BILBAO, SPAIN — An early wake up call isn’t necessarily what the U.S. was looking for on Day 2 of the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
But that’s exactly what they got Sunday night against a Turkey team they are very familiar with, the same team Steph Curry mentioned late Saturday night after the U.S. team roasted Finland by 59 points in their opener.
Curry was right. A much better effort was needed against Turkey. And for the longest time it was not there. The U.S. didn’t play with their usual energy or effort for much of the game. They were caught flat-footed on defensive rotations repeatedly, caved to Turkey’s deliberate pace early and then had to battle them on their terms deep into the third quarter before pulling away for the 98-77 win.
A Curry 3-pointer from the corner with 1:45 to play in third quarter gave the U.S. a 64-59 lead they would never surrender. But this was not the way anyone expected them to record their 56th straight win in World Cup/World Championship/Olympic and international exhibition competition dating back to 2006, not after watching them play as well as they did just 24 hours earlier.
The U.S. battled Turkey on their own soil to win gold at the 2010 World Championship, a spirited battle Curry talked about. Even with different faces, the history between the two programs remains. And you could feel it from the start Sunday.
Turkey led 40-35 at halftime and the whistling and artificial noisemakers in the stands got louder and louder. But the U.S. showed no signs of panic and methodically worked their way back into control after halftime, turning up the pressure on defense, particularly in the passing lanes.
By the time they were finished, the final score masked what was a much tougher Day 2 outing than anyone expected.
“We learned a lot about ourselves as a team,” James Harden said. “We learned we’re resilient. We knew every game wasn’t going to be a 50-point game. We didn’t panic or anything. We had to grind it out and we did that.”
The U.S. also learned that until their shooters start knocking down shots consistently, the heart and soul of this group will be big men Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried, whose combined energy and activity kept them close early and carried them late.
Faried was a force throughout the game, finishing with 22 points and eight rebounds. Davis scored all 19 of his points after halftime and also grabbed six rebounds. The U.S. was outrebounded 21-12 in the first half.
As their activity level cranked up on both ends, the game changed rapidly. The floor opened up and Turkey appeared to finally feel the effects of the second half of a back-to-back against what is equivalent of a NBA team.
“I think we didn’t come ready to play in the first half and we can’t afford to do that if we want to win a gold medal,” Davis said. “So we’ve got to come out ready to play no matter who we’re playing against.”
This group knows what’s at stake every night out, both in reality and reputation. When you’ve won as many consecutive games against the rest of the world, everybody wants a piece of you.
So even the slightest scare, even one that lasts for just two and a half quarters, is enough to get the attention of the rest of the field in this competition. Turkey’s coach Ergin Ataman was ready and his team executed beautifully for as long as they could.
The speech U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski gave at halftime Sunday was required, even if only for the sake of formality. But his team already knew what had gone wrong. A halftime deficit in group play that was not expected to truly challenge this team served as the ultimate wake-up call.
“He didn’t need to say anything,” Davis said of Coach K’s halftime talk. “We already knew.”
Group C: Finland 81, Ukraine 76
VIDEO: Mike Fratello Interview
The Finland team that lost by a staggering 59 points to the U.S. in their opener returned to the building Sunday with a much better effort, holding off the Ukraine before another pro-Finland crowd and then partied outside with their fans after the game.
Shawn Huff led the way for Finland with 23 points and eight rebounds.
“We watched them against the U.S. and we knew that wasn’t the same team we were going to see,” Ukraine coach Mike Fratello said. “That [Saturday night's blowout loss] can happen to you against the United States. The shots they missed against the U.S. they were knocking down today.”
Pooh Jeter led the Ukraine with 24 points. But he lost his backcourt mate, shooting guard Sergiy Gladyr, to a sprained ankle after just eight minutes. They rallied late behind Jeter but never could come all the way back.
“All we’re thinking about now is Turkey [on Tuesday],” Jeter said. “We have to bounce back.”.
Group C: Dominican Republic 76, New Zealand 63
The Dominican Republic needed each and every one of Francisco Garcia‘s 29 points to bounce back on Day 2 and beat New Zealand. Garcia said he didn’t feel the need to force the action but his coach felt otherwise.
“We always need him to be aggressive and think about scoring the way he did today,” Dominican coach Orlando Antigua said. “I can speak for him as his coach when I tell you that.”
Garcia outdueled New Zealand’s Thomas Abercrombie, who impressed with 22 points and four rebounds. Monday’s day off couldn’t come at a better time for New Zealand.
“We know we’re in a tough spot,” guard Kirk Penney said. “But we also know what has to be done.”