When Kenneth Faried blocked Maxym Kornienko into the first row and Ukraine ultimately dribbled out the shot clock on its first possession, another long day appeared in store for Team USA’s fifth and final FIBA World Cup Group C opponent.
But a Ukraine squad coached by Mike Fratello proved game, at least for a quarter and a half, until the U.S. flexed its considerable muscle in a 95-71 victory. Mike Krzyzewski’s charges will now face Mexico in the Round of 16 on Saturday.
Playing its fifth game in six days, Team USA came out sluggish and sloppy, taking almost five minutes off the clock before a James Harden (team-high 17 points) jumper snapped an 0-for-5 start from the field. While Ukraine’s accuracy wasn’t much better, missing its first 10 three-point attempts, Europe’s largest country featured a bruising frontcourt that lived at the free-throw line and helped establish a 19-14 lead after a quarter.
The performance of Ukrainian 7-foot center Slava Kravtsov (team-high 15 points), who played 20 games for the Phoenix Suns this past NBA season, didn’t quell any concerns about how the U.S. will ultimately perform should it reach the finals against Spain’s mammoth frontline of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
The Ukrainians clutched to a narrow lead until Stephen Curry netted the first three of his 14 points with four minutes to play before the break, giving the U.S. its first lead since 2-0. Team USA closed a 30-point second quarter on a 17-5 run, taking a 44-32 lead into the break, and the margin never dropped to single digits again.
Despite showing signs of that burst the NBA has sorely missed since April 2012, Derrick Rose’s finishing woes continued, save for a couple buckets on nine tries.
On an otherwise quiet evening in Bilbao, Spain, Faried (10 points, 5-6 FG; 8 rebounds) provided the few reasons to cheer another rout, continuing his early MVP candidacy with more Manimalism.
While the U.S. completed its run through a weak Group C unbeaten, the Americans did not emerge unscathed. Kyrie Irving (11 points, 6 assists, 3 steals) took a nasty fall on his tailbone with 1:12 remaining against Ukraine, dropping to the floor for a few motionless moments that had all of Cleveland holding its collective breath. Team USA didn’t provide any immediate information on Irving’s status, but the team’s starting point guard walked gingerly off the court under his own power, offering an optimistic outlook.
Team USA may have capped its pool play with a fifth 20-point victory in as many tries, but this last one was anything but comfortable.
Charles Barkley on NBA players competing internationally: