BILBAO, SPAIN — This was more like it, what the U.S. National Team was after. Complete control over a clearly overmatched opponent.
Not that the Americans needed much of a confidence booster in pool play. But it never hurts to remind everyone in the FIBA World Cup field that the reigning champs aren’t ready to relinquish their title just yet.
A slow start in Sunday’s win over Turkey coupled with Monday’s off day left plenty of time for people to question this team’s potential and resolve. Their 98-71 smashing of New Zealand on Tuesday should serve as an appropriate response.
They are far from perfect. But in Group C they don’t have to be. They are still working on things, still tinkering with the right combinations and rotations and still trying to find niches for others. Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried continue to pace the U.S., combining for 36 points and 20 rebounds. The Americans overwhelmed New Zealand inside and went to the free-throw line 34 times. New Zealand was just 4-for-7 from the line.
“We definitely scored the ball, definitely got after it,” Davis said. “It was a good test for us. We like playing against good competition, and they were definitely one of those opponents.”
The shooters got in on the act earlier this time around, as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were a combined 4-for-6 from beyond the 3-point line by halftime, when the U.S was already comfortably in control 57-35. The U.S. team didn’t finish particularly well from the perimeter — it was just 6-for-16 (38 percent) for the game. But the team’s strength inside enabled the U.S. to shoot 51 percent (35-for-68) overall.
“We had to come out more mature,” Faried said. “After a -point blowout win we had the night before, we kind of came in and ‘ok, this is going to be easy; we can beat any team.’ Turkey really smacked us; they smacked us in the first half. They woke us up and guys knew it’s not going to be easy, and we have to come out each and every game and play our hearts out and give it our all if we want to go get this gold.”
U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski started Derrick Rose after halftime in place of Kyrie Irving, a scoreboard move that allowed him to get Rose extended minutes in the first of what will be back-to-back-back games.
The U.S. improved to 3-0 with the win and finishes Group C play against the Dominican Republic on Wednesday and Ukraine on Thursday. New Zealand fell to 0-3.
The U.S. ran its streak of consecutive wins in international competitions (World Championship/World Cup/Olympics and exhibitions) to 57.
Group C: UKRAINE 64, TURKEY 58
Omer Asik finally had a breakout performance, piling up 10 points and 13 rebounds for Turkey in the first half against Ukraine. The New Orleans Pelicans big man owned the space around the basket, dominating in ways that he did not in two previous games.
He finished with 16 points and 20 rebounds, by far his best work of the competition, and got a nod of approval from his new frontcourt mate in New Orleans.
“I love it,” Davis said as the U.S. team watched the end of the game from the tunnel on the end of the court before taking the floor for their game with New Zealand.
Asik’s work alone wasn’t enough to hold off the Ukraine, still smarting from a tough Sunday loss to Finland. Ukraine got huge contributions from up and down the roster while playing without starting shooting guard Sergiy Gladyr (sprained ankle).
Olexander Mishula led the way with 19 points and was money from deep (5-for-8), Ihor Zaytsev added 12 points (including a clutch late jumper) and Pooh Jeter scored 10 points and dished a game-high six assists.
Ukraine coach Mike Fratello said he spent Monday locked in his room studying tape and looking for ways to finally figure out a way to beat Turkey after struggling against them seemingly every time his team has played them during his four years coaching Ukraine.
That was time well spent, though, as Fratello’s team looked sharp from the start and didn’t allow Turkey to dictate tempo to them the way the U.S. did early on in their Sunday win over Turkey.
“My friends who have been here and fans of the team just say great things about the city,” Fratello said of Bilbao. “Unfortunately, I haven’t seen a whole lot of it. I’ve been seeing a lot of the inside of the hotel … but I walked, I took a walk late [Monday night]. I went around 11 o’clock, just to think, and what do I do, I run into a bunch of Turkish fans. Just what I needed.”