With a little help from big men Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried, the United States looks to have forgotten it's playing without a handful of the NBA's top superstars, including 2014 MVP Kevin Durant and runners-up LeBron James and Blake Griffin.
Team USA remained perfect in FIBA World Cup competition with a 98-71 victory over New Zealand Tuesday, improving the club's overall record to 3-0 in group play.
As is typically the case in international competition, the Americans operate as an ensemble cast in which heroes are few and far between. Appropriately, each member of the 12-man roster scored at least one point against New Zealand, highlighting the kind of depth on which head coach Mike Krzyzewski can rely.
Through three games, however, he's relied on Davis and Faried to do a little more than all the rest. And given the promising results, that probably won't change anytime soon.
Davis and Faried are plenty skilled to be sure, but they're principally changing games with superior energy and athleticism—with motors running like they're already knee-deep in the NBA playoffs.
"I just love to play basketball," Faried told reporters after besting Turkey. "Every time I step on the basketball court, you never know it could be your last game, so I like to play my hardest in every game. When you love the game like that it tends to reward you back."
That kind of passion has translated into tangible gains. After tallying 15 points and 11 rebounds on Tuesday, Faried is averaging 14.3 and 8.3 rebounds in tournament play.
But it was Davis who led all scorers with 21 points against New Zealand, bringing his averages through three games to 19.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest. The 21-year-old center was instrumental in turning around a five-point halftime deficit against Turkey, scoring all 19 of his points in the second half Sunday.
"I tried to come out in the second half and just be a different player, just be the player I'm used to being," Davis told the media after the win.
Faried was similarly pivotal against Turkey.
Sports Illustrated's Chris Johnson noted:
On Sunday, his energy, hustle, close-range finishing and activity on the offensive and defensive glass jolted Team USA to life following a lackluster first half. After Turkey took a five-point lead into the break, Faried scored eight points in the third quarter and made a number key plays on both ends, including an opportunistic swipe of Asik, followed by a dunk, with under a minute remaining in the period to give the Yanks a six-point lead. All told, Faried finished with 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting, eight rebounds, three steals and two blocks.
Those kind of numbers tell a tale of unmatched interior activity. For all the talent on Team USA's roster, the story remains its hustle and physical tools.
The kind of assets that lead to plays like this:
The Davis-Faried partnership is blossoming at just the right time.
Fresh off exhibition play, NBCSports.com's Dan Feldman noted, "Though many expected Team USA to use a stretch 4 next to Davis—and maybe it would have if Kevin Love, Kevin Durant or Paul George remained on the team—the Davis-Faried combo proved to be a real force."
Indeed, both Davis and Faried do most of their damage in and around the basket. While Davis is a capable mid-range threat, his world-class ups make him a target of choice in the painted area—primed to catch lobs and hit the offensive glass.
Thanks to his rare combination of imposing size and mobility, the 6'10" Davis is getting touches with his back to the basket and in pick-and-roll situations.
Though smaller at 6'8", Faried's hops similarly position him to overwhelm the opposition with point-blank dunks, layups and tip-ins. The Morehead State product thrives on broken plays, run-outs, missed shots and any other opportunity to collect some hustle points, though we won't see many plays called for him.
While Faried's offense isn't always by design, it remains highly efficient.
"The Manimal came into [Tuesday's] game shooting 14-of-17 in the tournament and then made all five shots in the first half while also grabbing six rebounds," writes the Associated Press' Brian Mahoney (h/t ABC News). "He finished 7-of-9 from the field and is shooting 81 percent, Krzyzewski calling him the Americans' 'biggest and best surprise.'"
But it's Faried's seamless chemistry with Davis that's truly yielding dividends—especially against international competition that's slower to the ball, more constrained by gravity and unable to keep up with their lightning-quick second and third jumps when vying for rebounds.
NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer wrote of the pair on Tuesday:
Scoring in a variety of ways, Davis and Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried (15 points, 11 rebounds) continued to terrorize opposing frontcourts in Spain. Davis was featured often in USA’s halfcourt offense, particularly in the second half, while also feasting on his usual assortment of finishing plays around the rim. Davis threw down four dunks, part of a 7-for-13 performance from the field.
Davis, the New Orleans Pelicans' No. 1 overall pick of 2012, is coming off a breakout sophomore campaign in which he averaged 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. His electric summer performances could be a hint of things to come.
The Kentucky product's former Wildcat coach, John Calipari, is predicting big things.
"Right now, you look at (Davis) and say, 'Man, in five years, he could be the best player in the NBA,'" Calipari 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 his part, Faried may be on the verge of taking another step toward stardom. The 24-year-old had his best season yet for the Denver Nuggets in 2013-14, averaging 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
But for the moment, Davis and Faried are focused on giving the United States an edge en route to what may be a gold medal in Spain.
"Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried continue to pace the U.S., combining for 36 points and 20 rebounds," NBA.com's Sekou Smith noted of Tuesday's game. "The Americans overwhelmed New Zealand inside and went to the free-throw line 34 times. New Zealand was just 4-for-7 from the line."
The perimeter shooting will come and go, but Davis' and Faried's aggressive interior play will remain the United States' bread and butter. Together, they accounted for 11 of those 34 free-throw attempts. While Krzyzewski's rotation boasts plenty of strong shooters, the relentlessness of its inside options has emerged as the club's primary competitive advantage.
Opposing teams have no hope of containing this group's size, physicality and talent.
That said, the competition will stiffen up after Team USA makes short work of Group C and advances to the round of 16 on Sept. 6.
Forcing the ball inside for the duration of the game will become more necessity than luxury. The kind of slow start that hindered the United States on Sunday can't become a habit.
"I think we didn’t come ready to play in the first half and we can’t afford to do that if we want to win a gold medal," Davis told reporters after the comeback win over Turkey. "So we’ve got to come out ready to play no matter who we’re playing against."
After the team pursued high-percentage shots early and often against New Zealand, perhaps a lesson has been learned, one that could prove invaluable given the tests ahead.
No test looms larger than a Spanish team featuring a front line that rivals Team USA's. Through three games, Pau Gasol is averaging 23.7 points and 6.7 rebounds for Spain. Brother Marc is doing his part with 10.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.
And in just 38 minutes of action (through two games), power forward Serge Ibaka has tallied a total of 23 points and 13 rebounds.
It's the kind of trio that could give the United States trouble, countering its inside presence with veteran size with a proven track record in the NBA.
The good news is that Davis and Faried aren't likely to back down. With youth and above-the-rim theatrics on their side, even Spain could struggle with Team USA's newfound winning formula. For good measure, it doesn't hurt that Krzyzewski and Co. can call on the beastly likes of DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond off the bench—to say nothing of much-improved Duke product Mason Plumlee.
The United States' starting duo is stealing headlines for good reason, but the depth behind it could prove pivotal soon enough.
Team USA needs all the inside help it can get to make that gold medal a reality.
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