After weeks of injuries, internal tumult and less-than-stellar on-court performances, the United States men's basketball team enters Friday's exhibition matchup with Puerto Rico starting to look like the juggernaut the world has come to expect.
The U.S. decimated the Dominican Republic on both ends of the floor Wednesday en route to a 105-62 win in New York. Playing an aggressive, attack-first style, Mike Krzyzewski and Co. got out to a double-digit lead midway through the first quarter and didn't look back.
Six United States players scored in double figures, highlighted by a team-high 13 from DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay. DeRozan and Kyrie Irving were probably the best all-around players on the floor, each getting teammates involved in the open floor as much as themselves. By the end of a demoralizing third-quarter run, the game became less one of basketball than highlight chasing.
Puerto Rico should provide a stiffer challenge—albeit only slightly. Seventeenth in the FIBA world rankings, Puerto Rico is led by Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea, former NBA guard Carlos Arroyo and 2006 Knicks first-round pick Renaldo Balkman. The island nation finished 18th in the 2010 world championships and will be a part of the Argentina-headed Group B in Spain.
For the first time since entering Vegas training camp, the United States should be at full strength. Derrick Rose is expected to return to action. The Bulls star participated in team activities Thursday, and everyone associated with Team USA chalked up his Wednesday absence as a precaution.
His return, though, is likely bad news for Puerto Rico. With that in mind, let's quickly preview what to expect Friday night at the Mecca.
Puerto Rico vs. USA Information
When: Friday, Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Madison Square Garden in New York City
Puerto Rico vs. USA Preview
Let's get the easy part out of the way: The United States will win. By a lot. I don't even want to predict a score because the level of disrespect shown may cause tension between the Stars and Stripes and our beloved unincorporated territory. At the risk of making the most obvious statement of my career, the United States is just plain better.
From a pure interest standpoint, there's not much here basketball-wise. If you're not starved for competitive basketball on a Friday night and want to, I dunno, socialize with human beings or something, your life probably will not end.
That said, there are some interesting subplots worth monitoring.
The Puerto Rican team is led by two players who used to be in the NBA and one who is arguably only there because he's still under a terrible contract. While everyone understands they're in an exhibition and the overarching goal is to come away healthy, I'd be surprised if Puerto Rico didn't play with a chip on its shoulder. Barea seems to excel in moments he gets to feel like a pseudo-star. Arroyo has more than a decade of international experience and plenty of eye-opening moments. Balkman, well, OK, Balkman isn't very good at basketball.
At the very least, the United States' guards are going to have to prove their depth. Puerto Rico, like Brazil last weekend, is going to fight through all four quarters. The breezy nonchalance of the Dominican Republic as it was picked apart the other night won't repeat. (At least I hope not. I'm building my early Friday evening around this game, dammit.)
The United States' game plan largely comes down to figuring out who will be on the roster. Krzyzewski has to cut four players from the current 16-man roster by Aug. 29, the drop-dead date for when he has to submit his final World Cup team. Andre Drummond, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarcus Cousins, Mason Plumlee, Gordon Hayward, Damian Lillard, Chandler Parsons and Kyle Korver are on the bubble competing for four spots.
Lillard and DeRozan have played the best in game action among the bubble players, but they also play at Team USA's deepest positions. Irving, Rose and Stephen Curry are locks for Spain if they're healthy enough to take the rigors of the World Cup schedule.
That schedule could ultimately work in Lillard's favor. Many have understandably wondered whether Rose, who is in the midst of a years-long recovery from knee surgeries, can withstand the back-to-backs that adorn the slate.
"If I can play, I'm gonna play—no matter when it is or how many games it is," Rose told reporters (h/t Mike Mazzeo of ESPN.com). "If I'm healthy enough to play, I'm gonna play. I'm not worried about that. With all the training that I've done in the past, I think that I'm prepared for it."
DeRozan, who has led or tied for the lead in scoring in each of his two Team USA appearances, might be the victim of skill redundancy. His inability to make threes further exacerbates a weakness already apparent on this roster, so Korver/Parsons might be a more appealing player from a skill standpoint. He's been really good, though.
Cousins and Plumlee, once seemingly fighting over the same roster spot, might both be on the roster to fill out the big-men rotation. Even if he's not a perfect fit for the international style, Cousins is too offensively gifted to be left off. Plumlee and Drummond fill a similar role as high-energy, athletic players, so we'll likely only see one of the pair don the Team USA uniform after Friday.
An educated guess: Cousins, Lillard, Plumlee and Korver are kept; Drummond, Hayward, DeRozan and Parsons are cut. The DeRozan pick is the one I feel worst about.
Since we'll be watching a walloping, here's a fun list of other things to look out for: Kyrie Irving crossovers; Rudy Gay open-court dunks; Anthony Davis in general; Stephen Curry step-back threes; Warriors fans talking themselves into Klay Thompson being a better player than Kevin Love on Twitter; failed alley-oops; converted alley-oops; mispronunciations of player names; a Tom Thibodeau smile (seriously, those things are like leprechauns, you get three wishes).
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