Biggest Takeaways from Day 1 of FIBA World Cup of Basketball
All 24 teams were in action on Saturday as the 2014 World Cup kicked off in Spain.
No longer do exhibition games take up attention, with each squad exerting various levels of focus and energy. Every contest matters at this point, as many teams are fighting for their lives in the group stage, hoping to pull off an upset—or avoid one—in the quest for a medal. Some are just hoping to advance to the knockout rounds.
The United States dominated Finland, while Spain took care of Iran rather easily. Slovenia won a tough game over Australia, one that puts them in great early position for the elimination stages. Argentina rolled over its opponent, while another traditional power was unable to overcome injuries.
Even though each team only has one game under its belt, there was a lot to be learned from the opening day of this tournament.
Favorites Take Care of Business
Spain and the United States are just on a different level from the rest of the field, and it showed during their respective openers.
Technically, we're not really any gleaning any important information from the two routs, but rather confirming the dominance.
For Team USA, Anthony Davis was a stud, hitting mid-range jumpers and finishing around the basket. Derrick Rose threw down a huge dunk, James Harden couldn't be kept away from the rim and Klay Thompson proved he's one of the world's best shooters. But it was the defense that stood out above all else.
During the 114-55 victory, the Americans actually held Finland to two points in the second quarter—two, as in one more than one and one less than three.
The Finnish shooters went ice-cold, hounded by suffocating defense, and they got their only points of those 10 minutes at the charity stripe. Not a single shot from the field went through the bottom of the net as Petteri Koponen faced constant pressure, and that essentially served as a microcosm of the game as a whole.
Meanwhile, the Spaniards just took it to Iran, finishing with a 90-60 victory.
Led by 33 points and eight rebounds from Pau Gasol, the silver medalists from the 2012 London Olympics left no doubt about their own dominance. Just imagine how much better they'd have looked if Ricky Rubio hadn't struggled with his shot to such an extent (1-of-4 from the field and 1-of-6 at the line) and Serge Ibaka's pesky hamstring hadn't kept him sidelined.
"It's a hamstring, so you need to be careful," the Oklahoma City Thunder big man told NBA.com's John Schuhmann after the game, also noting that he might have to sit out during Spain's next outing as well.
Fortunately for the Spaniards, Ibaka won't exactly be needed for a little while.
Goran Dragic Is Amazing
Slovenia will go as Goran Dragic goes.
Though there are other quality players on this roster, including the point guard's brother, Zoran, he's quite clearly the leader both on and off the court. The ball is nearly always in his hands, allowing him to exert that nearly unmatched level of excellence in pick-and-roll operations, and he fared quite well against the overmatched Australian backcourt.
The Boomers will improve throughout the tournament, as Matthew Dellavedova was uncharacteristically off his game, but this was all about Dragic. Even when he was drawing double-teams as soon as he touched the ball, he managed to excel.
After thriving for the Phoenix Suns throughout the 2013-14 NBA season, Dragic opened the World Cup with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists for Slovenia, all of which were high marks on his squad. To make things even more impressive, he stole the ball twice, shot 8-of-12 from the field and made three shots from beyond the arc.
To beat Slovenia, the opponent has to stop Dragic. Problem is, that's easier said than done.
"For us to come in and score 80, that puts you in a pretty good position to win the game," Australian head coach Andrej Lemanis said after the game, per Liam FitzGibbon of The Sydney Morning Herald. But without slowing down Dragic, much less stopping him, that position just wasn't good enough.
Giannis Antetokounmpo Shines, but Greece Isn't About Him
Everyone seems to be excited about Giannis Antetokounmpo and for good reason. The 19-year-old is an amazing talent with unreal amounts of upside, and he's consistently making us realize just how much he's already developed.
That was the case during Greece's opener against Senegal, as he was a defensive terror, worked his way to the free-throw stripe without exerting too much effort and managed to put his athleticism and length on display on one play in particular.
It's not every day you see a 6'11" player go coast-to-coast, split defenders and pull off something that at least resembles a Euro-step before finishing the play with a big jam.
However, the Greek effort was about more than a Milwaukee Buck who recorded 11 points, five rebounds, one assist and three steals in limited time on the court.
Between the shooting of Kostas Vasileiadis, Vaggelis Mantzaris and Kostas Kaimakoglou (who made six triples on eight attempts!), as well as the all-around excellence of Kostas Papanikolaou, this was a dominant performance against an opponent who didn't really belong on the same court.
There's only so much we can learn from a matchup against Senegal, a team that will be hard-pressed to win a single game during the World Cup. Nonetheless, Greece made it quite apparent that Antetokounmpo is not the focus of this team, even if he'll be the biggest producer of intrigue and highlight-reel exploits.
France Dearly Misses Tony Parker
This is not the type of start that France was looking for.
Brazil is a tough opponent. There's no doubt about that.
But no matter who they were going up against, the French were certainly hoping to get off to a better start than they did on Saturday afternoon, as the offense struggled its way through 40 minutes. Even with a spirited rally in the closing minutes, they weren't able to match Brazil's 65 points, despite a fairly solid defensive effort all game long.
Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum did their part. But the trio of guards attempting to replace Tony Parker weren't up to the challenge.
Thomas Heurtel finished with eight points on eight shots, but he also turned the ball over twice without generating a single assist at any point in the proceedings. Antoine Diot had seven points on five shots and also failed to record even one dime. And Evan Fournier made virtually no impact, turning the ball over twice, fouling once and missing a three-pointer as his only box-score contributions.
That's not going to cut it.
Brazil doesn't even boast a particularly impressive core of defensive guards, as Marcelinho Huertas is somewhat of an offensive specialist, and Alex Garcia, Raul Neto and Leandro Barbosa aren't exactly standout stoppers. What happens when the French are trying to get offensive production out of their guards and going up against a better defensive backcourt?
Jonas Valanciunas Ready to Shine
Wasn't Lithuania supposed to miss Mantas Kalnietis?
The do-everything point guard fractured his clavicle just before the start of the World Cup, and that was a devastating loss for one of the dark-horse contenders for a gold medal. However, Renaldas Seibutis did a fantastic job picking up the slack, dishing out five dimes for the Lithuanians and doing a nice job controlling the tempo of the game.
However, this was all about Jonas Valanciunas.
The Toronto Raptors' big man exploded for 17 points and five rebounds in his World Cup debut, and he managed to do so while going a perfect 8-of-8 from the field. Only a missed free throw and a troika of turnovers kept him from experiencing perfection in his line.
Nonetheless, Valanciunas was a force to be reckoned with, and he functioned as such against a solid group of big men on the Mexican roster. As long as he keeps putting the ball in the basket and Jonas Maciulis keeps using his body to post up anyone and everyone, the floor will be spaced out quite nicely for the bevy of shooters from Lithuania.
This team knocked down 11 of its 20 attempts from downtown during the opener, and that's not exactly a fluke.
Puerto Rico just didn't stand a chance against an Argentine offense that was absolutely rolling. Somehow, the Manu Ginobili-less squad managed to put up 98 points, becoming one of only a few to break past the 90-point barrier in a World Cup opener.
Losing the 2-guard was supposed to be a big deal, but everyone was more than up to the task of replacing his production.
First, there was the aging trio of international standouts—Luis Scola, Andres Nocioni and Pablo Prigioni. Each of the three excelled, with Scola recording 20 points and nine rebounds, Nocioni putting up an 18-point, 11-board double-double and the New York Knicks' point guard exploding for a dollar's worth of dimes in his 2014 debut.
And how about the younger players?
Facundo Campazzo—one of the guys to watch in this field due to his immense upside—recorded eight points and eight assists, while 27-year-old Selem Safar was fantastic. Feeling it from the outside, the 6'3" shooting guard managed to produce 18 points on only 11 shots from the field.
So long as there's this type of well-rounded performance—against a quality opponent, no less—Argentina won't have much to worry about until the later stages of the tournament.
Croatia Needs Some Work Before Reaching Potential
Twenty-six points from Bojan Bogdanovic wasn't enough.
Ultimately, Croatia did get into the win column after holding off the Philippines in overtime, but this still can't be viewed as a particularly positive outcome for a team that was expected to advance quite far in this competition. There were too many problems, and having to face a deficit in both the fourth quarter and overtime is not exactly promising when playing a team that shouldn't advance past the group stage.
Turnover problems ran rampant, with Bogdanovic contributing six, Ante Tomic coughing the ball up five times and Luka Zoric giving it away four times off the bench. The perimeter shots weren't falling, and there were plenty of culprits in that area. Plus, Andray Blatche was dominant against the Croatians, recording 28 points and 12 rebounds.
A win is a win in the standings, but Croatia can't be satisfied with its opening performance.
New Zealand Too Sloppy in Opener
New Zealand blew an opportunity to take down Turkey and get off to an early lead in the race for second place in Group C.
After getting off to a 17-8 start in the first quarter, everything went south, with the Turkish contingent using a dominant fourth quarter to steal a three-point victory and claim all the credit from this outing. So much of it was just sloppiness.
Kirk Penney could never get his shot falling, and Corey Webster was forced into volume shooting to keep New Zealand competitive. It wasn't quite enough, as the team as a whole shot 9-of-27 from beyond the arc and failed to move the ball successfully.
New Zealand finished its World Cup opener with 12 assists and 18 turnovers, which obviously isn't the most promising ratio. Especially before a Tuesday matchup with the United States, this has to be shored up, as does the defense that allowed a 15-1 closing run.
Penney will rebound, as he's too good a scorer to be held in check for two games in a row, especially given his featured status in this New Zealand offense. But if the defense and guard play can't improve, there won't be much of a run in this tournament.