Well, Team USA survived a 3 for 26 start (3 for 26!) and used a 17-0 second half run to defeat Lithuania in Madrid on Saturday. Hopefully it was an eye opening experience for the young US team, because they'll run into some of these issues again, only the opponent could be much, much better when they do.
Watching the US get clocked time after time in the first half and never get the call, I actually wondered to myself if the leaders of Team USA maybe asked the refs to let everything go today. Because let's face it, Kevin Durant is absolutely used to getting whistles, and he won't get them in Turkey. The term wake up call is way overused, but Team USA does need to recalibrate their expectations when it comes to the officiating. Stuff that's a foul in the US ain't a foul in FIBA ball - get used to it, and get used to it QUICK. Note that I'm not suggesting anything the least bit untoward or unfair about the officiating in Madrid today. The refs weren't calling fouls on either end. It's just a much rougher game, and the 'star' system in particular doesn't exist. (Strangely, the officiating seemed to change drastically in the second half, perhaps as a reaction to the body check Kalnietus delivered to Rudy Gay. That too is typical of FIBA - the officiating is not terribly consistent. Again, they need to get used to it.)
Team USA is going to have to do a better job taking care of the ball. A defense that forces 22 turnovers will help them win gains in Turkey, but maybe not if the offense just gives the ball back 19 times. 19 turnovers in a 40 minute game against an inferior opponent is not good.
A special note on traveling violations, which relates to both of the above categories. The NBA has long allowed terribly sloppy footwork on the catch. Players routinely take a couple of steps before they begin their dribble. In fact, the NBA went so far as to codify this exception to the traveling rule last season, which seems absurd to me. Is there any good reason to change a rule that has existed in basketball since it began, and which is in no way limiting the players other than that they can't be bothered to clean up their footwork? Regardless, FIBA calls it the way the rule was originally written. Basically, you can't move your pivot foot until you start your dribble, period. Durant was called twice today, and could have been called more. This is going to be a hard habit to break, and will likely cost Team USA a couple of turnovers per game in Turkey.
After the 3 for 26 start, the US when 24 for 41 to finish the game. That was a nice recovery, but I don't really expect Russell Westbrook to go 2 for 2 on threes very much next week. The first half was pretty much a disaster shooting the ball. I don't remember them making a single three, and both Chauncey Billups and Eric Gordon missed wide open looks. I'm still concerned this team doesn't have enough shooting, and if Stephen Curry is the final cut then it gets worse. I don't expect them to miss dunks certainly, but the first half today might have been a disturbing preview of what could happen if the few decent shooters they have with them are cold for an entire game.
In the end Team USA did a good job of playing solid defense throughout, and that really got them back into the contest. Of course, several opponents in the World Championships (not to mention their next two opponents prior to the tournament) will handle the pressure defense much more adeptly than did Lithuania. But I thought Chandler and Odom did a good job of protecting the rim, and after some early lapses, the help was on the whole very good. I think everyone has come to grips with the fact that this team is not going to run away with every game in Turkey - but their defense should at least keep them close every night.
The final cut probably got a little harder tonight, as Westbrook (who has been my choice as the odd guard out and is one of the bubble players in the conventional wisdom) played very well, and in fact was the initial catalyst for the US comeback. Of course, you can't be fooled by the threes that went in. Given one game where he goes two for two versus several years of terrible perimeter shooting, I'll take the several years as my guide, and the conclusion is still that you don't want him taking those shots very often. But he played good defense, he broke down the perimeter defenders for Lithuania, and he energized the US team when they needed it. A coach watching that game might well conclude "Hey, that's the kind of guy I need as my 12th man in Turkey. Someone who can change the tempo of the game, who can get the team going when it's flat."
Of course, a coach might also say "I need another great shooter". The bottom line is that the final cut is going to be difficult.
I seem to have been less impressed with Eric Gordon's performance against Lithuania than many others. (I even got an email from my dad praising EJ.) I thought he was fine, though I did not think it was his best game. He played great defense at times - but he also got badly beaten a couple of times. It is certainly nice to have Fran Frischilla at the mic, telling everyone that Gordon is the perfect FIBA guard. In the end, while Westbrook's performance certainly helped his cause, you certainly couldn't conclude that Gordon's hurt his. He was part of the team's best stretch, he finished with three steals and a solid nine points (he continues to be one of their most reliable scorers, especially per minute), and Coach K praised him several times in post game comments.
Which all bodes poorly for Stephen Curry, who played only three minutes, no doubt due in part to the fact that he sprained his ankle earlier in the week. I obviously can't speak to Steph's physical condition, but assuming he's close to 100%, Westbrook is still my final cut if it's me making the decision, despite his terrific game today. I just think I can see a game where they don't have enough shooting, but it's harder to see one where they don't have enough of the things that Westbrook brings.
The game against Spain tomorrow will be much tougher, but I don't expect the Spaniards to pull out all the stops in a friendly. No one's going to play big minutes and they probably won't show their entire hand. But playing the US in front of a home crowd, whoever is on the floor for Espana is going to be pumped. Just like today, how the US team responds will be the main thing to watch.