A hometown hero indeed stole the show in Team USA’s disheveled 95-78 win over Brazil at Chicago’s United Center. It just wasn’t the one we were all expecting.
Saturday night’s World Cup tuneup was supposed to be about Derrick Rose, and for a few fleeting moments it was. The partisan Bulls crowd stood and roared when their superstar point guard was introduced, oohed and ahed after he shook a defender with trademark explosion and finished acrobatically at the rim, and pleaded with coach Mike Krzyzewski in harmonious unison as he sat on the bench late in the game. Rose, like his team, was sloppy in the United States’ win over a strong Brazilian side, but a few flashes of brilliance combined with unrelenting aggression made his return to the Madhouse On Madison an easy success.
But Rose, amazingly, still isn’t this game’s top story, for Anthony Davis wrote one all himself.
The numbers are great: 20 points (9-15 FGs), eight rebounds, five blocked shots. But Davis’ influence extended far beyond the box score Saturday night, and farther still past his normal hidden impact gleaned from owning the paint on both ends of the floor.
Team USA took a 68-63 lead into the final stanza after an ugly third quarter. The Americans were flustered when Brazil opened the fourth in a 2-3 zone, leading Coach K to immediately replace Kenneth Faried with Chandler Parsons. The United States was hardly on the ropes, but the slow, deliberate comeback by Tiago Splitter and company had a capacity crowd sweating and Team USA making frenetic adjustments. This wasn’t how most expected the game to go, especially after an early scoring onslaught led by the sharpshooting Steph Curry had the US up 29-15 in the early going.
But Brazil didn’t challenge the 2012 Olympic squad in these countries’ most recent exhibition by accident – they’re really good, and certainly capable of beating an American team still strategically and mentally reeling from last week’s loss of Kevin Durant.
So the game was in the balance when Davis saw a loose ball and the opportunity to tilt things his team’s direction. Or maybe that’s just how it turned out. As Davis tells it, he was merely doing his job by saving the ball and careening head-first and two rows deep into the stands.
“That’s the type of plays we need, hustle plays, and that really got us going,” he said.
Davis’ incredible hustle play ignited a dormant United States offensive attack, turning a close score into a final one that belies the caliber of the Americans’ overall performance. Two-way struggles not withstanding, though, Krzyzewski is surely heartened by one crucial development: the emergence of Davis as his team’s best player.
The 21 year-old All-Star followed up his dangerous dive by blocking a shot, finishing a lob with authority, and hitting a mid-range jumper on successive possessions. The broadening spectrum of Davis’ skill-set was on full display against Brazil, an especially encouraging sign given first-half struggles that left his confidence shaken. Asked by ESPN’s Bob Holtzman after the game if he’s comfortable assuming a leadership role for Team USA, Davis pointed to his strong finish as evidence as affirmation of that query.
“I’m very comfortable,” he said. “I was getting frustrated early in the game because I was missing shots. Kyrie [Irving] told me, ‘Are you gonna stop shooting?’ I told him no. So I came out in the second half just shooting the ball with confidence and got going. So that’s all it’s about, and I think I played with great confidence and tremendous effort.”
Davis was always going to be a major part of this World Cup team. His unique combination of size and athleticism makes him Krzyzewski’s prototype international center, and the late July withdrawals of interior stars Blake Griffin and Kevin Love only added to the burden his thickening shoulders would carry.
But Durant’s sudden departure represented a wholesale shift in Davis’ responsibilities. Whereas before he could feast on the defensive attention paid to the reigning MVP by finishing pick-and-rolls and crashing the offensive glass, the new reality is that the United States counts on Davis as something like a primary scorer. It’s no coincidence that he took a cross-screen from Faried and caught the ball in the post on Team USA’s opening possession of the game. Isolations, post-ups, and dribble-drives have been added to Davis’ suddenly lengthy job description, and he showed against Brazil that he’s ready to wield such authority.
The jaw-dropping hustle play was just further confirmation of what we hoped we already knew. That Davis, barely scratching the surface of his limitless potential, is as precocious a leader as he is a player. It’s eerily similar to what we learned about a 21 year-old Durant four years ago at the FIBA World Championships. Krzyzewski agrees.
“Anthony is like one of the emerging stars,” Coach K said, “and we hope that what happens to a lot of those guys in 2010 will happen to him in this competition where it just launches what should be a storied career for him.”
Team USA will be in trouble otherwise. No man on the roster currently comes close to matching Davis’ two-way clout, and last night made clear that Rose – universally lauded for his play throughout training camp – is still rusty.
The better narrative gleaned from Saturday’s exhibition would be how dominant Rose looked in his return to the floor. But it surely wouldn’t be a lasting one. Not even the most gifted players can expect to take two years away from competing at the highest level and immediately pick up where they left off. And no matter the chatter of his coaches and teammates, the same goes for Rose.
Team USA needed this showing from Davis, and we shouldn’t be surprised that he delivered. Just like we won’t be after he follows in the footsteps of Durant by leading the talented but depleted United States to gold in Spain.
(Vine via Steve Noah)
Is Davis Team USA’s most important player?
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