Team USA enjoys a trouble-free ride to World Cup title

Bert A. Ramirez
Team USA enjoys a trouble-free ride to World Cup title
No less than Charles Barkley expected Team USA to fall to hosts Spain in the FIBA World Cup. Instead, the Americans dominated the world's best

The proving didn’t have to come from the US, after all. When Charles Barkley picked host Spain to beat the US in a projected finals meeting in the 2014 FIBA World Cup, it did seem like it was up to the Americans to prove their compatriot wrong.

Well, that was until the Spaniards failed to fulfill their end of the bargain, being shocked by France 65-52 in the quarterfinals to even fail to get into the medal round.

The Spaniards were the victims of their own success, it seemed. They now look to have underestimated the Tony Parker-less French, whom they clobbered 88-64 in their own group in the preliminaries, and were probably looking past them as they were supposed to continue their march towards an expected, trouble-free finals showdown with the US.

But the French caught them on an off night. France simply surprised them with a tough stand that had no semblance at all of their first-round matchup. And when the Spaniards realized they were engaged in a tough, no-quarters-given battle of attrition with the French, it was too late for them to adjust. France, led by NBA champion San Antonio’s veteran glue guy Boris Diaw, proved that basketball is won by team play and execution on the court, not by star power on paper and sheer superiority in talent. 

“Everyone thought we had won this before it started, but we didn’t prepare well for the game and were trying to play catchup the entire way,” Juan Carlos Navarro, one of 10 players on the Spanish team with NBA pedigree, said. “They prepared better than we did. We relied on doing what we always do, defend and get out on the break, but our shots didn’t fall, and they played with a lot of poise.”

Team USA, in contrast, had been intermittently challenged along the way, and one can say that they’d had practice with being pushed, which eventually served them in good stead.

Against Turkey in group play, for example, the US trailed 40-35 at the half and was still down six early in the third quarter. When was the last time the Americans were behind heading into intermission? Exactly four years and one day before that on August 30, 2010 during the World Championship in Turkey, when they fell behind 46-43 against Brazil en route to a tight 70-68 victory against the Brazilians in the preliminaries. In this game against the Turks, the Americans didn’t take control until one minute, three seconds into the final period when they finally led by double figures.

The US was also pushed by Slovenia in the quarterfinals and Lithuania in the semifinals. The Slovenians stayed with the Americans for one half, holding the latter down to a 49-42 lead at the break before the US juggernaut asserted itself in the second half, outscoring Slovenia 70-34 within that span to turn the game into a complete blowout 119-76. The Lithuanians, who had historically given the US a hard time after that 51-point, 127-76 annihilation at the hands of the original Dream Team in 1992, also held the US to a mere 43-35 lead at the half before a 33-14 third-quarter assault put them away in a 96-68 rout. 

In this year’s championship game against Serbia, which had earlier eliminated the Spaniards’ conqueror, France, in the other semifinals 90-85, the Americans again held a clinic on how to overcome an early deficit and put away one’s opponent. With the Serbians getting inspired into a 15-7 lead early in the contest, the biggest any team had held against the US in this tournament, a feeling of uneasiness again creeped into the minds of the American fans. Would this be the time that Team USA finally gets upset?  Would the defending champions finally have a thoroughly sluggish night and struggle to an uneasy triumph, win though they might?

In almost a blink of an eye, the US dropped a 15-point bomb to end whatever doubts on the way this game was going to play out as quickly as those doubts started. Kyrie Irving and James Harden, the US’ top two scorers in this game with 26 and 23 points, respectively, delivered the biggest artillery at this point, with Harden coming up a with a three-point play and a three-pointer and Irving hitting a jumper, a three-pointer and a layup to sandwich DeMarcus Cousins’ two free shots and send the US away for good 22-15.

The 6-foot-3 Irving, deservingly named the tournament’s MVP with his sterling performances in the knockout stages, then dropped two more three-pointers in an 11-0 spurt to make it 35-19 and combined with Harden for back-to-back threes to cap another murderous US spurt, extending the lead to 56-30 en route to a practically insurmountable 67-41 bulge at the break. Irving hit all six of his three-point shots as he, together with Harden, who shot 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, Klay Thompson (2-of-5) and Stephen Curry (2-of-7) validated coach Mike Krzyzewski’s claim before the tournament that this US team is the best outside-shooting team that he’s coached.

The Americans certainly were in the opening quarter when they hit all five of their attempts from beyond the arc to take control of what had shaped as a close contest. They were so overpowering that they hit 105 points with still a full quarter to go while holding the Serbians to just 67 to make the final period a scrimmage of sorts.

It practically served as a coronation process at that point, and a vindication of sorts in the end for this team, which had earlier been considered as possibly not good enough to beat Spain. This was after it was hit by such a large number of withdrawals by elite stars it looked like an ongoing Ebola virus epidemic was afflicting the squad, withdrawals like those of reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge coming one after the other on top of the loss to a gruesome injury of Paul George right in the team’s first camp in Las Vegas.

But this bunch of not-quite A-listers still lapped the opposition by an average of 33 points, the third-largest average margin of victory by any US team since NBA players started participating in international competitions, behind just the 43.8-point winning bulge of the original Dream Team in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and the 37.7 of Team USA in the 1994 World Championship in Toronto, Canada. The 1996 Olympic team that won the gold in Atlanta ranks fourth with a winning clip of 32.3 points.

The 37-point victory over Serbia was actually the second-largest in the finals of the tournament that has been renamed the World Cup starting this year in an attempt by the FIBA to lend it more stature using the all-too-familiar name by which football’s top event has been called. The all-time mark is the 46 points by which Team USA beat Russia in the same tournament in 1994. The 129 points is also the highest in this year’s World Cup and the second-most ever in the finals behind that 1994 score. 

This edition of Team USA, despite the absence of an absolute alpha dog, is one of the most balanced that has represented America anywhere. As a testament to the balance of this team, a total of eight players scored in double figures in the finals, led of course by Irving and Harden. Kenneth Faried, Team USA’s surprise package who along with Irving was named to the All-Tournament Team ahead of more heralded teammates like Harden himself and Anthony Davis, and Thompson each had 12, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins had 11 apiece, and Curry and DeMar DeRozan had 10 each.

Forwards Nemanja Bjelica and Nikolas Kalinic led Serbia with 18 points each. Bogdan Bogdanovic had 15 and Milos Teodosic, who was among three other non-Americans named to the All-Tournament Team along with Spain’s Pau Gasol and France’s Nicolas Batum, had 10.

“Kyrie and James were amazing. But everybody wanted to work. They were always prepared. I’m proud of them… We feel very privileged to be called world champions,” said Krzyzewski, who has now steered Team USA to a fourth consecutive gold medal, including those in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 Turkey World Championship and the 2012 London Olympics.

But this one could be the crowning glory to Coach K’s growing legend considering the material he had to work with, though he says each one of the four championships he has won with Team USA is special.  “Each one is special. The main difference is the players change. But the culture has stayed the same. The players have loved it.  They didn’t have to be sold.  They wanted to be part of it,” he says.

Irving definitely thinks this is the most special feat he has accomplished so far in his young career, which started in a kind of roundabout way when he played just 11 games for Krzyzewski as a freshman at Duke because of injury before becoming the first overall pick in the NBA draft in 2011.

“This is by far the biggest accomplishment in my life so far. This is one of the greatest moments in my life. I did this with guys I can call my brothers for the rest of my life,” the Cleveland All-Star says.  “You’re part of something bigger than yourself. I was willing to do anything that Coach K wanted. I just wanted to take every advantage I could playing with these guys and learning from these guys.”

Sunday night (this morning in Manila), his own teammates must have learned a whole lot more about Irving himself.

Who will challenge the US?

The unexpected defeat of Spain in the quarterfinals of this year’s FIBA World Cup has raised the question of which team in the horizon has the capability to challenge the US in the near and far future. After all, Spanish stars Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro and Jose Calderon, all part of that golden era in Spanish basketball that saw Spain win the FIBA World Cup in 2006, are all past 30 years old, and it’s doubtful if all three would be available at least for the next major international tournament in 2016. That’s when the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil comes around.

The transition of the Spaniards, the second-ranked team in the world, into the next era is almost inevitable. Once Pau Gasol, Navarro and Calderon do decide to call it a career in international basketball, a distinct possibility given the wear and tear their bodies have been subjected to, only the younger Gasol, Marc, Rudy Fernandez (both of whom will also be 31 by 2016), Ricky Rubio and Serge Ibaka will be left among the current crop who can carry the Spanish colors with any reliability. This is unless guys like Victor Claver, Sergio Llull (pronounced YUL) and Alex Abrines suddenly develop into big stars, or unless some boy wonder suddenly emerges to become the next Pau Gasol or Navarro to continue the Spaniards’ tradition of excellence in international competitions.

Argentina, the world’s No. 3 team, also looks to fall on hard times with an even older team about to see the great generation of players that gave it the gold medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics fading into the sunset.  Manu Ginobili, who missed this year’s World Cup with a hairline fracture in his right leg, would be 39 in 2016, Luis Scola would be 36, Pablo Prigioni 39, Carlos Delfino 34, Andre Nocioni 36 and Walter Herrmann 37.

Who will, for example, take the place of Ginobili as the Argentines’ leader and clutch scorer, an element that was clearly missing in the team’s early exit in the knockout stages against Brazil? The San Antonio Spurs’ star guard has missed the last two World Cups, and it’s conceivable that his stint with the Argentine nationals is over with the tread in his tires clearly having worn thin. Unfortunately, that golden generation of Argentinian basketeers has failed to produce any successor of note that can even approximate Manu, quite possibly the greatest player in the sport’s history in his country.

That brings us now to the next tier of basketball-playing countries – France, the bronze medalist in this year’s FIBA World Cup after a close 95-93 victory over the previous third-placer, Lithuania, the Lithuanians themselves, Australia, Brazil, Greece, Turkey, Russia, and, yes, Serbia. 

'This is one of the greatest moments in my life,' said Kyrie Irving of winning the FIBA World Cup. Photo from

France, which can rightfully be considered now as Europe’s emerging power with its victory in last year’s FIBA EuroBasket that saw it beat the same teams it victimized in the Worlds this year – Lithuania in the finals and Spain in the semifinals – has a corps of young players that can bode well for the French’s future. But Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, the Spurs pair that has provided the spark and stability to the squad, are no spring chickens either, turning 34 themselves in the next Olympic year.

The French do have such younger guys as Joakim Noah, who along with Parker missed this year’s World Cup and will also be 31 in 2016, Nicolas Batum, Rudy Gobert, Evan Fornier and Joffrey Lauvergne, but it will be interesting to see how this group will fare once Parker and Diaw decide to hand over the reins probably after the Rio Olympics.

Lithuania, despite the presence of young frontliners Jonas Valanciunas and Donatas Motiejunas, is not that young a team either, with the Lavrinovic twins (Darjus and Ksystof), Renaldas Seibutis, Jonas Maciulis and Martynas Pocius all in their 30s when the next Olympics comes.  And the Lithuanians obviously lack a go-to guy, somebody who will bail them out at crunchtime the way Linas Kleiza (who didn’t join the team this time), or such greats as Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis used to do in the past.  Even Kleiza himself turns 31 in 2016 and won’t be around much longer.

Australia appears to have the most upside among the top-10 teams in terms of age, with such players as Patty Mills (26 years old), Aron Baynes (27), Cameron Bairstow (23), Matthew Dellavedova (23), Joe Ingles (26) and whiz kid Dante Exum (who’s just 19 and was sparingly used in this tournament) all either in their prime or on the rise.  Fact is, this team is so deep in young talent that former top star Andrew Bogut has almost become irrelevant. The seven-foot Bogut did not suit up for the Boomers in this World Cup after breaking an ankle in the last Olympics, but whether he comes back or not may not matter with such big guys as Baynes and Bairstow in the fold.

Brazil is another team whose crack, veteran frontline was earlier thought as capable of making up for other deficiencies but whose age finally showed in the end. The frontcourt trio of Tiago Splitter (San Antonio’s starting center), Anderson Varejao and Nene Hilario are all pushing 30 (Splitter is a year away from that milestone) while top backcourtmen Leandro Barbosa and Marcelino Huertas are both 31.  What’s disturbing for the Brazilians is that there’s nobody in the horizon who looks capable of eventually taking over these veterans.

Greece, on the other hand, is a combination of veteran and young players whose future will depend on whether such youngsters as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nick Calathes, Kostas Papanikolaou and Kostas Sloukas can develop well enough to carry the torch for veterans Georgios Printezis, Giannis Bourousis, Nikos Sizis and Kostas Kaimakoglu. The 6-11 Antetokounmpo and Calathes, in particular, could eventually become the team’s leaders once the 30-something veterans get old in the next World Cup in 2019.

Turkey, now shorn of veteran star Hedo Turkoglu who has retired from international competitions, could still be a potent force particularly if 6-11 center Enes Kanter and Ersan Ilyasova return and Omer Asik, an older center who nevertheless still has a long-enough window, Emir Preldzic (the Turks’ top scorer in the tournament with 12.1 points) and Cenk Akyol continue to make themselves available.  But the Turks have to develop eventual replacements for guards Ender Arslan and Sinan Guler to have a competitive backcourt a few years from now.

Russia, which did not make this year’s World Cup after bombing out in last year’s FIBA EuroBasket, will have to develop an entire team with long-time star Andrei Kirilenko now 33 and such younger players as guard Alexey Shved, 19-year-old Sergey Karasev and Semyon Antonov still largely unproven.

And how about the Serbians?  The 11th-ranked team in the world, the Serbians were the surprise team of the tournament. They went all the way from fourth and last qualifier in their group to upend group play conquerors Brazil and France and make it to the championship game against the US, and they did it mainly on the play of Milos Teodosic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Miroslav Raduljica and Nemanja Bjelica.  With the 27-year-old Teodosic the most senior of the quartet, the Serbs still have some ways to go with this bunch.

One, however, just has to look at the 37-point dismantling of the Serbs by the Americans to realize that the gap that was thought to be narrowing in recent years has again widened between the US and the rest of the world, particularly with the aging process adversely affecting its traditional biggest rivals. This is particularly made even more apparent by the fact that this version of Team USA is the youngest ever sent to an international competition since the advent of professional participation with an average age of 24 years old, with the 28-year-old Rudy Gay the most senior of the bunch.

And considering further that this US team does not have the very best American players like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, one gets the notion that the rest of the world will be hard-pressed to issue a serious challenge to the country that has served as the sport’s hotbed.

Will somebody come forward and challenge the US?  Maybe not in the next six to eight years, at the very least. –

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