Did Group Play Reveal Any Secrets to Beating Team USA?

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Did Group Play Reveal Any Secrets to Beating Team USA?
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Team USA completed group play in the FIBA Basketball World Cup with its fifth consecutive blowout win Thursday, and it now heads into the round of 16 looking as invincible as ever.

Still, it's worth noting there is a handful of weaknesses the U.S. must address before it faces more serious competition.

The Americans' latest triumph came against Ukraine. The final score of 95-71 actually dragged down the average margin of victory (33 points) it had accumulated in the first four games. Put another way, the U.S. has yet to be even remotely challenged.

Kenneth Faried was, again, a monster. He piled up 10 points and eight rebounds on 5-of-6 shooting in 24 minutes. James Harden led the team with 17 points on just 12 shots. And as per usual, the U.S. forced plenty of turnovers (19) and had no trouble running up the score in transition.

Ukraine coach Mike Fratello did his very best to strategically channel the 1990s Cleveland Cavaliers he coached, employing a slow-it-down approach that was intensely boring and mildly effective...for a while. By clogging the lane on defense and forcing the ball inside on offense, Ukraine limited Team USA's breakaway attempts and avoided turnovers.

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A 19-14 Ukraine lead after the first quarter showed the plan, conservative as it was, got some results.

However, it's hard to know whether the disappointing opening quarter was caused by the opponent's tactics or American disinterest, as is so often the case with Team USA. The U.S. has always struggled to get engaged early—a problem that stems from knowing it can flip the proverbial switch whenever necessary.

The U.S. did just that after the first quarter, blitzing Ukraine with a 30-13 advantage in the second. The result was never in doubt after that.

What Ukraine did wasn't nearly enough to scare Team USA. But if a team were to combine that grinding approach with what we saw from Turkey, might there be cause for some concern?

The Turkish squad took a five-point lead into halftime against the Americans, utilizing a confounding matchup zone that had elements of a basic 2-3 but also featured shades of a box-and-one when Stephen Curry was on the floor.

Turkey changed up coverages on almost every possession, going from man to zone on inbounds plays and rarely stuck with the same game plan for more than a few possessions at a time. Early in the contest, against a typically lackadaisical U.S. side, it worked pretty well.

The U.S.'s stagnant half-court offense (in which, annoyingly, there's almost no off-ball movement whatsoever) was somewhat exposed. And the use of full-on zone defenses obviously bothered American players who so rarely see them.

Alvaro Barrientos/Associated Press

Then again, maybe that first half against Turkey offered no real cause for concern.

Per Nate Duncan of BasketballInsiders.com:

The US did struggle to score in the first half, managing only 35 points on 40 possessions.  But the zone was not the culprit, as the US largely had good possessions.  I counted only five possessions that were suboptimal from a process standpoint, i.e. possessions that ended badly due to a poor decision or inability to get a good shot.  Instead, the US was done in by factors of their own making. There were three completely unforced turnovers where they simply misthrew passes to wide open shooters.  And those shooters, in large part Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, missed a lot of open shots, especially in the first quarter when the US was 1-9 from distance.

To Duncan's point, the U.S. crushed Turkey in the second half:

Other than those two games, Team USA hasn't had to sweat. Finland was beaten before it took the floor, as evidenced by awe-induced turnovers and general hesitation. New Zealand and the Dominican Republic never caused much concern either.

All we can say so far is the U.S. has shown some small vulnerabilities when it has to score in ways that don't involve steals and breakaways. Any strategy that slows the game down is a good one for opponents. But the unparalleled athleticism and depth on the roster make it almost impossible for teams to keep the U.S. from turning things into a turnover-fueled track meet eventually.

Are there problems? Sure; it'd be great to see Team USA execute better in the half court and get more ball movement. A little focus at the opening tip might also be nice.

But those are issues that have always afflicted the USA, and they've rarely resulted in disaster. It's hard to worry about the finer points of pin-down screens and ghost cuts for a team that knows it can go on a run to blow any game open at will.

Call it 2010-2014 Miami Heat syndrome.

As was the case for those Heat teams, though, it only takes one opponent with sufficient skill to study up and capitalize on well-known weaknesses.

Spain might be that opponent, as you've no doubt heard countless times since this tournament began.

Daniel Tejedor/Associated Press

The Spaniards won't be intimidated like Finland was. They won't have to play a gimmicky, shifting style on defense like Turkey did. And they won't have to resort to lulling the U.S. to sleep like Ukraine.

If Spain wants to, it can bring all those tactics to bear in the inevitable gold-medal game. But it will also have a few other things to throw into the mix: superior frontcourt size and talent, a core that has been together for nearly a decade, better chemistry and a functional half-court offense—just to name a few.

America is still deeper than Spain, and it is far, far better equipped in the backcourt. The U.S. is also the superior team athletically.

But the talent gap between these two predestined foes isn't some yawning chasm. With the Gasol brothers, Marc and Pau, Serge Ibaka and NBA-tested guards, Spain can go toe to toe with Team USA. And now that it's seen some pointers on what works well against the tournament favorites, Spain should feel prepared for the matchup.

There are no secrets to beating Team USA.

Alvaro Barrientos/Associated Press

Basically, an opponent needs enough talent to avoid being physically overwhelmed and a willingness to learn from what others have done. We should expect a focused, prepared Spanish team to have both of those attributes.

Of course, we should also expect the U.S. to flip the switch a little earlier against the one foe everyone keeps saying is its only real threat. For all the good Spain's talent and game-planning will do, there's nothing more potent than some good old fashioned American motivation.

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