Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Faried’

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.”

U.S. crushes Slovenia, rolls into semifinals


VIDEO: Team USA rolls into semifinals with rout of Slovenia

BARCELONA — Spain has supplanted the U.S. National Team as the trendy pick to win gold here at the FIBA World Cup.

Everybody from TNT’s very own Charles Barkley to members of the teams the U.S. crushes on their way to Thursday’s semifinal have chimed in and sided with the host nation Spaniards.

After the U.S. used one of the their trademark blitzes to run Slovenia off the floor at Palau Saint Jordi 119-76 in Tuesday’s quarterfinal, Phoenix Suns All-NBA point guard Goran Dragic weighed in with his belief that Spain is indeed the favorite.

That’s fine with the stars on the U.S. team, whose refusal to panic when things are tight early has become a hallmark for this bunch. Starters James Harden and Steph Curry were scoreless at halftime and the lead was just 49-42.

Not a problem. Not when Klay Thompson (20 points) and Derrick Rose (12) are your “backups.”

A swift 18-5 third quarter run later and the U.S. was off to the races, cashing in with its 61st straight win in World Cup/World Championship/Olympic and international competition, and one step closer to that date with Spain in Sunday’s gold medal game in Madrid.

“I thought we played really hard the whole game and we just couldn’t finish in the first half some of those plays,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “and then they stayed with it and then the floodgates opened in the second half.”

The U.S. faces Lithuania, a 73-61 winner of Turkey in Tuesday’s first game, Thursday at 3 p.m. ET.

They’ll do so having played arguably their best game, so far, of the competition. They stroked Finland by 59 points in their opener last week in pool play. But beating Slovenia down was a tougher task.

“It was tough. They are a really good team,” Harden said. “They kind of slowed us down in the first half, dictated the tempo. Coach talked to us at halftime about playing our brand of basketball and how we like to play. And we came out with that intensity.”

Harden did heat up, scoring 12 of his 14 points in the third quarter. Kenneth Faried finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds and Anthony Davis 13 and 11. The depth the U.S. boasts is like no other team in this competition, not even a seasoned Spanish team.

Rose, in particular, had his teammates fired up.

“You [saw] him,” Harden said of Rose. “He looked amazing. He’s so quick and athletic, the way he followed the holes and finished … he made some amazing passes tonight. He was phenomenal.”

While it certainly helped having Thompson in a groove from the start on both ends, Rose needed a push. With the Coach K mandate that he play with a green light, Rose was as aggressive as he’s been offensively at any point in the tournament.

Rose was just 8-for-37 shooting before Tuesday, so whatever color his light was prior to seeing Slovenia, is anyone’s guess.

“It eased me a little bit,” Rose said. “Gave me a lot of confidence. I’m not lacking in confidence, but when the head coach tells you to go out there and be aggressive it makes you think in another way. Coach gave me that green light and said go out there and play the way I play. Don’t worry about getting other guys involved … I felt good.”

On a team that is suddenly dealing with an underdog status, at least here in Spain, Rose, Thompson and some of these other elite reserves are finding a rhythm at just the right time.

Just in time for Thursday’s semifinals and then on to Madrid, where the underdogs might finally have their say about who should really wear the favorite’s tag.

Cousins is U.S. wild card going forward


VIDEO: Before World Cup play, DeMarcus Cousins did major work last season for the Kings

BARCELONA — DeMarcus Cousins might barely play in the U.S. National Team’s quarterfinal matchup against Slovenia here Tuesday at the Palau Saint Jordi.

Circumstances beyond his control will dictate whether the biggest and perhaps best, by NBA standards, big man on the U.S. roster has a chance to show what he can do.

Such is life in the USA Basketball bubble, where All-Stars are asked to be reserves and a dominant big man has to wait his turn against an opponent that will spread the floor with as many as five 3-point shooters in an attempt to agitate the U.S.

One night you are the man. The next, you’re on the bench watching someone else play that role, depending on the matchup.

“It’s definitely a change for me,” Cousins said. “It’s an adjustment. I’m not used to coming off the bench, not used to playing limited minutes. It’s a huge adjustment. But everybody has a different role, and in order for us to get that ultimate goal, that gold medal, we have to play our roles to the best of our abilities.”

The fact that Cousins is even here and a part of this particular team raised eyebrows for some. Like several players on this team, he wasn’t viewed as the ideal fit. The need for fleet-footed bigs with shooting range out to and beyond the 3-point line is a must in FIBA competition.

The skills Cousins brings to the table — a traditional, low-post big man who does best work around the basket and with his back to it often — don’t mesh with the style of the day. But he represents a strategic shift for the U.S. and a serves as a potential wild card as this week goes on. If the U.S. is able to win its way through to this weekend’s medal games in Madrid, a rugged big man with his size and skill could come in handy.

As well as Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried, the U.S. starters at center and power forward, respectively, Cousins has proved himself indispensible as the Plan B big man.

“I think he’s come a long way,” said USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo. “I’m really, really happy for him. And I’m really happy for us. The one thing, he came in with a desire to make it. This was big to him. So he already had a leg up in terms of attitude and he wanted this thing. I think he’s paid his dues. He’s worked hard. Had a little setback when he went down. Fortunately it wasn’t something that knocked him out. But right now he’s playing really well. And his size and his ability could be real factor before this is over.”

Cousins was needed in Saturdays win over Mexico, whose Gustavo Ayon worked the U.S. for 25 points and eight rebounds and worked over Davis and Faried in the process but wasn’t able to take physical advantage of Cousins.

U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski praised Cousins for his work and lauded his diligence in making himself a factor on this team.

“We have believed in DeMarcus right from start of training camp,” he said. “All the reports about him not making the team and all that were all … not right. We felt he would be the perfect guy with or in place of Anthony at times, but more in the place of Anthony, and I think it’s just a matter of him continuing to get in better shape, our guys getting accustomed that when he does come into the game he’s different than Anthony and so to look for him. I think they see him more now, and I think his defense has really improved. He tried to take three charges (against Mexico). He played Ayon pretty well without getting help, so they couldn’t get a three off of him. I thought he played. He’d get an A+ from me, let’s just put it that way.”

The strategic shift to incorporate a more traditional big man into the mix was done partly out of necessity and also based on the specific challenges of this particular competition (Spain and the brothers Gasol and Serge Ibaka loom in a potential gold medal showdown).

Having the physical firepower to play any style was a part of the U.S. game plan this time around.

“Since we’ve been together, and I’m going back now to 2005, we didnt have a major presence in the middle,” Colangelo said. “We just didn’t. Dwight Howard was a young Dwight Howard then and Chris Bosh was his back up, a young back up. After that it was different. We didn’t have that real dominant kind of guy in the middle. We went with more of a perimeter game and we were structured that way.

“So this was a little change in strategy. And it just so happens, as things developed. If you were to add Kevin Durant and Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, that still would have put us in a situation where we might not have looked to some of the bigger guys in the middle. So circumstances caused us, not forced us, but caused us to see what other options do we have here. And we looked at our bigs and said, ‘let’s go with them.'”

That was music to the ears of Cousins and fellow behemoth Andre Drummond, another surprise addition to the roster.

What sort of impact they have, however, depends on the specific matchups.

“The only thing that is on our mind is to win,” Coach K said. “And winning means that you should have a nine or ten man rotation, so that’s all we are looking for. The game will give you the opportunity to put the right people in, because of matchups, and that is what we are looking for … We are going to match up according to what they do, because the first thing is we have to play defense against them.”

Cousins has shown himself to be a willing defender and rim protector in his minutes here, not to mention a more than capable rebounder and physical force. He’s never had a problem scoring and hasn’t against anyone he’s faced so far.

And yet he readily admits that he’s still finding his way against the big men he’s dealt with the past six games.

“Basically, it’s just me finding my role, getting used to the style of play and learning how to be effective,” he said. “It’s the first time for me, playing this way. For me it’s a process. But I’m coming into my own. I think you can see that from the way I’ve been playing. I’m getting better as we keep playing.”

Curry finds his shot as U.S. routs Mexico 86-63


VIDEO: Recap: U.S. vs. Mexico

BARCELONA, SPAIN — Steph Curry was waiting for his shot to start falling in the FIBA World Cup.

Not anymore.

Curry got hot early and really cranked it up during the third quarter of Saturday’s 86-63 blowout of Mexico, leading the U.S. National Team with 20 points as they made their first game of the elimination round of this competition look a lot like one of their pool play romps.

After watching U.S. big men Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried lead the way to the Round of 16, Curry went off against Mexico. He scored 11 of his points in a flash after halftime as the U.S. went into overdrive.

“That’s who he is,” U.S. swingman DeMar DeRozan said. “He’s one of the greatest shooters in the game. And when he gets going, it’s lights out.”

Curry shot 6-for-9 from deep and added four assists and three rebounds. Klay Thompson added 15 points, James Harden 12, DeMarcus Cousins 11 and Rudy Gay 10.

The U.S. moves on to the quarterfinals, having won their 60th straight game in World Cup/World Championship/Olympic and international exhibition competition. They will face the winner of Saturday’s Slovenia-Dominican Republic game on Tuesday.

Mexican center Gustavo Ayon pounded the U.S. inside for 25 points and eight rebounds, numbers that look better on paper than they did in the flesh. For all of his success against Davis and Faried, the game was never really in doubt.

A lot of that has to do with Curry, one of the most experienced players on this roster, having played on the team that won gold four years ago in Turkey.

If he and Harden and Thompson can stay hot from outside, the balance U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski has been looking for will come to fruition between now and this weekend’s medal games in Madrid, provided the U.S. makes it there.

What was considered a given when Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George were expected to lead this team, changed a bit when Curry, Harden and Davis suddenly assumed the leadership (and scoring mantle) due to defections and injuries.

Curry said his own internal expectations didn’t change as some of the bigger names started to drop off, for whatever reasons.

“It was more of an opportunity,” he said of the way the roster shuffling played out. “I expected to have a big impact on the team from the get go, having the 2010 experience and being healthy now four years later. Talking to coach and going into training camp, and just getting back in that (Team) USA vibe, I definitely felt like there was a huge opportunity to be leader and be vocal and use the experience that I had, along with some of the other guys who had been here before.

“So that didn’t change at all. Obviously, as the roster shapes, you understand what’s needed of you and it becomes more real as you go through the process. Nothing really about my expectations changed … the big thing is just living in the moment and enjoying it. And that’s what I’m doing.”

The significance of doing it here in Barcelona, on this stage, where the Dream Team got it all started decades ago, has not been lost on Curry or his teammates.

Sure, there are similarities to Turkey four years ago. But there is something about this city, this building and the National Team history that courses through the place, and that’s for all involved. Coach K discussed it as well, having himself been an assistant on that 1992 team that won Olympic gold here.

The current task, though, is trying to repeat as champions in this event. For that, Curry and his crew have to indeed stay in the moment, something that 2010 team was able to do at the highest level (defeating host nation Turkey in a tense gold medal game).

Spain could be the opponent in the final this weekend in Madrid, not that Coach K, out of respect for the rest of the remaining field, would dare speak about any team other than the one up next on the U.S. schedule.

Instead, he’s focused on his team and how they are coming together after six games in eight days. When asked to assess what he’s happy and unhappy about with this crew, there was nothing negative.

“I’m not unhappy with our team,” he said. “Six games in really eight days is difficult. They give me their attention. I wish they knew each other better. You can’t force that maturation process. It’s just got to happen. But they listen. They are unselfish. And I think the main thing I’m happy about is no matter what we do offensively, the defense hasn’t suffered. We’ve played really positive defense.”

If there are any parallels from the 2010 run to gold, that’s where Curry says he sees them.

“It’s very similar,” Curry said. “We’re a new group together. We’ve played better each and every game. The focus is on winning. But it’s like coach said, we get more comfortable with each other knowing where we’re going to get our shots and driving angles and just playing off of each other. And that’s the focus and just getting more comfortable and living in the moment.”

Just like they did in Turkey.

“In 2010, we did that. Every game was fun and energetic and we just enjoyed the ride,” he said. “Now that we’re here in Barcelona and got that first medal game under our belt, we got the wheels going and we’re excited to get back to work on Tuesday.”

Coach K: Irving ‘100 percent’ for Mexico … Rose, too!


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving soeaks on his status heading into bracket play

BARCELONA, SPAIN — Kyrie Irving is fine.

That spill he took late in the U.S. National Team’s final group play win over the Ukraine didn’t keep him out of practice here Friday and won’t keep him out of the starting lineup for Saturday’s round of 16 showdown with Mexico.

I’m fine,” Irving said. “I’m a little more sore than I thought I’d be, but I’m good.”

National Team coach Mike Krzyzewski said Irving is “100 percent” and he also indicated that Derrick Rose is fine, too. There have been requests for daily health updates on Rose, for good reason given all of the time he’s missed the past two seasons with the Chicago Bulls.

Coach K, however, would appreciate it if we could all move on to a different line of questioning where Rose is concerned.

“He’s great,” Coach K said of Rose. ” I think at some time people should stop asking about him physically and just say, ‘how’s your game? Do you think we’re gonna win? How did you like that pass?’ It sometimes, although it’s nice when people say how do you feel, when that’s the only thing they say, you say, ‘come on man’ let’s have a more in-depth conversation, and I think he’s ready for that.”

Rose knows the questions are coming and has done his best to smile while explaining over and over again that he is fine and ready to go for the remainder of this competition, however long it lasts.

“It’s gonna be the whole year, probably until I retire, so I can’t get sick and tired of it,” Rose said of answering questions about how he feels. “I just got to be immune to it and just know that the question is always going to be in the air. Don’t worry about it.”

Still searching for that perfect 40

The best part about great expectations for the guys on the National Team roster is chasing that perfect game, trying to put together that one performance that checks all of the boxes and allows you to leave the floor without any doubts.

That feeling eluded the U.S. during group play, even with a 59-point destruction of Finland last weekend to kick things off.

There’s room to grow, a ceiling for the group that has not been reached yet.

“Yeah, we haven’t played the perfect 40 minutes,” Steph Curry said. “This is a long journey, nine games and we’ve got to find different ways to win. I think we have gotten better every single game with our performance, so that’s something that was a mission going into pool play, knowing if we played our best we should win the pool and set ourselves up for a lot of confidence while we’re here in Barcelona. So, that’s what we’re doing.”

Ayon, Mexico’s center of attention

U.S. big men Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried, DeMarcus Cousins, Mason Plumlee and Andre Drummond are all familiar with Mexico’s leading scorer, Gustavo Ayon.. Ayon is one of two Mexican players with NBA experience and has traded plenty of elbows with the U.S. bigs before.

Ayon presents a challenge that Coach K’s last team didn’t have a conventional answer for. The team that won gold in the London Olympics was devoid of what has turned out to be this team’s biggest strength … big men.

“We didn’t have a center,” Krzyzewski said of that star-studded but somewhat unconventional bunch. “You had players who didn’t have positions. What position does Kevin Durant play? LeBron, Kobe, Carmelo? So, you have a different style because you don’t put them in a position. You don’t want to put them in a box by saying you’re the 2 or 3, or whatever. Our team is different. We have really good players, but they’re not that type of player. It doesn’t mean they’re not equally good in some respects, but the versatility of those teams is what set them apart. You’re not going to see that every often.”

The Manimal bursts onto world stage

Kenneth Faried shot better than 79 percent in the first round of the FIBA World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Kenneth Faried shot better than 79 percent in the first round of the FIBA World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

BILBAO, Spain — Kenneth Faried sticks out in a crowd.

On a couch in the U.S. National Team’s hotel lobby on an off day, Faried dominates the scene, his dreadlocks scattered over his broad shoulders, the ideal accessory for a man whose profile is rising with every outing in the FIBA World Cup.

It’s been the same way on the court for the Denver Nuggets star, who has been the most dominant force on any team heading into the single-elimination round of the tournament. The most unlikely breakout star on a team few expected him to make, Faried has been a revelation for those unfamiliar with his relentless game.

Faried silenced his critics through the five-game pool play portion of this competition with consistent fury and a motor that lives up to every letter of his gold medal, social-media infused (#unleashthemanimal) mission on his first trip with the National Team.

This notion that an old-school power forward (not a “stretch-4″) could dominate in this fashion is reminiscent of another physical force of nature who invaded Spain years ago with the USA logo plastered across his chest. While any NBA comparison between Faried and Dream Teamer, Hall of Famer and TNT’s very own Charles Barkley end there, the proof that Faried’s trademark game made it through customs without issue has been on display since the day the National Team convened for training camp.

“Overall, from the start of training camp, he’s been the biggest and best surprise and has turned out to be a very, very important player for us,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his starting power forward, who at one point last week was shooting a jaw-dropping 80 percent. “He’s made that happen. We never call a play for him.”

A social media superstar is born

Faried makes his own plays. He steals an inbounds pass, spins and dunks all in a single burst, leaving coaches, teammates and especially opponents in awe of a man whose energy never seems to wane.

“These first five games didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I know what Kenneth can do,” U.S. guard James Harden said. “Energy and hustle works no matter where you are, overseas, NBA, college. No matter who it is and no matter what sport. He’s done a tremendous job here in showing everybody what he can do. He’s setting screens, rebounding, offensive rebounder and scoring. He’s doing everything that we’ve asked him to do and more. He’s definitely a huge part of our team.”

Not bad for a guy who was considered a longshot, by some, to be here.

With reigning KIA NBA MVP Kevin Durant dropping out at the last-minute, just days after an injury forced Paul George out of the mix (and Kevin Love withdrawing before him), the U.S. was in need of not only a starter at power forward, but also a catalyst. Faried stepped into both roles with his usual zeal.

Silencing critics and gaining fans? That’s fine with Faried.

“I don’t know. If I am, then thank you to all my followers,” Faried said. “If I’m not, then it don’t worry me none. I just came out here to play basketball and do the sport I love to do each and every day.”

Harden, Derrick Rose and Steph Curry all have experience in the program and have won gold medals. Any one of them could still be needed to play a bigger leadership role before this tournament is over.

On to Barcelona

In the meantime, the U.S. has found a dynamic pair  of pacesetters in Faried and Anthony Davis. They are still working their way up the big man food chain in the NBA. But here in Spain, they are the unquestioned leaders of the pack.

Davis showed signs and potential when he earned a gold medal in the London Olympics in 2012. Seeing him do the things he’s doing now shouldn’t be a surprise. But no one in Bilbao saw Faried coming, including New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams, an assistant on the National Team staff who also happens to work with the big men.

“I think he’s surprised everybody, just because you can’t scout energy,” Williams said. “It’s the one thing you can’t quantify, how hard a guy plays and what his heart is made of. He’s played the same way since the first day of training camp. And he’s used to playing that way. Everybody has had to adjust to him. He hasn’t made any adjustments because that’s how he is all the time.”

The world now awaits in Barcelona, where the U.S. takes on Mexico Saturday (10 a.m. ET, ESPN2) in the round of 16 single-elimination portion of the competition.

Faried said he’s playing the only way he knows how, all-out at all times. He’s proud of the “Manimal” nickname. He earned it with years of tireless work, the stuff the world is seeing now on this grand stage., the same stuff that’s made him a force in Denver.

“I don’t think he’s playing any different now than he plays in the NBA,” Williams said. “Sometimes this [international] game slows down a bit. But he doesn’t. And that helps us. But that’s his game. He plays hard every possession.”

It’s easy to tag Faried a hustle guy, an energy guy and not necessarily recognize the skill level involved in operating that way full-time. Williams knows better, though, having to deal with Faried on a regular basis in the Western Conference.

“Back in the day playing hard was expected,” Williams said. “Now it’s a skill. So guys who play at that level they stand out. With all of the attention on shooting 3s and stretch this and stretch that, the analytics, I don’t know how you analyze energy, toughness and heart. That’s what Kenneth brings every night.”

U.S. strolls confidently into round of 16

DeMarcus Cousins (center) is one of a group of U.S. big men giving opponents fits. (David Dow/NBAE)

DeMarcus Cousins (center) is one of a group of U.S. big men giving opponents fits. (David Dow/NBAE)

BILBAO, SPAIN — One thing the U.S. National Team never has to worry about in international competition is confidence. The continuous destruction of the competition has a way of fortifying that quality in a group, no matter the parts.

A slow start, a tight quarter here or there is not enough to rattle a locker room full of NBA stars who know that every time they hit the gym they are considered the prohibitive favorites.

Their 5-0 march through Group C, finished off with a 95-71 win over Mike Fratello‘s Ukraine team Thursday, was simply a warm-up for much bigger things in this FIBA World Cup. The round of 16 in Barcelona is a different monster, one-and-done. U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski made sure to remind his team of that after the Americans clinched the top spot in the group a night earlier.

The final phase — which begins Saturday for the U.S. — is where the fun starts for the U.S. No matter what anyone else thinks, no matter the expectations, nothing has changed internally for a team that entered this competition with its fair share of skeptics.

“We expect to win them all,” said U.S. forward Kenneth Faried, “We have high hopes for each other, and we look at each other each and every day and look at each other’s eyes, and we see that fight. We’re not going down without a fight no matter who we play. We know the opponent is not going to go down without a fight, so we just got to be better than them, just that night.”

Faried wasn’t expected to be one of this team’s leaders but has emerged, along with Anthony Davis (who knows the ropes after a gold-medal ride along at the London Olympics in 2012), as the team’s centerpieces.

So far, the World Cup has been less about the competition, or lack thereof, and more about the National Team’s examination of their own work and what must be corrected.

“Once we start getting a big lead, we start focusing on what do we need to work on — what do we have to get better [at] to win this gold medal,” Davis said. “I think that’s our biggest thing. Right now, we make sure we’re playing defense, make sure to stop turning the ball over a lot. That comes from everybody on the floor and even out to the bigs, taking better shots, making sure we rebound the ball. That’s the only way you can score the ball, when you have the ball, so we have to make sure that we limit our turnovers and rebound.”

As hard as it is to gauge a team’s performance when it’s steamrolling the competition, Coach K and his staff have had plenty of practice. Their streak of wins during World Cup/World Championship, Olympic and international exhibition games grew to 59 with the win over Ukraine.

“For me, I look for togetherness, effort, how we share the ball,” Coach K said after his team thumped the Dominican Republic Wednesday. “We felt we were going to win, and then how do you play, and overall I thought everyone left the court feeling good about how they played.”

Whether or not they can continue to play this way, with the tougher competition ahead, is the lingering question.

They have elite NBA perimeter scorers — James Harden, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Derrick Rose all qualify — that would be more than happy to crank up their output if needed.

But why change if what you’ve been doing has worked this well so far?

“I honestly don’t think we’re going to change a lot,” said Thompson, like Faried a newbie to this sort of competition. “Like I said before, it’s on the defensive end. Teams don’t have the lateral quickness and length and athleticism that we do.”

Even if that kind of talk strikes some as a bit brash, it’s honest. It’s that confidence the U.S. has built over the years.

“We’ve just got to keep clogging those passing lanes and make it tough on them when they go to the basket and limit 3-point opportunities,” Thompson continued, “because a lot of these great European teams have great shooters. We just want to make them get to the rim and finish over us. Guys like Anthony Davis and Kenneth and DeMarcus [Cousins] are monsters down there, so we know that’s our strength.”

When the National Team roster for the World Cup was finalized it wasn’t sure exactly where the strength would reside. Four big men 6-foot-10 or taller were selected for the first time during Coach K’s tenure, which was viewed by some as a sure sign toward potential matchups against other teams in the field like Spain and Brazil.

Coach K dismissed that theory.

“No. It’s really what we thought was the best balance for the team with a chance that at sometime we might take a look at Anthony [Davis] at the four,” he said. “Those 12 guys are the 12 guys who earned it in our opinion, and we felt that was the best balance especially with us knowing that Derrick [Rose] was going to be able to play. If we weren’t sure about Derrick, then I think we would have had to look at another way.”

They might not have to worry about another way until the very end of this competition.

U.S. flattens Dominican Republic

VIDEO: Team USA cruises past the Dominican Republic on Wednesday

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)

Blogtable: A World Cup celebration

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Loving the Cup | The Bulls’ future | A landing spot for Ray Allen


> What’s been your favorite part of the FIBA Basketball World Cup so far?

Anthony Davis (David Dow/NBAE)

Anthony Davis (David Dow/NBAE)

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Watching Anthony Davis embrace the role of the big dog. He’s making me look forward, even more than I was already, to what he can do this season to lift the Pelicans into the Western Conference playoff mix. Close behind is Kenneth Faried, who most of the experts did not see as having a place on the team, as he keeps on showing that hustle and ferocious hard work always have a place in any game, on any team.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Honestly, I’ve enjoyed watching the U.S. sans its biggest stars. So many of these players are young and growing in skill and leadership. To that end, I liked seeing Turkey push the U.S. I like seeing our guys with their backs against the wall a bit and having to dig down to find the answer. Especially fun as the tournament moves along will be to see which players lead Team USA when it finds itself in trouble, and then to see if maturity discovered in Spain transfers to the NBA season.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The atmosphere in the building when the Spanish National Team plays a good team. The crowd was loud for their first two games, but when they met Brazil on Monday, the place was pretty crazy. The team is talented, deep and cohesive. Some of their key players (Gasols, La Bomba) are in their best shape of the last few years, clearly determined to win this thing. And they have a raucous crowd behind them. I don’t want to look past what is a crowded second tier of teams, but the potential of an epic USA-Spain gold medal game is hard to overlook every single time both teams take the floor.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comThe fans. No, really. They make the atmosphere when you are on site. We’ve all seen thousands of games, some in person and some on the TV. But when you’re in the arena and the stands are jumping from the fans pounding their feet and the noisemakers (artificial and organic) are cranked up to the max, there’s nothing like it. Finland has a crew, thousands strong, here in Bilbao that have absolutely taken this city of 350,000 by storm. Everywhere you go around town you see the colors and the flags and the jerseys. It’s an awesome thing to see and it’s something that’s completely different from the NBA.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: I’d say the sustained play of Anthony Davis on this level, which is probably the largest stage of his professional career thus far. New Orleans fans and hardcore NBA fans saw what a great player he developed into last season, but with the Pelicans out of the playoffs hunt for most of the season, I’m not sure if his exploits received the full attention they deserved. Now the world is watching, and Davis has acquitted himself well. I keep going back to a play I saw in person in an exhibition against the Dominican Republic, when a player pump-faked Davis, got him up in the air, drove around him and put up a shot, and Davis reached those long arms way back and still blocked the guy’s shot. Oh, and he’s still just 21 years old. He’s gonna be a great one.

Cousins adjusting to international game

BILBAO, SPAIN — The nuances of the international game and the NBA are vastly different, particularly for big men like DeMarcus Cousins.

The way he operates for the Sacramento Kings, as a dominant low-post scorer who serves as the No. 1 offensive option for his team, doesn’t apply here in the FIBA World Cup. Cousins is basically the third big man, behind starters Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried. And he’s being asked to play both ends and play much faster than he’s used to.

Give Cousins credit for acknowledging the work in progress that he is right now. It can’t be easy for a player of his caliber to make these sort of adjustments on the fly. There’s a pride factor involved as well or a player used to dominating opposing big men in the NBA, but now facing a completely different player in some of these international big men who stretch the floor beyond the 3-point line.

“It’s been different, something I’m not really used to,” Cousins said. “It’s definitely taking some time. I’m busting my butt trying to get into the flow of things and get used to this style of play.

Davis and Faried look like naturals, but they aren’t being asked to do anything than different from what they do for their NBA teams. They’re used to running the floor and excelling in transition. Davis has extensive experience with the National Team, having already been through high level competition at the London Olympics in 2012.

Other NBA big men in the tournament like Pau and Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka of Spain, Omer Asik of Turkey and several others, were raised on this style. They can make adjustments naturally, having had to do so for years.

The tempo and style here, however, is quicker than Cousins is accustomed to.

“The speed of it, the way we’re playing,” Cousins said of the biggest difference. “It’s a lot that comes in to it. Like I said, I’m busting my butt trying to getting into the flow of things. All I can do is keep working.”