Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Faried’

USAB program solid from top to bottom

Team USA, gold medal winners at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Team USA, gold medal winners at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

MADRID — It’s as American as apple pie, the deep-seeded need to be the best. For USA Basketball, gold has always been the goal.

It hasn’t always been as easy as it was Sunday, when the U.S. confirmed its international basketball dominance with a 129-92 win over Serbia in the gold medal game of the FIBA Basketball World Cup. There was a time, not that long ago, that the national program was in shambles. It turned ugliest when the U.S. hobbled to a dismal sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis. That was the first time a team composed entirely of NBA stars lost in international competition.

The blueprint for rebuilding Team USA was designed shortly after, born out of a respect for the global game that replaced the sense of entitlement that many with the team carried.

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski understood  the gains the rest of the world made after the original Dream Team came here and dazzled the world at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

“When we started out nine years ago with Jerry and his staff, we had two goals,” Coach K said . “One was to try to win gold medals, 1A, and 1B was to win the respect of our country and the world and how it would be done. I think one of the reasons we won is because we do have that respect. We know how good everyone is. It’s beautiful basketball. We prepare like crazy and we learn from the international community.”

There were stumbles early, lessons to be learned from those stumbles and plenty of ground to be made up in terms of internal structure and a culture that had to be created. But USA Basketball is once again the gold standard. The best talent on the best teams at every level — U-19 and U-17 included — fly the USAB banner.

“I’m very pleased and excited and happy for where USA Basketball is today,” Colangelo said. “I can think back to 2005 when I was asked to take on that responsibility, and we had a game plan and now we’re seeing the fruition of that over the last decade. And it’s resulted in four gold medal championships, and it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Four cycles — World Cup/World Championships and Olympics alternating every two years — four straight gold medals and 45 straight wins later, it’s obvious that the master plan for USA Basketball’s championship infrastructure is firmly in place. (more…)

USA-Serbia gold medal live blog


VIDEO: GameTime: FIBA Finals Predictions

MADRID – After 16 days and 75 games, it’s time to bring the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup to a close with the gold medal game between the United States and Serbia (3 p.m. ET, ESPN 2).

The U.S. has suffocating defense and a 44-game winning streak on the line. Serbia has a potent offense and a three-game streak of pulling off upsets to go from 2-3 in group play to earning at least a silver medal.

The winner not only gets the gold, but also an automatic berth into the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Read NBA.com’s preview here.

Pre-game

Tip-off

End of first quarter: USA 35, Serbia 21

Halftime: USA 67, Serbia 41

End of third quarter: USA 105, Serbia 67

Final: USA 129, Serbia 92

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.”

National pride works both ways for U.S.-Serbia in FIBA World Cup final


VIDEO: The GameTime crew looks at the USA-Serbia matchup and makes picks

By Sekou Smith and John Schuhmann

MADRID — Serbia will have a decided advantage in terms of the numbers of fans they’ll have in the crowd for Sunday’s gold medal game here at the FIBA World Cup. The Serbian crowd was loud and large during its semifinal win over France and the Serbian players interact with them constantly throughout games. 

“Serbian pride” is the one advantage big man Miroslav Raduljica claims his side will have against the U.S. National Team when they face off for gold.

Members of the U.S. National Team, which hasn’t played to a decidedly pro-U.S. crowd  in this competition from Bilbao to Barcelona and now Madrid, would beg to differ.

National pride works on both sides, even though this particular group of U.S. players haven’t worked together for the years and years their Serbian counterparts have.

“We’re playing for something bigger than ourselves right now,” Kenneth Faried said after practice Saturday. “We’re playing for our country. putting on that USA jersey means more than anything. It’s like you’re playing for the Army, Navy, the Marines … guys who fight for you every day”

Dramatics aside, just earning a spot on the U.S. National Team speaks volumes, considering the number of potential candidates.

“There’s no question,” Klay Thompson said. “It’s a privilege to play for the U.S.A. There are so many talented players that it’s truly an honor to get chosen to play on the world stage for the U.S.A. I’ve had one other competition experience with (the National Team), but nothing compares to this. We’ve been working for this all summer. So we have great pride in what we’re doing out there.”

Getting a feel for the gym

The U.S. team had an extra day between its semifinal win (Thursday) and Serbia’s (Friday). But the U.S. had to travel about 400 miles from Barcelona to Madrid. And Saturday was their first exposure to the Palacio de los Deportes in Spain’s capital.

“It wasn’t really an extra day of rest,” USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It was a travel day. That’s one thing about coming from Barcelona, we have to get a comfort level for this court quickly, where whoever we played would have had a week playing on this court and not travel.”

No excuses, though.

“That’s not going to decide the game,” Krzyzewski added. “The game will be decided on whether we can play defense well enough to stop their very potent offense and score against their very good defense.”

Rematch

Since the break up of Yugoslavia, the United States and Serbia have never played each other in a senior-level, international competition. But this is a rematch of the championship game of the 2007 U19 tournament, when Serbia, playing at home, avenged a preliminary-round loss and beat the U.S., 74-69, for gold. Two Serbian players from that team, Raduljica and Stefan Markovic, start for the senior team now. And Stephen Curry was on that U.S. junior team.

“That’s a bad feeling,” Curry remembered. “It was tough winning silver in that game, so hopefully we can be on the other side of it this time around.”

France wins bronze

Nicolas Batum led France with 27 points as they edged Lithuania 95-93 in the bronze medal game Saturday night. Boris Diaw gave France the lead for good with a nifty reverse with 1:27 to play.

Jonas Valanciunas paced Lithuania with 25 points and nine rebounds.

Playing through the pain

Rudy Gay will get the U.S. iron man award, no matter if they take home gold or silver. The Sacramento Kings forward suffered a bruised jaw, a chipped tooth and might need a root canal when he returns home.

That skirmish at the end of the semifinal win over Lithuania was the aftermath of a cheap shot Gay took in the third quarter from one of the Lavrinovich twins, Gay wasn’t sure which one of them it was.

Gay will, however, be ready to play in Sunday’s gold medal game but he’ll do so while dealing with considerable pain.

Future star

Some of the U.S. players were afraid to try pronouncing the names of their Serbian opponents, but there’s a clear respect for how well Serbia has been playing. In particular, these guys know how hot Milos Teodosic (20.0 points per game, 74.2 percent effective field-goal percentage) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (15.3, 80 percent) have been in the medal rounds.

When asked about Bogdanovic, who was drafted by the Phoenix Suns this year, but will play in Turkey for at least two years, Krzyzewski was effusive.

“I think he has NBA potential now,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a very gifted player. He has great length for a guy who can shoot like that. I think he’s going to be an outstanding player in the NBA.”

Thompson’s breakout summer?


VIDEO: Klay Thompson discusses USA’s win over Lithuania

MADRID — Stephen Curry  calls it the “USA vibe,” that flow NBA players get into during competition summers with USA Basketball.  

Those are the summers of sacrifice, of committing yourself to a culture unlike the one you are used to in the NBA, where there are journeyman and role players scattered among stars, superstars and global icons throughout locker rooms around the league.

No one has to worry about those distinctions with USA Basketball. Curry and Mason Plumlee are equals here under the watchful of eye of Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball’s managing director, and head coach Mike Kryzyewski.

If they’ve learned anything over the course of the past nine years it’s that a tiered system on the U.S. National Team doesn’t work. It can’t. Especially when guys like Curry’s Splash Brother from Golden State, Klay Thompson, plays the way he has during the FIBA World Cup.

Thompson, you could argue, has been the most consistent and best two-way player on the U.S. roster, not named Kenneth Faried or Anthony Davis. And he’s done it without starting a single game in the lead up to Sunday’s gold medal game.

“I thought Klay’s play in the first half was the biggest reason we were leading at halftime,” Coach K said after Thompson led the U.S. rout of Lithuania in Thursday’s semifinal with 14 points before the break and 16 for the game.

Thompson’s contributions off the U.S. bench, a role he probably hasn’t had to play at any point in his basketball career since before high school, if ever, could pay huge dividends when this tournament is over and he goes back to his role as one of the stars for the Warriors.

“You expose yourself to different stages of basketball,” Curry said of the benefits Thompson will gain from this medal run with the U.S. National Team. “It’s beneficial because you’re being called on to play a different role, to be a scorer off the bench and it’s just different. It adds a little bit of character and charisma to your game. And that should translate to even more success when we get back to Golden State.”

This has definitely been a character building summer for Thompson and other guys used to starting and the spotlight that comes with it in the NBA. He’s perhaps a better defender than anyone imagined. He’s stepped up to the challenge on defense night after night, while serving as the team’s most consistent scoring threat off the bench as well, averaging 12.8 points while shooting 66 percent on his 2-point shots and 41 percent from beyond the 3-point line.

We’ve gotten a glimpse of his game, the entire scope of his game, in ways we don’t normally get to see in the NBA.

“He’s been a lockdown defender for us, no doubt,” James Harden said. “Scoring is never going to be a problem for him. It’s not an issue for this team. So it says something when you see guys working hard on defense and trying to make an impact any way they can.”

That’s the spirit of the program, the one Colangelo and Coach K have tried to foster from the start. And the results have worked beautifully. The U.S, takes a 62-game win streak into Sunday’s gold medal game, having put together a flawless run in World Cup/World Championship/Olympic and international exhibition competition dating back to 2006.

They also boast a number of breakout stars from every cycle of international competition. This is where new All-Stars, MVPs and scoring champs play their trade every two years, sharpening their skills for the NBA by representing their country and strengthening its basketball tradition.

“The fact is the historical record of the guys who have participated with us shows they go back to their teams and that season immediately following their experience with us they have great results,” Colangelo said.

He cited the 2010 team that won gold at the World Championship in Turkey as the shining example of this experience is all about. That team produced the MVP (Derrick Rose), scoring champ (Kevin Durant) and three new All-Stars, not to mention a NBA champion in Tyson Chandler.

“They all had a great experience in Istanbul and great seasons that followed that journey,” Colangelo said. “We’ve been preaching this gospel, that this is a great experience, you learn to become a better player, in some ways, we think, by exposing them to this culture. They take that back to their teams and their teams are better for it. And the NBA is the ultimate beneficiary of it. So there’s 110 reasons why it’s good for the players to participate.”

Thompson could be one of those players whose next step is the one that launches him into that next level of stardom. He’ll have a new coach, Steve Kerr, and a new system. And that boulder sized chip on his shoulder after surviving a summer filled with trade rumors linked to Kevin Love, who was instead dealt to Cleveland.

Thompson is the one U.S. player who seemed perturbed from the very start that this U.S. team was being doubted and considered an underdog because bigger stars defected, declined to participate or were injured.

“I don’t care who you are, you never want to be counted out or disrespected,” Thompson said. “I never need any extra motivation. I’m always playing my hardest and to win. That will never change.”

Faried wanted to face Spain on its home turf in FIBA World Cup final


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried talks about Team USA’s win over Lithuania

BARCELONA — Basketball fans around the world aren’t the only ones upset they won’t get a chance to see the U.S. National Team and their counterparts from Spain in Sunday’s gold medal game of the FIBA World Cup.

U.S. forward Kenneth Faried wanted a piece of that action as well, and didn’t hide it after the U.S. punched its ticket for Madrid with a somewhat surprising blowout 96-68 blowout win over Lithuania in the semifinals Thursday night at Palau Saint Jordi.

Faried said he wasn’t sure if and where he would watch Friday’s semifinal in Madrid between France and Serbia. And he certainly wasn’t surprised that Spain fell to France in the quarterfinals in Madrid Wednesday night.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” he said. “There was too much hype around them. It was arrogant, borderline disrespectful to us, saying they’re better than us, we’re not going to be able to match up with their bigs and all this other arrogant stuff. I just took it as, ‘okay, alright. Once we meet them in the finals we’ll see what happens. We can’t even see what happens.”

One of the breakout stars on this U.S. team, a player many people didn’t think would make the roster, let alone come here and shine the way he has, Faried let loose even more about his disappointment about missing out on the chance to battle Spain on their home soil.

“I am disappointed,” he said. “I wanted to beat them in their own country.”

Faried’s words are exactly the kind U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski has stayed away from throughout this competition. And with Serbia and France still having to fight it out for that spot opposite the U.S. in the gold medal game, he certainly doesn’t want to add any bulletin board material to the party.

Neither did Faried’s teammates.

“Kenneth is crazy,” James Harden said and then smiled when told of Faried’s comments. “He’s crazy.”

The veterans of the program know better than to cross that line, having adopted Coach K’s respect the process (and the opponent, at all times) mantra.

“It honestly doesn’t matter,” said Steph Curry, who won gold in Turkey four years ago. “You know so many people were predicting that matchup. But it obviously didn’t happen. It was on people’s mind, with the history we have with them in the Olympics and then this idea of playing their home floor. We’re just happy to take care of our business, which we set out to do, and make it to the finals. Whoever matches up against us Sunday we’ll be ready for them.”

U.S. trounces Lithuania 96-68


VIDEO: U.S. uses big third quarter to rout Lithuania

BARCELONA — Any team with designs on knocking off the U.S. National Team before it gets to Madrid and collects gold here at the FIBA World Cup better be ready for the wave.

That wave would be a star-studded second unit capable of generating as much energy and plenty of production on any given night.

Klay Thompson lit the flame in Thursday’s 96-68 semifinal win over Lithuania, carrying the U.S. early, before a quick 10-0 run after halftime turned a tight game into yet another rout at Palau Saint Jordi.

With James Harden and Stephen Curry struggling with their shots, fouls and defense, Thompson served as the emotional spark the U.S. needed to avoid the upset bug that bit Spain a night earlier in a quarterfinal in Madrid. He had 14 points by halftime, when the U.S. held a 43-35 lead, and was locked in on defense from the moment he hit the floor.

He helped turn what was supposed to be the toughest test of the competition, to date, into a laugher minutes after halftime. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski was the first person up off the U.S. bench at the dead ball that ended that 10-0 run, fist-pumping his team’s energy and effort during yet another break out stretch.

The U.S. has had one in each and every game they’ve played throughout this competition, overwhelming the opposition at one point or another with their athleticism, speed, length and defensive intensity.

“We’re relentless,” Kenneth Faried said. “We’re relentless.”

That’s exactly what they were during that third quarter run, which ran all the way up to 18-2 and eventually knocked out a Lithuanian team that has historically played the U.S. tougher than most, dating back to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

But once the U.S. got rolling, there was no chance this one stayed close. Thompson finished with 16 points. Harden matched his 16, all of them coming during that burst after halftime. Curry added 13 and Kyrie Irving led the U.S. with 18, giving Faried and Anthony Davis a night off, at least in the scoring department.

“It had nothing to do with energy,” Irving said of the U.S. second half blitz. “Whatever is needed, we make the necessary adjustments and then just try and go for the win.”

Sunday’s gold medal game (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) in Madrid is an opportunity for this team to make history by allowing the U.S. to become  just the third country to repeat as World champions. Brazil (1959 and 1963) and Yugoslavia (1998 and 2002) are the others

That marquee matchup between the host nation team and the team filled with NBA stars was hijacked Wednesday night when France upset Spain 68-52 in the quarterfinals in Madrid. Sunday’s final won’t have that sizzling subplot, but that’s not something the U.S. contingent seems to care much about.

They avoided talking about Spain for weeks, no matter how many different ways people tried to get them to address the topic. Now they’ll get to two days to prepare for either France or Serbia, who square off in the other semifinal Friday night in Madrid.

Favored U.S. keeps focus on Lithuania


VIDEO: FIBA: Day 2, Quarterfinals Wrap

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.”

Optimism continues to rise in Denver


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried talks about the USA win over Mexico

So, yeah, Kenneth Faried. He’s everywhere for Team USA, finishing on the break, crashing the boards, pounding away with typical bottomless energy, and emerging as the NBA player whose reputation has benefited most from the FIBA World Cup.

This is a step forward for Faried, even with the disclaimer that the event once known as the world championships does not automatically translate to NBA play, not when the international game is different and now when roles are much different for some national teams than they will be starting in late-September. That makes it an obvious step forward for the Nuggets back home as the latest in a series of offseason boosts, and that makes Denver more intriguing than before.

Maybe even playoff intriguing. Faried will be better for his time with Team USA and the positive performance will become an injection of confidence and energy, if that’s possible. Danilo Gallinari is encouraged about being ready for Day 1 of training camp and a full regular-season schedule, save perhaps avoiding back-to-backs early, in the return from two surgeries on his left knee and all 2013-14 on the sidelines. Arron Afflalo was added in a steal of a trade that sent Evan Fournier and a second-round pick to the Magic. JaVale McGee should be back after missing all but five games last season with a fractured left leg. No. 16 pick Jusuf Nurkic was the second-best center prospect in the 2014 draft, after the injured Joel Embiid, and No. 19 pick Gary Harris could crack the rotation as a rookie.

The Nuggets go from 36-46 and missing the playoffs by 13 games to opening training camp in a few weeks with the possibility of essentially three new starters, and veteran starters at that: Afflalo at shooting guard, Gallinari at small forward and McGee at center. There is the uncertainty of Gallinari and McGee because of injuries — and of McGee because it’s JaVale McGee — but it’s easy to see Denver in the conversation with Phoenix and New Orleans as Western Conference teams pushing into the playoffs.

There’s an extra 13 wins to be cobbled together from Gallinari at small forward plus Afflalo and some Harris at shooting guard plus McGee and some Nurkic at center. That’s in addition to the carryover starters, Faried at power forward and Ty Lawson at point guard, plus Randy Foye, in the opening lineup at shooting guard last season but likely bound for a reserve role now, and Wilson Chandler in the same situation at small forward and J.J. Hickson at center.

“I think at every position we’re pretty deep,” Lawson told NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan last month. “At center, we’ve got JaVale and Timofey Mozgov, who started playing well throughout the last year. We’re so deep, I think that’s a gift and a curse. Everybody is going to want to play. I already told (coach Brian Shaw), I was like, ‘yeah, it’s going to be a problem that you’re going to have, divvying up minutes and making sure everybody’s still happy.’ That’s a gift because say somebody goes down, God forbid, we’ll still have somebody step right in. Also, there’s so many different lineups we can have. We can go small, go big, we’re so versatile.”

Small forward is the specific watch, and not just with Gallinari’s recovery. Draft night changed that. The Nuggets traded the No. 11 pick to the Bulls for 16 and 19, taking Denver out of contention for Doug McDermott in a double-down of the bet that Gallo would have a full recovery. McDermott would have been for the same position and the projected help for a team that had just finished 19th in the league in shooting. Chicago took McDermott with the selection instead. If he plays to expectations and Gallinari never gets all the way back, June 26, 2014, becomes a haunting memory.

It’s easy to see the Nuggets’ logic, though. They got a lot deeper and, with the Afflalo deal the same day, a lot stronger with Nurkic, needing to now address how a center not known for mobility will fit into the up-tempo game of Lawson and Faried. Nurkic was a candidate for the lottery and Denver got him at a position that has lacked stability for years, plus potential help at shooting guard with Harris. And if Gallinari does make it back, the decision looks even better.

Faried, U.S. bigs ‘ready for whatever’

(Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

The big men for Team USA have key to its success in the World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

BARCELONA — Playing the underdog is one thing.

But being disrespected?

That’s something U.S. National Team forward Kenneth Faried (Denver Nuggets) cannot tolerate. Not at home and certainly not on the other side of the world here in the FIBA World Cup.

Faried took offense to the suggestion that the U.S. big men — he and Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee — will no longer dominate the opposition now that they are down to their final two games of this competition.

“Massively direspectful,” Faried said after practice Wednesday at Palau Saint Jordi when it was suggested that the dominant run for the U.S. bigs was over. “We’ll have to see tomorrow, I guess.”

Lithuania’s frontline, led by Jonas Valanciunas (Toronto Raptors), is next up in Thursday’s semifinal. And Brazil and Spain, with their deep frontcourts loaded with NBA big men could await in the gold medal game Sunday in Madrid.

The battle of bigs Thursday, though, is first up on the priority list. And Lithuania, unlike quarterfinal victim Slovenia Tuesday night, had no answers for Faried, Davis and the crew.

The U.S. dominated the offensive boards (23) and controlled the action as a result of their relentless work on the boards early.

“Coach definitely wants all the bigs to get offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, and wants every rebound to be ours so they only get one shot,” Davis said. “So that’s what me, Kenneth, DeMarcus, Rudy (Gay), that’s all we try to do; Andre and Mason, just try and get every rebound.”

Valanciunas had grabbed 13 in Lithuania’s quarterfinal win over Turkey, outworking Omer Asik (New Orleans Pelicans) en route to a monstrous rebounding performance.

“He’s, so far, going to be the best low-post presence that we’ve faced,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He gets a piece of the paint in numerous ways. And he’s a great offensive rebounder. Not a good one, but a great one. And I think he’s a tough guy to match up with. Just the opposite when you’re trying to match up on the perimeter when their bigs take you outside. Thes guys take you inside and trying to outrebound them will be a challenge for our team.”

A challenge Faried says he and his U.S. counterparts are more than ready for.

“He’s a good big, and he’s going to be a force down there,” he said of Valanciunas. “But we’re ready for him. We’re ready for whatever.”

Coach K mum on Deng, Ferry

Krzyzewski said that he would rather not comment on the goings on back home involving two of his former players at Duke, Miami Heat forward Luol Deng and Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who are at the center of controversy involving racist comments Ferry uttered on a conference call earlier this summer.

Ferry has been disciplined internally by the Hawks and Deng has already released his statement in response to the firestorm Ferry’s statement caused.

“I’m not up to date or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “I am not abreast … I’m just not there, so I don’t want to comment on anything that I don’t know anything about. I don’t know much about it … so I’d rather not comment on it.”

Splash Bros to the rescue

If one Splash Brother struggles, you can count on the other to pick up the slack. Klay Thompson‘s 20-point performance in the win over Slovenia came on the heels of Steph Curry‘s 20-point effort in Saturday’s win over Mexico.

Thompson has stepped up to any and all defensive challenges as well, digging in on opposing perimeter players and showing himself to be a more than capable one-on-one stopper for a U.S. team that didn’t necessarily have a specialist to fill that role, at least on paper.

“Klay has been a consistent high-level performer for us,” Coach K said. “He’s just doing what he does in the NBA, and that’s being an outstanding player. He can hit shots but he can really play defense. We knew that when we started trials that he would be a valuable, valuable … A number of these guys are like having starters in there all the time, but Klay has accepted his role really well.”