BARCELONA — That fine line between confident and cocky, the one the favorites always walk, is being navigated carefully by the U.S. National Team here at the FIBA World Cup. Upsets have a way of forcing reality onto teams, even one filled with NBA stars who believe, no matter the odds, that they won’t come all this way without leaving with gold.
Mike Krzyzewski‘s unyielding respect for the process and the rest of the field makes much more sense now that France has toppled Spain on the other side of the bracket, leaving a golden opportunity in front of the U.S. as the Americans square off with Lithuania today (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) for the right to advance to the gold medal game Sunday in Madrid.
“We know what a great team Lithuania is and how well they’ve played the whole tournament,” U.S. guard Steph Curry said during a Thursday morning news conference alongside Coach K. “We obviously knew what happened (to Spain) but it didn’t affect in anything in our preparation. Nobody really expected it, they beat pretty well in pool play. But that’s the beauty of the tournament. Everybiody gets another chance to get to the medal round and then it’s a one-and-done process. And that makes it even more important for us to come out and focus and take care of our business. Everybody knew about it (France upsetting Spain). But our job is to beeat Lithuania and worry about who we’re going to play in Madrid. That’s the mentality, it was yesterday and it stays the same today.”
During pool play, any mention of Spain drew a polite but curt no comment from Coach K, who dutifully reminded anyone willing to listen that a place in Madrid had to be earned. Ask about a potential opponent two games away and Coach K wouldn’t let the questioner finish. He’d reiterate that his and his team’s sole focus was on the team they’d face next.
Peppering the players with similar questions resulted in similar responses.
“We’re not focused on Spain or anyone else but … ”
It doesn’t seem so strange now, not after seeing Spain crumble under the weight of expectations Wednesday night in Madrid.
In the moments after their quarterfinal win over Slovenia, after TNT’s Charles Barkley picked Spain to win it all and just before Phoenix Suns All-NBA point guard and Slovenian catalyst Goran Dragic did the same, Coach K made it clear that his team is not invincible.
“We’re beatable,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
That wasn’t posturing. Coach K knows as well as anyone — Pau Gasol and his Spanish National Team teammates included — just how humbling it can be to live that reality.
The failures of the U.S. team in 2006 is fresh in the minds of those involved with USA Basketball at all levels.
“We’re not an arrogant group that thinks we don’t have to come out and play our hardest and our best every night. That’s just not who we are as a team,” James Harden said. “We respect all of the other teams here. We’re not the only group of NBA guys here, we know that. This is a tournament, a competition, and that means it’s wide open and anybody has a chance to win.”
Having a young team, relatively speaking, that doesn’t include the usual complement of superstars that was expected (Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, etc.) won’t save the U.S. from expectations now that Spain is out. The Americans go back to the top of the heap as the unquestioned favorite to capture gold.
And that means this team must compartmentalize in short order the new dynamics. Serbia and France both sprung upsets on the other side of the bracket. Who’s to say that either one of them couldn’t do it again?
So those slow starts and energy-deficient stretches this U.S. team has struggled through cannot be a part of the process any longer.
“I think we’ve played well,” Coach K said, defending his team. “I don’t know what everybody has been watching, but you know, our guys have played their butts off. They have great camaraderie. You all, some of you, think that flipping the switch, or whatever, is when we start hitting shots. If any team just had to wait for that, then they are flipping that switch all the time, because you don’t hit shots all the time. What you can do is play hard, play defense and rebound. And you can do those things all the time, and our team has done that all the time. So, then when you start hitting shots, everything looks good when you hit shots.”
Krzyzewski said he’s pleased with his team’s growth and maturity throughout the course of training camp and competition. The U.S. has maintained a sense of calm on the floor when things don’t come quickly. “So far they’ve been great about it, and I think part of it is how we handle things,” he said. “Like the mood we try to create. You want to be serious, but not to an extent where you become tight. They need to be loose.”
That was easier to do before France turned this competition upside down with that 68-52 beating of Spain. The seriousness of it all, the fact that if you don’t play your best in this one-and-done scenario could be the difference between playing to capture back-to-back titles or playing for third place.
There’s no extra motivation needed then.
“To play to get to the gold medal game, that’s the main motivation,” Klay Thompson said. “And [Thursday] is September 11, an infamous day in American history, so we just want to honor our country in that aspect.”