Yesterday, Team USA did what many thought they could or would not do – they won the FIBA World Championships Tournament and cemented their status as the best basketball playing nation on the planet. The American team defeated host nation Turkey 81-64 and cruised to the title by playing the type of pressure team defense and Kevin Durant fueled offense that carried them the entire tournament. A hearty congratulations to the U.S. team.
This is a team that earned our respect for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that many actually picked a different nation to claim this title. With the U.S. not returning a single player from the 2008 Olympic gold medal team, many saw a young, inexperienced team, that lacked size and leadership. Many labled them the B-team. But, as Kevin Durant tweeted after the game: “B-team huh?? Haaaaa we got it done…US, seat pleasant, dc, oklahoma city…we did it for yall..GOLD MEDALIST”.
Secondly, they played a brand of team basketball that many were unsure they could actually play. Guys that many may see as second (or even third) tiered players that are asked to carry their NBA teams on most nights, abandoned any selfishness and contributed to wins by playing to their individual strengths that can sometimes be dormant when they put on their NBA jerseys for their respective teams stateside. I mean, watching Andre Iguodala become a defensive and rebounding force while eschewing taking shots for the betterment of the team? Rudy Gay doing the same? Eric Gordon hustling on defense to the point that he caused shot clock violations almost single handed? Sure these players have shown in flashes that they are capable of playing this way, but to show a nearly complete committment to playing the role(s) that the coaches envisioned for them on a nightly basis was a great treat. The fact that their perseverance was rewarded with the ultimate payoff only reinforces what the U.S. is capable of doing in international competition – regardless of the make up of the roster.
Below are a few notes on some of the players with some random thoughts gleaned from the gold medal game and the tournament as a whole:
*Kevin Durant is a monster. I suppose you could say that we knew this already and that this is no revelation. However, his performances in the elimination portion of the tournament were exceptional. Not only was his scoring fantastic (99 points combines in the final 3 games) but his defense and rebounding were top shelf too. Plus, his ability to raise his game in the big moments was just fantastic. It seemed like any time the U.S. needed a big bucket, Durant was there to put the ball through the hoop. Whether by driving to the hole, showing off his impressive handle and mid range game, or by bombing away from long distance, Durant continued to prove he’s as dynamic an offensive player we have in the world while also showing a great understanding of “the moment”. Some players that show that they’re the former never quite prove to be the latter, but Durant is both. What a talent.
*As far as explosive guards go, I don’t know if there is one better than Russell Westbrook right now. Sure, there are more complete PG’s (Paul and Williams immediately come to mind) and there are better floor generals (Nash, Rondo) but Russell is the type of guard that can get you out of your chair in an instant. His quickness, strength, and athleticism combination is unmatched (even by Derek Rose) by any other point guard and measuring these traits for a “pound for pound” argument, I would say he’s right up there with some of the best athletes in the entire league (yes, even Lebron, Wade, and Howard). And sure his jumper needs some work and he can be a bit out of control at times, but focusing on the things he struggles with means you’re missing the point with this player. Westbrook is just a fantastic young player that will only continue to grow and get better. The sky is the limit for him. (On a side note, you notice the first two players I’ve mentioned play for the Thunder? Yikes.)
*I already mentioned Iguodala, but he deserves even more praise. His rebounding and defense were top notch the entire tournament and the self-less way he played deserves recognition. And while his size and physique (you saw his Karl Malone arms, right?) sometimes had him miscast as a defensive stopper against some of the smaller, quicker guards in this tourney, his overall play on that side of the floor was stellar. Add that to the fact that he willingly moved the ball and really only looked for his shot in transition situations and off hard penetration showed me that he’s also extremely coach-able and understanding of what winning basketball is. I know when he goes back to Philly they’ll ask him to be the do it all scorer/playmaker for his team, but I shudder to think of what he could be playing next to an elite scorer like Durant where all you asked him to do defend, rebound, and slash off the ball.
*Quietly, Lamar Odom did exactly what he was asked to do and did it well, overall, for this U.S. team. Yes he showed that his inconsistencies can be as great as his talent level, but in the end he battled hard in the medal round and once again proved his worth to a winning team. The man just does all the little things well and it was very nice to see him step up in the second half of the gold medal game to help turn a semi-contested game into a contest that wasn’t that close down the stretch. Whether it was rebounding, bodying up bigger offensive players, starting the American’s fast break with pin point outlet passes, or slashing into the open space for either finishes or to make the extra pass on offense, the man filled a bunch of roles for this team and deserves his credit as a World Champion twice over (FIBA and NBA) in the same year.
*On a not so positive note, I was not that impressed with Chauncey Billups in this tournament. While he showed good presence as a floor general by aligning his teammates in the half court offense, he also often broke off too many possessions to fire up long range jumpers early in the shot clock. I know that Billups has long been a fan of the “dagger” three pointer that can salt away the hopes of the opponent, but in the last few games I thought he went for these shots too often and did so in situations where it was not required. I thought his defense was good, but that it wasn’t to the level of Westbrook and Gordon.
*Lastly, on a confused note, I’m not sure why Kevin Love didn’t play more. Without a representative (be it Coach K or anyone else) commenting on it, I would assume it had to do with the want to always have the most athletic team on the floor at all times that saw Love’s minutes decrease. But, for a guy that rebounds and passes very well while also having some range on his jumper to only see one minute of game time in the gold medal game? I just don’t get it. When Turkey was really giving the U.S. fits in the first half with their zone defense, I really thought a Love/Odom front court with Durant, Westbrook, and either Billups or Gordon would have been a great line up to try out. But alas, Coach K kept the T’Wolves’ big man glued to the bench.