The closest any team has come to beating Team USA at the FIBA World Cup was Turkey back in the group stage, where the Americans by five at the half and ended up winning by “only” 21 points.
Serbia has the talent and system to keep it about that close. Maybe.
What had been expected to be a gold medal showdown with Spain has instead morphed into what should be another comfortable USA win with Serbia all that is between them and gold (3 p.m. ET on ESPN 2). Don’t get me wrong, Serbia has some NBA-level talent on the roster, they are not intimidated, and they are playing well right now, but once again the Americans should be able to overwhelm with athleticism and skill and pick up the gold. Comfortably.
For Serbia’s puncher’s chance to land a whole lot of things have to go right. That will start with their star point guard Milos Teodosic (who spurned the Grizzlies to stay at CSKA Moscow) who must have a monster game. Teodosic is a quality pick-and-roll point guard who can both shoot it (14.1 points a game at 55.2 percent shooting) or find the open man if the defense lapses.
Serbia’s offense often consists of a pick-and-roll out top between Teodosic and Miroslav Raduljica (who sat on the Bucks bench last season) with shooters spacing the floor everywhere, such as the Suns’ 27th pick from the last draft Bogdan Bogdanovic or former NBA player Nenad Krstic. Raduljica just sets the screen and rolls hard to the rim. It’s a good system, one that Greece, Brazil and France have not been able to figure out in the knockout rounds as all of those world powers fell to Serbia.
But the USA brings a different level of athleticism to the party. Kyrie Irving will start on Teodosic and he can be disruptive. Then when Teodosic comes around the pick he will see the long arms of Anthony Davis, who can shut off the drive and still recover to the rolling Raduljica (and you can expect weak-side help from the energetic Kenneth Faried there). When Irving gets a break the USA rolls in Derrick Rose — who has moved well and played good defense this tournament even as his shot has not fallen — and they also play Stephen Curry at the point. Basically Teodosic is going to have to play about 35 strong minutes while Mike Krzyzewski keeps rolling in fresh, more athletic guards to throw at him.
The bottom line is that there have been things to pick apart about the USA defense this tournament, but the healthy gap in athleticism between them and every opponent has not allowed anyone to really exploit those flaws. This will be the same case. Serbia might stick close for a half as they throw their best punches at the Americans, but the USA will absorb those and eventually blow the game open with a big run.
Serbia’s defense this tournament has not been great, which will be an issue against the attacking and good shooting of the USA. Also Serbia is willing to play up-tempo — but they can’t in this one. If they get in a track meet with the Americans this will be over fast. Serbia needs to follow the Turkish model of slowing the game down, including fouling out at mid court when it seems the USA will get on the break.
Serbia has quality players, just not ones of the same quality and without the depth of the USA bench (and that is even with Rudy Gay having a busted jaw). The Americans have had their moments of sleepwalking this tournament, but you can expect them to show up focused with the gold medal on the line.
The fact is Serbia looks on paper to be just another speed bump between the USA and gold — they can slow the Americans down a little but not stop them. It would take a lot of things (including help from the notorious FIBA referees) to keep this game inside 20 points. Serbia is confident and should be playing with nothing to lose.
But they are going to lose. This is the USA’s big day.