Posts Tagged ‘Steph Curry’

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.”

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.

World Cup stint helps Irving hone leadership skills

Kyrie Irving is learning a lot in Spain (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images).

Kyrie Irving continues to hone his craft in Spain (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images).

BARCELONA — A hard fall late in a September game a year ago would have been just a part of the deal for Kyrie Irving, nothing out of the norm for an NBA player getting ready for the upcoming season.

But this summer has been anything but normal for the Cleveland Cavaliers star. From the moment LeBron James announced he was coming home until the day the Kevin Love trade was finally completed, things have been completely abnormal for Irving.

So he wasn’t surprised at the intense scrutiny that followed that hard fall in the U.S. National Team’s final pool play game last week against the Ukraine. Irving was back on the practice floor Friday and in the starting lineup for Saturday’s Round of 16 win over Mexico. But that didn’t stop Cavaliers Nation from worrying.

“We’ve got a few more followers now,” he said, laughing sarcastically as he spoke the truth. “I realize that everything that I do now interests a lot more people, even something like this.”

Irving’s work here, as the starting point guard on a team that boasts a former MVP in Derrick Rose and an All-Star in Steph Curry (who is also in the starting lineup but not as a point guard like he is for the Golden State Warriors) speaks volumes about Irving’s still evolving game.

It speaks the trust U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff have in Irving and the belief his teammates have in his abilities and leadership skills. This competition is the ideal place for Irving to hone those leadership skills. He’s directing traffic for a group of stars, All-Stars really, with the world watching.

It’s the same sort of thing he’ll have to do from now on in Cleveland, albeit with the biggest star in the game on his side.

Normal got flipped overnight.

Expectations changed in an instant, the moment LeBron said he was coming home. And that’s what makes this summer crash course in accelerated leadership the perfect preparation for Irving.

“This is awesome for me,” Irving said. “It’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve had up to this point in my career. This is one of the biggest things I’ve played for at this point in my career, so I’m just looking forward to the challenge.”

There’s never been any question about Irving’s talent. When healthy, he’s proven himself to be among the NBA’s truly elite point guards. A two-time All-Star before he’s ever tasted the intensity of playoff competition, this is his first time competing and running a team on a stage like this. And he admitted that it’s been an eye-opener in many ways.

“We all come from different organizations and we all have different roles on our teams,” Irving said of the leadership style on this U.S. National Team. “So it’s not more or less about picking and choosing when to say something. We all have respect for one another and tell each other the truth and look each other in the eye. That’s how we’ve come together as a group thus far. And that’s why we’re as close as we are after a month and a half together, because we have respect for each other’s games. Obviously, I’m a fan of all these guys games. And it’s a great opportunity to play with all of these other great players.”

The best part in the USA Basketball environment is that everything is earned. Irving was so good in training camp that even if Rose was 100 percent healthy, Irving would still have been the right fit with the first unit.

Either way, he’s learning a lesson in how to handle things from Rose, who has experience in this realm that Irving is just now seeing in the flesh.

“You have players like me, Klay [Thompson] and the rest of the starting five, almost all the players on our team, you have to sacrifice coming off the bench,” Rose said. “With me in the second unit, I believe there is no second unit that can stick with me when I’m on the floor, and that’s vice versa with Kyrie if he was to come off the bench, no one could stick him. That’s what makes us unique.”

How much of this translates to the NBA season and what Irving will be asked to do with LeBron and Love in the mix, remains to be seen. Roles will have to be adjusted. Chemistry will have to be developed. Sacrifices will have to be made.

But if it’s a choice between winning at the highest level and having to sacrifice a few of the comforts he’d grown accustomed to in Cleveland the past few seasons, it’s not even a debate.

“I’m all about winning, winning gold here and winning at the highest level in everything I do,” Irving said. “That’s the ultimate challenge for any of us, to find out if you have what it takes inside to win like that.”

Before he decided to return home to Cleveland, James was already a fan of Irving’s. A well-versed “student of the game” as he likes to call himself, he’d had an eye on the kid going all the way back to Irving’s high school days.

Playing against him while in Miami and alongside him during the All-Star Game, proved what he already knew about Irving.

“Kyrie’s special,” James said after watching Irving earn All-Star MVP honors in February. “It’s just that simple. Very special basketball player, very smart basketball player — his ability to shoot the ball, get into the lane, make shots around the rim. He has the total package. I’ve always known that, always witnessed that ever since he was in high school.”

What they’ll do together, with Love as the third member of the latest Big 3, could be special, too.

All those folks and new followers in Cleveland and around the world are counting on it.


VIDEO: Kyrie on injury, team chemistry

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.”

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)

Rose sheds rust on his own schedule


VIDEO: U.S. rolls to 3-0 with decisive win over New Zealand

BILBAO, SPAIN — Stop measuring Derrick Rose‘s return with any conventional tools or methods that come to mind. They don’t apply. Not to a player whose every move and facial expression is being read for signs that he either is or is not back to the form that made him the MVP of the NBA early in his career.

Just keep it simple. Trust that he knows his own body and is sure that he is right where he is supposed to be, where he expects to be after playing a grand total of 10 games the past two NBA seasons.

Because anything else, any extra scrutiny or incessant worrying, won’t change things. The fact is Rose has rust to shake off. And he’s doing it on his own schedule. Not mine. Not yours. Not anyone else’s.

That might explain why he’s here in Spain with U.S. National Team on its quest to repeat as champs at the 2014 FIBA World Cup. Some people wondered why he’d put himself through this grind, five games in six days in Group C play.

It makes more sense after watching him play through these first three games, the latest being Tuesday’s 98-71 demolition of New Zealand. Rose started the second half, replacing Kyrie Irving in a game that was already over by then.

The trademark burst and explosive moves have come in flashes, in starts and stops. The muscle memory is returning, slowly but surely. But there were no numbers to back up what many of us here saw. Three points on 1-for-6 shooting and just two assists in nearly 17 minutes of action sounds like pedestrian work for a player of Rose’s caliber.

But not to U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski, who chuckled at the idea of someone questioning why he’d start Rose after halftime.

“I started him because he’s one of the best players in the league,” he said. “And also to see how he would … he needs to get minutes with the guys who are playing more minutes. Because he’s a guy that should play more minutes. And it’s something that I thought about before the game and it worked out that way. I thought Kyrie played really well. And I thought Derrick played really well. But I didn’t use them that much together tonight, because I wanted to see it separately. But he did well. I thought he moved well. And I thought he captured some of that chemistry he had in Vegas with James [Harden].”

That would be the chemistry observers saw there that had folks buzzing about Rose’s return, which would begin here with Rose as the starting point guard on this team. But Coach K and his staff backed off on that and have gone with Irving and Stephen Curry as the starting backcourt, with Rose coming off the bench.

The prospect of three games in three days doesn’t worry Rose, who smiled when asked how he was feeling after the first game.

“I couldn’t make a damn shot,” Rose said, “but I feel good.”

Coach K said the same, that he thinks Rose will hold up just fine after playing his best game, to date, against New Zealand.

“He’s moving very fast, he had that one shot go in and out, and then Kenneth [Faried] put it back in,” Coach K said. “I like the way he moved and fought through defensively. He doesn’t show any signs of favoring anything. I think he played well today.”

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, an assistant on the U.S. National Team staff, agrees.

“He’s working every day,” Thibodeau said. “And the only way you’re going to shake that rust off is by playing and I think that’s very important for him.”

The Bulls have two players in this competition playing at opposite ends of their own personal spectrums. Pau Gasol has been dominant for Spain, looking like easily one of the best big men and players in the entire field.

He, Rose and Joakim Noah will form the nucleus of a team everyone, Thibodeau included, expects to be among the NBA elite for the 2014-15 season and beyond. So much of that depends on not only how quickly they come together as a unit, but also whether or not Rose’s body passes summer school here at the World Cup.

“Great players always figure out how to play with each other,” Thibodeau said. “When you get a great player as talented as Pau and you put Derrick with him and they are going to be terrific together. And then you add in Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson and we’ve got a lot of talented players. The challenge is how quickly we can come together.

If Rose is back to normal, there’s nothing stopping the Bulls from battling it out with Irving, LeBron James, Kevin Love and the Cleveland Cavaliers for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.

“He’s not going to change who he is,” Thibodeau said. “His strengths are his strengths. The big thing is for him, is physically he’s good and mentally he’s good. But he’s got to work on his timing. He hasn’t played in two years, basically, so it doesn’t happen overnight. I think he understands that. He’s showing great patience. He’s taken good care of his body. He’s putting everything he has into each and every day. It’ll come. It’ll come.”