Let's not get too excited about a win over Tunisia. To be fair, it was more than a little embarrassing that Tunisia was still in the game, down only six, three minutes into the second half. Coach K's team was clearly flat, looking unmotivated on defense and undisciplined on offense.
In the first half, he played his five starters the entire first quarter, and his seven reserves the entire second quarter. Neither group did particularly well, holding just a six point halftime lead. In the third quarter, with the first unit still looking flat, he tried a new combination. He brought in Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon to play with his top two starters, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose. From that point, the US outscored Tunisia 43-18 over the final 15 minutes to turn the game into the rout it was supposed to be from the beginning.
Gordon definitely helped to set the tone. Shortly after entering the game in the third, he got a steal and a dunk. Everyone will talk about his 21 points on 7 for 10 shooting, but it was his defense, with continual pressure, three steals and several other deflections, that will continue to get him significant minutes for this team.
At the conclusion of Group play, Gordon is Team USA's second leading scorer at 10.2 points per game. Think about that for a second. Eric Gordon, the guy no one thought would make the team, trails only Kevin Durant in scoring average for Team USA at the World Championships. When Gordon was the second leading scorer in the five exhibition games (also at 10.2 points per game, eerie), I think a lot of people viewed it as a bit of a fluke. Now it's becoming clear that it's no fluke, and that he provides instant offense that Team USA needs in this tournament.
Fran Fraschilla, the color commentator on ESPN's FIBA broadcasts and the designated international basektball guru for the worldwide leader, has been a proponent of EJ since the exhibition games. Many people didn't think that Gordon had any chance to make this team when tryouts opened in Las Vegas in July, and Fraschilla had something to say about that during today's broadcast:
I think it [skepticism about Gordon] was mainly because we don't see him enough playing quite frankly for the LA Clippers but when you look at his enormous talent you have to think that a tournament like this is going to propel him into an atmosphere with other young stars in the league like Rose and Durant.
I'm just glad that someone else said that so that I don't have to face the accusations of being a shameless fanboy. Yes, we know that the Clippers, playing in the shadow of the Lakers, get overlooked. Will this experience playing for Team USA really move EJ into the upper echelon of young stars in the league? Obviously, he's not on the same level as Durant. But I've been arguing for two years that he's as good or better than O.J. Mayo and Russell Westbrook and in the conversation with Rose, despite the fact that those other guards from his draft class have gotten significantly more publicity. The simple fact is, with Team USA the only game in town right now, ESPN and others are FORCED to pay attention to what's going on, and they can see now that Gordon can play.
The risk is that he gets overhyped. There are still some major shortcomings in his game, specifically rebounding and playmaking. Hopefully he stays humble and continues to work hard to improve - and really, there's no reason that he shouldn't be able to get better in those areas.
It will be very interesting to see what happens in a close game in the knockout stage. Coach K was more than a little gunshy with his bench, both in the two point win over Brazil and in the exhibition win over Spain. In close games against top opponents, Krzyzewski has tended to ride his starters. However, it's not at all clear that that was a good strategy against Brazil. No, the bench wasn't very productive in that game - but then again, they only played 39 minutes total. Down the stretch, Odom looked exhausted, Billups missed some key shots, and Rose had a terrible turnover on a fast break. Gordon played only 5 minutes against Brazil, compared to a 5 game average of 18 minutes per. I think that Chris Sheridan's suggestion that maybe Gordon should start was tongue in cheek (boy has he come full circle on EJ), but it would certainly seem that he should continue to get significant burn, even in the close game. Maybe especially in the close games. Chauncey Billups has been frigid from deep (he's 4 for 19 in the tournament, and his 1 for 7 against Brazil was not helpful) while Gordon is leading the team with 11 threes in five games, while hitting 46%. Coupled that with his aggressive defense and his ability to finish at the rim and he's a terrific player and big asset to the team.
But of course, you already knew that, even if most of the country didn't.