ANAHEIM, Calif. – There were bumps, bruises and even blowout scrimmage losses along the way, but USA Basketball wrapped its two weeks of FIBA World Cup training with an affirming victory over its biggest rival.
Team USA defeated Spain, 90-81, in an exhibition contest at the Honda Center on Friday, maintaining firm control of the action after claiming a double-digit lead in the first quarter. While Spain’s starting lineup, which consisted of five players with NBA experience, nearly played the Americans to a draw, coach Gregg Popovich’s second unit handily outplayed their counterparts.
“Of course, they are the best team in the competition and the best team in the world,” said Spanish Coach Sergio Scariolo, whose country took silver behind Team USA’s golds at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
Scariolo’s tip of the hat capped an up-and-down training camp for Team USA, which lost scrimmages to a Select Team of rising stars in Las Vegas last week and to a makeshift band of fringe NBA talents in Los Angeles this week. During one turnover-filled rout on Wednesday, Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart stood within earshot of dozens of media members and exclaimed, “This is embarrassing.”
Friday night’s victory wasn’t always pretty, but it was far from embarrassing. Popovich’s winning formula relies on depth, defense and rebounding, and the Americans decisively prevailed in all three. Team USA’s bench outscored Spain’s, 52-36; the Americans held Spain to 29-of 71 shooting (41%) and won the rebounding battle, 42-20.
“It was like a baptism for us,” Popovich said of his team’s first game against foreign competition. “I was most pleased with us defensively. I thought we did a good job for a new group communicating with each other, and we had a good effort by everybody on the boards tonight.”
The American attack, however, often lacked flow during a sloppy performance that saw 21 turnovers borne of miscommunication, poor timing and mental lapses. If not for the U.S. team’s scorching 11-of-19 3-point shooting, Spain would have been in position to pull off a rare upset. Indeed, timely three-pointers by Joe Harris and Jayson Tatum snuffed out a Spanish rally late in the fourth quarter.
“We definitely needed that [response],” said Khris Middleton, who scored 12 points. “[FIBA] isn’t a 48-minute game, where you can have lapses, or even a regular season NBA game, where you can drop one and come back [the next game]. In this [World Cup], you can’t let up. It’s a shorter game, so you have to be on top of it for those 40 minutes.”
There were many uncertainties facing Team USA when it first assembled two weeks ago with a new coach in Popovich and a roster lacking in superstar talent. As the Americans head to Australia for a pit stop on the road to China, answers have started to emerge.
Even without James Harden and Anthony Davis, among other A-listers, Popovich will have the tournament’s most talented, most imposing, and most athletic roster. The Americans have proven that they deserve to be the clear favorites, as Scariolo noted, but they have also looked far from unbeatable. This year’s replacements command respect, but don’t inspire fear.
Team USA can play elite defense, shoot at a high level, and consistently create high-percentage shots. But unlike past gold medal-winning teams, the Americans can’t turn to Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant for late-game isolation brilliance. Popovich doesn’t have an elite playmaker such as LeBron James or Chris Paul, so he must scrap for all the scoring he can find. Boston Celtics guard Kemba Walker led a balanced attack with 11 points and a game-high eight assists on Friday.
“I thought the Spanish team was just astounding with all the offense they ran, the way they execute, the way they read each other,” an envious Popovich said. “You could really see the experience. We hope to get close to something like that.”
Thanks to P.J. Tucker’s ankle sprain on Thursday and De’Aaron Fox’s surprising withdrawal on Saturday morning, Popovich and his staff head overseas with greater clarity on their roster composition. Team USA will bring the 13 remaining players to Australia before cutting down to a final 12-man roster later this month.
Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol faced Team USA at the peak of its powers under former coach Mike Krzyzewski, and he scored a game-high 19 points for Spain on Friday. His simple message in defeat: Memories, no matter how fond or painful, won’t impact the results in China.
“The teams that are in the past are in the past,” the three-time all-star said. “The [American] guys we played today are talented and quality. Years pass, basketball evolves, and you have to adapt to it. Comparing [current] teams to other teams, it’s more for you media guys. It’s a lot of fun for discussions, filling a lot of tweets and posts, but what matters is the guys who are playing today.”