Thanks to an energetic, ball-hawking defense, Team USA is 4-0 in scrimmages as it prepares to open the World Championships in Turkey this Saturday against Croatia. After a blowout 86-55 win over France at Madison Square Garden last Monday, the U.S. ventured overseas to Madrid’s “Magic Box” for a much tougher test: back-to-backs against Lithuania and the host Spain, who are the defending world champs.
Team USA played a close game against the Lithuanians before pulling away late, 77-61, and followed that up with a narrow 86-85 defeat of the Spanish. Spain could be a potential elimination-round opponent for the U.S., and they are one of the favorites in the tournament, even without Pau Gasol or Jose Calderon. The U.S. has yet to put together a complete game, but they have shown the traits that will cause them to win (or lose) in Turkey.
The brightest spot from the two games in Madrid was the defensive performance of the U.S., which kept them in the games even if they weren’t shooting particularly well (they opened the Lithuania game 3-for-21 from the floor and shot just 40% for the whole game). Tyson Chandler played well inside, protecting the rim and blocking shots, and the U.S.’s speedy guards and long-armed forwards allowed them to pick off several passes and create turnovers.
Where Team USA ran into trouble was converting those opportunities. Though they managed to run the fast break successfully against Spain, they struggled at times against Lithuania, and, across the two games, combined to miss FOUR wide-open dunks to finish breaks. This is unacceptable at the college level, let alone international basketball. If the U.S. is to win their first world championship since 1994, they’re going to have to make sure they have the fast-break down pat, because their speed and athleticism is the strongest part of their game. At the same time, a steady stream of layups off the break would help to hide one of the U.S.’s biggest deficiencies: success in the half-court, particularly shooting jumpers.
Although the international three-point line is three feet closer than the NBA line, Team USA shot just 34% from deep in the two games. They have players that can take advantage of the shorter arc, such as Kevin Durant, Eric Gordon and Chauncey Billups (who started just 0-for-3 on threes against Lithuania), but it didn’t show last weekend. The U.S. can’t afford to shoot as poorly in Turkey. In fact, the U.S. didn’t look like a team in the halfcourt at all, often resulting in botched layups or errant passes. This is to be expected for a team that has had just six weeks to practice together, and is one of the main reasons that I advocate the U.S. look to push the ball as much as possible. They have several pieces that are ideal for a running game: fast guards that produce steals (Derrick Rose and Andre Iguodala), a great passing big (Kevin Love), and a great forward who can shoot (Durant). Clearly, the U.S. was at its most effective last weekend running for easy baskets off turnovers, and no other country can create turnovers like the U.S. Coach Krzyzewski needs to implement a system to take advantage of this fact.
Adding to Team USA’s halfcourt woes is the fact that they shot just 66% from the free throw line against the Lithuanians and began poorly against the Spanish before finishing up 14-for-18. This may have something to do with the lighter international ball, but after practicing with it for six weeks, that shouldn’t be a valid excuse anymore. More likely, it was a fluke (let me know the next time Chauncey Billups misses three in a row), but it is something to keep an eye on as the U.S. moves forward.
With Rajon Rondo withdrawing from consideration, the U.S. roster is set as the team heads to Turkey. The media has criticized the U.S. for its weak frontcourt, and Coach K didn’t help himself in that area by starting Lamar Odom against Spain. Odom is a versatile big man, but he’s not capable of guarding true centers well. Odom is a better player overall than Tyson Chandler, but Chandler needs to get more minutes at the 5 than Odom due to his defensive abilities against centers. The U.S. needs Chandler to block penetration to the rim; Lithuania outscored the U.S. 40-30 in the paint despite losing by 16 largely due to the fact that their guards were able to drive to the basket uncontested.
Rudy Gay, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were Team USA’s best players last weekend. Durant is no surprise (25 points, 10 boards, two game-saving blocks vs. Spain), but Gay looked very good (14 points vs. Lithuania, only outscored by Durant), as did Westbrook (12 points on 4-for-5 shooting vs. Lithuania). Westbrook basically played his way onto the team, as he excelled during his appearances, while Rondo, who started against Lithuania, had just one assist and four turnovers and didn’t play at all vs. Spain. Overall, the U.S. didn’t show enough to be considered the favorites in Turkey, but they played above my expectations in Madrid. With such a young team, they do not have the confidence or swagger of past U.S. international teams, but that is a good thing. This team doesn’t expect their opponents to roll over in awe, and if they can gel by the elimination round, they are a serious threat to take home the gold.
***Update after USA vs. Greece on Wednesday***
On Wednesday, the U.S. rounded out its pre-tournament schedule with an 87-59 blowout win over Greece in Athens. Greece entered the game hot after drubbings off Russia (by 38 points) and Canada (74 points!). The runners-up four years ago, Greece was missing several frontcourt players, including Sofoklis Schortsanitis, the 6-10, 370-pound monster who tormented Team USA in Japan in 2006, and neither team seemed to be taking the game completely seriously. With the tournament just three days away, no one wants an injury to a key player or to betray too much of their gameplan to a potential opponent. Nevertheless, the U.S. will enter worlds with plenty of confidence and a belief that they can beat the best in the world anytime, anyplace. Both Greece and Spain were considered tourney favorites and to beat both of them in their backyards is quite an accomplishment, exhibition game or not. Durant again looked good for the U.S., rebounding from a poor shooting start to post 15 points and seven rebounds. Rose, the player of the game, was 6-for-7 on field goals, and Eric Gordon again looked impressive off the bench with 18 points and a flurry of threes. Center Kostas Tsartsaris was the star in an otherwise subpar effort for Greece, scoring a game-high 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting. He got to the line early and often and the Americans struggled to guard him, even with Chandler on the floor.