Full confession: After Kevin Durant’s abrupt departure, I was one of the overwhelming minority who didn’t see a Team USA gold medal in the upcoming FIBA World Cup as a done deal. Perhaps acclimatization in Europe ruins the objectivity, perhaps it was too much faith in the credo, “Other countries can play ball with these guys.” Whatever the case, the planet’s few skeptics were surely cowed by the red, white and blues’ 95-78 win over Brazil yesterday.
A few takeaways, then, from the dark side (formerly darker) of the spectrum.
Anthony Davis is the game’s next superduperstar. Resist the temptation to make blanket statements on Davis based on a single exhibition game if you will, but when was the last time we saw such an all-around skilled player who’s also capable of thriving above the rim? Davis was everywhere in the Brazil game, a standout on both ends of the floor unlike so many Team USA players we’re told/have seen will be either defensive (Kenneth Faried, James Harden) or offensive (Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, Harden when his natural instincts kick in) specialists. Aside from watching a future hall of famer for the home team, New Orleans Pelicans fans will certainly want to tune in to Turkey’s matches in this ‘Cup to observe Omer Asik and justifiably imagine some awesome interior play from the Pels in 2014-15.
Kenneth Faried and Mason Plumlee make an intriguing combination. Faried was tapped to start the game for Team USA, while Plumlee has worked his way up from practice squad to cracking this roster. While the Plumdog only got 15 minutes of court time in the game, the majority – much in the second quarter – was spent with Faried. One wonders what throwing Demarcus Cousins and/or Andre Drummond into the mix might do, but against the bigger internationals of Brazil, these guys were the true blue-collar workers in the paint. Consider Plumlee on the bubble for a final roster spot.
Paul George wants another Team USA tour. The off-court highlight for true-blue fans of Team USA definitely had to be Mark Jones’ interview to lead ESPN’s broadcast at the top of the second quarter. Reportedly PG is already penciled in for the 2014 Olympics and he’s looking forward to the opportunity despite “no timetable” for his return to NBA courts. In light of the Mark Cuban dicta vis-à-vis international basketball tournaments, we’ll see how contracts and endorsement deals pan out for the Indiana Pacer but who can resist dreaming about the current Team USA nucleus plus a rejuvenated George? And maybe even Kevin Durant…
It’s time to get on the Chicago Bulls bandwagon. In lightning flashes, Derrick Rose 2.0 bore a stunning resemblance to the pre-injury version, despite the player the Chicago crowd turned out to see playing a mostly subdued first half. Occupying the seat next to head coach Mike Krzyzewski was Bulls mastermind Tom Thibodeau, whose defensive schemes were in full evidence particularly in early full-court pressure. Meanwhile, Pau Gasol has again contributed in only the manner he can when teamed with brother Marc for Spain, going for a handy 13-point, seven-rebound, four-assist game against Turkey last week. Adding two all-stars to a 48-34 club is worth, what, twelve more wins? Eighteen? Yes, it’s a good time to be a Bulls fan.
The biggest advantage Team USA holds is in backcourt speed. While Brazil’s big bodies (Tiago Splitter, Anderson Varejao, Nene) demonstrated solid enough defense and positioning in the paint, the backcourt led by Marcelinho Huertas looked positively anemic against the likes of Rose and Stephon Curry. True, Heurtas is hardly known in Euroleague basketball as a stopper, but even the guards molded in the Spanish game of major emphasis on fast-paced transitions, top-of-the-key defending and pick-and-roll plays seem unlikely to hang with the USA guys. So much for knocking a point guard-heavy expanded roster…
Coach K’s decision is slightly more clear-cut than expected. With 12 players seeing action for the Brazil game and the roles of nine particularly emphasized, some insight as to how Krzyzewski will handle the remaining cuts to the expanded roster before the World Cup tipoff was provided. Demar DeRozan and Gordon Heyward didn’t play; Kyle Korver, Damian Lilliard and Chandler Parsons saw insignificant minutes and probably won’t be boarding the plane to Spain, either. Of these, Korver can be considered the toughest omission but with Curry getting so many open looks from long-range, the NBA’s top statistical three shooter can be left behind.
The only real question is the choice from among Plumlee, Cousins and Andre Drummond. Drummond also took a DNP against Brazil as Plumlee saw quality minutes and, as noted above, provided presence on the glass against the taller Brazilians. Depending on Cousins’ game readiness, figure Drummond to be on the outside looking in.
This team isn’t perfect yet. Thibodeau was probably the first to say so in the post-game, but a couple of brief scares from Brazil revealed the KD-sized hole in the current Team USA. Slowing down the game to series of half-court offenses in the second quarter got Brazil back to a two-point deficit at 35-33, showing the virtue of patience to find those momentary chinks in the US’ armor.
Coming out after halftime, Team USA displaying a slightly alarming tendency toward ball-stopping on the parts of Harden and Curry in particular. None of Harden’s team-leading five assists came in the third quarter and during an 11-for-11 night in free-throw shooting, The Beard had just two from the stripe in this period. Huertas, Splitter et al meanwhile demonstrated the eye-rolling cliché of “making the extra pass” time and again while playing admirably off the ball to great effect.
Finally, a reminder. One only team gains automatic qualification for the Olympic Games (thus the summer of 2015 off) and one loss can blow it all away. Perhaps not as scary as a few days ago, Team Spain nevertheless looms.
Of course, that’s just one skeptic’s viewpoint…