2010 FIBA World Championship: Team USA Slams Slovenia But Effort Uneven
Kevin Durant picked off Uros Slokar and sprinted to the other side of the court for an uncontested dunk, as if to atone for the rapid-fire Americans losing the opening tip.
By the time Bostjan Nachbar answered with a one-handed flush of his own, Team USA led Slovenia 14-6. Tone set. Superiority established. Game over. Slovenia's best guard, Phoenix Suns reserve Goran Dragic committed two early fouls and was forced to park his butt on the bench for the rest of the first quarter.
Possession by possession, the Americans turned a flurry of the overmatched foe's presto mistakes into cinch points. Andre Igoudala and Derrick Rose each swiped laggard passes and slammed home fast-break buckets. The U.S. recovered from an abhorrent, rife-with-turnovers stretch in the first half and cruised to a 99-77 victory.
The players heard for weeks how the impromptu roster construction in the wake of the Beijing egress and injury-related departures of Amar'e Stoudemire, David Lee, and others would doom them in Istanbul. If the U.S. faltered in the 2006 World Championship with freshly crowned Finals MVP Dwyane Wade in the starting lineup, how would this amateur platoon cope with the pressures of international competition?
The Americans began to answer critics with exhibition play that seemed to improve by the quarter. Now, the best athletes in the tournament are screaming at their detractors. The caterwauling deafened Croatia and Slovenia. Next up on the group B slate: short-handed Brazil. Can the Nene-less Brazilians handle the U.S.'s new found boisterousness?
The ultimate question mark squad in Team USA's resplendent history now shows flashes of Gold Medal form. Here are the commendable and detestable highlights from Sunday's gravy train.
DETESTABLE: The United States did not convert a basket in the first seven minutes of the second quarter. The players misfired in a fashion akin to a haywire army tanker. A collage of turnovers allowed Slovenia to pull within 28-23.
COMMENDABLE: In that woebegone stretch, Slovenia managed just four baskets, a sign of the Americans' capable half-court coverage.
DETESTABLE: After coughing up the ball just seven times in four periods against Croatia, the U.S. decided to treat the basketball like a promotional item. The Americans committed nine turnovers alone in the first 15 minutes of action.
COMMENDABLE: Rose and Durant used their length to force Slovenian miscues. Those facile dunks and layups allowed the U.S. to create distance and a cushion.
DETESTABLE: Team USA still tries to complete too many highlight-reel plays when it should embrace simplicity, one reason for the unsightly assist-to-turnover ratio in the first half. The lob pass has been the Americans' lowest percentage play. While no one in the world can guard those alley-oops, opponents can force the passers to throw at odd angles under duress. Durant should look to attack in transition, but he must pull back and allow the U.S. to run a play if he cannot muster an easy look.
COMMENDABLE: Durant has mastered Coach Mike Krzyzewski's "be aggressive" directive. He tallied 15 of his 22 points in the first half in every way imaginable. He sank a loosely contested three-pointer, a 20-footer, drew fouls and drilled free throws, and flew for authoritative slams on the break.
DETESTABLE: Chauncey Billups, the team's should-be free throw shooting ace, bricked the first of two during that wretched stretch. The U.S. made just 12 of its 22 freebies in Saturday's match. The foul shooting Sunday was still, at times, repulsive. Billups also reached in for a silly foul just after that one-for-two charity stripe trip.
COMMENDABLE: Billups orchestrated the Team USA run that blew open the game. In his best play of the evening, he spotted Kevin Love underneath the hoop and threw an elementary inbounds pass to the reserve big guy for a reverse lay-up. Those intelligible scores count just the same as those spectacular but perilous lobs. Billups veteran wisdom and hefty bag of tricks are godsends for this inexperienced unit.
DETESTABLE: Slovenia's Gasper Vidmar and Samo Udrih waltzed past defenders without bother for a layup and jumper on the first two possessions of the second half, not the way Krzyzewski wanted his players to reconvene play after what was likely a halftime talk thicker and tougher than an overcooked New York Strip Steak.
COMMENDABLE: After that defensive breakdown, the U.S. amassed a 12-4 run, and at one point, scored eight unanswered. Slovenia did not recover from that surge.
DETESTABLE: Team USA jacked up 30 three-pointers against Croatia and connected on just 12 of them. The Americans must decide when to heave triples and when to run the clock and work for easier looks. The U.S. made 10 of 27 long-distance bombs versus Slovenia, and the need for improvement in the shot selection department remains a priority.
COMMENDABLE: Boy, those three-pointers are timely. When Lamar Odom's lone trey afforded the U.S. a 49-32 advantage, Slovenian coach Mehmed Becerovic had to start thinking about Monday's key tilt with Croatia, which carries medal round implications. Slovenia did not boast the firepower necessary to overcome that deficit.
DETESTABLE: A 31-point quarter allowed Slovenia to bump its shooting percentage to 47. With a more consistent effort and a better second quarter, the U.S. might have won by 40.
COMMENDABLE: In two games, the U.S. guards held NBA-level counterparts Roko Ukic and Dragic to 2-11 and 2-8 performances. Both languished on the bench with early foul trouble. None of the Americans' Group B foes can win without star turns from their top available ballers.
DETESTABLE: The number of silly fouls committed by the Americans after the lead ballooned was disconcerting. Team USA will need to limit those in the elimination games.
DETESTABLE: A missed free throw amounts to a turnover. Get used to me harping on this multiple times in each tournament column. I am still not feeling Team USA's 68 percent shooting from the charity stripe.
COMMENDABLE: The players now know and accept their roles. Love, the team's 11th man trash collector, continued to impress. He hauled down 10 and 11 rebounds against Croatia and Slovenia, respectively. He scored three putback buckets in Sunday's match, two of them as he was fouled. He also threw down a baseline jam and delivered two nifty dimes.
Eric Gordon clanged seven of his nine field goals, but his limitless energy, hustle, and perimeter capabilities have been a boon for Team USA.
Durant and Andre Igoudala have perfected the art of pick pocketing. They combined for five steals against Slovenia.
No opposing player has been able to keep Rose from getting where he wants to go. That trend will continue.
Odom's versatility and rebounding prowess has been a plus.
Rudy Gay has established himself as the go-to weapon off the bench He scored 16 points in Sunday's triumph. He is as difficult to stop on the run as Durant and Rose.
Danny Granger and Stephen Curry aid the winning cause when they make long-distance shots. Each played just seven minutes against Slovenia.
Russell Westbrook can play powerhouse defense, and his athleticism allows him to raid the cup at will, a welcome skill that offsets his shaky perimeter touch. If he continues his sharp play, Krzyzewski will not miss Rajon Rondo.
Tournament favorite Spain lost its opener to France. Five NBA players are absent from that French national team. Argentina and Greece struggled Saturday evening against vastly inferior opponents.
With the injured Jose Calderon, Nene Hilario, and Andres Nocioni (not cleared to play by 76ers) recently added to the list of international star no-shows, no squad looks better equipped for a run at gold than the Americans' supposed B team.
The U.S. beat Croatia and Slovenia comfortably and can still improve in a lot of areas. In mere weeks, Krzyzewski has molded what seemed like an undersized, mismatched brigade into a cohesive unit.
My tentative forecast, then, for Team USA includes a golden shower. For the first time since 1994, it will not come courtesy of another rude opponent.
Calling out ESPN
The four-letter network did not send a broadcast crew to Turkey. Would it bankrupt ESPN to fly Fran Fraschilla and a B-list play-by-play man to Istanbul? I hate this live-from-the-studio crap.
Who were the god-awful, shout happy hacks calling the Spain-France action on the NBATV feed?
"Oh my God! Yes! Wow! Rudy Fernandez with a three (in the seconrter)!" Do these guys take lessons from Miami Heat PA announcer Michael Baiamonte? This isn't soccer, fellas.
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