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.