Biggest Takeaways from Wednesday's FIBA World Cup of Basketball Play
With the FIBA World Cup’s knockout round set to begin on Saturday, Wednesday’s docket was jam-packed with hot international basketball action, with all 24 teams taking to the hardwood in hopes of improving or solidifying their seeding.
Like Tuesday’s slate, the day was short on bracket-busting upsets, although Finland very nearly edged the heavily favored Turkey before eventually succumbing in overtime.
Team USA blew the doors off the gym once again, handling the Dominican Republic in a rematch of their August 20 exhibition match.
Playing without Tony Parker, France had no answers for the tournament’s other giant, Spain, with the host country rolling to a win of its own.
Elsewhere, New Zealand got its first win of the tournament over upstart Ukraine, Brazil shook off a pesky Serbian side, and Puerto Rico dispatched Andray Blatche’s Philippines (no, really, he owns the country now).
For a full list of the day’s results, check out FIBA's official website.
With the tournament picture starting to round into shape, let’s take a look at 10 tidbits from today’s slate to get a better understanding of who remains a legitimate contender and who might be balling on borrowed time.
Brazil Rebounds Nicely
Two days after watching Pau Gasol single-handedly destroy its defense en route to an 82-63 trouncing Monday, Brazil bounced back with a gritty 81-73 win over Serbia.
It was how Brazil won it that was even more impressive: with a 21-9 fourth-quarter blitzkrieg. In fact, none of the game’s four quarters were decided by fewer than seven points, with Serbia using a 32-12 third-quarter run to capture a commanding lead heading into the final frame.
Longtime NBA acrobat Leandro Barbosa led the way with 16 points (albeit on 6-of-16 shooting), while the San Antonio Spurs’ Tiago Splitter registered a stat-stuffing performance of his own—10 points, seven boards, six assists and a game-high efficiency rating of 19.
Brazil’s front line of Splitter, Anderson Varejao and Nene might not boast quite the basketball bona fides of Spain’s lauded troika of Serge Ibaka, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol. However, it’s certainly formidable enough to make the Brazilians a legitimate start once tournament play gets underway.
Argentina Is Good...Again
Let’s be clear: Senegal, with its tremendous length and defensive disruptiveness (highlighted by promising Minnesota Timberwolves prospect Gorgui Dieng), isn’t a bad team.
Argentina just made them look bad. Which Argentina can do rather easily, if you’re not careful.
Judging by its 21 turnovers Wednesday, “careful” wasn’t exactly in Senegal’s lexicon. At the other end, Luis Scola continued his stellar, age-defying play, tallying 22 points and 14 rebounds in 29 efficient minutes.
Scola aside, Argentina’s box score was a bastion of balance, with five players registering eight points or more.
Just when you thought Senegal might make it interesting after using a 14-12 third quarter to cut the Argentines’ lead to 15, Scola and company blew the doors off down the stretch with a 28-8 fourth-quarter flurry to drop Senegal to 2-2.
Barring an upset loss to the Philippines on Thursday, Senegal should hold fast to one of Group B’s four bracket slots. They’ll just want to forget this one as quickly as possible.
Slovenia Might Be Too One-Dimensional
The good news: Slovenia is undefeated, and Goran Dragic—winner of last year’s NBA Most Improved Player Award—has emerged as an international star to rival his rise as leader of the resurgent Phoenix Suns.
The bad news: Despite an unblemished record, Slovenia has struggled to handle its last two opponents, South Korea and Angola. Making matters worse: Both are currently bolted firmly to the Group D basement.
Down one heading into the final stanza, the Slovenians would eventually pull away with a 28-21 fourth quarter for a 93-87 win. In doing so, Slovenia revealed itself to be a team that very much relies—some might say overly so—on its perimeter players, Goran (14 points on 5-of-8 from the field) and Zoran Dragic (six points) in particular.
Slovenia launched 33 three-pointers Thursday, or roughly one every 73 seconds. And while that strategy has proven to pay big dividends thus far, when facing off against a more disciplined opponent with a stouter interior presence, Slovenia will have its work cut out for it.
Group C Is a Complete Logjam
It doesn’t take but a cursory look at the Group C standings to realize Team USA definitely was slotted in one of the tournament’s weaker groups—Turkey being the only other squad ranked in the FIBA top 15.
But after New Zealand’s decisive 73-61 win over feel-good Ukraine, figuring out which teams will wind up in the field of 16 remains as big of a mystery as it was when the groups were first announced.
Ukraine—playing amidst mounting tensions between Russian-supported rebels and government forces—appeared well on its way to a surprise tournament appearance. Not bad for a team that came to Spain ranked No. 45 in the world.
Now, with three teams at 2-2 heading into the final day of round-robin play, Group C stands to be one of Thursday’s more intriguing storylines. Can Turkey get its act together? Can New Zealand or Finland finish with a party-crashing flourish?
Hope you’ve been doing number-crunching exercises, because Group C is about to get downright honors calculus on us.
Omer Asik, Offensive Force
Some nights during the NBA season, you’re not 100 percent sure Omer Asik would be able to catch an entry pass if the ball were covered in rubber cement. For all of his defensive gifts, the newly minted New Orleans Pelicans center isn’t exactly Hakeem Olajuwon down on the block.
That's what makes Asik’s 22-point, eight-rebound performance Wednesday all the more impressive. Turkey needing every one of those buckets to escape an overtime scare from Finland, however, doesn’t exactly bode well for the men in red.
Without Hedo Turkoglu and Ersan Ilyasova at his side, Asik has emerged as Turkey’s unquestioned cornerstone.
And that’s exactly the problem. Without reliable perimeter scoring, Turkey is forced to rely on its sheer size and savvy saving the day. The results are about what you’d expect: a traditional international power exposing flaws that are sure to be exploited come tournament time.
Pelicans fans, meanwhile, are already drooling about Asik teaming with Anthony Davis to form one of the league’s most formidable front lines.
It’s all about silver linings.
Lithuania Got the Dominating Performance It Needed
Twenty-four hours after dropping a seven-point squeaker to Australia, Lithuania rebounded like any team with serious designs on contending for gold should: by dismantling its next opponent.
Sadly, it was the winless South Koreans who got in the way of Lithuania’s rage machine Wednesday afternoon, resulting in a 79-49 throttling that saw the former once again assert its low-post presence.
Key to this equation are a pair of NBA up-and-comers: Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas and Houston Rockets big man Donatas Motiejunas, both of whom were picked as high-upside prospects in the 2011 draft.
The two combined for 30 points and 15 rebounds on a crisp 15-of-20 from the field, pacing a Lithuanian side that very nearly doubled up Korea on the boards (42 to 22).
While they remain a point behind Slovenia for top billing in Group D, Lithuania is much better constructed to make a run through the Round of 16.
Spain, Team USA, Brazil—these teams have size to spare, making the play of Valanciunas and Motiejunas crucial to Lithuania making its case anew for mention as a global power.
Andray Blatche Might Be a Genius
From the outside looking in, Andray Blatche’s decision to join up with the Philippines National Team seemed like exactly what one would expect: a goofball dude making a goofball move.
The Philippines might be winless, but Blatche’s FIBA performance could prove the deciding factor in how many suitors will be knocking at the free-agent NBA forward’s door in the coming days and weeks.
Blatche’s stat line has been one of the best in the tournament by far: 22 points and 13.8 rebounds (a tournament high) on 46.3 percent shooting, including a surprising 33.3 percent from distance.
Unfortunately, Blatche has been quite literally his team’s only reliable offense, as evidenced by the Philippines’ woeful 40.8 percent shooting and 10.8 assists per game.
Still, that's not stopping the 6'10" forward from being as optimistic as possible.
“We’re quick and we all can shoot,” Blatche said of his teammates during a recent interview with Grantland's Rafe Bartholomew. “When I drive the ball I got a lot of kickout opportunities, and I know they’re gonna knock it down.”
There are some who would argue, and not completely without merit, that Blatche’s gambit stands as one of FIBA’s more cynical storylines—the simple case of a cast-off NBA player looking for his next paycheck.
These people hate fun.
Greece Is Rather Stout
And not just in the players’ statures either. (Although those boys are big.)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (and to a lesser extent, Nick Calathes) might get the lion’s share of attention from the American media, but the Greeks are once again proving themselves a legitimate threat to land a FIBA medal.
And it begins, oddly enough, with defense, where Greece ranks sixth in the competition in points allowed (69.5) and stands in a tie for third for largest overall point differential (57).
Remember, this is a team that upended the U.S. at the 2006 World Basketball Championship. And if Team USA isn’t careful—taking care of the ball and keeping a close eye on Greece’s cadre of gunners—a repeat performance is by no means out of the question.
The Spain Train just keeps on rollin'.
Another game, another blowout win for the host country, this time at the expense of a Tony Parker-less France, 88-64. Once again, the brotherly tandem of Marc and Pau Gasol was dominant, combining for 32 points and 10 rebounds for Spain.
Despite drawing arguably the toughest group, Spain has looked every bit the part of a potential USA-usurper, clobbering teams with their uncanny combination of offensive patience, defensive toughness and all-around uncompromisable chemistry.
One can be forgiven for believing a Spain-USA showdown is written in the stars. After falling just short in back-to-back Olympic Games, you'd better believe the Spaniards are out to prove, once again, that America's basketball hegemony isn't cast in stone.
We’ve spilt a lot of ink preaching the praises of Anthony Davis these past few weeks. But where Davis’ dominance might pop up more strongly out of the box score, Kenneth Faried’s energy and hustle have in many ways been Team USA’s heartbeat.
Wednesday was no exception, with "The Manimal" tallying 16 points and six rebounds in the Red, White and Blue’s 106-71 trouncing of the Dominican Republic, securing the team’s Group C victory.
Through four games, Faried’s numbers have been a paragon of efficiency: 14.8 points and 7.8 rebounds on—wait for it—78.4 percent shooting from the floor.
As if there was any question, that last number is tops in the tournament.
You have to appreciate Faried's timing, with his representatives and the Denver Nuggets currently engaged in contract extension talks, per ESPN.com’s Marc Stein.
For a guy who many doubted would even make Mike Krzyzewski’s final roster, Faried has proven himself to be an indispensable cog in the Team USA machine—a weak-side defensive monster capable of both sparking his squad’s transition game and finishing it with thunderous throwdowns at the other end.
Here's Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes on the intangible constant Faried brings to Team USA's table:
It's clear that Faried, once believed to be a player without a clear role on Team USA, is exactly what the roster needs. Ebbs and flows in focus are bound to happen with a squad that enjoys the kind of prohibitive favorite status the Americans have. And players with relentless energy are ideal for providing that extra push when everybody else is ready to coast.
Faried isn't vulnerable to lackadaisical lapses. He only operates at full throttle.
As the Americans prepare themselves for what promises to be a mettle-testing slog through the FIBA bracket, keep an eye on Faried. He might not have the most aesthetically pleasing game in the world, but as an extension of the American ethos—tough, gritty, angry and always, it seems, looking to assert its power—he’s as raw and ready as it gets.
All stats and information courtesy of FIBA.com.