After France’s upset win over tournament favorite Spain Thursday, Team USA’s path to FIBA World Cup gold has never looked brighter. But as Spain’s stunning loss reminds us, there’s a reason these games are decided on the court.
Still, Team USA enters the gold medal game after their rout of Lithuania Thursday as the prohibitive favorite, even as they match up against a gritty Serbian squad that is riding some serious momentum after knocking out France on Friday.
Team USA’s play during the single-elimination round of the tournament has been, in many ways, confounding, and Thursday’s game was no different. Here are a few random thoughts about their victory:
—James Harden continues to delight and infuriate us with his world historical efforts on D. But as much as we all like to needle him about his matador approach to guarding his opponents (he is in Spain, after all), it bears mentioning that he had picked up two quick fouls at this point, and the refs were making all sorts of inscrutable calls early on. He also finished strong with 16 points after going scoreless in the first half and was the catalyst for USA’s third quarter assault.
—Jonas Valanciunas almost messed around and got murked by Boogie Cousins who almost made it through the entire tournament without incident. Almost. But the replay on that kerfuffle clearly shows that Valanciunas served Cousins with a pretty nasty elbow to the throat as they were battling for positioning. Give Cousins credit for maintaining his composure on this one.
–Cousins wasn’t the only American who found himself in the crosshairs of Lithuania’s errant elbows Thursday. Rudy Gay got the worst of it by far when one of the Lavrinovic brothers (Gay can’t tell them apart) landed a blow that fractured Gay’s jaw. He spent rest of his night getting his jaw wired shut at a local dentist and will likely need additional work when he gets back to the states. Amazingly, Gay plans on playing in the gold medal game Sunday.
–This game was over after halftime. For whatever reason, the Americans have struggled during the first half of games, but then they regroup and come out guns-a-blazing. They started the second half on a 10-0 run which turned into an 18-2 run, then outscored Lithuania 33-14 by the end of the third. They went 14-for-19 from the floor overall that period and never looked back.
–Team USA has been crashing the offensive boards at an astonishing clip. In the tournament so far, they’ve cleaned up more than 40% of their misses, thanks to Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried, and Cousins. One of the big concerns about a potential matchup with Spain was their trio of Serge Ibaka and the Brothers Gasol dominating the paint, but France quelled any fears about that by out-rebounding Spain and their formidable front-court 50-28 in their stunning upset on Wednesday.
–Team USA still hasn’t played particularly well. They found themselves in foul trouble early and were settling for bad shots. Thankfully, Klay Thompson was there to bail them out in the first half when everyone else went ice cold. He went 6-for-11 and had 14 points by halftime. Still, they can’t afford a sluggish start against a Serbian team that has capitalized off precisely that scenario in their last two victories.
— Team USA still looks lost on defense from time to time and relies too heavily on their length and their athleticism to make up for those mistakes, which admittedly has worked out pretty well so far. They forced 25 turnovers against Slovenia on Tuesday and have been positively deadly in transition, as usual. Against Lithuania Thursday, they forced 21 turnovers which turned into 24 fast break points.
USA has essentially coasted through the tournament so far, but it’d be nice to see them put together a solid all-around game for once, and they might have to do just that Sunday against Serbia .
What does Team USA have to do to bring home the gold?
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