If their last two FIBA tuneups are any indication, Team USA’s template will be as follows: author a somewhat forgettable first half that gives the opponent a modicum of confidence, before steadily pulling away behind a balanced scoring effort.
So long as Mike Krzyzewski’s decision to load up on frontcourt talent yields the desired result—a win over the Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka-led Spain—it’s a trend the Team USA coach is more than willing to live with.
Playing in their lone exhibition in the Canary Islands just two days after announcing their final round of roster cuts, the Americans rolled to a breezy 101-71 win over the Goran Dragic-led Slovenia Tuesday afternoon.
Next, Team USA will face Finland in the World Cup's opening round of group play on Saturday.
Ahead of what many believe will be his global coming-out party, Anthony Davis led the way with 18 points, 11 rebounds, four steals and four blocks. More amazing still, Davis’ most impressive number might’ve been the lowest one possible:
Meanwhile, Davis’ frontcourt mate, Kenneth Faried, registered a fine outing of his own, tallying 14 points and nine rebounds.
Headlining one of the deeper American frontcourts in recent memory, Davis, in particular, is serving notice that Team USA has every intention of matching Spain’s formidable size with a dose of its own.
And while his offensive repertoire only continues to grow, it’s at the other end of the floor that Davis has made his domain.
As they had in their second and final pre-FIBA tilt against Puerto Rico at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 22, Krzyzewski and Co. struggled early to keep the opposing guards from wreaking havoc on the perimeter—this despite the struggles of Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic, who finished with six points in limited action.
And, just like against Puerto Rico, the second half saw Team USA throw it into a gear the opposition simply couldn’t match.
Beginning with a pair of technical free throws by Stephen Curry—awarded following a halftime outburst from Slovenian coach Jure Zdovc—Team USA commenced what’s become its strategic bread and butter: ratcheting up the pressure and turning its defense into offense. By the 4:50 mark of the third quarter, the Americans had opened up a 69-39 lead.
But it’s in his cast of big men that Krzyzewski has staked his team’s fortunes.
Krzyzewski clearly has the host country on his radar screen. And rightly so: Not only are the No. 2 ranked Spaniards brim-loaded with quality big men; they have a two-headed point guard monster in Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio that itself boasts oodles of international experience.
All of which invites the question: In preparing exclusively for Spain—and, to a slightly lesser extent, Brazil—have Krzyzewski and Team USA president Jerry Colangelo painted themselves into a corner (no pun intended)?
In a recent column, Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley raised precisely that point:
The international stage tends to promote floor spacing, both to take advantage of shorter three-point arcs and to break opponents out of zone defenses. USA has stretched opposing teams thin in the past, but this super-sized attack doesn't offer the quantity of perimeter-oriented players as those clubs did.
Of course, what it lacks for quantity in terms of three-point snipers, it may completely compensate for in quality.
Taken together, Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and DeMar DeRozan would seem to offer Team USA plenty of backcourt firepower. Where the quintet falls a bit short, however, is in the dual combination of perimeter size and playmaking—two areas where Gordon Hayward and Chandler Parsons, two of Krzyzewski’s final cuts, could’ve paid significant dividends.
During a July press conference, Krzyzewski sounded adamant in his belief that beating Spain didn’t necessarily own a monopoly on Team USA's strategic radar screen.
"Everyone talks about matchups (with big teams such as Spain), people have to matchup against us, too," Krzyzewski said. "What you have to do is put your best 12 together and then make adjustments with the best 12. Obviously we’re not going to have 12 guards, but that’s what we’ve done."
It’s difficult to say whether Krzyzewski’s shift amounts to a strategic about-face, or a natural reaction to what he sees as a FIBA fact: Spain remains the only real threat to Team USA’s six-years-long hardwood hegemony.
Here’s what we know: Of this year’s four FIBA groups, Spain—with France (No. 8 in the FIBA rankings), Brazil (10) and Serbia (11) all in its midst—has by far the toughest draw. Team USA, by contrast, could be in for a cakewalk, with Turkey (7) and New Zealand (19) being the drawing’s most formidable competition.
Might Krzyzewski be banking on a banged-up Spain being a team of walking wounded headed into tournament play? It’s certainly possible—even strategically clever.
Then again, if Krzyzewski can rely on this kind of consistent performance from Davis and Faried—ditto backup bigs DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee—looking like a genius might never seem so easy.
Given the level of competition it's about to meet, Team USA is bound to encounter a handful of teams built, either by design or happenstance, to give it fits.
From Krzyzewski’s perspective, though, the philosophy is all too obvious: better to weather the small storms, so long as you’re boarded up tightly for the big one.