The United States smothered Greece 87-59 in a final tuneup before the FIBA World Championship, which commences this Saturday in Turkey.
The Greeks entered the contest piping hot, with recent 74-point and 38-point victory margins. The Americans, still ecstatic after a hard-earned, one-point triumph over tournament favorite Spain, doused them like a fire extinguisher. A dismal performance, then, turned Greece from bacon-wrapped filet mignon to flavorless ground beef. In its dominant rigamarole, Team USA tore through Greece's bedraggled man-to-man coverage like a butcher with an electric machete.
The U.S. will soon depart Athens for Istanbul, where the real competition awaits. The glorified practice scrimmages will become games that matter. The pressure will intensify. What transpired in Las Vegas, New York, Madrid, and Athens will dissolve like distant memories.
Still, Wednesday's exhibition slaughterfest did provide some helpful insights about the Americans and the upcoming tournament. Here are a few:
Identity Crisis No More
Coach Mike Krzyzewski knew what his undersized, inexperienced squad would need to do to win gold in Turkey. The difference after a series of intra-squad and international friendlies: he has seen them execute that gameplan against elite foes.
The backcourt's incessant ball-hawking will stymie opponents, and the ability of Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, and others to collapse defenses will create havoc. As evidenced by Wednesday's thumping of celebrated Greece, none of the world's other hoops units can handle the U.S. in transition.
The Americans' stunning athleticism and excellent anticipation transformed this match from a single-digit affair to a laugher. A size poverty necessitates this fast-break attack.
Amar'e Stoudemire, David Lee, Dwight Howard, or even Chris Bosh could have changed the interior dynamic. Instead, Krzyzewski appears to have settled on a starting lineup that utilizes Lamar Odom at the five. Tyson Chandler will gobble up most of the reserve minutes there, and Kevin Love will perform mop-up duty.
The coaches have rotated Odom and a host of small forwards at the four slot. In international play, threes at the NBA level often excel as makeshift power forwards.
Team USA will nullify what it lacks in half-court scoring options with stifling defense. Opponents averaged 40 percent shooting in four friendlies. Greece connected on a paltry 40.8 percent of its attempts in Wednesday's game.
The squad must win with its pressure defense, manufacturing points off turnovers, and bombarding the rim, given that spot-up shooting and post-play are not strengths.
What Happened in Athens Will Stay There
The saying applies in more places than Vegas. It merits mention that Greece's two best big men, Sofoklis Schortsanitis (known by some NBA fans as the "baby Shaq") and Ioannis Bourousis, skipped the contest. Coach Jonas Kazlauskas pulled both banged up players, hoping to keep them fresh and healthy enough to contribute in Istanbul.
Kostas Tsartsaris, the team's third-string forward-center, sizzled with a 17-point first half. He scored 24 points in all on 9-of-12 shooting. His attenuate performance could portend future trouble for the Americans, should these squads meet in the medal rounds.
Bourousis, one of the best centers in the world, can bang inside, boasts a crafty post repertoire, and can nail outside jumpers when left unattended. The problems Schortsanitis can cause are well-documented.
Kazlauskas also did not employ much zone defense or call many set plays. Greece, much like Spain did in Beijing, wants to save its best, trickiest hand for last. No international squad can expect to beat the U.S. twice in a several-week span.
The Americans also limited the implementation of half-court sets, instead relying on isolation plays and run-outs to pull away in the second and third quarters. A well-executed zone limits transition opportunities and forces a foe to drill outside shots and attack the interior at awkward angles.
Nothing could go wrong for Team USA in that scenario, right?
American Stars Aren't Only No-Shows
Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and the rest of the 2008 Redeem Team decided to skip the World Championship. They will rest in crowded company.
Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili, Yao Ming, Mehmet Okur, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker, Nene Hilario, and Theodoros Papaloukas will also sit out Istanbul for various reasons. Since other countries lack the overflowing talent pool present in the United States, those absences should make life easier for the American youngsters with limited FIBA mileage.
Jose Calderon tore a muscle in his left leg during Sunday's U.S.-Spain joust and will miss Turkey. FIBA officials could decide to suspend several Greek players following Thursday's grisly brawl in a match against Serbia. If Schortsanitis and Bourousis cannot go for Greece, that presents Kazlauskas with a tough roadblock.
Team Greece cannot topple Team USA in any gym without those vital contributors. Playing the underdog card is a smart move for Krzyzewski. Should viewers here play it, too?
Spain and Greece boast deep, deadly rosters loaded with experience and bound by the chemistry the U.S. hopes to fortify soon. No one can forget the team's memorable--in a bad way--losses to Argentina. That said, as tough as it will be for the Americans to emerge as the best in the field, it will be even tougher for these other, undermanned powerhouses to dethrone the reigning kings of the basketball world.
U.S. Boasts Depth, Too
Love, an 11th or 12th man on this roster, hauled down 12 rebounds, scored 10 points, and recorded three steals versus Greece. If the key cogs can stay healthy (Rose, Chauncey Billups, Odom, Chandler, Igoudala, Rudy Gay, Westbrook, Stephen Curry, and of course, Kevin Durant), Love will not see much court time. It does not hurt, however, to have a capable producer waiting on the bench.
All the Timberwolves forward-center does when he plays is snatch up rebounds and set effective screens that yield uncontested looks.
Durant, Rose Are Team's Best Players
Both players could start for Team USA in London. The 2012 Olympics remains two years away, but that does not mean Rose and Durant cannot give the MIA Deron Williams-Chris Paul and LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony combos stiff competition.
The Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder brain trusts also have to love the big-game experience Durant and Rose will net in Istanbul. Neither NBA baller has tasted the second round, by no means a resume blemish for these ultra-talented youngsters. This tournament qualifies as bad news for the poor souls who draw these nightmare defensive matchups in the 2011 Playoffs. Good luck keeping that short first-round virgin streak alive.
Rose's strength allows him to assault the rim at will. His muscular drives are indefensible, and not even a Sherwin-Williams employee could imagine more ways to enter the paint. He scored the final four points in the squad's 86-85 feel-good triumph against Spain.
When Durant decides he wants to score, he finds a way--step-back jumpers, alley-oops, one-handed flushes, a crude jump hook, reverse lay-ups, putback jams, free throws. Not even the gods on Mt. Olympus could have foiled his transition attack in Wednesday's scrimmage.
The Triple Threat Goes Both Ways
Eric Gordon dialed in four of his seven triples in Wednesday's beatdown en route to 18 points. The Greeks could not check Rose, named player of the game, inside or out. When the Americans lock in from long distance, no one can stop them. They drained just seven of their 28 treys, good for an ice cold 25 percent.
It was not difficult to see, though, how they could drop a medal game if they clang a double-figure number of threes and their halfcourt offense betrays them. Durant must look for his shot, but he should take care with his selection. Andre Igoudala and the other primary perimeter scorers need to follow that advice.
Team USA still heaves up too many contested threes. The abysmal 3-for-24 start against Lithuania offers proof. Take away the fast-break points, and a zone defense could do that, and the U.S. could find itself waste-deep in its own poop.
Turnovers, Bricked Free Throws Cost a Lot
Team USA also still commits too many unforced turnovers. Spain clawed back into Sunday's match and took a late lead because the U.S. coughed up the ball when it needed to run clock and find a better look.
How many times in exhibition play did an American guard or forward attempt a home-run, highlight-reel play and end up blowing a dunk or chucking up an airball? Those are the worst turnovers because they constitute missed opportunities. In an every-possession-counts Gold Medal game, those misses add up big time.
Love's mindless full-court toss as the inbounds passer was the worst offense of all.
Can anyone explain or excuse the opprobious foul shooting? Team USA shot 66 percent from the foul line Sunday in Madrid and 60 percent (14 of 23) Wednesday. Billups, a 90 percent performer at the charity stripe last year for the Denver Nuggets, clanged four in Wednesday's contest. Four! He missed a pair of technical free throws, usually a gimme for Mr. Big Shot.
With Rajon Rondo gone, every player save for centers Tyson Chandler and Lamar Odom should shoot in the high 80s and low 90s, especially the ones who fancy themselves as three-point marksmen.
Free throws should provide the Americans with free points, not headaches.
Don't Worry, "B" Happy
All worries and shortcomings aside, Team USA should throttle its Group B opponents, which include Slovenia, Brazil, Tunisia, Iran, and Croatia. Expect one nip-and-tuck affair and four blowouts.
The U.S. should enter the medal round undefeated. Then, we'll see if this inexperienced squad boasts the mojo necessary to bring the World Championship Gold Medal back to the U.S. for the first time since 1994.