The United States survived a very ugly start to beat Lithuania 77-61 on Saturday night in Madrid. We know this isn’t a finished product, but it’s clear that the U.S. needs to get a lot better before the medal rounds begin in two weeks.
Here are some notes from Saturday’s game…
Seven points in the first quarter. 3-for-25 from the field through the first seven possessions of the second. Blame it on a few different factors…
1. Too many threes.
3. General sloppiness and carelessness (and perhaps a slippery floor)
It will be tough to find the right balance between No. 1 and No. 2. Guys will have to find the spots on the floor where they’re going to get shots and passing lanes against defenses that sag into the paint.
The U.S. finally got their offense going (20 points on their final 12 possessions of the second quarter) by getting to the basket and getting to the line. Then in the third quarter (when they scored 29 points on 21 possessions), they were really able to run off their defense, which forced seven turnovers in the period.
It was a 17-0 run spanning the third and fourth quarters that won the game for the U.S. And Lithuania contributed with their own sloppy play. Having played Spain the night before, Lithuania may have run out of gas.
Russell Westbrook really sparked that second quarter run. And head coach Mike Krzyzewski rewarded him by starting Westbrook in the third quarter, in place of Rajon Rondo.
Westbrook was seemingly the most likely player to get cut in a few days, but he may have just earned himself a roster spot with Saturday’s performance. He finished with 12 points, five rebounds and four assists, and hit both of his attempts from 3-point range.
Of course, both Eric Gordon and Stephen Curry (the other two guys on the bubble) also played well.
Gordon had two straight steals early in the fourth quarter to help the U.S. build a cushion. He was 3-for-8 from the field and hit one of his three attempts from beyond the arc. Curry played just three minutes, but made both of his shots (one two and one three), had a deflection on the defensive end and would have had a drive-and-dish assist if Lamar Odom would have knocked down an open three.
Don’t be surprised if Curry gets more playing time against Spain on Sunday, so that all three guys on the bubble get their fair shot. They’re not just competing for the final two roster spots, but for a spot in the rotation as well. Krzyzewski will call on one of the three to be the fourth guard behind Rondo, Chauncey Billups and Derrick Rose.
Kevin Love also played just three minutes, but with the lack of bigs on the roster, he obviously can’t be cut. He’s just the emergency big man, and you can only play so many guys in a 40-minute game. A bigger priority than getting everybody decent minutes is getting the main rotation guys used to the minutes they will play when the games count.
Kevin Durant hit a jumper early on, but he’s still struggling from the outside. Between the China scrimmage, the France exhibition and Saturday’s game against Lithuania, this team’s best scorer has yet to find his rhythm. In the three games combined, Durant is 14-for-38 from the field and 0-for-7 from 3-point range.
The U.S. Team’s aggressiveness on the perimeter produced a lot of Lithuania turnovers, but we also saw the downside. Several fouls on the perimeter put Lithuania in the bonus with more than six minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Lithuania failed to capitalize (those first two free throws were the only ones they attempted in the period), but that’s a situation that the U.S. needs to avoid.
The possession summary sums this one up well. Lithuania scored 61 points on 82 possessions (74.3 per 100), while the U.S. scored 77 points on 81 possessions (95.1 per 100). A pretty fast pace, but not very efficient basketball.
If you want to look at it optimistically, the U.S. did score 69 points on 53 possessions (130.2 per 100) from the 6:40 mark in the second quarter.
Staying optimistic… Facing some adversity this early was probably a good thing for the U.S. These guys need to understand that FIBA basketball is entirely different than the NBA.
Two key lessons should be learned (especially by the U.S. guards and forwards) from this game:
1. A lot of contact is allowed on the ball-handler.
2. Teams will gladly throw them a hard hip-check to stop a fast break.
Here are the highlights…
If you missed it, the game will be replayed on NBA TV a few times before tomorrow’s game against Spain:
Saturday: 5:30 p.m. ET, 10 p.m. ET
Sunday: 4 a.m. ET, 1 p.m. ET
I’ll be heading to Istanbul on Wednesday (arriving Thursday morning). Send an e-mail if you’ve got any recommendations on what to see, or if you’ve got questions or comments about the U.S. Team or the World Championship.
Next up is Spain on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBA TV), a much tougher opponent than Lithuania. But don’t think that Sunday’s game will be much of a preview of a medal-round matchup. Remember that the U.S. beat Spain by 37 in pool play in Beijing two years ago. And the gold medal game was much, much different.