Breaking down the play that made the play that lifted the U.S. past Ghana

Breaking down the play that made the play that lifted the U.S. past Ghana

This little touch by Ghana's Jonathan Mensah changed the Americans' fortunes.

By now, we've all seen the goal that made you hug a stranger or tackle a toddler (or was that just me?): John Brooks' improbable header off a Graham Zusi corner kick that sealed three points for the United States against Ghana.

(Brooks and Zusi were two of the Americans' three substitutes, by the way).

But in all that euphoria, it's easy to forget the play that made the play possible. Once you see it, you'll give some credit for the heroics to Americans Aron Johannsson (the third American substitute) and Fabian Johnson. Because of it, if the Americans can at least tie Portugal on Sunday, it would take a Ghanaian or Portuguese miracle to keep them out of the knockout round.

Let's break it down (you can watch the whole play on WatchESPN by clicking here and skipping ahead to the 2 hour, 16 minute mark).

It begins with a seemingly harmless throw-in by Johnson. His options are limited, so he simply tosses it in to Johannsson, who taps it right back to Johnson.


Fabian Johnson throws it in to Aron Johannsson.

After surveying the field, Johnson rolls to back to Johannsson and tries to sneak down the sideline for a wide run. Ghana's Sulley Muntari lets Johnson go and turns his attention back to Johannsson, likely assuming No. 20 Asamoah is going to follow Johnson's run.

Johnson (23) streaks toward the box as Johannsson tries to thread the ball forward.

Asamoah turns his head and Johannsson takes that opportunity to feed an ambitious vertical ball, hoping the speedy Johnson can catch up to it.

Now, it's important to remember that Johnson -- the team's right-side defender -- had just completed a run of almost 100 yards about 20 seconds earlier on the play that earned the throw-in for the U.S (see picture below).

This Johnson run, just before the throw-in, started in front of his own goal.

In the oppressive heat and humidity of Natal, no one would have blamed him for giving up on the second run and just letting Johannsson's ball roll out harmlessly. That's not laziness, it's using your head when you know you have nearly 10 minutes left to survive.

But Johnson doesn't give up on the ball and bursts forward with two big strides. This forces Ghana's Jonathan Mensah to defend. Mensah's pressure gives Johnson another excuse to give up on the ball if he wants. The ball is rolling pretty quickly, and clearly is going to go out over the end line.

Johnson still looks like there's no real chance for him to reach the ball before it goes out of bounds.

But Johnson doesn't give up, and Mensah, instead of booting it away for another throw-in, decides to shoulder him off and try to shield the ball across the line without touching it. Johnson never touches the ball, but the force of Mensah's body check (hockey term) causes Mensah to stumble, and his foot touches the ball before it goes over the line.

Mensah intends to just push Johnson away from the ball but it hits his foot instead.

Mensah knows he touched it and instinctively tries to save the ball from going out. When he doesn't, he raises his arm and tries to act like he didn't. The ref and assistant ref do a nice job staying with the ball and making the correct call.

Ghana's Mensah' tries to sell that he never touched the ball, but the ref doesn't buy it.

At the time, it seemed like a harmless play and a pass from Johannsson that was hit just a little too hard.

But without it, Brooks and Zusi never get the chance to be heroes.

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In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

The crowd erupted as Joel Embiid stepped to the free throw line. They chanted a phrase Embiid has been repeating for the past two years, a fitting welcome to his NBA debut.

“That was great,” Embiid said after the Sixers' 103-97 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday (see Instant Replay). “That’s my motto, 'Trust the process.'”

After two years of rehabbing foot injuries, Embiid has his first regular season game behind him. Embiid scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 6 for 16 from the field, 1 for 3 from long range and 7 for 8 from the line. He also recorded seven rebounds, two blocks, four turnovers and four fouls in over 22 minutes. 

“The beginning I was nervous, but once you make that first shot it just goes away,” he said. “The fans were so into the game that it was fun. I love having fun.”

Brett Brown enjoyed watching Embiid on the court as much as he liked being on it. Brown has seen the 7-foot-2 center grow and develop during his rehab. Finally, he was able to utilize his versatile skills in a real game setting.

“I can't say this loud enough,” Brown said. “For the city to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts, for him to go through all the things he has been through and play like he did on opening night, the city deserves it. Most importantly, he deserves it.”

Now that Embiid has been cleared to play, he would like to do so for longer periods of time. He began the preseason at 12 and was increased to 20 in segmented spurts for opening night. Even though he exceeded that limit by over two minutes, Embiid is itching to be cleared to play more extensively. 

“It sucks,” Embiid said. “I feel like I could have played more but you know you’ve got to trust the process, got to trust those guys. If I have my minute restriction at 20 minutes, I guess I’m going to go with that. But obviously I want to play more and more and I think it can help the team better. But they have a plan for me and I’ve got to follow it.”

Embiid has maintained he wants to be a clutch player. Brown looked to him toward the end of the game as the Thunder pulled ahead late in the final quarter. He drained a fade away jumper to tie the game at 97 apiece with 50.7 to go. 

Later trailing by four with 10 seconds left, the Sixers went to Embiid. While he was whistled for an offensive foul, Brown was glad to have a go-to unlike in years past. 

“You have a target,” Brown said. “We tried to get the ball to him a lot. … By and large, to have somebody like Joel, where the mystery is solved like, 'What do you do?' You get him the ball as much as you can.”

The more the Sixers found Embiid, the more the Thunder had to try to defend him. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan knew what his team was going up against. He watched Embiid as a high schooler and coached against him during his tenure at Florida. 

“He’s gifted and skilled,” Donovan said. “It was probably our guy’s first time seeing him … I knew the talent, the gifts. The one thing with him is, he’s got great footwork. He’s hard to guard because he’s herky-jerky. He moves. He’s got a lot of (Hakeem) Olajuawon to him.”

Opening night had been two years in the making. Even though the Sixers didn't win, the significance of the evening didn't disappoint. 

"I thought this moment was going to be special," Embiid said, "and it was just great."

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

NEW ORLEANS -- Jusuf Nurkic scored 23 points, Will Barton added 22, and the Denver Nuggets survived a dominant performance by Anthony Davis to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans 107-102 in both teams' regular season opener Wednesday night.

Davis had 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks. His production helped New Orleans trim a deficit as large as 14 late in the second quarter down to two points in the waning minutes. He simply didn't have enough help.

The rest of the Pelicans combined to shoot 21 of 58. Tim Frazier scored 15 for the Pelicans. E'Twaun Moore added 10 points, but missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied it with 24 seconds left.

Danilo Gallinari scored 15 for Denver and Wilson Chandler added 12 points (see full recap).

Celtics top Nets in Horford's home debut
BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas had 25 points and nine assists, Jae Crowder added 21 points and Al Horford pitched in 11 in his Boston debut on Wednesday night as the Celtics survived a late scare to beat the Brooklyn Nets 122-117 in their season opener.

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 21 for Brooklyn, including a 3-pointer to make it 120-117 with 47 seconds left after the Nets erased most of a 23-point deficit against the Boston bench. But he missed one with a chance to tie it after Joe Harris intercepted Thomas' cross-court pass, and the Celtics were able to hold on.

Justin Hamilton came off the bench to score 19 points and grab 10 rebounds for the Nets in coach Kenny Atkinson's debut (see full recap).

Turner's opening act leads Pacers past Mavs in OT
INDIANAPOLIS -- Myles Turner scored 30 points, tied his career high with 16 rebounds and made a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in overtime to start an 8-0 run that allowed the Indiana Pacers to close out a 130-121 victory Wednesday night over the Dallas Mavericks.

Three-time All-Star Paul George added 25 points, including another 3 with 55 seconds left to seal Indiana's fifth season-opening win in six years.

Deron Williams scored 25 points, while J.J. Barea and Dirk Nowitzki each added 22 as the Mavs lost their fifth straight in the series. They still haven't won in Indianapolis since February 2014.

Dallas didn't tie the score or take a lead until the fourth quarter, yet still forced overtime when Harrison Barnes' open 3-pointer made it 115-all with 2.3 seconds left.

Turner could have won it with a long buzzer-beating 3, but it bounced off the back of the rim (see full recap).