MADRID — After being asked about it for weeks, they can answer honestly and without the least bit of arrogance.
They are indeed unbeatable, the U.S. National Team, winners of 45 straight games in World Cup/World Championship and Olympic competition.
Yes, the best from the U.S. is way better than what anyone else can offer up on basketball’s global stage.
Those NBA players who sported red, white and blue on Sunday in the gold medal game of the FIBA World Cup backed it all up by decimating Serbia early and rolling to a 129-92 win and repeating as champs after winning the 2010 World Championship in Turkey.
Serbian pride was supposed to carry the day and make the final the biggest and best test for a team of U.S. stars who weren’t even considered the “B-Team.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said outspoken U.S. forward Kenneth Faried, who made the five-man All-Tournament team, trying to be mindful of U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski‘s edict to respect the process and opponent. “I know what you are asking. So no, we are not ‘unbeatable.’ But we seemed to prove that theory in a different way tonight. We handled our business and got that gold medal.”
Serbian pride was no match for American hustle, muscle and raw athleticism that Kyrie Irving and the U.S. “C-Team” unleashed on the crowd at the Palacio de los Deportes. The U.S. lead was up to 31 at one point before halftime, a virtually insurmountable lead for a team of 12 NBA players against a Serbian crew that doesn’t boast a single player currently on an NBA roster.
“This is by far the biggest accomplishment in my life so far,” said Irving, who was a perfect 6-for-6 from beyond the 3-point line and flat-out spectacular against Serbian guard Milos Teodosic. “This feels amazing. It’s one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever felt. All the emotions haven’t come to me yet but I did this with a group of guys I can call my brothers for the rest of my life.”
With the win the U.S. captured its fifth title and this team put the U.S. in elite company, joining Brazil (1959 and 1963) and Yugoslavia (1998 and 2002) as the only nations to repeat as champs.
For weeks this U.S. team, devoid of superstars like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, not to mention Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George, heard about how vulnerable it was. Spain, and not the U.S. was being touted as the favorite early on.
What is basically an under-25 squad of U.S. stars silenced their critics with one dominant performance after another. Not all of them were as pretty as Sunday’s gold medal game, when Irving set the tone early by connecting on his first five shots and piling up 15 points by halftime. He was a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the 3-point line, saving his best showing for the final game in Spain. He led the U.S. charge with a game-high 26 points and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
The U.S. started pool play in Bilbao, plundering through Group C without playing their very best and still smashing the opposition in all five games. They weren’t tested deep into any of their three games in the medal round in Barcelona, smashing through Mexico, Slovenia and finally Lithuania in the semifinals. They won their first eight games by an average of 32.5 points.
Still, the Serbs, who outlasted the bronze medal-winning French team that upset Spain in the quarterfinals to claim their spot in Sunday’s final, were supposed to present more of a challenge. And they did momentarily, storming to an early lead in the first five minutes.
But it was short lived. With Anthony Davis in early foul trouble, DeMarcus Cousins came into the game and changed things with his energy and activity. The U.S. erased an early eight-point deficit with an Irving-fueled 13-0 run and then it was off to the races.
“I thought DeMarcus had about five plays right in the middle of the first half that really turned a positive eight to 10 points for us and then our whole team jelled,” Coach K said. “Obviously Kyrie and James (Harden, 23 points, 3-for-5 from deep) were amazing. But this has been a great group to work with. They always wanted to work. They were well prepared. And I’m proud of them. There were a lot of interruptions. But they stayed focused on the team that they played next. They respected the process and the process turned out really good.”
More like unbelievable Sunday.
Serbia ended up taking the worst beating the U.S. handed out during the competition. The U.S. led 102-65 with 90 seconds to play … in the third quarter.
“You can sit back and think about it now,” Cousins said of all the doubters. “But it really wasn’t on our minds throughout the tournament. We were confident in ourselves as a group from the beginning and we knew we could do it. It just shows you that doubters never really know what they’re talking about. “
Not only was this game and the entire competition a showcase for an up-and-coming group of young NBA stars — Faried, Davis, Cousins, Klay Thompson and even a young All-Star like Irving will all return home to greater expectations with their respective NBA teams — it serves as proof that whatever leaks there have been in the USA Basketball pipeline in recent years have been plugged.
USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and Coach K have made sure of it with their resuscitation of the program over the past nine years.
“Coach K told us before the game that we were going to play our best game tonight,” Thompson said. “And we proved him right. I can’t put this into words, man. I haven’t won a title since high school, certainly nothing this big. Winning in high school was great, but this is something I’ll hopefully be able to show my grandkids one day. I’ll cherish this the rest of my life.”
The journey that began with Durant and Love opting not to lead this team, a training camp and exhibition run that was marred by George’s horrific injury, ended the way Faried, Thompson and several other first-timers knew it would.
And that’s with the U.S., proud C-Teamer’s that they are, with gold around their necks on the medal stand when it was all over.
“We wanted to prove a lot of people wrong.,” Thompson said. “They said we were undermanned and that we lacked the so-called stars. But this isn’t a game of stars. This is a game about team. It’s FIBA, so it’s different from what we’re used to. You really have to play well as a team and that’s what we did. I’m proud of every one of these guys because you have to sacrifice so much. We had a young team, probably the youngest team in the tournament. But it’s all about sacrifice, and sacrificing for a common goal. And that was to get this gold medal.”