Things could not have gone better for Team USA on Sunday. It just took a few minutes for everything to start getting better. Team USA downed Serbia by a 129-92 score to win the FIBA World Cup in Spain, earning the gold medal with stellar all around play, but not before starting slow against a game and confident Serbian squad.
With just under four minutes gone in the first quarter, Team USA was reeling from foul trouble, unable to keep up with Serbia’s ball movement on offense, and facing a 15-7 deficit. There was still plenty of game left to play, but even the most experienced of international basketball observers were getting a little punchy:
Team USA had better wake the bleep up!
— Bob Ryan (@GlobeBobRyan) September 14, 2014
It’s strange to point to pivotal first quarter plays as game-defining and eventually game-deciding, but that’s what tends to happen in an eventual 37-point blowout. With the eight point deficit ahead of him, James Harden sprang free for a lay-in and a foul, while tossing in a three-pointer on the next offensive possession. Kyrie Irving then scored five straight of his own as Team USA came back to build a lead.
Those offensive plays were sandwiched around fantastic defense and a free throw from center DeMarcus Cousins, who was pushed into duty because of starting pivotman Anthony Davis’ two quick fouls. Cousins closed out hard on a pick and roll play from Serbian star Milos Teodosic, causing a turnover, and he cleanly blocked the shot of ex-Milwaukee Buck big man Miroslav Raduljica. Cousins would continue the stellar defensive play as the game moved along, earning a starting nod in the second half, finishing with 11 points, nine rebounds, two blocks, and a plus-31 mark on the night.
The biggest worry with DeMarcus Cousins in his professional and now international career concerned his often-iffy pick and roll defense, and his attitude when things went pear-shaped. Baited all evening by both Serbian big men and guards, rarely getting a call from the referees on either end, Cousins still kept his cool throughout his road to the gold medal. And his defense in this Cup-winning contest was absolutely pivotal. He should be incredibly proud of his performance.
Team USA finished the half on a 60-26 tear, turning this into a blowout by halftime. Serbia attempted to lure the coach Mike Krzyzewski-led squad into losing its way in the second half with a series of chippy fouls, but Team USA wasn’t having any of it. With assistant coach Tom Thibodeau calling out Serbia’s expertly-scouted sets from the bench, and with Teodosic’s impact mitigated by withering defense from Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry and (especially) Klay Thompson, the silver medal winners didn’t have a chance.
On offense, Kyrie Irving was an absolute killer, nailing all six of his three-point attempts and finishing with a team-high 26 points in the win. James Harden only missed one of his six three-pointers, ending the contest with 23 points, as eight Team USA players finished with double digit points. We’re expected to point out Derrick Rose’s continued struggles, he missed all four shot attempts from the field again, but the returning Chicago Bulls star did dish six assists.
Team USA was expected to win this tournament even with what some have called the country’s “C Team” (“only” five players on Team USA’s roster made the NBA All-Star team last season), and the expected top opponent – Spain – shocked the basketball world by bowing out in the quarter finals. Still, this doesn’t mean Team USA didn’t have its potential stumbling points, or that it had an easy road in building and developing this crew in such a short amount of time. Team USA played with a level of class that its fellow countrymen and women should be proud of, and a sense of flair and style that we appreciated taking in during late summer afternoons.
Kyrie Irving is this tournament’s MVP, and while he shined on the international stage, this truly was a team effort. Those who weren’t used to providing help defense or diving down for rebounds had to cover new territory. Franchise players had to come off the bench. Top scorers had to distribute the ball to teammates that had the hotter hand. Quick tip scouting reports had to be taken in on the fly. The participants were expected to play like this was the middle of June, just three months removed from the actual middle of June.
Somehow, even after being asked to put together a dominant performance against supposedly inferior international opponents, Team USA managed to impress us. That was some great basketball.
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