As we enter the win-or-go-home, 16-team knockout stage of the FIBA world Cup starting Saturday, we need to be clear:
Team USA has serious flaws.
Ones that could keep it from the gold medal. Don’t let the 5-0 record with a 33.4 average margin of victory in group play fool you, that’s more about the weak competition, there are holes in Team USA. Their perimeter defenders get lost in the half court if you run their man off multiple screens, leading to wide open looks often close to the rim. The USA’s half-court offense is stagnant and often just a high-pick-and-roll with everyone else standing around. The USA’s ball movement has not been great at all. It hasn’t mattered so far because the USA’s athleticism just overwhelmed the lower-level opponents they have seen, turning the games into transition track meets and dunking exhibitions.
However those flaws could cost the USA in the knockout rounds…
Just not Saturday.
Mexico is first up for Team USA in the round of 16 (10 am ET Saturday, ESPN 2) and they do not have the tools to pick apart the USA’s flaws. If this were soccer I would be pumped for a good match, but on the basketball court is going to look like every other American game so far. A rout.
(Maybe no team can exploit the American’s flaws until the Gold Medal game Sept. 14 — so far Spain has looked like the best team in the tournament. Better than the USA.)
Mexico is led by Gustavo Ayon, the free agent NBA big man who played last season with the Hawks. He is averaging a team high 15.8 points a game on 62.5 percent shooting, plus has a team best 7.5 rebounds a game. He can make a few plays. Forward Hector Hernandez pitches in 11 points a game and is hitting 44 percent from three serving as a stretch four.
Neither of them is a match for USA big men Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried, who have been the best American players — Davis averages a team-high 15.8 points a game on 62 percent shooting, while Faried averages 13.8 points a game on 79 percent shooting, plus is grabbing 7.8 rebounds a night.
At the guard spot Mexico is led by Francisco Cruz, who averages 13.4 points and 3 assists a game, along with the Nets’ Jorge Gutierrez (9.6 points a game).
Both of them will be overwhelmed by the pressure of the USA. The Americans are once again just wildly more athletic than their Mexican opponents. Like every other USA game it could be tight for a stretch (the USA does the slow starts thing) but will eventually go on a run that will stretch the lead out to about 20, and then they will coast in.
For the USA, the guards to watch are Kyrie Irving, who will play after a nasty fall on his hip in the last game. He went through the full USA practice Friday and will start Saturday. Irving says he is good to go but we’ll keep an eye on him. That could mean more minutes for Derrick Rose, who has played in five games in six days for Team USA but still looks rusty with his shot (25 percent so far). There are flashes of the explosion we remember, but he’s just not finishing consistently like he did a couple of years ago. Which is to be expected at this point but can be a concern down the line.
Making it to the knockout round is a great result for Mexico basketball — you can argue they were the best team with a losing record in the tournament — and this is the first time the USA has played Mexico in the Olympics or World Cup since 1967. That is a nice bit of history.
But the game isn’t going to tell us if the USA has started to fix its flaws and bad habits. This will be another American blowout win.
Next week team USA starts to get real tests.