U.S., Serbia chasing World Cup Gold


VIDEO: Coach K on Serbia after Saturday practice

By Sekou Smith and John Schuhmann

MADRID — Twelve NBA players against a team without a single player currently on a NBA roster is, at least on paper, a mismatch of epic proportions.

This was supposed to be epic in a different manner, the defending champion U.S. National Team facing the host nation, with a raucous crowd behind it, with a gold medal on the line.

It never happened, of course. France ended that global hoops lover’s dream when they upset the Spaniards in the quarterfinals.

It’s the U.S. and Serbia squaring off instead, two teams, according to the words that have been dancing around U.S. forward Kenneth Faried‘s head for weeks, that weren’t supposed to leave here with gold.

“This team is different,” Faried said of Serbia after practice on Saturday. “They made it to the championship round when others thought they couldn’t. We made it to the championship round when others thought we’d fall. We’re going to go out there and put it all on the floor just to win the gold.”

Faried and the U.S. fighting off the favorite’s tag now seems a bit preposterous, what with the way the U.S. National Team has mowed down the competition. They’ve won their eight games leading up to this point by an average of 32.5 points, a number skewed a bit by the 59-point blowout of Finland in their opener.

“I never knew we were a heavy favorite,” Faried said. “That surprises me because before, when we first started, everybody said we were going to lose and we’re not that good. So as far as being a heavy favorite, we just have to take that for what it is and go out there like we’re the underdogs still.”

Serbia is playing the underdog card as well.

“They underrated us from the beginning, as I heard,” Miroslav Raduljica said after his team’s win over France on Friday. “We showed everybody that we can compete and play basketball, in a good way.”

As part of Yugoslavia, Serbia has won five World Championships, including back-to-back titles in 1998 and 2002. So it’s appropriate that this is the opponent as the U.S. tries to win its fifth title and repeat as World Champion for the first time.

Here’s a breakdown of the biggest factors for both teams in this gold medal tussle:

A defensive stopper on Teodosic

This U.S. team didn’t have a designated perimeter defensive stopper when the roster was finalized but will no doubt need one with Serbia’s guards playing lights out the past three games.

Derrick Rose has been fantastic on the ball defensively and Klay Thompson has been arguably the best defender on the U.S. team. But they are both coming off the bench. That means the immediate pressure will be on starters Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry and James Harden to set the tone early on Serbian catalyst Milos Teodosic., who torched France in the semifinals.

“He’s the head of the snake, a great player,” Rudy Gay said of Teodosic. “We brought up a couple of things today, but we’re really going to have to prepare for him.”

Not one of the American starters on the perimeter would pass for a true defensive stopper, not even in this competition. Thompson, however, is ready and willing.

“Whoever the best perimeter player is, I love guarding them,” Thompson said. “I’ve guarded some of the best in the NBA, so that’s prepared me for now and you gotta know your opponent is going to score on you a couple of times. It’s just about containing them and making him work for it every time he touches the ball.”

“He’s been consistently excellent on the defensive end,” USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said about Thompson. “The fact that he’s tall, he’s been able to play, defensively, the two and the three. So he’s become our most versatile defender. And in the last two games, he’s given us such a huge offensive lift too. He’s had a terrific stay with us.”

If there’s a team that can stop the Serbia offense, this is it

With Teodosic starting games strong and Bogdan Bogdanovic finishing them strong, the Serbian offense has been unstoppable in its last three games. After ranking 11th in group play, it has improved to second in efficiency, behind only the U.S., through the semifinals.

In fact, the Serbian offense has been more efficient (123.5 points scored per 100 possessions) in the knockout rounds than the U.S. offense (118.6), even though Serbia has faced teams that were higher ranked defensively through group play. Greece, Brazil and France had ranked fifth, third and seventh defensively before the knockout rounds, while Mexico, Slovenia and Lithuania had ranked 19th, 16th and fourth.

“They have some great guards that are shooting well,” Curry said. “It just seems like they know where each other is, and they run their plays at a high level. Execution is very high and they keep attacking. So we have to stick to our game plan of taking away their first looks.”

In its three elimination games, Serbia has shot 26-for-57 from 3-point range. More important in regard to playing against the U.S. is that it has turned the ball over just 11.7 times per 100 possessions, down from 19.9 in group play. The U.S. has had the No. 1 defense in the tournament, but this will be a new test.

“With them, you’ve got to pick your poison,” Rose said. “If you play fast, they can get some long rebounds and head the other way. They have great shooters on their team. It’s going to be a challenge for us. We haven’t played a team like that in the tournament, and we’re willing to take that challenge.”

USA on the glass

In the knockout rounds, the U.S. has grabbed an incredible 41.5 percent of available offensive rebounds. For some perspective, the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the NBA last season (Detroit) grabbed 31.4 percent of available offensive boards.

Serbia has been above-average, but not a great defensive rebounding team. So, even if the U.S. doesn’t shoot well from the perimeter, Faried (13 offensive rebounds in the last three games), Anthony Davis (nine) and DeMarcus Cousins (seven) will give their team second chances at scoring.

Home-court advantage?

No, the U.S. isn’t facing Spain in its nation’s capital. But it is playing at the Palacio de los Deportes for the first time, against an opponent that has played here three times already.

“They’ve been playing in this arena for a week now,” Curry said, “so they’re very comfortable here. This arena means success to them, so we’ve got to come in and take it from them.”

Respect your opponent

Krzyzewski preaches it relentlessly, respecting the opposition. The U.S. followed that approach to the gold medal game (for the most part). They avoided talking extensively about Spain or anyone else that wasn’t on the path to the final game.

But they are gushing about Serbia for a reason. This is the biggest and best team they’ll have faced during this run.

“I think Serbia is really as good as anybody in the tournament, and probably the hottest team, and they are playing a high level,” Coach K said. “They have stars on their team, and Teodosic is … I loved him when I saw him in the World Championship in 2010. Bogdanovic is a rising star. Their big guys are good. They are well coached, and they are strong. They can hurt you from many different positions, but they are just playing great basketball right now. Actually it’s beautiful to see. I hope I don’t see that beauty tomorrow night. They’ve been playing lights-out basketball.”

Serbia has nothing to lose

Serbia already surpassed expectations. For the U.S., nothing short of gold and a continuation of its 44-game winning streak will be accepted. This team does not want to have to qualify for the 2016 Olympics through the FIBA Americas tournament next summer (which it wouldn’t have to do if it wins Sunday). So all the pressure is on the Americans.

“It’s going to be a beautiful game for us,” Serbia center Raduljica said, “because we already got a medal. We are here to compete. Of course, nothing to lose, but we’re not going to lay down our weapons and we’re going to fight with our Serbian pride.”

Advanced chemistry

Serbia is working with chemistry that is years old while the U.S. is working on chemistry that is barely six weeks old.

Talent versus chemistry is always an interesting battle. Developing chemistry among this group has been the biggest challenge for the U.S. It’s not something that can be fast tracked. These are NBA stars playing out of position, in some cases, and certainly playing roles they are not used to.

Coach K admitted earlier this week that the one thing he wishes is that this team “knew each other a little better.”

Situational sloppiness during this competition has been more about this group’s unfamiliarity with each other than it has anything else. Those slow starts are proof that it takes time to develop the kind of intuitive flow some of these teams they have faced have been working on for years.

The U.S. is still searching for that one game when they put it all together, when all of their stars are clicking from the opening tip to final buzzer. Their ninth and final game of the World Cup is exactly when they need their chemistry to finally come together.

“No question, because this is the gold medal game,” Thompson said. “This is what we’ve worked for. We’re going to play as hard as we can for as long as we can and bring it back for our country.”

31 Comments

  1. tg stanciu says:

    being booed during the ceremony tells how much some of the US players understood from this tournament putting basketball aside … definitely a better team, but they don’t have any idea on what sportsmanship’s all about 🙂 … probably they should stay a few years in college before joining the NBA after all 🙂

  2. buddy waters says:

    Serbians play basketball like they fight in the army, garbage.

  3. John says:

    Serbians, it’s so quiet in here being down 30.

  4. buddy waters says:

    Serbia is weak like playing babys.

  5. phil says:

    USA 35- Serbia 21 end of Q1

  6. Marko_the_Serbian says:

    SERBIA +20 ____USA is going DOWN DOWN DOWN dooooooown doooown even if the sky is fallin DOWN DOOOWWN DOOWN

  7. buddy waters says:

    If Serbia plays the best they can they should be able to lose by 35.

  8. Leonard Jackson says:

    I think Serbia will win today!! I want to see a great close game Like a game that gets your heart going in the last seconds of the 4th quarter.

  9. jazz fan says:

    USA by 18.

  10. Billy bob says:

    I think Liechtenstein will take home the Gold.
    I love Jurgen Breitenbush. He is a phenomenal player.

  11. TheKush says:

    I pick the serbs to win by -30!

    • buddy waters says:

      The serbs would lose by 30 to the USA under 17 team.

      • Nikic says:

        Remember 2007. under 19 World Championship. That is this generation of players. Curry for USA, Raduljica and Markovic for Serbia, Batum and Diot and Jackson for France. And result was 1. Serbia, 2. USA, 3. France.

  12. lbj says:

    Winning a gold medal won’t get klay Thompson a ring. He needs to come play with our “king” lebron in Cleveland. We will trade James jones and Norris cole via amnesty from Miami.

    Jk lol. That guy is annoying.

  13. 2trancentral says:

    Serbia to where they belong – Top of the World. 😉

  14. sports fan says:

    The game will go through quintuple overtime and will be called a draw.

  15. Barry wolf says:

    if y
    The us has a bad game they will beat these scrubs by 30.

  16. simo says:

    Serbia 5 World Cups USA 4. Serbia 6.5 millions USA nearly 200 millions. If US players play with the hart of the Serbs they woulds be unbeatable.

  17. NBA-4Life says:

    Serbia has a big 0.00% chance to win,its going to be 40 plus for USA

  18. Basketball Fan says:

    From some reason like I knew I watched all preparation and all games here from this two teams. From what I saw Serbia have very little chance tonight. I just hope Serbia at least manage to turn this game in competitive one and do not let another blow-out win for USA. I think key factor for Serbia will be controlling rebounds, but is it possible to stop Fareed and Davis, maybe boxing them out somehow, Pekovic from Minnesota is not great jumper but he uses his body to position himself and box out strong athletes, maybe that is recipe.

  19. drago says:

    Crush USA

  20. dimi says:

    just pls, when you loose this, don`t use petty excuses like “f lebron and durant were here you would not stand a chance” and so, cuz that would be lame 😉

  21. Jon says:

    i do not know any thing about the u s a spone orts i do not watch that but i say good luck to every

  22. NBAfan says:

    serbians are going down!

  23. Eaham says:

    I hope Serbia wins

  24. harriethehawk says:

    After USA wins the Gold, what’s next on the agenda? Training camp? The Starters return on Monday, I missed that show over the summer…

  25. DaAwesome1 says:

    Serbia’s not going to stand there and get beat, but, there’s no way there going to win. period. But they thought that France and Spain. Oh no………….

    • NastyB says:

      Of course we`re going to do our best, but “no way to win”??? How old are you?? Remember 2002. and USA team with Reggie Miller, Andre Miller, Paul Pirce, Jermaine O`Neal against Serbia (Well, Yugoslavia – 11 Serbs and one player from Montenegro) with Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Marko Jaric, Dejan Bodiroga… And the game was in Indianopolis: All people said then that Yougoslavia “have no chance to win, especially in USA”. And what happened?? Serbia became world champions against USA (NBA) team.
      I don`t say that Serbia will win. I love NBA, I know how good are Curry, Harden, Davis, Rose, all team USA, but sayin` “no way to win” is haughtily and pointless.

      • sasha says:

        Ben Wallace was there too.He couldn’t deal with Divac so the coach put him on the bench.Remember it was like yesterday.