Wednesday September 3rd, 2014

Three thoughts from Team USA's 106-71 blowout victory over the Dominican Republic in Group C at the FIBA World Cup in Spain.

Left in the dust

 USA's 45-point blowout victory over the Dominican Republic in an Aug. 20 exhibition game proved be an accurate preview of Wednesday's action. With their opponent's only NBA player, Francisco Garcia, sitting out in advance of the Dominican Republic's Group C finale on Thursday, the Americans were free to coast on their massive talent advantage to a fourth straight double-digit victory.

Overmatched at every position, particularly inside where Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried encountered little resistance, the Dominicans managed to hang around until late in the second quarter, capitalizing on USA's poor outside shooting, turnover problems and up-and-down defensive effort. As with its opener, when Finland was held without a field goal for the entire second quarter, USA had no trouble pulling away when it decided to tighten up. An 8-1 run to close the first half was followed by a 22-0 run that spanned the third and fourth quarters, as the Dominicans were held scoreless for 7:46. That stretch saw USA bail on its wavering outside game -- 6-for-21 (28.6 percent) on the night, with James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose combining to shoot 1-for-8 from deep -- and keep it simple. Dunks, lay-ups and free throws accounted for 16 consecutive USA points, and that was that against another inferior opponent. 

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An optimist would look at the stretch and highlight USA's abilities to create offense for itself through defensive intensity. The Dominicans committed 26 turnovers, and their miscues, particularly in the game-deciding stretch, translated straight into high-percentage transition opportunities going the other way. Maintaining maximum energy throughout a series of one-sided games isn't easy, and the fact that USA was able to tap its defense and fast-break finishing at will protected against ennui and covered up weaknesses in other areas. 

A pessimist, however, might wonder whether this game profile -- over-reliance on inside scoring, bouts of sloppiness, no overwhelming outside threat -- will be sufficient to top Spain in the anticipated gold medal showdown. Isn't this USA team fairly beatable if its shooting isn't on, if it gets a little loose with the ball, if its opponent can handle ball pressure and if it doesn't enjoy an enormous size and length advantage inside?

Is Kenneth Faried fool's gold?

At the heart of the "beatability" question is Faried, who was once again one of USA's top performers, tallying 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting and six rebounds in 17 minutes. The 24-year-old Nuggets forward has been a godsend for coach Mike Krzyzewski, not only because he has shown the ability to step into the massive minutes void left by Kevin Durant and Kevin Love but because his trademark energy has powered USA during its flatter stretches. Just when you start to wonder about Rose's health, Curry's shot or Harden's shot selection, Faried flies over the opposition to crash the defensive glass, sprints down the court ahead of his fellow big men and throws down an authoritative alley-oop. Through four games, he has lived up to his pre-tournament billing as a crucial x-factor, and more.

There very well may come a time in this tournament, though, when Faried finds his sledding to be much tougher. Over his three-year NBA career, Faried has proven to be a productive rebounder (8.6 rebounds in 27.2 minutes last season) and a high-percentage shooter (54.5 percent from the field). Against the lesser competition he has seen so far, those strengths have been free to fully bloom. Faried can simply out-hustle, out-quick and out-jump players of similar height, and he can finish around the bucket, where he's most comfortable, without impediments.

It must be said, though: There's a big difference between "54.5 percent career shooter" and "throw him a backdoor lob whenever you need a bucket." Many of Faried's makes on Wednesday simply wouldn't have happened on Serge Ibaka's watch, as the passes wouldn't have gotten over the top and the looks at the rim wouldn't have been that clean. Although Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol aren't Faried's equals athletically, they should also protect the paint in a manner that will require an adjustment from Faried and his teammates. The fear factor ramps up quickly for USA if the bulk of Faried's scoring opportunities dry up and its outside shooting can't get on track. Krzyzewski and company can likely survive a shortcoming in one of those two areas and still manage to beat Spain, but probably not both.

Group C clinched

Wednesday's win moved USA to a perfect 4-0 in Group C play, and the Americans now possess a 36-point average margin of victory. Group play will wrap up on Thursday against Ukraine in a game that marks USA's third contest in three nights. Ukraine enters Thursday's action with a 2-2 record, having beaten the Dominican Republic and Turkey but fallen to Finland and New Zealand. Anything besides another monster victory over the Ukrainians, who don't currently have any players on an NBA roster, would be a shocker.

Looking ahead, USA has clinched the No. 1 seed in Group C. With Spain also sitting at the top of Group A with a 4-0 record, the two juggernauts remain on track for the anticipated championship game showdown. USA's opponent for its Saturday round-of-16 match -- whoever finishes fourth in Group D -- is still to be determined. USA will face Mexico (1-3) if the Mexicans beat South Korea (0-4) or Australia (3-1) beats Angola (1-3) on Thursday. USA will face Angola if Mexico loses to Korea and Angola beats Australia. 

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