Well, it's not going to be a complete cakewalk. Team USA hit its first stumbling block of the FIBA World Cup over the weekend, battling to a 98-77 win over Turkey that took a little too long to open up. Although they shouldn’t be troubled the rest of pool play with favorable games against New Zealand, Dominican Republic and Ukraine, three quarters of struggle against a well-organized Turkish side brought the American vulnerabilities center stage.
Turkey’s 2-3 matchup zone featured one of the NBA’s better rim protectors in Pelicans center Omer Asik and presented a real challenge for the United States. In the first quarter, the Americans struggled in the halfcourt and instead pounded the ball in transition, using the highly effective ball pressure that’s been one of their hallmarks and will continue to create easy opportunities the rest of the tourney -- but the game was tied after one quarter and clearly there were kinks to work out.
There wasn’t much of a visible attempt to regroup within the rhythm of the offense, as Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Derrick Rose all settled for jumpers early and the team as a whole struggled to move the ball and attack the zone inside-out. In games like this where Curry and Klay Thompson struggle from deep (they combined to go 0-6 from three in the first period), the United States has to be able to adjust. And with Turkey’s success game planning against the deep ball, there will be plenty more zone looks ahead. The U.S. went just 1-9 from behind the arc in the first quarter, a dry spell which will be tougher to manage in the World Cup’s knockout rounds. With a talented group of finishers and guards adept at penetrating, the U.S. can afford to be more patient with shot selection and less reliant on the three-ball, particularly early in possessions.
Credit the Turks for playing sound, aggressive defense and speeding things up, but you’d like to see the Americans come better prepared in these scenarios (particularly with 2-3 matchup czar Jim Boeheim sitting next to Mike Krzyzewski on the bench). It was hard to imagine you wouldn't rather have an extra shooter (Kyle Korver,) on the bench as opposed to your third and fourth centers in this scenario. Turkey continued to dictate the pace in the second quarter, and though DeMarcus Cousins provided a lift off the bench, Turkey took momentum and a five-point lead into halftime, spurring an U.S. gut check.
“In the first half, we separated as a team a little bit,” Irving told reporters after the game. “We had some adversity. We faced it. Going into the locker room, we just came together as a team. Coach just had us talk. We brought it together. We told each other what we needed to do adjustment-wise on both ends of the floor. I think we did a great job of executing in the second half. That’s what it boiled down to.”
After that, the defensive effort picked up and Anthony Davis came alive, posting all 19 of his points in the second half and giving the Americans an option on the inside. The U.S. fought off a Turkish hot streak and ultimately pulled away down the stretch. Kenneth Faried continued to be the savior, cleaning up after some bad shot selection, making positive plays and manufacturing points. Facing adversity, the second half effort was visibly there with the bigs serving as catalysts and opening things up around the floor.
“I thought we were playing really hard and then Turkey responded with an incredible number of threes in a row,” said Krzyzewski. “That’s where I was most proud of our team. You put in an effort and you get a little bit of a lead and all of a sudden -- boom, boom, boom – you know they respond and we responded again.”
Both Davis and Faried are great fits with this shot-happy mix of guards, since they impact the game in so many ways without the ball in their hands. Still, Team USA would be remiss not to make Davis, its best player, an offensive focal point earlier on in every game the rest of the way. They simply can’t rely on their bigs to bail them out every time when shots aren’t falling, and the guards have to get Davis, Faried and Cousins involved more effectively.
The one thing that’s been sorely missing for Team USA is floor leadership from its ball-handlers. It’s tough to pin this on the roster's collective youth — the guys who are out there seen pressure situations and have to begin taking charge. Outwardly vocal direction has never been the calling card of Irving, Curry, Rose or James Harden, but you’d like to see at least one of those guys begin to dictate the play in these higher-pressure situations, pull the ball out and settle things down.
Meanwhile, FIBA co-favorite Spain has been rolling. After blowing out Iran and Egypt to no one’s surprise, the Spaniards handled a good Brazil squad 83-62 on Monday behind 26 points and 9 rebounds from Pau Gasol and boast the most experienced side in the entire World Cup. The much anticipated USA-Spain matchup has a great chance to materialize late in the tournament, and looking at things through the lens of that game it’s a good thing the first road bump came for the U.S. on Sunday, not in the medal rounds. There's no need to panic –– the team certainly isn't –– but know that this group is far from invincible.
“I think sometimes when you have a game like we did the night before where you’re just scoring at will, you can take it for granted,” Krzyzewski said. “The big lesson for our team is you can’t take things for granted especially when you’re playing teams the caliber of Turkey.”