Let the games begin. In its stiffest test of the tournament, the U.S. gutted out a 70-68 win over Brazil to improve to 3-0 at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey (RECAP). Here are five things we learned from Tuesday's close call:
1. That Durant guy is good.Kevin Durant was good against Croatia. He was very good against Slovenia. And he was very, very good against Brazil, scoring 27 points (on 9-18 shooting) and pulling down 10 rebounds in the win. After being judicious with Durant's minutes in the first two games, USA coach Mike Krzyzewski played his best player 39 minutes against Brazil. Durant's seven turnovers were ugly -- he may want a quick refresher on how tight international officials call traveling -- but in big games Krzyzewski will have little reason to take Durant off the floor. Especially in games where the bench (six points) is ineffective.
2. Games like this are why Chauncey Billups is on the team. Taking nothing away from Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook -- few players in the world can stay with either in the open floor -- but in close games, Billups is the one with the ball. Whenever the U.S. offense started to look scattered, Billups (15 points, three assists) found the ball, settling the team down and engineering quality shots. Billups can't run like Rose or Westbrook; but in the fourth quarter, expect the roster's resident graybeard to be in the game.
3. Pass first. Pass second, too. While Brazil's offense operated with the fluidity of a team that had played together for years, the U.S. attack often stagnated. Overall, Team USA finished with eight assists (on 23 field goals) and rarely moved the ball more than twice on half-court possessions. Taking quick shots plays right into the opponent's game. The U.S. did an excellent job drawing fouls (23 free throws), but the they will need to practice more patience and let plays develop, when their speed and slashing ability can lead to better shots.
4. The defense rested too much. Don't let Brazil's field-goal percentage (42.2 percent) and three-point percentage (35.7 percent) fool you; the U.S. defense was porous, allowing Brazil to shoot 71 percent in the first quarter. Leandro Barbosa's frigid fourth-quarter shooting (1-of-5 in the period and 5-of-18 for the game) dragged down the percentage, but most of his misses came off open looks. The U.S. struggled to stay disciplined against Brazil's patient offense. Against a better shooting team -- or against Brazil on a better shooting night -- that could hurt the Americans.
5. Smile, Spurs fans.Tiago Splitter, the Spurs' top pick in 2007, is the real deal. Against the U.S., Splitter scored 13 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in 30 foul-filled minutes. The 7-foot, 235-pound Splitter is an excellent post player with a nose for the ball on the offensive glass. More impressive was that Splitter got the job done without Anderson Varejao, the Cavaliers' hyperactive forward who sat out the game with an ankle injury.