Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried will get plenty of well-deserved credit for Team USA's 98-71 defeat of New Zealand in the FIBA World Cup Tuesday, but their consistent production in this tournament hasn't happened in a vacuum.
Perimeter shooting, prioritized more strongly than ever on this version of Team USA, is allowing American staples like speed and athleticism to make maximum impact. In other words, Davis and Faried (who combined for 36 points and 20 rebounds) aren't the biggest contributors on the U.S. squad unless guys like Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry are spacing the floor.
Sound crazy? Consider the win over New Zealand, in which Thompson and Curry each hit a pair of triples while James Harden and Kyrie Irving added one apiece. On the whole, Team USA drilled six of its 16 three-point shots for a solid 37.5 percent accuracy rate.
Even when the U.S. misfired, the mere threat of its marksmen caused scrambling defenders to scurry toward the three-point line, leaving space in the middle, lanes to drive and opportunities for offensive boards. The world knows Team USA can do damage from distance, and you can bet opponents are paying far more attention to the reputations America's shooters have than the percentages.
Every opponent's game plan features a heavy emphasis on covering shooters.
Per Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports, head coach Mike Krzyzewski said before the tournament began:
Our roster is built on quickness, athleticism and shooting. 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.
It hasn't always been that way, as construction plans for past versions of Team USA often focused on throwing together stars or compiling as much raw run-and-jump talent as possible. If we look back at the 2006 World Championship roster, America's best long-distance shooters were Joe Johnson and Shane Battier.
But the rest of that 2006 roster had very little shooting to speak of. Kirk Hinrich, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Antawn Jamison didn't exactly strike fear into opponents from long range. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony weren't yet the perimeter threats they'd eventually become.
Chris Bosh was on that squad as well, but he wouldn't morph from a conventional post-up force into a floor-stretching sniper for another six years.
By 2010, the U.S.' appreciation of shooting had matured.
Curry made an appearance on that roster despite an unproven track record. Chauncey Billups, Kevin Durant and Danny Granger helped as well.
This year's team still has the requisite athleticism and size, but shooting has undeniably gained equal importance in the eyes of USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski.
In years past, Thompson probably would have struggled to make the squad. He's not a standout athlete, does very little facilitating and depends largely on others for his scoring chances. Those traits didn't fit into classic do-it-all American superstar mold.
Against New Zealand Tuesday, he logged 21 minutes and attempted the second-most shots (nine) on the team.
Similarly, we might not have seen the likes of Kyle Korver or Bradley Beal get camp invitations in the past.
The evolving philosophy is dually attributable to the U.S. recognizing the opportunity presented by the shorter line and the ineffectiveness of isolation basketball in international play. Of course, it may also owe to the growing belief that shooting—at all levels—makes everything easier.
Shooting specialists are no longer gimmicks. They're integral pieces to every good offense.
Look, the defensive chaos created by athleticism is still Team USA's greatest weapon. In forcing 22 turnovers against New Zealand, the Americans assured themselves of enough easy buckets in transition to build a comfortable lead. Physical strength and quickness will always define this team.
But it's critical to remember that for the U.S., this is a one-game tournament. Beating Finland, Turkey and New Zealand won't matter in the long run, as an impending, inevitable gold-medal match with Spain is the only contest with consequence.
Against the Spaniards, the U.S. won't have nearly the same advantages when it comes to size and physicality. The playing field will be even in those regards, and perhaps even tipped in favor of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka, Spain's beastly front line.
Ball pressure won't matter nearly as much when the Gasols are initiating the offense from the elbows or the blocks. Turnovers won't be so easy to come by, and transition buckets will be fewer and farther between.
And don't expect Spain to be intimidated by Team USA either. Pau and Ibaka have NBA Finals experience, and Marc has been through countless heated playoff series with the Memphis Grizzlies. All three are also more internationally seasoned than just about anybody on the American side.
To defeat Spain, the one team that poses a credible threat to the U.S., Team USA must create space on offense, score efficiently and do whatever it can to force its most fearsome opponent to shrink its lineup. Knocking down perimeter shots will be a must, and if the U.S. can't hit from the outside consistently, the potential for an upset (if it's even fair to call it that) will increase exponentially.
Team USA took some time to figure out it had to marry perimeter accuracy with its trademark physical superiority, but it has struck a better balance than ever in this World Cup.
And not a moment too soon.