Whatever happens from here on out, Finland can safely say its 2014 FIBA World Cup run included a lead over Team USA.
So what if it was 2-0?
The next 39 minutes and change were a far different story, however, with Mike Krzyzewski’s troops making short work of an overwhelmed Finnish side in a 114-55 drubbing Saturday night in Bilbao, Spain.
Notwithstanding the glaring competitive chasm, it was exactly the kind of dominant performance the Americans needed to kick things off.
Whether Team USA can sustain that defensive identity throughout will go a long way in determining whether Krzyzewski’s relatively young and inexperienced team can capture the squad’s fourth consecutive gold.
Succumbing to its opponent’s suffocating defensive pressure, Finland failed to net a single field goal the entire second quarter, helping Team USA build a 42-point halftime lead on breakaway dunks.
That Team USA committed 19 of its own turnovers—against one of the weaker FIBA teams—only proves just how heavily it stands to rely on its defensive intensity.
Sooner or later, that kind of sloppiness will come back to haunt them. Good thing, then, that Krzyzewski and Co.’s next game also presents their first real challenge: a Sunday showdown with Turkey, the world’s No. 7-ranked squad and home to NBA big man Omer Asik.
Still, for all their frontcourt depth, Turkey is exactly the kind of guard-weak side on which Team USA is designed to feast.
Even before the departures of Paul George and Kevin Durant—the former by way of a devastating injury, the latter by choice—Krzyzewski’s philosophy was simple: use USA’s length and athleticism to disrupt passing lanes, pressure ball-handlers and turn opponent miscues into easy baskets.
That’s not to say the Americans lack scoring, of course. Even without the likes of Durant, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, Team USA still boasts seven of the NBA’s top 20 scorers from a season ago.
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Rather, with so many staples opting to sit FIBA out, Krzyzewski needed something—anything—he could depend on night-in and night-out.
Team USA’s vise-grip D has thus far been precisely that crucial constant. Quite frankly, if it has any hope at all of defeating Spain, it has to remain that way.
For all its unquestioned athleticism and explosiveness, Team USA’s perimeter defense can be suspect, particularly in the half-court. Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyrie Irving—these guys aren’t exactly Dennis Johnson on defense.
By applying pressure early and relying on the team’s phalanx of shot-blockers down low (Davis, Faried and Andre Drummond, just to name a few), Team USA will look to throw the opponent’s offense out of rhythm and—hopefully—turn any turnovers into instant points at the other end.
Teams like Spain, Argentina and Lithuania are renowned for deliberate, patient attacks. Beating the American pressure means exposing Team USA’s slipshod perimeter D, opening up precisely the kind of clean looks on which players like Spain’s Jose Calderon and Argentina’s Pablo Prigioni have long thrived.
Spain, in particular, presents Team USA with a truly intimidating combination of patience, perimeter shooting and—most formidable of all—a frightening frontcourt triumvirate of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
In a recent post, Sports Illustrated’s Rob Mahoney hammered home how the mere act of preparing for Spain in many ways helped shape Team USA’s approach and philosophy:
The very threat of playing this team altered the makeup of Team USA's roster, yet even specific preparation might not be enough to fully handle Spain's interior strength…Spain, then, is the one opponent capable of putting the most talented squad in the tournament at a disadvantage: Team USA can try to adapt while betraying its own stylistic bent or stay true to its usual form while withstanding whatever bludgeoning the Gasols can muster. That choice could come to define the tournament.
This is why Davis, Rudy Gay, Klay Thompson and DeMar DeRozan have become so critical for Krzyzewski: Their length and defensive versatility can effectively cover for the sloppy mistakes Harden, Curry and Irving are bound to make.
It’s been a point of emphasis for the legendary Duke coach for the better part of the past month.
“Our roster is built on quickness, athleticism and shooting,” Krzyzewski said in a July interview with Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears. “We’ve won these last three competitions because we’ve been smart defensively, knowing team fouls, we’ve shot more free throws, we’ve passed the ball well, had more assists and we’ve really shot the ball well.”
To survive the Spains and Argentinas of the FIBA world, Team USA can ill afford to merely ride its defensive coattails. USA needs to score, and score big—no matter from whence the shots come.
But every team needs a calling card, a hardwood hallmark that serves immediate and lasting notice. With each passing game, it’s become increasingly clear Team USA’s biggest collective strength lies in its ability to exert its defensive will—to overwhelm with the kind of open-court quickness and speed that simply can’t be taught.
Forty-eight hours from now, no one will remember how viciously Finland was finished off. For Team USA to pave its path to FIBA gold, however, the key is to never forget.