CHICAGO — Team USA ran faster, jumped higher and dunked harder than Brazil in its 95-78 blowout victory Saturday night. Superior athleticism was more than enough to overcome some sloppy offensive execution and issues scoring in the half court.
Brazil, along with every other legitimate threat to Team USA in the upcoming FIBA World Cup, has miles more continuity and experience than the Americans. Nene, Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa are long-tenured NBA veterans. Brazil’s big men, particularly, displayed a chemistry in the paint that only comes with time and familiarity.
For all their sky-high springing, Anthony Davis and Mason Plumlee at times looked lost trying to protect the rim against a more seasoned unit. Davis' revelatory sequence in the first half will be remembered more than his missed assignments, though:
Team USA looked comfortable compensating for its shortcomings by pushing the ball and scoring quick baskets at the rim, including Derrick Rose's arena-pleasing first-half buzzer-beater. "That play at the end of the half really gave us some momentum," said head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
With little time to instill a nuanced or even coherent offensive system, it's clear Team USA needs to push the pace and turn basketball games into track meets.
"That was the point," said Davis—easily his team’s top performer, with 20 points, eight rebounds and five blocks—when asked if an emphasis on transition play was part of the game plan. "We had to defend. We knew we had to get out and get a lot of easy buckets. It leads to good situations—open threes, open jump shots."
But despite having several of the world’s best jump-shooters, the Americans showed poor spacing in the night’s effort, struggling for open shots from outside the paint. Team USA couldn't incorporate Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver and Klay Thompson's shooting skills much, which will be key to establishing a more orderly, dependable offense moving forward.
When Brazil was able to set its defense, it took away the Americans' long-range looks with basic rotations. USA’s offense went static, left to rely upon isolation hero ball for points. Brazil's 21-16 victory in the assist category was a telling statistic.
After Team USA dominated the first quarter, Brazil eventually went on a 48-39 run. Brazil capitalized on 16 turnovers and shaky defensive strings from the Americans in the paint, with Kenneth Faried in particular taking eager risks in pick-and-roll action. Interior passing between Nene, Varejao and Tiago Splitter routinely exposed Faried and Co.
But Faried, a surprise starter with DeMarcus Cousins out with a day-to-day knee injury, more than made up for his blind spots with signature relentlessness. Much like the rest of his team, the Denver Nuggets forward looked to be of a simply superior class in the exhibition game.
It’s easy to see why Team USA needs to compensate for a lack of team cohesion with pure talent.
"There have been a lot of interruptions," Krzyzewski said, in reference to the rotating cast for Team USA. "But the one thing that hasn’t been interrupted is effort. The guys have played hard. We’re still getting to know each other. I think in the second quarter, we just shot jump shots and we gave up the lead. But the first and the fourth quarters were really good."
Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio, who sent a stronger USA team into fits in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, likely won't let the Americans take possession from his team 20 times. That's what Team USA did Saturday night against a past-his-prime Barbosa (four), Marcelo Huertas (five) and the rest of the Brazilian ball-handlers in the victory.
Team USA started and finished with a bang in its warm-up effort, but the looks of things in the middle were mediocre.
Without as many super talents as the Americans had in the past (Blake Griffin, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and Russell Westbrook are all missing from this squad), it's safe to wonder if sheer athleticism and skill can continue to topple shrewd, cohesive rosters.