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USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

When Kyrie Irving started to heat up halfway through the first quarter, he removed any intrigue from the championship game of the World Cup. Team USA was up 35-21 after ten minutes and never looked back from there, which was really the story of the tournament. The Americans dominated with absolute ease, going 9-0 and winning by an average of 33 points a game, their highest margin of victory since the 1994 world championships.

They trailed only once at halftime - a group play game against Turkey which they ended up winning by 19 points - and they were never tested in the second half of a game. None of the teams they faced could stop them from scoring and none could consistently execute against their defense. Order has been restored to the basketball universe, as Team USA has won the last four major international tournaments and hasn’t lost a game since 2006.

The scariest part about their performance is that this wasn’t even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain. At the start of the summer, the three players expected to lead Team USA were Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George. Coach K was able to reshuffle the roster on the fly, with waves of shooters and defenders on the perimeter and three man rotation upfront of Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins.

Without Durant, Team USA opted to spread responsibility around and not run their offense through any one player. Six different guys - James Harden, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, Irving, Davis and Faried - averaged in double figures in the tournament. The days of international teams wanting to zone the Americans and daring them to shoot from the perimeter have come and gone - Team USA shot 52% from the field, 57% from 2 and 40% from 3. 

While there were moments where the offense stagnated and individual players held the ball, for the most part, the Americans did a good job of spreading the floor, moving the ball around the perimeter and finding the open man. With Cousins coming off the bench and dominating second unit big men, averaging 9.6 points a game on 70% shooting, they even had the option of running offense through the post when the pace of the game slowed down.

That didn’t happen too often, though, as the US had only one game where they scored less than 95 points. When you consider that international games are only 40 minutes long, it shows you how effortlessly Team USA was able to put up points against the best teams in the world. At a certain point in each game, they started going from defense to offense and getting out in the open floor, essentially running every team they faced out of the gym. 

Defense was their calling card in this tournament, an impressive feat when you consider the NBA reputations of many of their best players. Four of their five starters - Irving, Curry, Harden and Faried - are guys viewed as weaker players on that end of the floor. Fewer minutes and smaller offensive roles allowed them to increase their effort level while a great defensive scheme by Team USA’s coaching staff put them in a position to succeed.

Given their overwhelming edge in talent and athleticism, you would expect the Americans to be a dominant defensively, but that hasn’t always been the case. Even when the US was finishing out of the top two in major international tournaments from 2002-2006, the problem was never a lack of athletic talent. Under the direction of Colangelo and Coach K, the American players buy into a team concept and execute at a high level on both sides of the ball. 

In 2014, the end result was a juggernaut that ran rings around the rest of the world. If you break down the roster individually, no one would take this version of Team USA over either of the teams that won gold medals in the last two Olympics, yet both groups had to pull out several games in the fourth quarter. A lot of that is because Spain won silver in 2008 and 2012 and lost in the quarterfinals in 2014, but you can only face the teams in front of you.

When Spain was knocked out of the tournament, they took almost any chance of drama with them. Before their upset loss to France, the Spaniards were playing about as well as Team USA, going 6-0 and winning by an average of over 20 points a game. On paper, the Spanish frontline of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka could have given the Americans some match-up problems upfront, but the way they lost to France throws cold water on that scenario. 

If Spain was going to be physically manhandled in their own gym and outrebounded 50-28 by a frontline of Boris Diaw, Joffrey Lauvergne and Boris Diaw, they were going to have a hard time keeping Davis, Cousins and Faried off the glass. The French didn’t even play that well in the upset - they shot 39% from the field and 25% from 3. If the US had used a similar defensive game-plan and shot well from the perimeter, they would have blown Spain out.

With their gold medal in the World Cup, the US automatically clinches a spot in the 2016 Olympics, which means they won’t have to play any qualifying games in 2015. That’s good news for international basketball, since Team USA’s presence tends to remove most of the drama from the proceedings, the ultimate tribute to how dominant they’ve been under Coach K. They are winning so easily these days the whole thing is becoming kind of boring.

The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

In one of the biggest upsets in recent international basketball history, France knocked off Spain 65-52 in the quarterfinals of the World Cup. A week after getting blown out by the Spaniards in group play, the French turned the tables in the knockout round. France got standout performances from a number of players, most notably Boris Diaw, who outplayed the Gasol brothers on both sides of the ball, finishing with 15 points, five rebounds and three assists. 

With national team mainstays Joakim Noah and Tony Parker sitting this tournament out, the French team became Diaw’s, almost by default. Diaw had not put up big scoring numbers before the game against of Spain, but he still impacted the game in a number of ways, serving as France’s primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA. 

Spain came into the quarterfinals on a tear, blowing out every team they faced en route to a 6-0 record. After losing to the US in the gold medal games in the last two Olympics, this was supposed to be their year. Not only were they hosting the World Cup, there wasn’t a team in the field with the size to match up with the Gasol brothers. It was pick your poison - either you lived up with Marc and Pau dominating in the post or you gave up open 3’s.

Against France, though, the tables were turned. The French big men, despite giving up a ton of size, played the Gasols and Serge Ibaka very physically, not giving up any space in the post, crowding them on the perimeter and attacking them on the glass. The mismatch ended up working the other way - Diaw was able to drag the Spanish big men away from the paint, where he used his superior quickness to blow by them and collapse the defense. 

Diaw’s fingerprints were all over the win. At 6’8 250 and with a wingspan north of 7’0, he is built more like an NFL LT than an NBA big man. He no longer has the great vertical leap of his youth, but he still has a very strong base and remarkably quick feet, which allows him to body up and stay in front of much bigger players while still contesting their shots. Matched up primarily against Marc Gasol, Diaw held him to three points and four rebounds on 1-7 shooting.

That was one of the biggest problems for Spain on Wednesday - while Marc could not take advantage of Diaw on one side of the ball, he had very little chance of guarding him on the other. France opened the game on an 11-2 run, thanks in large part to two three-pointers from Diaw. Once he established that he could make the perimeter shot, he put the Spanish defense in a difficult bind, since none of their big men could contain him off the dribble either.

For the most part, the other team comes into a game wanting Diaw to be a scorer. He is a naturally unselfish player who is at his best when he can distribute the ball and make plays for everyone else. You can count the number of players with his size, ball-handling and passing ability on one hand. In terms of being a point forward who can dissect a defense from anywhere on the floor, the only guys in the same league as Diaw are LeBron James and Blake Griffin. 

Diaw has a remarkable feel for the game, with an intuitive sense of where the other nine players on the floor are. He doesn’t just find the open man - he creates open shots by anticipating what the defense will do before he even makes his move. My favorite play in the World Cup came in their Round of 16 win over Croatia, when Diaw caught the ball in the post, split a double team in one motion, drew a third defender and then handed the ball off for an open dunk.

Even when he didn’t finish off a possession with a basket or an assist, Diaw was one of the main initiators of the French offense on Wednesday. When he was on the floor, Diaw was either the primary ball-handler or a screener on the pick-and-roll. Something good happened almost every time he touched the ball - he would hit cutters and find the open man out of the post or drive the ball into the defense and create ball movement that would end in an open shot.

Diaw has never been the most consistent player over the course of an 82-game season, but when the lights are brightest, he performs at his best. He gave Spain the complete package in the quarterfinals, beating them as a scorer, passer, shooter, rebounder and defender. Diaw is a 250-pound Swiss Army Knife who can do a little bit of everything over the course of a game, which gives his team a tremendous amount of versatility on both sides of the ball.

There’s no position where versatility is more important than power forward, where players have to match-up with a wide variety of opponents. Some teams like to pound the ball inside to two traditional big men while others like to spread the floor with four perimeter players - Diaw lets you do either. He can defend the post and the three-point line and he can play out of the post or on the perimeter on offense. There are not many PF’s who can do all four.

You are not going to find two basketball players more distinct than Marc Gasol and LeBron James and Diaw was able to hold his own against both at the highest levels of the game. Diaw’s insertion into the starting line-up in Game 3 of the NBA Finals changed the tenor of the series. With Diaw spreading the floor and playing as a point forward from the top of the key, the San Antonio Spurs blew the Miami Heat off the floor for three straight games.

Diaw was one of the main catalysts for one of the most dominant performances in Finals history. His stat-line for the series was vintage Diaw - six points, eight rebounds and six assists per game - but the most telling number was his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.1:1. Diaw thinks the game at a really high level and he almost never makes the wrong play with the ball in his hands. He is the ultimate teammate who makes the game easy for everyone around him.

If Diaw had a different mentality, both in terms of hunting for his own shot and keeping himself in peak physical condition, there’s no telling how good a player he could have been. Diaw is the rare basketball player who never had to sacrifice his taste for the finer things in life to excel at the highest levels of the sport. For all he has accomplished, he is still only 31 years old, so basketball fans should be able to enjoy his unique game for many years to come.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Through the end of group play at the World Cup, two countries - Spain and the US - have separated themselves from the pack. They dominated their respective groups, with both teams going 5-0 and winning every game by double digits. The surprise isn’t that the Spanish have looked as good as the Americans, especially playing at home, but that they have had as many highlights and are playing the more entertaining brand of basketball.

With Ricky Rubio pushing the pace and getting anywhere he wants to go on the court and the Gasol brothers stepping out on the perimeter and making pinpoint passes out of the post, Spain spreads the floor and zips the ball from side to side. Everyone in Spain’s rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

After a wave of last-minute withdrawals from Team USA, the talent gap between the Americans and their biggest rival is as small as it has been since 2006, the last time they lost a game in a major international tournament. The US would still be the heavy favorite in a seven-game series, but in a one-and-done scenario, the team with more size and skill upfront, more perimeter shooting and more overall continuity has a real chance of winning.

When you watch the two teams play, there’s little comparison as to which is group more comfortable playing with each other. While the US has to essentially build a team from scratch every two years, the core of the Spanish team has been together for more than a decade. Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez and Rubio all played in the Olympics in 2008 - none of the Americans from that team are still around.

After showing his age in his last few seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he didn’t really fit with either Dwight Howard or Mike D’Antoni’s four-out system, Pau appears rejuvenated by playing in his home country and being featured in a pass-heavy two-post offense. He is averaging 21 points, 6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 2 blocks a game on 62% shooting - through the first five games, he would have to be the MVP of the entire tournament.

And while the US has a first-team All-NBA guard (James Harden) and a guy who may be the third best player in the world (Anthony Davis), Spain may have the more valuable NBA player in Marc Gasol. Marc won the Defensive Player of the Year Award two seasons ago and is one of the best passing big men in the world. He makes his teammates significantly better on both sides of the ball, something you can’t really say about any of the Americans.

With the US starting a 220-pound center (Davis) and a 6’8 power forward (Kenneth Faried), Spain would have a significant advantage in the post in a hypothetical gold medal game. The problem is that the Gasol brothers are looking to pass - if they force the Americans to pack the paint, they will be able to find shooters on the perimeter and you don’t want to give Fernandez, Navarro and Calderon too many open looks from beyond the three-point line.

Rubio and Calderon are their only perimeter players in the NBA, but you can’t overlook any of the guys in Spain’s rotation. Fernandez, Navarro and Sergio Rodriguez all had their moments in the league and none of them looked out of place going against the best in the world. Sergio Llull, their other main perimeter reserve, was the No. 34 overall pick in 2009 and Alex Abrines was taken by the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 32 overall in 2013.

None of this, of course, means the Spaniards are unbeatable. No one in their group had the team speed to really challenge their perimeter defense and take the ball at the Gasol brothers. Fernandez is also their only wing with the size to match up against guys like Harden and Klay Thompson, so the American guards should be able to make a killing in the post. If Harden can get Pau or Marc in foul trouble, that could really change the dynamic of the game.

When you look at the box scores of the last two times these countries met - the gold medal games in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics - that’s one of the things that really jumps out at you. Fernandez fouled out of both games and Marc Gasol was in foul trouble throughout - he had 4 fouls and played 17 minutes in London. Serge Ibaka is a very capable reserve, but he can’t create his own shot and Spain needs to be able to run offense through their big men.

The referees, who haven’t exactly been playing to rave reviews so far, could end up having a huge role in what happens in the medal rounds. That’s where having home-court advantage at the World Cup could really come into play for Spain. If the Spanish fans pack the gym and create a raucous atmosphere in Madrid, the FIBA referees could feel pressure to swallow their whistles and negate one of the biggest advantages the Americans would have.

There’s still a lot of basketball to be played before Spain and the US would meet and both teams should be challenged in the quarterfinals and semifinals. Nevertheless, it would be a major surprise if either ended up losing. These are two teams playing basketball at a really high level - everyone knows how talented the US is, but if the Spanish national team was playing in the NBA, they would have a good chance of making the Eastern Conference Finals.

As enjoyable as it is to watch Team USA curb stomp other countries, at some point you want to see them challenged. That’s what grows the game, which is really the point of these international tournaments. If the US loses to Spain, they shouldn’t hang their head. The Spaniards are a talented team who play the game the right way and have a ton of flair to boot. If I was trying to sell someone on the beauty of basketball, Spain is the team I’d have them watch.

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