BILBAO, SPAIN — The U.S. National Team came here with a simple goal in mind. Get in and out of this town without drama and with their unbeaten streak in international competition still in place.
They are 40 minutes away from making good on that promise after running away from the Dominican Republic 106-71 in Group C play Wednesday night in the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
The U.S. wraps up pool play Thursday against Ukraine, and can finish with that 5-0 record that U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski told his players was a must if they are intent on chasing down a second consecutive gold medal in this competition.
“These last two games before this one have really gotten us in mental shape,” Rudy Gay said. Obviously, you come over here with USA on your chest and you think things are going to come easy. But they tested us. Today I think we executed and played defense and played together. So this was a big step for us.”
The 58-game win streak in international competition (dating back to 2006 and including World Cup/World Championship/Olympic and exhibition games) is a matter of pride, something the U.S. team uses as motivation each and every night out.
In a group that could end up with five teams sporting identical 2-3 records in pool play, any extra motivation the U.S. National Team can find is probably a good thing. The challenges will get tougher as they continue on into the round of 16, starting this weekend in Barcelona.
“You know everybody is looking at the tape,” Gay said. “Everybody is looking at the Turkey tape,they are looking at New Zealand and seeing how they can match that and take it to another level. What we have to do is learn from those games. We know we’re going to see that kind of play again. So no matter what happens out there, we have to learn from what we did in the past and come out with some [wins].”
Even with comfortable winning margins, anywhere from 59 points on down but always in double digits, there’s clearly still room for improvement aesthetically.
Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried have been dominant consistently on both ends of the floor, controlling the action against opposing big men at will. But the rest of this group seems to still be a work in progress.
“I’m not even worried about our offense,” Klay Thompson said. “If we just play that kind of pressure on defense, we have too much depth and we’re going to give teams headaches. I know our offense is going to come. We’ve got too many talented scorers. So if we keep making those easy opportunities on defense, the turnovers, we’re going to be a problem for every team we play.”
Still, they aren’t wowing anyone, not by their own recent and lofty standards.
And that includes a Spain team that is impressing every time they hit the floor. There’s nothing they’ve done here that Spain won’t be able to handle, not that Coach K or anyone affiliated with the program is willing to admit they’ve given the host nation’s team so much as a glance.
Then again, that’s not a part of the immediate plan. The goal was to get in and out of Bilbao unblemished, without any hiccups, with room to grow and get better as the competition moves into its second phase.
They’ve already clinched the top spot in Group C, and yet lingering doubts remain.
“You have to remember we’re still a team that’s only been playing together a few weeks now,” Thompson said. “We love playing with each other, we’ve got a lot of depth and we just love proving people wrong, too.
“There are a lot of people out there writing us off, thinking we’re in Spain and we don’t have as much international experience as some of these past and that it’s going to be a problem. But as long as you play hard, we’re too talented not to do well here in this tournament.”
Group C: Turkey 77, Finland 74 (OT)
Cenk Akyol‘s’ corner 3 with 4.2 seconds to play in regulation sent the game to overtime as Turkey rallied to knock off Finland and avoid disaster. Omer Asik was dominant for a second straight game, finishing with 22 points and eight rebounds.
Turkey won the game without ever leading in regulation.
The free throw discrepancy was even more staggering, with Turkey sinking 29 of their 45 attempts to Finland’s 6-for-10 showing. Petteri Koponen missed two free throws in the final seconds, either one of which could have made it a four point game, leaving the door open for Akyol’s corner-3 heroics.
Turkey is 2-2 with their game of pool play against the Dominican Republic Thursday. Finland is 1-3 with their final pool play game against New Zealand.
Group C: New Zealand 73, Ukraine 61
It took a few days but New Zealand finally broke through with a win in pool play, knocking off Mike Fratello‘s team with a complete performance just hours after being blown out by the U.S. National Team.
Kirk Penney led the Tall Black with 17 points as they finally made some news here for something other than the Haka.
The Ukraine followed the lead of the U.S. National Team and stood and faced the Tall Black as they went through their pregame ritual. What Finland, the team New Zealand finishes up pool play with Thursday, will do is anyone’s guess.
Finland has by far the largest and most raucous fan base here, and there has been chatter about the Haka before and after each game the Tall Blacks have played.
“If there’s a Finnish thing I don’t know if there is some Viking action coming back,” said New Zealand forward Casey Frank. We’ve got some berserkers out there. I’m sure we’ll accept it. We’re all for it.”
Maxym Kornieko finished with 15 points and Pooh Jeter 14 for Ukraine (2-2)