Tunisia hung close to Team USA in the first half, getting within two points near the end of the second quarter and heading into intermission trailing 39-33.
Though the U.S. squad ultimately pulled away and blew out Tunisia 92-57, the game was closer than expected throughout the first 25 minutes.
That wasn’t the only surprise. So was Team USA’s lack of effort on both ends of the court.
The optimist would say that Mike Krzyzewski is saving a large portion of his offensive schemes for the knockout rounds, and that the players lowered their defensive intensity to save strength for the games to come.
The pessimist would point to the one three-pointer made in the first half by Team USA, the sloppy cross-court passes, the easy baskets given up at the rim, and that all that happened against a team that has not won a game in the FIBA World Championship.
Neither view is exactly right. But piece the two together, and you get what Team USA showed Thursday: This is a team that did not put much effort into its final game of group play, but still won due to overwhelming talent.
Kevin Durant performed as he usually does, finishing with 14 points.
Eric Gordon played great off the bench, taking advantage of additional minutes to lead all U.S. scorers with 21 points. Kevin Love, arguably the player of the game against Iran, notched just four points and five rebounds in limited play.
In the second half, Team USA wore down Tunisia with its star-power, despite playing its second team, which led to the blowout score. However, Tunisia has no NBA-level talent.
What happens when the U.S. takes on the likes of Argentina’s Luis Scola, Spain’s Marc Gasol or the tough-as-nails Greece squad?
That’s what we’ll find out next week.
Derrick Rose, Chauncey Billups, and the rest of the first team will certainly see more action when the games start to matter. Regardless of the outcome against Tunisia, Team USA would have finished first in Group B.
Now this young group cannot afford to play down to the competition. One bad game, and America is once again seen as vulnerable in the basketball world, if it is not already.
Here are a few things that need to be corrected over the next few days, and which players seem to be moving up and down the depth chart.
The defensive intensity was not there against Tunisia, and it needs to be in the knockout stage. If shots are not dropping, the ability to fall back on defense is invaluable in one-and-done situations.
As for starters, Billups and Odom will remain to stabilize the team with their veteran presence.
Durant and Rose are the two best players on the squad. Andre Iguodala could be switched out for Love or Tyson Chandler based on matchups, but otherwise he provides the most versatility at the power forward spot.
Gordon may have raised the value of his stock significantly against Tunisia.
He made 4-of-7three-pointers, made all three of his free throws and chipped in three steals. He, Rose, and Billups could eventually be the three-guard rotation for Team USA moving forward.
Stephon Curry and Russell Westbrook turn the ball over too much. If Coach K is in need of shooting, Curry could make an appearance, but otherwise in close games he will probably be on the bench. His 13 points against Tunisia cannot mask his inexperience.
The group play taught us a lot about this version of Team USA. It seems to still have the flaws of weak halfcourt offense and spotty defense that previous American squads have dealt with.
However, Team USA has not lost a game as a unit yet. And as long as that continues to be the case for the remainder of the tournament, no one will have a problem with it.