The United States earned a berth in the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup on Saturday with an 86-63 win over Mexico. Here are three thoughts from Team USA's win:
• A good start was key. After several sluggish starts in the group stage, Team USA opened the knockout rounds with perhaps its strongest first quarter of the World Cup. It took them all of four minutes to get out on a 13-2 run, with Kenneth Faried and Anthony Davis active on the inside and a hapless Mexico turning the ball over and struggling to hit shots. Although the U.S. was obviously the heavy favorite anyway, that type of concerted focus and effort was a great sign from a team that needs to be rounding into top form.
In its first five games, the Americans got by largely on their immensely superior talent. The fact that the halfcourt offense frequently stalled didn’t matter much thanks to the combination of scoring in transition, aggressively gambling for steals and relying on the bigs to clean up defensive mistakes around the rim. As the tournament rolls on, it’ll be harder to coast in that fashion regardless of the opponent -- the longer you let teams hang around, the more confidence they tend to build and the tougher it gets to put them away. It appeared from Saturday's win over Mexico that Team USA understands that fact, and a group more than capable of ending games quickly will want to make it a trend.
• Stephen Curry stepped it up. Curry finally delivered the type of game we’ve been waiting for, with 20 points, 4 assists and no turnovers marking his best performance of the tourney. After going 0-5 from three-point range in the opener against Finland, Curry’s been quietly outstanding from behind the arc (10-18 in the other four group games) but had yet to really get hot. Mexico were the recipients of a 6-of-9 deep ball barrage from Curry, and the Warriors star engineered a big third quarter for the U.S. that reminded everyone just how quickly scorelines can turn when he's having fun.
The knockout rounds are usually when we see the true hierarchy of the All-Star laden American squads, and if Saturday is an indicator, Curry might be the guy leading the backcourt as every game grows more important. With Kyrie Irving a little banged up, Derrick Rose far from top form and James Harden shooting the ball inconsistently, Curry’s emergence will be critical as the U.S. will continue to see a lot of zone defense down the line. He looked confident and had everything going against Mexico, and sustaining that level of play next week does a lot for his team’s chances.
• Good job, Gustavo Ayon. No recap of this game would be complete without giving Ayon his props. Last seen as a member of the Atlanta Hawks, the Mexican big man was at his best against the United States and gave Anthony Davis a good deal trouble down low. Ayon flashed his craftiness and skill to the tune of 25 points, also pulling down seven rebounds, and you have to think some NBA teams might pony up a little more for his signature after this World Cup.
The 29-year-old Ayon averaged 17.6 points and 7.6 boards in six games and reports have indicated teams are certainly interested in his services, but that he also might have more lucrative offers on the table to play overseas. One team that’s been linked to him is the Spurs, which looks like an obvious stylistic fit if they can make the money work. He’s one of those guys who’s just fun to watch go to work, and really shines in international play as a focal point of Mexico’s attack. Still, after spending each of his four years in the league with a different team and with career averages of just 4.7 points and 4.4 rebounds, it’s tough to know how much Ayon is really worth this late in the free agent carousel. But hey, we can still appreciate a guy nicknamed “El Titan.”