louisville guard Edgar Sosa to a leg injury in the first quarter. Calipari believed he had a broken foot.