Posts Tagged ‘Sekou Smith’

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.”

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.”

Blogtable: The state of the States

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: The state of the States | Getting untracked | The Hawks



VIDEO: A “turrific” Spain team will not be intimidated by the U.S., says Charles Barkley.

> Charles Barkley is picking Spain at the FIBA World Cup. What if the U.S. doesn’t win gold? What does that say about the state of basketball in the U.S.?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comNo biggie. The whole Dream Team experience 22 years ago was intended, yes, to re-assert U.S. superiority in basketball but also to spread the gospel of the game around the globe. Well, mission accomplished on both fronts: That team shredded the competition but also upped everyone’s game internationally. If Coach K & Co. could just cake-walk over everyone in 2014, the second objective would have been a failure. Let’s not forget, either, Team USA doesn’t have the NBA’s very best participating.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: No time to panic and trade in your passport. It says what we already knew. The basketball world has changed dramatically since the 1992 Dream Team.  The talent gap has shrunk and the “awe factor” of Team USA is gone.  With a Spanish lineup of Pau and Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro, to name a few, it means the U.S. needs to put its very best — LeBron, Carmelo, Durant, etc. — to beat a first class Spanish team before a home crowd.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: It says a group of Spaniards came together as a team better than this group of Americans, which, frankly, is our B/C team. These Spanish players are talented and many have played together for quite some time. This young American squad can’t say that. If Spain wins, great for them. The U.S. can begin plotting revenge at the 2016 Games when the American team will feature LeBron, KD, CP3, K-Love, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook … must I go on?

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: It would say Spain is definitely better than the United States’ backup squad. No LeBron James, no Kevin Durant, no Chris Paul, no Paul George, no Blake Griffin, no Kevin Love — there is no referendum on basketball in the U.S. if the Americans do not win the gold, as much as some people will pull a muscle straining to reach the conclusion. Maybe Spain would beat a Team USA at full strength, but we’ll never know. Based on actual events, if — if — the U.S. misses the gold, it will be more of a statement about the commitment of players to the program than the level of talent.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: It’s no big statement about the state of the game in the U.S. Yes, there needs to be more practicing and less traveling at the AAU level. And yes, there needs to be more focus on the fundamentals, teamwork and passing skills that we see from some of these international teams. But the absence of both LeBron James and Kevin Durant makes such a huge difference that if the U.S. loses, it doesn’t mean that it’s not still the best basketball nation in the world.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comAbsolutely nothing. As good as the 2014 FIBA World Cup team has been, and they are 40 minutes from playing or gold in Madrid on Sunday, the entire planet knows that the A-Team didn’t make the trip. Spain knows it. Lithuania knows it. Everyone knows that to the be the case. Coach K has made it clear that this team is no invincible. He learned that the hard way in 2006 against Greece. That’s why  I would argue that this team winning gold here would be as impressive a feat as any team under the Colangelo-Kryzyewski USA Basketball banner . No one outside of their own locker room expects them to win here. But let’s be real about this, if Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and a few other top flight NBA stars were here (I’m not even talking about LeBron, CP3, Carmelo and the guys who won gold in London), this discussion wouldn’t be taking place. And while everyone else is concinved the U.S. contingent cannot win here, I disagree. I think they can. All that said, I think the better question is what does it say about basketball in the rest of the world, and Spanish basketball in particular, if this U.S. team defies the odds and does walk away with gold against a better and more seasoned foe on its home soil?

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: It says we didn’t have our best team on the court. Not to take anything away from Spain or the other teams in the World Cup, but a Team USA with, oh, let’s say some permutation of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Tim Duncan, Russell Westbrook or even Paul George, I think it’s safe to say we would have a more powerful team. Are other countries catching up to the United States? Yes. Have they caught the United States? No. Not yet, at least.

Blogtable: Ranking the starts

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: The state of the States | Getting untracked | The Hawks


Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau are working out in Spain. Will that help? (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Derrick Rose and Tom Thibodeau are working out in Spain. Will that help? (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

> Rank, from the roughest to the smoothest, the start that these re-worked teams face this season, and why: Chicago, Cleveland, Golden State, Houston.

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: I’ll go Houston, Golden State, Chicago and Cleveland. The Rockets are dealing with offseason loss and dashed ambitions, a lousy way to open any new season. Golden State faces a learning curve under Steve Kerr and his staff and apparently some bruised feelings for Klay Thompson and David Lee. The Bulls didn’t get Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love but they’ve done this depth-and-new-parts thing before, assuming Derrick Rose flakes off his rust. The Cavaliers face all sorts of adjustments, but the big-risk, big-reward payoff is so enticing, their growing pains will feel like a brawny chiropractor’s adjustments, well worth it when they’re done.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Depending on the conditioning and the game feel of Derrick Rose after missing virtually two years of NBA play, the Bulls potentially have the roughest start just to get him back in the lineup, up to speed and meshing with everyone else.  I’d slot the Rockets next, because after Dwight Howard and James Harden they have a glaring lack of depth that the addition of Trevor Ariza doesn’t cover.  Houston will be relying on many young faces — Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Troy Daniels, Isaiah Canaan, Nick Johnson — to step up and deliver.  The Warriors roster is not re-worked — add Shaun Livingston — but they’ve got a new coach.  It always comes down to the health of Andrew Bogut.  But either way, they’re still likely in the mid to bottom of the West bracket.  Not much changes.  Then comes the Cavs.  A bump here, a loss there and, of course, every time it happens the world will panic.  But LeBron is back in Cleveland and that makes things smoother than a baby’s bottom.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I put the Rockets at the top of the list. There’s been a ton of turnover and I’m sure the remaining players at some point had to be shaking their heads at what had gone down. I’m not sure the Rockets really ever developed a true identity last year (they sure couldn’t close out a game regardless how big the lead), and now it’s up to Dwight Howard and James Harden to handle the pressure of expectations and lift the team even as it might overall be weaker. Next I’ll go with Chicago because of the Derrick Rose factor. I think he’s got double-duty in the sense that he has to get himself right, regain his confidence, find his shot, etc., while also figuring out his team. Cleveland is next as three All-Stars try to come together under a first-time NBA head coach. As for Golden State, I just see a pretty smooth transition here with Steve Kerr. The core roster is the same and I think Kerr’s style is going to be a fun and quick learn for his players.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Chicago (roughest), Houston, Cleveland, Golden State (smoothest). The Bulls are in the hardest position because so much of their success will depend on a player, Derrick Rose, coming back from a long injury absence. That will take time, even if he is doing well physically. The Warriors are in the best position because they basically return the same roster. New coach, so the system might be different, but Steve Kerr isn’t going to make dramatic adjustments that will cause players to grind gears. He isn’t going to install a slow-down, half-court brand of basketball. The Warriors are not that re-worked. Take Golden State out, and the Cavaliers have the smoothest start. A lot of new players, yes, but veteran players, unselfish players, mature players. There may be an adjustment period in Cleveland, but if you have to go through one, go through it with the best player in the world.

John Schuhmann, NBA.comThe Warriors will have the roughest start, because they hired a guy who has never coached before. The Rockets lost two of their playmakers, so they will take a step back offensively. The Cavs have a new coach and new starting lineup, so it will take some time for them to be the juggernauts that we think they’ll be eventually. Derrick Rose won’t be at his best in October and November, but the Bulls have that defense to fall back on. This is now Year 5 for Tom Thibodeau, who will have his foot on the pedal from the start.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comCleveland should have the toughest time because they have the most change to adjust to from new stars to a new coach who is new to the NBA. Chicago is next with Derrick Rose coming back and Pau Gasol coming into the fold. Houston lost an important piece in Chandler Parsons but replaced him with a guy in Trevor Ariza who has played a similar role in a couple of spots, so his transition should be relatively smooth. Golden State’s major change came in the coaching ranks, so if Steve Kerr is as ready as people think, the Warriors should have the smoothest start of anyone on this list.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blogCleveland — They aren’t adding just one new player, they’re adding several starters, as well as a coach with zero NBA head coaching experience, plus expectations will be sky-high, despite LeBron doing his best to tamp those down. Golden State — There may be a moderately difficult adjustment period, but as they’re returning mostly the same roster, the level of familiarity between players will help as they adopt Kerr’s system. Chicago — Adding Pau Gasol may cause a bit of a wrinkle, as they lose Carlos Boozer who’d spent years in Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system. But Gasol is smart and versatile enough that it shouldn’t be a major disruption. Houston — They may be swapping out Chandler Parsons for Trevor Ariza, but it’s essentially that, a swap. Houston pivots on Dwight Howard and James Harden, and as they go, so goes everyone else.

Blogtable: How will the Hawks handle?

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: The state of the States | Getting untracked | The Hawks


> As if a stiffer conference isn’t enough: What do you see in store on the court in 2014-15 for the turmoil-ravaged Atlanta Hawks?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: What a mess. This is on all the grown men — owners who allegedly are successful in their other endeavors and a GM who should have red-flagged rather than read that Luol Deng nonsense — who should know better. It won’t sustain the attention, long term, that Donald Sterling and the Clippers did, but it still creates a potentially corrosive atmosphere for the players and even coaches. My hunch: Team leaders such as Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Kyle Korver, along with coach Mike Budenholzer, persevere by turning this into an “us vs. them” thing — with the “them” being the guys in suits. It’s one way to rally, anyway.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: If Al Horford can avoid another season lost to the unusual torn pectoral muscle injury, the front office turmoil doesn’t affect what happens on the court and Mike Budenholzer’s second year in charge of the Hawks has them battling in the 4-6 range in the East race.

Danny Ferry (right) and Mike Budenholzer in London earlier this year (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Danny Ferry (right) and Mike Budenholzer in London earlier this year
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: What a befuddling mess. But’s that’s ownership and the front office. Hopefully a sale goes through quickly followed by a thorough house-cleaning. Because I actually like the basketball team. Al Horford returns to a squad with Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Mike Scott, DeMarre Carroll and coach Mike Budenholzer in his second season. I really don’t see the turmoil upstairs affecting the product on the floor.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: They will be good, better than the 38 wins and No. 8 last season. Probably middle of the pack in the East, with a chance at home-court advantage in the first round. That’s not the issue. The issue is what happens after that if Danny Ferry remains as general manager, the future offseasons when he has to convince free agents to play for him and the city or players with the ability to squash trade possibilities. That’s why Ferry does not survive this. At some point, an agent or a player will say, possibly anonymously, that going to the Hawks with Ferry in charge of basketball operations won’t happen.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: This is still a playoff team that didn’t have its best player for most of last season. They have a good coach, an improving point guard, the best shooter in the world, and two All-Star-caliber bigs. That’s the makings of a good team, though there’s still a hole at the shooting guard position (sorry Thabo Sefolosha fans). So, if Al Horford is healthy and gives them a boost on both ends of the floor, the Hawks should be a playoff team again.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Luckily for the Hawks the turmoil resides elswhere. The core group remains intact and will include Al Horford, back frrom injuiry. So the basketball part of the equation for the Hawks should be manageable. It’s the management of the franchise that is at issue. Does Danny Ferry stay or go? Who is the new owner going to be? And will he or she come in and want to make immediate changes to the front office structure of the organization? So many questions have yet to be answered, things that have nothing to do with the fact that Mike Budenholzer and a hungry bunch that tasted some playoff success will be ready to go come the start of training camp. What goes around them, however, is anyone’s guess.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: The Hawks weren’t able to go out and sign a big-name free agent, but that’s nothing new. Their most important off-season addition will be Al Horford, who returns from a pectoral injury and gives an All-Star center to a Hawks team that nearly eliminated Indiana in the first round of the playoffs. I also think Adreian Payne will be a nice fit for the Hawks, as a big perfect suited to pick and pop and help stretch the floor. Will the off-court disaster have an effect on the floor? I can’t see how it doesn’t. But at least this is team filled with veteran players who should be able to weather the storm.

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.”

Secrets to USA’s, Coach K’s success

Mike Krzyzewski (left, with Jim Boeheim) cites his college ties as one reason he has had such success with Team USA. (USA Today images)

Team USA and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (left, with Team USA assistant and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim) says his college ties have helped him with NBA players. (USA Today images)

BARCELONA — When a team rings up 61 straight wins during international competition, including the World Cup/World Championship and Olympics (and throwing in exhibitions), there are a number of factors involved.

Having the best and most star-studded roster every time you to take the floor helps. But the U.S. National Team has had more than just raw talent on its side.

During the Jerry Colangelo-Mike Krzyzewski era, the U.S. also has had a precise plan on how to structure the program, from the ground up, and a clear-cut understanding of the nuances that make the international game different from the NBA. The Americans also have had intense international scouting and have nurtured a revamped mindset among the players who make the up the pool upon which the roster is built.

With Colangelo, USA Basketball’s managing director, setting the overall operational tone, Coach K insists there are overlooked aspects of the program which allow him to do things differently than many of his NBA predecessors. For one, Krzyzewski’s extensive experience in a one-and-done tournament format helps, especially with NBA players who are used to best-of playoff series.

But Krzyzewski also points to this: Though he has been courted by NBA teams on several occasions, Coach K will almost certainly never take an NBA job where he would have to try to beat some of these players.

“I don’t coach against my players,” Krzyzewski said after the U.S. practice Monday at Palau Saint Jordi, where the Americans were preparing for Tuesday’s quarterfinal matchup against Slovenia (3 p.m. ET, ESPN). “I’m not a pro coach. [Syracuse coach] Jim [Boeheim] and I have the respect of these guys because of doing well in college basketball. But we can develop our own individual relationships with them and then never compete against them. I think that’s been a hidden factor of success in all this stuff.”

Krzyzewski, of course, knows a thing or two about operating under the pressure of constant win-it-all expectations. He knows all about trying to live up to the hype of a team that’s supposed to play perfect all the time.

“I’ve lived with that for 25 years as the Duke coach,” he said. “I’m the most prepared to do that because we’re closely scrutinized like that in college basketball for everything we do. But this is at a much higher level. Actually it helps that I’m coming from that environment. I also think it helps, when we’re in this competition, the one-and-done, what we live all the time, whether it be an ACC tournament or a NCAA tournament, so I’ve been in 150 to 200 one-and-done games. We try to tell our players it’s the seventh game of a series. About half of them have been in a seventh game, so they don’t think it’s a series. We’re not just going to be in Madrid. We have to win to get there.”

As for what keeps him going, grinding like this on both the USA Basketball front and during his regular job at Duke,  Coach K said it’s a combination of things that he learned long ago.

“It’s your watch, it’s your responsibility,” he said. “That’s something I learned at West Point. It’s your job right now. Do it the right way. And eventually someone else will have that job. But while you’re in command, make sure your unit does it the right way. And Jerry has set that example. We’ve tried to learn and we keep learning.”

World geography

A reporter trying to get a rise out of U.S. big man DeMarcus Cousins as the U.S. exited the floor from practice, quizzing the Sacramento Kings star on world geography:

“Do you know where Slovenia is?” the reporter asked.

“Do you know where Alabama is?’ Cousins replied.

Forget the friendly

The U.S. has already seen Slovenia on the court this summer. The Americans beat Slovenia 101-71 in an Aug. 26 exhibition game in Gran Canaria.

Led by Phoenix Suns All-NBA point guard Goran Dragic and his brother Zoran, Slovenia will present the U.S. with a style change that will likely cause Coach K to tinker with his rotation to make sure the U.S. can match up with a small-ball lineup.

“The very first thing you have to do is forget the friendly,” Coach K said. “They were holding their guys back and Goran was held down in minutes that game. They’ve gotten better and he’s become even more of a factor as the leader of the team. We’ve gotten better, too. But we just have to focus on the fact that they are an unusual team in that they can put five 3-point shooters on the court.”

Chasing history

This U.S. team is not only trying to win gold on Spain’s home turf, it is also trying to make a little history by becoming just the third nation to repeat as World Champs. Only Brazil (1959 and 1963) and Yugoslavia (1998 and 2002) have accomplished that feat since the event was initiated in 1950.

The U.S. is a four-time champion but never has been able to put together back-to-back titles.

The latest gut-punch for the Hawks


VIDEO: Hawks owner Levenson to sell team

BARCELONA — You have to wonder how much more can one franchise and its fragile fan base take? How many more gut-punches do the fine folks in the city of Atlanta, always a punch line for jokes naming the worst sports cities, have to endure?

The news of Hawks part-owner Bruce Levenson selling his stake in the franchise amid an investigation by the NBA into comments he made in a 2012 email is the latest blow for a franchise that has had to endure decades of dysfunction.

Where does it end?

Levenson’s apology, however sincere, doesn’t make up for the fact that he’s now lumped his family’s name and the Hawks into the mix with the disgraced former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling. This is no doubt a part of the fallout that NBA insiders were worried about when the Sterling mess turned into global news seemingly overnight.

Remember that “slippery slope” that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban talked about when he wondered how the league would handle other owners who were found to have said or done something to upset the sensibilities of a league that has championed inclusion, tolerance and acceptance?

Well, this is it.

Levenson was quick to speak out against Sterling when that news broke, only to have those words come back and bite him now that he’s the one in the crosshairs.

The truth is, there are people working at the highest levels in teams around the league who need to think long and hard about the way they have conducted their business before uttering a single word about any of the things that have gone on with the Clippers and now the Hawks. That’s not an accusation. It’s merely a fact for anyone trying to do business in Silver’s NBA.

Levenson throwing himself on the mercy of the fans with his statement — released by the Hawks today — comes with financial undertones as well. While his stake in the team won’t fetch anything like the record $2 billion that Steve Ballmer paid to free the Clippers from Sterling — Levenson is said to own less than half the team — he’ll walk away with a hefty sum despite the damage that his e-mail has done.

With the sale, Levenson will end his decade-long tenure as a part-owner of a franchise that has suffered one dysfunctional turn after another, something that he and his partners appeared to clean up recently with the second-longest playoff streak in the league (behind the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs) and the addition of marketing wiz and new part owner/CEO Steve Koonin, who knows Atlanta and the market as well as anyone.

The task for Koonin and the Hawks now is reassuring an already skeptical fan base that the franchise does not operate from the perspective Levenson expressed in that email.

It won’t be easy.

Hawks fans have had to suffer through a lot. The former owners, the Atlanta Spirit partners, took their internal battles to court, suing each other after the Joe Johnson sign-and-trade deal. From former part-owner Steve Belkin to Billy Knight, from Johnson and Josh Smith to Mike Woodson and Larry Drew, someone always has been a scapegoat in Atlanta. The Hawks even fired their longtime vice president of public relations, Arthur Triche, in a failed effort to improve their image. Meanwhile, despite regularly making it into the playoffs, the Hawks have gone through years and years of postseason irrelevance.

Levenson and his original partners got off to a rocky start. It was no secret. There were trust issues, inside and outside of the franchise, from the start.

In the end, that ownership group, or at least a major member of that original group, will exit the premises having breached the public trust. Which leaves the fans, once again, looking for someone that can truly represent the good people of Atlanta.