Saturday September 11th, 2010

Team USA is now one win away from their first World Championship gold medal after routing Lithuania 89-74 behind a U.S.-record 38 points from Kevin Durant.

Is Durant the best player in the world? Yes, LeBron James is still LeBron James and Kobe Bryant is the best closer in the game. But Durant's success in the NBA last season (when he won the scoring title and finished second in the MVP voting) and his astounding play in Turkey (where he has grown more and more comfortable with the rules and style of play each game) has at least made the question legitimate. A few insights into Durant's record-breaking performance:

• His 38 points improved the previous best of 35 points by Carmelo Anthony (vs. Italy, 8-23-06)

• His 14 field goals set a new record, bettering the previous record of 13 which was set by five players, last done by Dwyane Wade (versus Argentina, 9-2-06).

• His 25 attempted field goals set a new record, bettering the previous mark of 21 set by Kenny Anderson (vs. Greece, 8-8-90) and Billy Owens (vs. Greece, 8-8-90)

• He tied a USA record for 3-point field goals attempted with 12, the mark was originally set by Mark Price (vs. Greece, 8-13-94).

If the U.S. can win the gold medal on Sunday, the 22-year old Durant will have done what LeBron, Wade and Anthony could not do in 2006. If he's not the best player in the world now, it's just a matter of when, not if, he is.

The three-point line was well-covered. Lithuania did everything it could to shoot themselves back into the game in the second half, running pick-and-rolls and using pin-downs to try and free up its shooters. But the U.S. was very effective at contesting most of the Lithuanians attempts, especially behind the three-point line. After connecting on 50 percent (12-of-24) of their 3-pointers against Argentina, Lithuania could only knock down 39 percent (11-of-28) against the U.S.

Andre Iguodala is getting the job done. When USA Basketball Director Jerry Colangelo was evaluating what kind of players he wanted on the U.S.' 2010 roster, two criteria stuck out: an ability to defend and being able run the floor. Iguodala quickly became the embodiment of what Colangelo was looking for. In the open floor Iguodala runs like a gazelle and rarely misses an opportunity to finish-with a flourish-at the rim. Against Lithuania, Iguodala chipped in nine points, many coming off explosive transition baskets. Not much of a three-point threat, Iguodala also made a savvy play in the third quarter when he got a Lithuanian defender into the air in the corner and drew a three-shot foul.

Defensively he has been even better. Raptors forward Linas Kleiza has had a terrific tournament. But Iguodala led a defensive effort that limited Kleiza to four points (on 1-of-11 shooting).

The U.S. team is a T-E-A-M. During one possession midway through the third quarter, the U.S. zipped the ball around the perimeter (five passes in all) before Eric Gordon found Lamar Odom, who banked in a layup and drew a foul. The possession exemplified how Team USA has become an unselfish, cohesive unit in this knockout round. Against Angola, the U.S. dished out 30 assists on 41 field goals. Against Russia, they had 17 assists on 29 buckets. And against Lithuania, the U.S. handed out 15 assists on 33 makes. There were a few times the ball movement stalled -- Durant usually bailed them out of those situations -- but, overall, the U.S. has proven to be very unselfish.

This team has bought what Mike Krzyzewski is selling. After three years developing a system and gaining the trust of one group of players, Krzyzewski was asked to do the same thing -- in a few months -- with a completely new group.

"It's the leadership," said Colangelo. "It's the infrastructure that he and I spoke about way back when, when he and I talked about him being the guy I wanted to coach the team. We had to put infrastructure in place and it's there and it's played out every day. With the staff, with the preparation, with the film sessions, with the scouting, with the motivation that is part of this whole thing, the communication. It's the way it should be. It's a real program."

Indeed, while many of the U.S. players were eager to join this team, the novelty of playing for your country can wear off if you don't see eye to eye with the coach. But Krzyzewski has found roles for virtually every member of the roster and convinced them -- as he did with the team in '08 -- that accepting those roles are for the good of the team.

"He really understands the professional game more than any college coach I have been around, especially to not have coached on the pro level before," said Chauncey Billups. "He understands the game and understands that in an hour and a half or two hours, you can get the best out of guys without going overboard. He has made sure we have gotten the proper rest and at the same time, got after guys and saying this is what we got to do and this is how we got to play. With this group, I think it really doesn't hurt that he probably has guys on his (Duke) team in college that are the same age as some of these guys."

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