NEW YORK — Here's what we learned during the U.S. men's national basketball team's 105-62 pasting of the Dominican Republic in an exhibition tuneup for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, now just nine days away:
• James Harden (12 points, four assists, three steals in 16 minutes) will see a lot of the ball with the first-team U.S. offense, and he will attack a lot, and he will shoot a lot, as befits a man of his confidence;
• Anthony Davis (seven points, four rebounds, two blocks, one steal in 16 minutes) has quickly gone from end-of-the-bench mascot on the gold-medal-winning 2012 Summer Olympic team to indispensable interior cog, barking out pick-and-roll coverages on the back line, drawing attention everywhere he directs his increasingly massive frame on offense and profiling as the lone sure-thing American big;
• The U.S. is considerably better than a Dominican Republic side playing without star Al Horford.
If none of that strikes you as particularly revelatory, you're not alone. The U.S. has two more exhibition games coming up — vs. Puerto Rico back here at Madison Square Garden on Friday, and against Slovenia next Tuesday after crossing the Atlantic and heading to Spain — and still has some questions to answer as the coaching staff looks to cut a 16-man roster down to 12 before opening pool play on Aug. 30 against Finland in Bilbao, Spain.
Hmm — sorry, what was that, Coach?
"We like to use the term 'not selected,'" Mike Krzyzewski said during his postgame press conference.
Ah. My bad. To "not-selected" the roster down to 12.
Those hoping that a friendly matchup with a Dominican side led by NBA veteran Francisco Garcia and former Louisville star Edgar Sosa would indicate whether the U.S. offense is better than the start-and-stop unit on display for most of the Brazil game, and would help clarify the U.S. coaches' upcoming roster decisions, likely came away from Wednesday's contest feeling like the matter remained clear as mud. That's due in part to the sheer disparity in talent between the two clubs making it hard to perform sober analysis of how well the U.S. actually played, and in part to several impressive performances by players on the much-discussed U.S. fringes.
DeMar DeRozan bounced back from a "did not play-coach's decision" in last Saturday's exhibition victory over Brazil by scoring a team-high 13 points on 6-for-9 shooting, dishing six assists and grabbing five rebounds with just one turnover in 23-plus minutes.
The bulk of DeRozan's work came after halftime, long after the game had become a laugher, but the Toronto Raptors guard refused to take his foot off the gas.
"If you play four or five or six minutes, you have to play as hard as possible," he said.
DeMarcus Cousins seemed to take a similar approach after staying seated on Saturday against Brazil as a precautionary measure. The Sacramento Kings center grabbed a game-high eight rebounds in just under 16 minutes, banging on the interior against Dominican bigs Eloy Vargas and Jack Michael Martinez, running the floor hard on offense without grousing about a lack of touches (just two points on one attempt) and looking none the worse for wear after going down with an injury during Team USA's Chicago workouts.
Andre Drummond, a healthy scratch against Brazil, turned in an active performance against the overwhelmed Dominicans. The Detroit Pistons' center scored 12 points in 16 minutes, grabbing four offensive rebounds, throwing down an impressive alley-oop finish off a feed from DeRozan late in the proceedings and even trying to intercept a pass for a putback on the very last possession of the game.
"Drummond is a young guy, and it showed right on the last play, where he tried to get a steal," Krzyzewski said. "As long as he's on the court, he's trying to do what we want him to do."
Team USA ratcheted up the defensive intensity early, finishing with 10 steals and forcing 19 Dominican turnovers that led to 23 U.S. points. When the likes of Garcia, Sosa and guard James Feldeine were able to beat the U.S. guards off the bounce and get to the middle off pick-and-roll and dribble handoff actions, Team USA's superior length, quickness and athleticism enabled them to force awkward, heavily contested looks that limited the Dominican Republic to just 62 points on 34.3 percent shooting.
On the other end, the U.S. frequently got just about whatever it wanted, shooting 57.9 percent from the field, 10 for 23 from long distance, and turning it over just 13 times. Even that last number didn't especially trouble Coach K, who noted after the game, "Most of our turnovers are on attempted lobs for dunks. They're not sloppy passes. We're maybe a little bit too unselfish, and we don't know each other that well yet."
With Derrick Rose a late scratch on Wednesday, Kyrie Irving stepped into the starting lineup at the point and performed admirably, scoring 12 points on perfect 5-for-5 shooting, dishing five assists without a turnover and pulling down four rebounds in just under 16 minutes. While Irving did make some mistakes, he played a more aggressive brand of perimeter defense than we're accustomed to seeing from him, and showed comfort working off the ball as a spot-up shooter on a couple of occasions when one of his mates was handling the rock.
"I just try to do whatever's needed for our team, whatever it takes to get out there on the court," he said after the game. "If that takes me picking up full court, then I'm going to do it. [...] It's a sacrifice I need to make in order to be on this special team."
Given how sharp the U.S. offense looked with Irving at the controls and Krzyzewski's praise of Irving's ability to work at either guard spot ("Kyrie can get anybody a shot any time, and he can score"), it seems increasingly likely that Irving will "be on this special team." We might not be much closer to knowing just who will join him, though.
Harden, Davis and Curry are lead-pipe locks. Irving seems to have sewn up a spot, as have Thompson and apparent new starting power forward Kenneth Faried, who seems at home as a board-crashing, full-court-pressing, turnover-creating four man, even if he can't really shoot. Kyle Korver seems a good bet, despite not playing Wednesday and getting only three minutes against Brazil, because he's such a well-known quantity and because he can really shoot.
"Kyle's a specialist, you know, one of the top 3-point shooters and a veteran," said Krzyzewski, who noted that Korver will likely return to the lineup Friday against Puerto Rico. "He doesn't even have to play and we know who he is."
The U.S. staff feels the same way about Rose, whose absence was well noted by an MSG crowd that chanted his name several times throughout the exhibition.
Chicago Bulls coach and Team USA assistant Tom Thibodeau said Rose "was probably feeling good enough to play tonight, but because he hasn't played and he's trying to shake off some rust, the best thing to do was to give him the day off." Rose himself shot down any talk of trouble with his surgically repaired knees after sitting out the last two days of practice and Wednesday's exhibition.
"Just trying to protect myself, just knowing that this is a long, long schedule and this is the most basketball I'll be playing in two years," Rose told reporters after the game. "I want to be out there, but at the same time my health is the No. 1 issue right now."
That issue, and this is as specific as Derrick cared to get, is “just body fatigue,” and not his surgically repaired knees.
“No, not the knees,” Rose said. “No, no, no, no. You don’t have to worry about that.”
So Krzyzewski won't worry until it's time to worry.
"We'll find that out," he said. "You know, we'll find that out in the next few days, before the tournament starts. We have time to find out."
If the next few days do turn up cause for concern with Rose's ability to withstand a fairly rigorous short-term schedule, that could make it more likely that Krzyzewski keeps Damian Lillard around for depth. If Rose seems ready to go by Friday, though, Lillard — just about the only American to struggle Wednesday, scoring seven points on 3 for 8 shooting, committing four turnovers against three assists in 24-plus minutes and looking somewhat lackluster defensively — could head back to the Portland Trail Blazers earlier than he'd hoped.
Ditto for Gordon Hayward, who played 14 relatively quiet minutes and seems to be on the edge of the U.S. wing mix, behind recent addition Rudy Gay (who looked very good en route to 13 points in 17 1/2 minutes on Wednesday) and swingman Chandler Parsons, who received a DNP-CD on Wednesday but drew praise from Krzyzewski postgame as "that three-four [who is] a very versatile player."
We entered Wednesday night thinking that Cousins, DeRozan, Lillard, Drummond, Hayward and Mason Plumlee (strong against Brazil, absent against the D.R. so that the coaches could get a longer look at Drummond) were probably fighting for two roster spots. After a couple of hours of wiping the floor with the Dominican Republic, we exit thinking the same thing, with precious little indication of what exactly Coach K's looking for as he make his selections and his, well, "not-selecteds."
"It's just a matter of, how many can you have, and how will you use them?" he said. "No, there's not criteria. These guys are really good. They're top-level pros."
Krzyzewski said there will be no cuts before Friday's game against Puerto Rico, but that he's "sure we'll do something before we leave the country on Saturday." He then followed that immediately by saying, "I don't know what that means," saying merely that the roster will "get down to a lower number." Clear as mud.
"Those will be very difficult decisions," Krzyzewski said. "Nobody's played poorly. Everyone's played well, and everyone's had a great attitude. Those are great, tough decisions to make."
- - - - - - -