By Ben Fisher
In the last decade, it’s been an often-stated warning message in international basketball: dismiss foes of Team USA at your own peril.
These aren’t, after all, the early 90’s wherein European players would find themselves awestruck by NBA superstars like Michael Jordan in the midst of a blowout loss at the hands of the Dream Team. The game has become much more global and nations like Spain and Argentina share the stage with the States among the world’s elite.
Just don’t expect those trends to continue over the final two rounds of this year’s World Championships.
That isn’t to say that the American’s semifinal opponent, Lithuania, or fellow semifinalists Turkey and Serbia aren’t formidable. It’s simply difficult to envision any of the three giving the Americans the kind of struggle that Spain or Argentina would have offered had they not been ousted in the quarterfinals.
Take Lithuania. Fresh off a stunning victory over Argentina, FIBA’s sixth-ranked nation has showcased a well-rounded ability to do many things well. They have size up front with 6’11” Martynas Andriuskevicius and 7’2” Robertas Javtokas, can play an up-tempo game and boast a long distance shooting threat in Martynas Gecevicius.
However, Team USA can match them on all fronts – size (6’10” Lamar Odom and 7’1” Tyson Chandler), speed (Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose) and shooting (Kevin Durant and Eric Gordon) – and has a significant athletic edge, with high-flyers like Andre Iguoudala and Rudy Gay. On defense, Durant should be able to use his length to neutralize Kleiza, Lithuania’s No. 1 scoring option and their lone NBA’er, and keep him off the boards.
Turkey, for their part, would offer the US an entirely different challenge and even create match-up issues for the red, white and blue in what would be Sunday’s final. If they do find themselves pitted against Turkey, they would be facing a team with a distinct home court advantage featuring players stepping into the biggest game of their careers.
The host Turks are known for their vaunted zone defensive schemes, which could frustrate some of the American scorers who would otherwise be able to beat many Turkish defenders one-on-one. Another headache for the States could be the presence of Hedo Turkoglu, a walking match-up nightmare with the ability to handle the ball, lead the team’s offense and shoot. Meanwhile, Ersan Ilyasova possesses the athleticism needed to test US defenders, while seven-footer Omer Asik provides size up front.
Turkey’s key weakness comes in its depth (or lack thereof), a weakness not shared by an American squad that remains a contender in spite of failing to retain a single member of the gold medal-winning 2008 Olympic team. The States would likely look to exploit the depth issues of the Turkish side by playing a fast, aggressive game with the aim of wearing down their opponents and causing foul trouble. Turkey likely has the best shot of the remaining semifinalists at knocking off the US, but that doesn’t mean they will do so.
Serbia, for their part, produced the shocker of the tournament to date, ousting the defending champion and No. 1 ranked Spaniards 92-89 on a long-range three-pointer by PG Milos Teodosic with 3.1 seconds left. Teodosic is the key player on a rising young club that will have the opportunity to grow together and improve as a unit.
The Serbs are a guard-heavy squad with one central frontcourt anchor. His chair-throwing incident behind him, C Nenad Krstic has provided a veteran presence on an unproven frontline who can battle in the paint against the NBA’s best. Around him, Teodosic has served as the go-to scorer and guard Milenko Tepic has emerged to establish an elite backcourt for the next decade or so. The depth is there, as is the speed, energy and shooting ability.
Up until now, youth has been an asset for the Serbian national team. They have outhustled opponents, bought into a successful team defensive scheme and, especially in the case of Spain, taken opposing teams by surprise. Should they reach the gold medal game, they would be in tough to maintain these advantages against the United States. By the final game, the Serbs would not be sneaking up on anyone and their youth and big-game inexperience could be a liability against the Americans who, while youthful, can lean on battle-tested veterans like Odom and Chauncey Billups.
No one is questioning the merits of the surviving clubs. All of Lithuania, Turkey and Serbia have been terrific stories and can look ahead to bright futures as they build on their World Championship efforts. However, none of them have the winning pedigree or established talent to compete with Team USA, who are well on their way to receiving their gold medals come Sunday.