BILBAO, SPAIN — Ukraine coach Mike Fratello said it best hours before the U.S. team got its first scare of the FIBA World Cup.
“There are going to be a lot of upsets in this tournament in the four groups, I feel,” Fratello said. “And that’s because there is such balance. And the team that loses one night is capable of coming back the next night and playing great. That’s just what these teams are capable of doing.”
That wasn’t supposed to be the case in Group C, where the U.S. was expected to have an easier ride than some of the other medal favorites. Sunday’s close call (for three quarters) backed up Fratello’s assertion. And Senegal’s upset of Croatia in Group B on Monday confirmed it.
That might also explain why U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t sound the least bit apologetic about his team not winning bigger against Turkey.
“We won and we won because we deserved to win,” he said. “Our guys played their hearts out. And that was a really big win for us against a good team.”
Coach K and anyone else who understands the level of competition involved knows that no team in this field, not even the U.S., is going to win big every night out. These coaches understand better than anyone just how competitive the field is here. And it shows in their appreciation of the competition after each and every game.
It’s a lesson the players were reminded of Sunday and certainly something for them to chew on with everyone in Group C off on Monday.
Kyrie Irving summed it up best, given his perspective as a first-timer on this stage.
“We separated as a team a little bit in the first half,” he said. “We had some adversity. And we faced it.”
As deep as the U.S. roster is with quality perimeter shooters, the Americans have struggled to make shots from distance through the first two games of the pool play
They are shooting 35 percent (14-for-40) from beyond the supposedly shooter-friendly international 3-point line. But Steph Curry is just 4-for-17 overall and missed nine of his first 10 shots from behind the line before he got it going late in the win over Turkey.
Curry’s Splash Brothers partner, Klay Thompson, isn’t worried.
“That’s just basketball. We try not to rely too heavily on 3-point shots because we have such good post players and such good guards getting in the lane,” he said. “You are going to have nights like that I’m sure next game, we’ll go 11 for 20 from three or something like that. That’s basketball.”
Turkey’s matchup zone caused the U.S. plenty of problems, a known blueprint for others in this field eager to identify a weakness they can exploit.
The U.S. didn’t panic, though. They didn’t try to shoot their way out of trouble when they were down early against Turkey, which seems like a sure sign of the understanding of the strengths and weaknesses they have to manage as the competition moves on.
“If our jumpers aren’t falling, we can’t let that dictate what we’re doing on the other end,” Thompson said. “I think we did that a little bit too much [against Turkey]. In the second half, we did a great job of putting the pressure on them, getting to the rim. Once you see a few buckets go in around the rim, it opens up the perimeter so much more.”
Any questions about the fit of Kenneth Faried on this roster for an international competition should be put to rest after watching the way he helped rescue the U.S. with his trademark energy against Turkey.
Faried and Anthony Davis fueled the rally against Turkey and Faried, in particular, showed that his best quality translates in any competition.
“I just love to play basketball,” he said when asked where he continues to find the fuel others cannot. “Every time I step on the basketball court, you never know it could be your last game, so I like to play my hardest in every game. When you love the game like that it tends to reward you back.”