Team USA already clinched Group C going into the final day of group play at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, so there wasn't a lot at stake Thursday against Ukraine. Despite the lack of tension, the United States came out on top, 95-71, in a game that was closer than it should have been for a long time.
As it has done on multiple occasions in this event already, the U.S. got off to a sluggish start before turning things on in the second and third quarters to pull away. It wasn't a bad game for Mike Krzyzewski's group, but just an uninspired effort.
The good news is James Harden had his best game of the tournament with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting. All five starters for Team USA reached double figures in points, and the team shot 50.7 percent from the floor.
The game was far more important for Ukraine. It finished the group phase at 2-3 and will now need to wait for the results from the Turkey-Dominican Republic matchup to sort things out. New Zealand is also sitting at 2-3 in the group, so there will be three teams—including the loser of that Turkey-Dominican Republic contest—at 2-3 battling for two spots.
Even though the only thing on the line for Team USA was pride, the win does save Coach K from having to answer unnecessary questions about a loss that no one saw coming. The team will now prepare for the round of 16, which begins on Saturday in Barcelona against Mexico.
No one is going to put this game down on the highlight reel for Team USA. As Chris Sheridan of SheridanHoops.com noted, Ukraine, which shot just 33.3 percent from three-point range, could have made things interesting if a few more perimeter shots fell:
Chris Sheridan @sheridanhoops
If Ukraine had hit some threes, #TeamUSA might have some issues right now. As it is, 44-32 lead at half, big win looks inevitable2014-9-4 16:24:22
But there were some positives for the Americans.
In addition to Harden's strong effort, Stephen Curry found his shooting touch after an off-game against the Dominican Republic. He finished Thursday's game with 14 points, and all three of his field goals came from beyond the arc.
There was a scary moment late in the game when Kyrie Irving was down after slamming into the floor following a layup attempt. According to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports, Cleveland's young star didn't appear to be in serious pain:
Marc J. Spears @MarcJSpearsESPN
Little scare as Cavs Kyrie Irving was down injured on floor late in @usabasketball game after falling hard on hip but he eventually got up.2014-9-4 17:12:41
As has been the case throughout this event for Team USA, Kenneth Faried was all over the place. He provided one of the highlights for the United States with a soaring dunk late in the game, via NBA on ESPN:
NBA on ESPN @ESPNNBA
No matter how sluggish Team USA is, @KennethFaried35 always brings the energy, like he did on this HUGE jam. http://t.co/3RKwDV6Fw62014-9-4 17:04:07
Another highlight moment late in the contest came courtesy of Anthony Davis, who took the ball from one end of the floor to the other before throwing down a huge dunk to put an exclamation point on the victory, via NBA on ESPN:
NBA on ESPN @ESPNNBA
Check out @AntDavis23 going coast to coast with the steal and the high-flying slam. Watch: http://t.co/Z24MO2c6592014-9-4 17:06:43
One of the stories within the actual story of the game is the performance of Derrick Rose. The former NBA MVP has been all over the map, as you can see in this graphic from the NBA's official Twitter account:
A look at @DRose's contributions thus far at @FIBA World Cup, as @usabasketball trails UKRAINE early on ESPN2. http://t.co/OLdJ3QmOqY2014-9-4 15:57:00
On Thursday, Rose once again didn't look good shooting the ball. He hit just two of nine attempts. The good news is he didn't have a turnover and added four rebounds and four assists.
The offense has been a hot topic of conversation in these games because the United States has been one dimensional. It's been great inside and around the rim, but it's struggled from three-point range.
Klay Thompson talked about the offensive performance and why it isn't that big of a deal for the players following Wednesday's game against the Dominican Republic, via Sekou Smith of NBA.com:
I’m not even worried about our offense. If we just play that kind of pressure on defense, we have too much depth and we’re going to give teams headaches. I know our offense is going to come. We’ve got too many talented scorers. So if we keep making those easy opportunities on defense, the turnovers, we’re going to be a problem for every team we play.
True to form, defense was a key aspect of Team USA's win on Thursday. The Americans forced 17 turnovers and held Ukraine to just eight assists and a shooting percentage of 40.3 en route to a 24-point win.
The good news for Coach K is he will have a day off on Friday to get his team rested and back on track before taking on Mexico. Even though the record says Team USA was perfect, anyone watching the group phase knows it's not playing its best.
Now we are getting into the phase when only the best teams are still playing, so another slow start by the U.S. could snowball and turn into a stunning loss.
There's no denying the raw talent of Team USA, nor is anyone disputing Krzyzewski's ability to lead and motivate. But with teams like Spain and Greece lurking, the Americans will have to be better to win the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
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