It’s a pat routine that, thankfully for Team USA and its fans, has played out to perfection in the years since its 2006 World Championship embarrassment. The squad starts slow, it questions its own offensive decisions and relies on defensive gambles to make an impact, and eventually overcomes its lacking opponent with superior execution, intelligence, quickness and athleticism. Team USA didn’t look like world-beaters in the first half of its eventual 119-76 win over Slovenia on Tuesday, but that hardly mattered in the long run. The team was literally too big to fail.
The outcome was never in question, not even after coach Mike Krzyzewski’s squad missed 10 of its first 11 shots in the face of a game Slovenian opponent. The same bugaboos continued to haunt each of its players in what at times resembles a type of All-Star game. Team USA’s scorers doubted their shots early on, sometimes falling victim to Slovenia’s matchup zone, wondering if one high percentage look was more valuable than the one it decided against. That lack of confidence added to a slow offensive start, but Slovenia was unable to create distance between themselves and its opponents despite all those back-rimmed gifts.
Slovenia’s Dragic brothers – Goran and Zoran – were the clear stars for their country on Tuesday, combining for 24 points on 27 shots alongside nine boards and four assists (all from Goran), but their feints and finishes weren’t enough to stand in the way of a withering offensive attack from Team USA. With Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried manning the paint, coach K’s squad stuck like glue to Slovenia’s perimeter attack, forcing the team into a 30 percent shooting night from behind the arc. Slovenia didn’t help its cause by missing nearly half of its free throws, and the squad’s 25 turnovers were the biggest reason behind the eventual blowout.
Team USA, after that touchy start, went on to make 9-19 three-pointers of its own, working toward a 47 percent mark, and everyone seemed to get a taste. Klay Thompson led the team with 20 points, but some of his digits were chalked up during an extended garbage time run – garbage time that resulted in the team scoring the most points of its World Cup turn. Davis and Faried were brilliant on both ends, combining for 27 points, 21 rebounds and three blocks, and Slovenia never threatened the Team USA lead in the second half.
And then there was Derrick Rose, who finished with 12 points and five assists. Oh, there was Derrick Rose:
This is how things work for this outfit. Pressed into immediate duty, Team USA is never going to develop the sort of chemistry needed to make quick and appropriate decisions on either side of the ball. This isn’t quite a ramshackle outfit, and these aren’t exhibition games, but these World Cup paces fall closer in line with an All-Star Game in February than they do, say, San Antonio extra-passing its way toward paydirt in mid-June. That’s not to the discredit of the players nor the coaching staff, it’s just the nature of the context at hand.
For Team USA to let itself down in relative terms during a 49-40 first half before exploding in the second half is par for the course at this point. Even with the compressed FIBA World Cup schedule, the team is still learning how it likes to work together, and where the ball and the bodies need to move to. A teetering 70-34 second half advantage makes this knowledge go down a whole heck of a lot easier.
The plan won’t change. Sound, winning basketball is usually forged through unyielding defensive principles and endless offensive movement on the other end of the floor. Those orthodox standards won’t consistently occur with Team USA, because the quickest and smartest way to get from Point A to Point B is to take chances defensively and improvise offensively. Coach K is not going to create an All-Star version of the Spurs in a short amount of time, he has talents to attend to, and Lithuania to deal with on Thursday.
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