But Team USA proved all the doubters wrong on Sunday.The United States capped an undefeated summer with an 81-64 victory over host country Turkey in the gold medal game at the FIBA World Championships in Istanbul.
For the first time in 16 years, the U.S. is world champions once again. With a team featuring six players under the age of 22, including star Kevin Durant, the U.S. exceeded all expectations this summer and cruised to a 17-point victory Sunday.
Durant, the tournament's undeniable MVP, scored 28 points in the victory against Turkey, including seven three-pointers. His performance all tourney long -- particularly over the last three games -- made fans wonder if Team USA really was playing without the best player in the world after all. Lamar Odom, the team's unsung hero, scored 15 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in the final victory and Rusell Westbrook chipped in 13.
Turkey battled hard the first two periods, keeping the game close and even holding a lead in the first quarter. But the hometown heroes eventually couldn't keep pace with the U.S.'s athleticism, turning the ball over too often on offense and giving up too many easy baskets on defense. Hedo Turkoglu finished with 16 points and seven rebounds and Ersan Ilyasova added a quiet seven points and 11 boards.
With the victory, the U.S. clinches an automatic bid to the 2012 Olympics, a huge sigh of relief for the USA Basketball program. Mike Krzyzewski becomes the first U.S. coach in history to win an Olympic and FIBA gold medal and Lamar Odom is now the only player in history to win an NBA and FIBA title in the same calendar year.
Check back with SI.com for more coverage of the U.S.'s gold medal victory.
You have to hand it to Turkey, they played an incredible turnaround, and if it hadn't been for a strong U.S. team they might have won. I'm not sure if they will be a threat in the 2012 Olympics, but they'll be in the mix during qualifying.
The Turkish players are giving it up for their fans. A classy move.
The gold medal is now within reach for the U.S. Barring an epic collapse, Coach K, Durant and the young Americans will walk away victors at the 2010 FIBA Worlds.
Turkoglu hits a deep two, but its too little, too late.
Rose explodes and finishes a fancy layup as he is followed. He misses the layup, but Odom is there to clean up for another two points, putting the game out of reach. They are headed for the exits in Istanbul.
Rose then scores another quickie to push the lead to 17. Could this be the end for the FIBA's Cinderella team?
Team USA outscored Turkey 19-16 in the period, but did most of its scoring in the opening minutes. Kevin Durant followed up a strong first half with eight points in the third and Odom and Iguodala played well before Coach K elected to give the veterans a breather before the fourth quarter.
If Turkey wants to win, they'll need to find a way to stop Durant and to create some space on the perimeter on offense. If this game comes down to a free-throw shooting contest, the U.S. holds an immense advantage.
Erden keeps Turkey alive with a nice three-point play after coming up empty in his last trip to the line.
Turkey's Erden -- a future Boston Celtic -- misses two free throws.
Turkey dares Westbrook to shoot a three and he accepts, knocking down a three and blowing this game up to a 16-point difference
But Arsalan drills a big three to draw things within 11. Turkey isn't done yet.
Arsalan knocks down two free throws after the foul to make it a 15-point game.
Odom with the big board under the basket and the nice jump hook to extend the U.S.'s lead. Turkey fading fast in the third quarter.
Team USA forces its fourth 24-second violatation of the game, keeping the defensive intensity up so far in the second half.
Durant hits his sixth three of the game. Connects on a deep bomb well beyond the extension of Turkey's D.
Things have been sloppy, but entertaining in the first two quarters. Outside of Kevin Durant (20 points), the U.S. hasn't been able to get much going on offense, but is making up for it with some scrappy defense and forcing Turkey into almost a dozen first-half turnovers.
Hedo Turkoglu leads his team with 11 points and seven rebounds, but the team's other NBA star, Ersan Ilyasova, has just five. Both Turkey and the U.S. are shooting worse than 35 percent from the field, with both sides sides struggling particularly from downtown (9-of-31 combined)
For the second straight quarter, Westbrook ends the period with two from the line to give the U.S. a double-digit advantage at the break.
Coach K has tightended his rotation in the championship game, turning mostly to just Westbrook, Gay and Gordon aoff the bench and Chandler and Curry in very short spurts.
Rudy Gay gets a loose ball and puts it in for two for the U.S., stopping a mini-Turkey run.
Billups makes two from the free-throw line to make it a 10-point game.
Iguodala misses a three, continuing the struggles for the U.S.'s players not named Kevin Durant.
Turkoglu creates some space and drills a three.
To no one writing this blog's surprise, Durant hits a three instantly on the other end.
Durant gets to the line after a hard foul by Asik under the hoop. He drills the first but misses the second.
Worth noting: Durant now holds the U.S. record for most points in a single tournament. He set the single-game record yesterday with 38 point against Lithuania.
U.S. going with Billups-Westbrook-Iguodala-Durant-Gay for the time being -- one of its smallest line-ups all tournament.
Turkoglu is sitting on the bench. The telecast tells us he may have injured his right knee. We'll have to see how effective the versatile forward can be when he comes back on the floor.
Ender Arsalan misses two free throws.
Durant missed a layup with one second remaining, but his Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook was there to collect the rebound and draw the foul. The speedy guard -- and sometimes shaky shooter -- made both free throws to give the U.S. a five-point lead.
KD leads the team with 11 early points.
Too many turnovers from the hands of Lamar Odom up to this point. The U.S. is deferring to the Lakers big man too often and throwing him impossible passes in the lane which he can't handle. Although the U.S. likes to play inside-out, they'll have to take better care of the ball if they want to work it down low.
Durant hits a three from Oklahoma City to tie the game.
Rose's jumper is a bit off tonight, misses another field goal.
Turkoglu turning it on -- hits a three from the corner to give Turkey its first lead.
Chandler comes down with a rebound and Turkoglu gets in his face, even throwing a bit of a jab at the big man's chest. A known flopper, Turkoglu looks like he's trying to mix things up and get under the U.S.'s skin.
Things are getting fiesty.
Billups fouled on a drive to the hoop and knocks down a pair of free throws.
Turkoglu knocks down two free throws to put Turkey within three.
Both offenses looking good so far. We could have a high-scoring final.
Iguodala picks up a loose ball and lays it in to give the U.S. a four-point lead.
Asik misses the first attempt of the game under the hoop and the U.S. counters with a quick basket by Rose for the first points of the game.
The Turkey crowd is loud (and red), but Team USA should have plenty of motivation as well. The U.S. has not won a FIBA title since 1994.
It all comes down to this.
Team USA goes for the gold this afternoon (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) when they take on host country Turkey in the much-anticipated final of the 2010 FIBA World Championships.
Much is at stake today in addition to a gold medal. A young U.S. team, led by Kevin Durant, is trying to prove itself to doubters who said the team couldn't get it done without LeBron and Co. and is also trying to earn an automatic bid to the 2012 Olympics in Vancouver. Meanwhile, Turkey is hoping to finish off a story-tale run in front of its home fans and show the world that the '12 Giant Men' are among the international basketball elite.
The U.S. made it to the final after dusting off Lithuania in the semifinals, 89-74. Turkey had a much more thrilling path to glory, edging Serbia 83-82 with a last-second layup.
The biggest challenge (literally) facing the U.S. today is Turkey's size, led by the team's pair of 6-foot-10 NBA players. The Phoenix Suns' Hedo Turkoglu and the Milwaukee Bucks' Ersan Ilyasova will both be handfuls for the U.S.'s undersized bigs and are as good as any players Team USA has faced all tournament.
Don't expect any changes from Coach K at the altar. Lamar Odom, Durant, Andre Iguodala, Chauncey Billups and Derrick Rose will start. Tyson Chandler and others will be called in for defensive reinforcements if Turkey goes on a run early.