U.S. shows look of potential champion

ISTANBUL – All these young American legs, all these willing, spindly long bodies, and here unfolded the blueprint for a world championship. They were red, white and blue blurs flooding the floor, pressuring the ball, passing and shooting with crispness and authority. Pity poor Angola, overmatched and overrun on Monday night.

Russell Westbrook dunks over Angola during Team USA's 121-66 victory.
(AP photo)

And yet, for all the fretting of Team USA over its tender ages and scant international pedigrees, the Americans are still the deepest, most talented team in the tournament. They understood the sluggishness that had come and gone in group play needed to start dissipating. Sixteen years have passed without a world championship – an incredible span for the United States – and there was a sense with Team USA that it needed to start carrying itself like a champion as much as they needed to start playing like one.

Angola offered little resistance in the 121-66 verdict, and Team USA delivered the kind of devastating blow to start the game it was unable to do in letting Tunisia linger in the final group-play performance. This was one of the games where Kevin Durant(notes) and Rudy Gay(notes) were so dangerous on the wings, finishing with flourishes over and over.

“Regardless of what people are saying, we still are the favorites and we should play and really act like it,” Kevin Love(notes) said.

Now, Team USA plays Russia in the quarterfinals on Thursday with the semis and finals looming on Saturday and Sunday.

Before Team USA stepped on the floor for a round of 16 elimination game, coach Mike Krzyzewski challenged his team: For all this youth, where’s the enthusiasm? It would come from the oldest of these Americans – 34-year-old Chauncey Billups(notes), who had missed 15 of 19 3-pointers in the worlds and struggled to find his shot.

Billups told his teammates it was upon him to start making shots again, to run Team USA, and he delivered a tone to the knockout round with his body-up defense and the return of his sweet stroke. Billups made five of his seven 3-pointers for 19 points, and restored his strong voice on Team USA with stronger play. As the competition gets stiffer the rest of this tournament, Billups becomes even more important to the Americans.

The U.S. needed a final stop to beat Brazil at the buzzer in group play, Spain is still extremely talented; Argentina’s Luis Scola(notes) has been the tournament’s most dominant player; and a wildcard, host Turkey, is playing brilliantly behind revived star Hedo Turkuglo and a raucous fandom. Team USA is still vulnerable along the frontline, still susceptible inside and in a grind-it-out game. Nevertheless, the U.S. needs three more victories this week to do something it hasn’t done since 1994: win the world championships in basketball.

“We’re beatable,” Krzyzewski cautioned.

No, Angola wasn’t much of a test, but Team USA is starting to look the part, starting to look like a champion ought to look. As much as anything, this was the blueprint for the Americans. This is the golden ticket.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Sep 6, 2010