A little over a month ago, as the team was practicing in New York in preparation for the World Championships, I wrote this about this very young and inexperienced version of Team USA:
[Kevin] Durant ... will be the star and leading scorer of the team. He'll be on the floor most of the time against good competition, and if the US is going to win a gold medal, it will be on Durant's back. He is the only go to player on the team - period.
Now, it didn't take a genius to see that Durant would need to play a big role for Team USA, but I doubt that anyone, myself included, anticipated quite how important he'd end up being.
Durant's overall numbers in the tournament itself are impressive enough: 22.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 56% shooting, 46% from three. But let's face it - although they had their toughest single match in group play against Brazil, their first place group finish was already assured by then. So it was the last three games of the knockout stage (after the Angola game), where the US really needed him. In those games, against quality opponents like Russia, Lithuania and the home team Turkey, in games where the dream is over if they don't win, Durant's production was otherworldly: 99 points in 114 minutes while increasing his level of efficiency. His effective field goal percentage over those last three games was almost 70%. And it's not like the other teams didn't know who he was - many of his points came against intense defensive pressure. He just was too good to stop.
Because of the lack of experience on this team, many people said that they weren't really the favorites going in. With due respect to Spain, that never made much sense. The level of talent, though clearly a step down from the 2008 Beijing Team, was still significantly above any other roster. However, in a single elimination tournament, strange things can happen, and the team has to be given credit for going out and winning by virtue of their hard work, and not just assuming they would win based on talent. That a team featuring six players 22 and under was able to face down their critics, handle the pressure, and win the first Worlds Gold Medal for the US since Kevin Johnson and Shawn Kemp and Joe Dumars in 1994 is quite a feat indeed.
Although Team USA lacked balance and teamwork on offense (shortcomings that Durant single-handedly negated), they won this tournament with defense. I myself was more than a little concerned about the lack of size on the roster, but the quickness that Coach K put on the floor completely neutralized any size issues. There were times in the Gold Medal match, where Semih Erden would get Lamar Odom on the block, and you'd think, "Why don't they do that every time?" Why? Because they couldn't. The Turkish guards would have loved to get the ball down low to Erden and Omer Asik, but they simply couldn't do it most of the time. Team USA's pressure wouldn't let them get to where they wanted, wouldn't let them make the entry pass. It looked simple the couple of times the big teams managed to do what they intended - but the point is, none of it was simple. At all.
It showed in the way Team USA tended to put things out of reach early in the fourth quarter of the important games. In the championship, they ran off 10 quick points on dunks and layups to begin the fourth - and if you watched closely, the Turkish players just couldn't keep up. Obviously the US enjoyed a speed adavantage throughout the game, but through sheer hustle and determination, the Turks would at least get back to stop breakaways at the start. In the fourth, after 30 minutes of intense pressure, the Turks broke, and suddenly Derrick Rose was running right past people, and Odom was five steps ahead of the exhausted Erden. It's worth noting that for all of the hand-wringing over this team, they never trailed in the second half of a knockout stage game, and maintained a double digit lead throughout the fourth quarters of those games. Even the 2008 team had some nervous moments versus Spain in the Gold Medal match - this team was never really challenged after the Brazil game.
Eric Gordon of the Clippers, after becoming a major force off the bench in the early games, struggled with his shot in the last three games. Just as Durant was turning it up, Gordon's shot suddenly deserted him: he was 3 for 16 from the quarterfinals on, and 3 for 12 from three. But to his credit, he justified his spot in the rotation nonetheless, playing outstanding defensive, and contributing more in other ways than he had previously. Defense rarely makes highlight reels, least of all 20 seconds of defense, but you will never see a more impressive single stretch of on ball defense than EJ displayed late in the first quarter of the Gold Medal match. He was draped all over two different Turkish players, through two switches, and never gave them an inch of space, collecting several deflections along the way and culminating in a block and a 24 second violation. It was amazing, and set the tone for the rest of the game. In the perception heavy NBA, where players are selected to the All Defense team because people think they play great defence and not necessarily because they actually do, a reputation as a defensive stopper can serve a player well. How many times did Bruce Bowen get away with things that would have been called a foul on any other player? EJ was a very good defender for the Clippers last season - if Sekou Smith and others are now noticing, so much the better.
In the end, Gordon was seventh on the team in minutes and fourth in scoring. He clearly earned his playing time not just by being a great shooter (even with his mini-slump, he made 19 of 42 threes in the tournament) but also by being a great defender and a reliable presence on the court. Not bad for a kid who was expected to be among the first cuts when this team first convened back in July.
A few other observations of the event that has been my basketball lifeline for the last month:
- Russell Westbrook is better than I thought he was. It seems impossible that in a league awash in athletic freaks, Westbrook is like a freak among freaks. He's so impossibly quick and explosive, it's hard to stop him. Yes, he gets out of control at times, and yes he turns the ball over a lot as a result. When he gets some of his issues in check, he's going to be an all star for a long time.
- Westbrook and Durant are an amazing big two in OKC right now. Those two may be enough, with a solid supporting cast around them, to turn the Thunder into an elite team. If James Harden or anyone else can legitmately become a great third banana there, watch out. And no, it's not Jeff Green, who doesn't really belong in the same sentence with Durant and Westbrook. It will be interesting to see what Presti does regarding Green's new contract. If he's as smart as I think he is, he'll let Green walk. (Clipper fans can hope that Blake Griffin and Gordon can form a similarly dynamic duo, but that's a long way from being reality with Griffin having yet to play his first game while Durant has already won a scoring title and a Worlds MVP. But we can still hope.)
- Derrick Rose, for all the talk of his improved range, still needs to work on his jump shot, a lot. He was only 5 for 18 from three in the tournament, but it's more what I saw watching him shoot than what I see in the box score that worries me. His mechanics are pretty badly flawed - he's got a hitch at the top of his jump, and he seems to shoot the ball coming down. He also shoots a very flat ball. The good news for Bulls fans is that all of these issues can be fixed, but you have to wonder why they haven't been fixed yet. There was a play in second half against Turkey that really showed what Rose needs to work on. He had the ball about 25 feet from the basket, with Ender Arslan playing so far off of him that he was literally standing in the key. Instead of taking the three, or even dribbling in and taking a wide open 12 footer, Rose decided to attack the lane, and charged into Arslan. He's got to be able to at least make the mid range jump shot, or defenders will play off him all the time and dare him to shoot. If he can actually develop three point range, watch out. (The other non-shooter, Westbrook, actually has pretty good mechanics, and may turn into a passable shooter at some point.)
- One concern for Team USA going into the Worlds was size, but Krzyzewski seemed to become more and more enamored of the small ball lineups as the tournament progressed. In the Gold Medal match, Lamar Odom played 26 minutes, while Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love combined to log only three. That means that the team played 11 minutes on Sunday with Kevin Durant (or Rudy Gay or Andre Iguodala, take your pick) as their 'center'. If you consider that both both KD and Iggy have played shooting guard in the NBA, you could say that Team USA was at times playing five guards against Turkey. It's an interesting approach, and begs a couple of questions: (1) if it's good enough for the World Championships, why don't more NBA teams do it? and (2) what will USA Basketball do in 2012 in London? In the end, although we thought that they had too few bigs on the roster, they may in fact have had too many. Of the four guys buried at the end of the bench, two were centers (Chandler and Love) and a third was 6'8" Danny Granger. Love in particular must be asking himself what he had to do to get more minutes. His per minute production was through the roof - he easily led the team in rebounds per minute, and was second only to Durant in points per minute, while shooting a great percentage. Yet he played only 12 minutes from the quarterfinals on. So you really can't even say that it was a lack of quality bigs that forced Coach K to go small - Love played great, but rarely got off the bench.
This obsession with small ball seems like playing with fire to me, but it's hard to argue with success. And with Kevin Durant on the team, you can experience a lot of success.