Posts Tagged ‘U.S. National Team’

U.S., Serbia chasing World Cup Gold


VIDEO: Coach K on Serbia after Saturday practice

By Sekou Smith and John Schuhmann

MADRID — Twelve NBA players against a team without a single player currently on a NBA roster is, at least on paper, a mismatch of epic proportions.

This was supposed to be epic in a different manner, the defending champion U.S. National Team facing the host nation, with a raucous crowd behind it, with a gold medal on the line.

It never happened, of course. France ended that global hoops lover’s dream when they upset the Spaniards in the quarterfinals.

It’s the U.S. and Serbia squaring off instead, two teams, according to the words that have been dancing around U.S. forward Kenneth Faried‘s head for weeks, that weren’t supposed to leave here with gold.

“This team is different,” Faried said of Serbia after practice on Saturday. “They made it to the championship round when others thought they couldn’t. We made it to the championship round when others thought we’d fall. We’re going to go out there and put it all on the floor just to win the gold.”

Faried and the U.S. fighting off the favorite’s tag now seems a bit preposterous, what with the way the U.S. National Team has mowed down the competition. They’ve won their eight games leading up to this point by an average of 32.5 points, a number skewed a bit by the 59-point blowout of Finland in their opener.

“I never knew we were a heavy favorite,” Faried said. “That surprises me because before, when we first started, everybody said we were going to lose and we’re not that good. So as far as being a heavy favorite, we just have to take that for what it is and go out there like we’re the underdogs still.”

Serbia is playing the underdog card as well.

“They underrated us from the beginning, as I heard,” Miroslav Raduljica said after his team’s win over France on Friday. “We showed everybody that we can compete and play basketball, in a good way.”

As part of Yugoslavia, Serbia has won five World Championships, including back-to-back titles in 1998 and 2002. So it’s appropriate that this is the opponent as the U.S. tries to win its fifth title and repeat as World Champion for the first time.

Here’s a breakdown of the biggest factors for both teams in this gold medal tussle:

A defensive stopper on Teodosic

This U.S. team didn’t have a designated perimeter defensive stopper when the roster was finalized but will no doubt need one with Serbia’s guards playing lights out the past three games.

Derrick Rose has been fantastic on the ball defensively and Klay Thompson has been arguably the best defender on the U.S. team. But they are both coming off the bench. That means the immediate pressure will be on starters Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry and James Harden to set the tone early on Serbian catalyst Milos Teodosic., who torched France in the semifinals.

“He’s the head of the snake, a great player,” Rudy Gay said of Teodosic. “We brought up a couple of things today, but we’re really going to have to prepare for him.”

Not one of the American starters on the perimeter would pass for a true defensive stopper, not even in this competition. Thompson, however, is ready and willing.

“Whoever the best perimeter player is, I love guarding them,” Thompson said. “I’ve guarded some of the best in the NBA, so that’s prepared me for now and you gotta know your opponent is going to score on you a couple of times. It’s just about containing them and making him work for it every time he touches the ball.”

“He’s been consistently excellent on the defensive end,” USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said about Thompson. “The fact that he’s tall, he’s been able to play, defensively, the two and the three. So he’s become our most versatile defender. And in the last two games, he’s given us such a huge offensive lift too. He’s had a terrific stay with us.”

If there’s a team that can stop the Serbia offense, this is it

With Teodosic starting games strong and Bogdan Bogdanovic finishing them strong, the Serbian offense has been unstoppable in its last three games. After ranking 11th in group play, it has improved to second in efficiency, behind only the U.S., through the semifinals.

In fact, the Serbian offense has been more efficient (123.5 points scored per 100 possessions) in the knockout rounds than the U.S. offense (118.6), even though Serbia has faced teams that were higher ranked defensively through group play. Greece, Brazil and France had ranked fifth, third and seventh defensively before the knockout rounds, while Mexico, Slovenia and Lithuania had ranked 19th, 16th and fourth.

“They have some great guards that are shooting well,” Curry said. “It just seems like they know where each other is, and they run their plays at a high level. Execution is very high and they keep attacking. So we have to stick to our game plan of taking away their first looks.”

In its three elimination games, Serbia has shot 26-for-57 from 3-point range. More important in regard to playing against the U.S. is that it has turned the ball over just 11.7 times per 100 possessions, down from 19.9 in group play. The U.S. has had the No. 1 defense in the tournament, but this will be a new test.

“With them, you’ve got to pick your poison,” Rose said. “If you play fast, they can get some long rebounds and head the other way. They have great shooters on their team. It’s going to be a challenge for us. We haven’t played a team like that in the tournament, and we’re willing to take that challenge.”

USA on the glass

In the knockout rounds, the U.S. has grabbed an incredible 41.5 percent of available offensive rebounds. For some perspective, the No. 1 offensive rebounding team in the NBA last season (Detroit) grabbed 31.4 percent of available offensive boards.

Serbia has been above-average, but not a great defensive rebounding team. So, even if the U.S. doesn’t shoot well from the perimeter, Faried (13 offensive rebounds in the last three games), Anthony Davis (nine) and DeMarcus Cousins (seven) will give their team second chances at scoring.

Home-court advantage?

No, the U.S. isn’t facing Spain in its nation’s capital. But it is playing at the Palacio de los Deportes for the first time, against an opponent that has played here three times already.

“They’ve been playing in this arena for a week now,” Curry said, “so they’re very comfortable here. This arena means success to them, so we’ve got to come in and take it from them.”

Respect your opponent

Krzyzewski preaches it relentlessly, respecting the opposition. The U.S. followed that approach to the gold medal game (for the most part). They avoided talking extensively about Spain or anyone else that wasn’t on the path to the final game.

But they are gushing about Serbia for a reason. This is the biggest and best team they’ll have faced during this run.

“I think Serbia is really as good as anybody in the tournament, and probably the hottest team, and they are playing a high level,” Coach K said. “They have stars on their team, and Teodosic is … I loved him when I saw him in the World Championship in 2010. Bogdanovic is a rising star. Their big guys are good. They are well coached, and they are strong. They can hurt you from many different positions, but they are just playing great basketball right now. Actually it’s beautiful to see. I hope I don’t see that beauty tomorrow night. They’ve been playing lights-out basketball.”

Serbia has nothing to lose

Serbia already surpassed expectations. For the U.S., nothing short of gold and a continuation of its 44-game winning streak will be accepted. This team does not want to have to qualify for the 2016 Olympics through the FIBA Americas tournament next summer (which it wouldn’t have to do if it wins Sunday). So all the pressure is on the Americans.

“It’s going to be a beautiful game for us,” Serbia center Raduljica said, “because we already got a medal. We are here to compete. Of course, nothing to lose, but we’re not going to lay down our weapons and we’re going to fight with our Serbian pride.”

Advanced chemistry

Serbia is working with chemistry that is years old while the U.S. is working on chemistry that is barely six weeks old.

Talent versus chemistry is always an interesting battle. Developing chemistry among this group has been the biggest challenge for the U.S. It’s not something that can be fast tracked. These are NBA stars playing out of position, in some cases, and certainly playing roles they are not used to.

Coach K admitted earlier this week that the one thing he wishes is that this team “knew each other a little better.”

Situational sloppiness during this competition has been more about this group’s unfamiliarity with each other than it has anything else. Those slow starts are proof that it takes time to develop the kind of intuitive flow some of these teams they have faced have been working on for years.

The U.S. is still searching for that one game when they put it all together, when all of their stars are clicking from the opening tip to final buzzer. Their ninth and final game of the World Cup is exactly when they need their chemistry to finally come together.

“No question, because this is the gold medal game,” Thompson said. “This is what we’ve worked for. We’re going to play as hard as we can for as long as we can and bring it back for our country.”

National pride works both ways for U.S.-Serbia in FIBA World Cup final


VIDEO: The GameTime crew looks at the USA-Serbia matchup and makes picks

By Sekou Smith and John Schuhmann

MADRID — Serbia will have a decided advantage in terms of the numbers of fans they’ll have in the crowd for Sunday’s gold medal game here at the FIBA World Cup. The Serbian crowd was loud and large during its semifinal win over France and the Serbian players interact with them constantly throughout games. 

“Serbian pride” is the one advantage big man Miroslav Raduljica claims his side will have against the U.S. National Team when they face off for gold.

Members of the U.S. National Team, which hasn’t played to a decidedly pro-U.S. crowd  in this competition from Bilbao to Barcelona and now Madrid, would beg to differ.

National pride works on both sides, even though this particular group of U.S. players haven’t worked together for the years and years their Serbian counterparts have.

“We’re playing for something bigger than ourselves right now,” Kenneth Faried said after practice Saturday. “We’re playing for our country. putting on that USA jersey means more than anything. It’s like you’re playing for the Army, Navy, the Marines … guys who fight for you every day”

Dramatics aside, just earning a spot on the U.S. National Team speaks volumes, considering the number of potential candidates.

“There’s no question,” Klay Thompson said. “It’s a privilege to play for the U.S.A. There are so many talented players that it’s truly an honor to get chosen to play on the world stage for the U.S.A. I’ve had one other competition experience with (the National Team), but nothing compares to this. We’ve been working for this all summer. So we have great pride in what we’re doing out there.”

Getting a feel for the gym

The U.S. team had an extra day between its semifinal win (Thursday) and Serbia’s (Friday). But the U.S. had to travel about 400 miles from Barcelona to Madrid. And Saturday was their first exposure to the Palacio de los Deportes in Spain’s capital.

“It wasn’t really an extra day of rest,” USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “It was a travel day. That’s one thing about coming from Barcelona, we have to get a comfort level for this court quickly, where whoever we played would have had a week playing on this court and not travel.”

No excuses, though.

“That’s not going to decide the game,” Krzyzewski added. “The game will be decided on whether we can play defense well enough to stop their very potent offense and score against their very good defense.”

Rematch

Since the break up of Yugoslavia, the United States and Serbia have never played each other in a senior-level, international competition. But this is a rematch of the championship game of the 2007 U19 tournament, when Serbia, playing at home, avenged a preliminary-round loss and beat the U.S., 74-69, for gold. Two Serbian players from that team, Raduljica and Stefan Markovic, start for the senior team now. And Stephen Curry was on that U.S. junior team.

“That’s a bad feeling,” Curry remembered. “It was tough winning silver in that game, so hopefully we can be on the other side of it this time around.”

France wins bronze

Nicolas Batum led France with 27 points as they edged Lithuania 95-93 in the bronze medal game Saturday night. Boris Diaw gave France the lead for good with a nifty reverse with 1:27 to play.

Jonas Valanciunas paced Lithuania with 25 points and nine rebounds.

Playing through the pain

Rudy Gay will get the U.S. iron man award, no matter if they take home gold or silver. The Sacramento Kings forward suffered a bruised jaw, a chipped tooth and might need a root canal when he returns home.

That skirmish at the end of the semifinal win over Lithuania was the aftermath of a cheap shot Gay took in the third quarter from one of the Lavrinovich twins, Gay wasn’t sure which one of them it was.

Gay will, however, be ready to play in Sunday’s gold medal game but he’ll do so while dealing with considerable pain.

Future star

Some of the U.S. players were afraid to try pronouncing the names of their Serbian opponents, but there’s a clear respect for how well Serbia has been playing. In particular, these guys know how hot Milos Teodosic (20.0 points per game, 74.2 percent effective field-goal percentage) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (15.3, 80 percent) have been in the medal rounds.

When asked about Bogdanovic, who was drafted by the Phoenix Suns this year, but will play in Turkey for at least two years, Krzyzewski was effusive.

“I think he has NBA potential now,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a very gifted player. He has great length for a guy who can shoot like that. I think he’s going to be an outstanding player in the NBA.”

Faried wanted to face Spain on its home turf in FIBA World Cup final


VIDEO: Kenneth Faried talks about Team USA’s win over Lithuania

BARCELONA — Basketball fans around the world aren’t the only ones upset they won’t get a chance to see the U.S. National Team and their counterparts from Spain in Sunday’s gold medal game of the FIBA World Cup.

U.S. forward Kenneth Faried wanted a piece of that action as well, and didn’t hide it after the U.S. punched its ticket for Madrid with a somewhat surprising blowout 96-68 blowout win over Lithuania in the semifinals Thursday night at Palau Saint Jordi.

Faried said he wasn’t sure if and where he would watch Friday’s semifinal in Madrid between France and Serbia. And he certainly wasn’t surprised that Spain fell to France in the quarterfinals in Madrid Wednesday night.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” he said. “There was too much hype around them. It was arrogant, borderline disrespectful to us, saying they’re better than us, we’re not going to be able to match up with their bigs and all this other arrogant stuff. I just took it as, ‘okay, alright. Once we meet them in the finals we’ll see what happens. We can’t even see what happens.”

One of the breakout stars on this U.S. team, a player many people didn’t think would make the roster, let alone come here and shine the way he has, Faried let loose even more about his disappointment about missing out on the chance to battle Spain on their home soil.

“I am disappointed,” he said. “I wanted to beat them in their own country.”

Faried’s words are exactly the kind U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski has stayed away from throughout this competition. And with Serbia and France still having to fight it out for that spot opposite the U.S. in the gold medal game, he certainly doesn’t want to add any bulletin board material to the party.

Neither did Faried’s teammates.

“Kenneth is crazy,” James Harden said and then smiled when told of Faried’s comments. “He’s crazy.”

The veterans of the program know better than to cross that line, having adopted Coach K’s respect the process (and the opponent, at all times) mantra.

“It honestly doesn’t matter,” said Steph Curry, who won gold in Turkey four years ago. “You know so many people were predicting that matchup. But it obviously didn’t happen. It was on people’s mind, with the history we have with them in the Olympics and then this idea of playing their home floor. We’re just happy to take care of our business, which we set out to do, and make it to the finals. Whoever matches up against us Sunday we’ll be ready for them.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.