After dismissing Finland by a final score 114-55 in its first official game of FIBA World Cup play, Turkey's chances of slowing the tournament favorite appeared slim at best.
But after claiming a five-point halftime lead, the Turks gave the United States something to think about—namely how to attack a zone defense. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski refocused his club during intermission, and the results were undeniable.
Team USA outscored Turkey, 63-37, during the second half en route to a 98-77 victory on Sunday afternoon.
The difference from an underwhelming first half was principally a newfound reliance on interior scoring and pushing the pace at all costs.
Power forward Kenneth Faried led all scorers with 22 points (along with eight rebounds), while center Anthony Davis added 19 points—all of which came in the second half. Having wasted much of the first half with isolation-based play and over-dribbling, Team USA eventually returned to basic principles: moving the ball and ideally moving it inside.
As CBSSports.com's James Herbert presciently predicted before the game, "The U.S. was more of a second-half team in most of its pre-tournament tune-ups, so perhaps this will be somewhat close for a while."
Team USA's advantage on the defensive end kept Turkey within striking range.
The United States turned the ball over 10 times in the first half but just twice in the second. Meanwhile, the Turkish contingent coughed the ball up 28 times throughout the game, paving the way for the kind of open-court action on which the Americans thrive.
That was good enough to keep Team USA close throughout the contest, but the early uninspired half-court play delayed any sustained run until the fourth quarter.
It shouldn't have been this hard.
Give Turkey credit. With experienced and high-IQ guards orchestrating pick-and-rolls and facilitating open looks on the perimeter, this team kept things interesting for the better part of three quarters. Despite missing NBA representatives Hedo Turkoglu, Ersan Ilyasova and Enes Kanter, the Turks played with poise.
The only recognizable name to most American audiences was new New Orleans Pelicans center Omer Asik, who finished with six points and eight rebounds in nearly 21 minutes of action.
Nevertheless, a basic zone defense seemingly confounded Team USA in the first half, translating into indecision and an overreliance on quick perimeter shots.
Golden State Warriors teammates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson—otherwise known as the "Splash Brothers"—combined to make just five of 18 field-goal attempts, with 13 of those attempts coming from behind the three-point arc. Team USA converted on just one three-point attempt in the first quarter.
And while he led the United States trio of point guards (including Curry and Derrick Rose) with an efficient 13 points and five assists, Kyrie Irving killed the team's ball movement on several occasions while attempting to break his man down off the dribble.
A similar story transpired for shooting guard James Harden. You can't complain about his 14 points, but there's little doubt his presence on the floor consistently increases the risk of the ball sticking rather than moving.
It wasn't until Team USA made a concerted effort to get its big men involved that things turned around, chiefly in the form of Davis and Faried taking over—though backup center DeMarcus Cousins added 11 points for good measure.
The interior touches may have sparked improved play on the defensive end.
More disciplined defensive effort likely played its part as well.
Odds are the United States continues to turn up the defensive intensity when needed. The bigger question appears to be whether the half-court offense will work out its kinks. Can this assembly of elite scorers and playmakers mesh?
It's no coincidence that Faried and Davis ultimately saved the day. The duo boasts the kind of motors and athleticism that international competition just can't match.
As NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer noted of Davis, "The Western Conference All-Star was on the back end of multiple alley oops, resulting in four dunks and two point-blank tip-ins. He also dropped in a couple crafty touch shots from the middle of the paint."
Even before Team USA had embarked on official tournament play, Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan noted the extent to which the team's frontcourt star could contend with the likes of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
Cavan wrote that, "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."
In theory, that's been part of the plan all along.
"This is a very deep roster. We don’t have a lot of bigs, we have a lot of perimeter players, terrific guards for sure," Krzyzewski explained to reporters in July, via Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin, (before the final roster was set).
"That structure, in our case, may be you carry an extra big or two, just because of our strengths—which will be wings, and the point and the two guard—but you need to protect yourself with a couple of bigs."
In turn, the final roster included Davis, Faried, Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee—all bigs whose size and energy give the United States a potential advantage in the paint.
And as starters, Davis and Faried are responsible for setting that tone.
The scary thing about Davis in particular is that he's just getting started, and his former coach at Kentucky notes that the Team USA experience will only accelerate his growth.
"Right now, you look at (Davis) and say, 'Man, in five years, he could be the best player in the NBA,'" John Calipari recently told USA Today's Sam Amick. "And this USA Basketball stuff pushes that date sooner. Again, here's what it does for him: how to work, new things to add to his game, and confidence like, 'These are the best in the world, so I'm all right.'"
For Davis' global coming-out party to go according to script, his teammates first have to get him the ball.
Faried and Cousins need their share of touches, too. Though each of these guys is capable of scrapping for touches on the offensive glass, Team USA shouldn't let it come to that.
Emphasizing interior touches isn't just a matter of getting high-percentage shots. It's also a means to an end—a sure bet to collapse defenses and create additional space for shooters such as Curry, Thompson and Irving.
As the globe looks on, it just might be the surest bet to win the FIBA World Cup.
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