Team USA earns FIBA World Cup gold with yet another blowout victory
The gold medal game at the FIBA World Cup played out in familiar fashion for Team USA, with some initial, fleeting issues quickly giving way to a ridiculous margin. After 40 minutes Serbia was formally dispatched with a 129-92 victory, though Team USA's overwhelmed opponent had been done far earlier. At no point following the first quarter was the outcome ever in doubt. Serbia wasn't equipped to challenge Team USA in the same ways that Spain -- assumed all along to be the United States' opponent in the final -- might have. They instead waged a scoring battle against an opponent with more depth, better defense and much more firepower. The Serbian national team can take pride in a surprising silver while Team USA can exhale with a job well done.
This latest USA Basketball roster wasn't perfect. Yet it was so thoroughly dominant that it registered the program's biggest point differential at the World Cup since 1994. Kyrie Irving was named the MVP of the World Cup and an All-Tournament performer along with Kenneth Faried. Both were surprises in the big picture; Irving snatched MVP honors with his jaw-dropping play in the final, while Faried became a key piece of a team he was never supposed to make in the first place. Congratulations are due to both and all of those involved with USA Basketball, and before we dig into the game itself all should take some part in the celebration that followed: Take in the scene, applaud a grooving Faried, enjoy Klay Thompson's confetti angel, cherish all things DeMarcus Cousins and watch Derrick Rose, yet again, refuse to dance.
With that out of the way, we move on to three thoughts on the championship game and the future of USA Basketball:
• Team USA mints its tournament gold with white-hot shooting
In the opening minutes of the FIBA World Cup final, Team USA looked impatient on offense and stumped on defense. Even the most basic coverage was bungled to surrender uncontested layups, all while Anthony Davis' two early fouls set the stage for a potential disaster. Needless to say that disaster was averted, in part because Irving and (later) James Harden traded off in exercising one-on-one offensive dominance. Neither was all that empowered by the flow of Team USA's offense or the collective might of its roster. Irving and Harden simply bludgeoned Serbia with their individual talent on possession after possession, pouring in shots and getting to the rim at will. By the time both Irving and Harden had their say, Serbia's slight lead had turned to a blowout loss.
To be fair, a Team USA explosion was predictable. Serbia is weak on defense at virtually every position, with perimeter players who fall behind in pursuit and bigs who don't have the speed or bounce to credibly protect the basket. That won't at all cut it against Team USA, particularly when Irving and Harden are in perfect scoring form. Those two stars finished with a combined 49 points on 18-of-24 shooting (75 percent). Irving made all six of his three-point attempts while Harden went 3-of-5 from deep. Neither could be denied, impeded, bothered, or even begged for mercy. They simply fired away until the deed was done, completing an undefeated tournament run with yet another lopsided victory.
• DeMarcus Cousins gets his turn
Prior to the gold medal game, Davis had been Team USA's single best player -- a catch-all help defender and, more literally, a catch-all pick-and-roll target. It's to Cousins' tremendous credit that Team USA rolled to a huge win with Davis logging little time of any importance. Foul trouble sidelined the Americans' starting center after just four minutes of action, shaking up what had become an established playing rotation. Cousins, after a few early hiccups, filled in perfectly.
It was with Cousins' help that Team USA really puts the clamps on Serbia in the first half by making every look around the basket more difficult and finishing possessions cleanly with defensive rebounding. Cousins did a marvelous job of closing out contested boards, no matter the crowd. He seemed to box out his own man and out-maneuver several other opponents to the ball, facilitating the stop-and-go transition of defense to offense that makes Team USA so potent.
Good for Cousins. He's hung around in the USA Basketball program on the basis of being a damn good player, though Jerry Colangelo has not been shy in the past in needling Cousins for his approach to the game. Here he was a game-changing force on Team USA's terms -- completely under control and utterly dominant in all the ways that mattered most. A roster this loaded with scorers doesn't need Cousins to put up 20 in the same way the Kings do. What it needs is the right mix of defense, rebounding and interior scoring to keep the game humming. Cousins gave just that throughout much of the tournament and in the final in particular, helping Team USA to a massive lead based in part on his contributions. During the game-defining first half, Cousins logged 13 of a possible 20 minutes. During that time, Team USA was +26 in obliterating a one-time deficit. Behold the power of Boogie.
• USA Basketball's 2016 pool looks stronger than ever
Projecting out a roster two years into the future is impossible, but in theory Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski will have an even stronger collection of players to draw from in selecting the 12-man roster for the 2016 Olympic Games. Many of the A-list mainstays of USA Basketball are likely to be back in the mix for that higher-profile tournament, along of the best of the best from this year's team. Davis, Irving, Harden and Stephen Curry will be prime candidates for Olympic play, as might Rose, Cousins, Thompson or the little-played (and 21-year-old) Andre Drummond if things break their way.
The more curious case is that of Faried -- the All-Tournament forward who might still be squeezed out of a trip to Rio. Faried was dynamite for this particular version of Team USA despite public concern over his initial fit. All such concerns have been addressed, though going forward Faried must again prove himself against an even stiffer level of competition. Included on USA Basketball's full roster through 2016 are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony, all of whom are veterans of the program and (currently) superior options at Faried's position. Blake Griffin was selected to the 2012 Olympic team, too, before injury sidelined him from competition, and LaMarcus Aldridge has expressed interest in playing for the national team at some point. That group -- supplemented by Davis, Cousins and perhaps Dwight Howard, not to mention other possible late additions -- crowds the frontcourt.
We should stop short of ruling out Faried given the incredible turn of events that made him Team USA's starting power forward in the first place and just how successful he was once claiming that role, but it unfortunately seems safe to call Faried a long shot to make the national team's next iteration. All the same: What a luxury to have one of the best players at the FIBA World Cup as perhaps the seventh-best power forward option in the USA Basketball program.