Team USA didn't play a perfect game against the Ukraine on Thursday, yet over the course of 40 minutes the divide between the two teams widened to a blowout. What began with an inspired start by the Ukrainians ended in a 95-71 defeat not at all different from Team USA's other opening-round victories. James Harden broke down the defense from the wing to put up a game-high 17 points on just 12 shots with five assists -- his best game yet in the tournament. Kenneth Faried again amplified Team USA's transition game, finishing with 10 points and a game-high eight rebounds. Stephen Curry bounced back from errant shooting early to put up 14 points of his own, boosted by 3-of-4 shooting from beyond the arc.
Team USA's coaching staff will have plenty of defensive breakdowns and offensive lulls to pore over on film, but on this occasion those particular shortcomings weren't enough to put the outcome in doubt. Below are three thoughts on Team USA's performance.
• So ends group play. Ukraine was the Americans' fifth and final opponent in the preliminary stage of the FIBA World Cup, through which Team USA went undefeated with the biggest margin of victory in the tournament field. Such is par for the course for the favorites. No team in Group C was expected to give Team USA much trouble and none really did, though patches of iffy play -- however inconsequential at the time -- have suggested that the most talented team at the World Cup may be vulnerable.
The elimination rounds should ramp up the difficulty in time. First, though, Team USA will square off against Mexico -- an overmatched team similar to those they saw in the opening round. Mexico sports just two NBA players (Gustavo Ayon and Jorge Gutierrez), neither especially dominant in a FIBA setting. To reach this point Mexico beat only the two inferior teams on its schedule (Angola and Korea) while losing by double-digits to Slovenia and Lithuania. Team USA should have no problem dispatching this first opponent to advance to the quarterfinals. The margin for error, though, now slims with elimination on the line and successive games of increasing difficulty. Even if Team USA isn't expected to be in much peril until its scheduled date with Spain in the tournament final, the possibility of an especially poor game now comes with real consequences.
• Anthony Davis didn't fare well in the guarding the post. For those tracking the reasons to doubt a big win for Team USA over Spain, take note of Davis' post defense on Thursday. Slava Kravtsov, formerly of the Phoenix Suns, was able to work his way to easy scores on possession after possession. His combination of size (Kravtsov is a listed 6-11 and a bit burlier than Davis) and footwork had the star American center at a clear disadvantage.
In most cases Davis was exceptionally well sealed and kept away from Kravtsov's attempts around the hoop. Otherwise, Kravtsov duped Davis with shot fakes and hesitations, luring his opponent into fouls. In all Kravtsov totaled 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field with seven free throw attempts. That's worrisome production given the margin of ability between Kravtsov and Spain's Gasol brothers. If Kravtsov was a problem, might the Gasols -- better players in a more cohesive offensive with better spacing -- be Team USA's undoing?
• Team USA has another injury scare. With just minutes remaining in a decided game, Kyrie Irving jumped through a crowd of Ukraine defenders and lost his footing upon landing. He fell hard on his hip and back, and though he was able to walk off the floor under his own power, the moment was a reminder of what's at risk for both the players involved and Team USA itself.
The USA Basketball program, which is populated by NBA players, run by a former NBA executive and staffed largely by NBA coaches, is somewhat obligated to do right by the league and franchise with whom its players are contracted. That's especially true in the wake of Paul George's painful and high-profile injury, which gives Team USA all the more reason to take a conservative approach with its injured players.
Irving insists that he's fine, making it likely that he suits up and starts for Saturday's game against Mexico. Had his injury been more severe, though, there would be a conflict of interests between careful consideration of his health (out of respect for Irving, the Cavaliers and USA Basketball's underlying volunteerism) and the needs of this particular team. As it stands, Stephen Curry has been inconsistent and Derrick Rose somewhat out of sorts. Irving, imperfect though his play has been, is another needed option at a position that Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski opted to leave thin. Damian Lillard and John Wall were left at home for the sake of loading up this roster with bigs, and on Thursday Team USA caught a break when one of its two full-speed point guards fell hard without significant injury.
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