Team USA continues its exhibition schedule against international competition in advance of the FIBA World Championship today with a game against Lithuania. It’s an opportunity for USA to test their progress against a better team than the China squad they faced last weekend. Lithuania’s team may be made up primarily of second-tier players (like Team USA, oddly enough), but Linas Kleiza has the Lithuanians in a position to make a run. It’s a good matchup, with most of their strength on the wing and not down low. Here are five things to watch for in today’s exhibition.
1. So About Those Guards: Well, we know the remaining won’t be coming from the bigs, but USA’s got a glut of guards. Eric Gordon’s likely on the bubble, but he’s at least a pure shooter versus the obscene number of point guards being carried on the roster currently. Russell Westbrook is the other candidate, but more important than the final cut, honestly, is how the guards work together. Determining who’s best for managing the offense and who should work off-ball is a trick Coach K has to figure out. It’s just not as simple as “toss ’em out there and let ’em play.”
2. Tread Lightly, Tyson: No one really wants to criticize Coach K’s decisions, because, well, it’s Coach K. Beyond his endless accomplishments, he also won the Gold two years ago. But I mean, Tyson Chandler? That’s your center? That’s the hill you want to die on? The guy that’s missed 68 games the past two seasons and has a bum foot? Chandler is the only true center on the team, and while Kevin Love will surely help out with the rebounding, Coach K has been experimenting with things like Kevin Durant at center. Which is cute, and nice, but also a really bad idea in actual basketball terms. Chandler simultaneously has to be out there for the team to maintain rebounding advantage and not wear down the other players playing bigger than their size, and has to be careful because he absolutely cannot get hurt.
3. What’s Good, Iggy?: Andre Iguodala has impressed the coaches and fans alike with his play, being the versatile guy he is on the Sixers. He’s in his comfort zone on this squad, and has taken on a leadership role on the court. The coaches will be looking for more of that from Iguodala. The coaches clearly want to see more aggressiveness from the players, and Iguodala has been the model of that. It’ll be interesting to see if he continues that theme against a better team defensively in Lithuania, especially since he may be guarding star Linas Kleiza for some time.
4. Go Get It Durant: If Iguodala has been the model of assertiveness, Durant has been the opposite. It hasn’t been concerning, because he’s mostly been helping get teammates involved and has still been the primary scorer. But the feeling has been that Kevin Durant has held something back during the exhibitions and practice so far and is still trying to get his feet under him. The coaches have stressed the need for him to feel comfortable scoring and being who he is, the best player on the team. Today offers him a prime chance to take over and do what he does best. Get buckets.
5. Downtown Work: The key to this FIBA run will be three-point shooting, the experts have agreed. While NBA fans wonder how in heaven’s name this team will consistently rebound, the experts have been focused on the team nailing, and defending, three-point shots. There are some ace defenders on the perimeter for Team USA, but the pull-up and spit-shot threes of FIBA are a different level and approach from what they’re used to in the NBA. Likewise, this is not known as a crack three-point shooting team. The best shooters may be at the wing spots, and Rondo and Derrick Rose are simply not terrific perimeter scorers, though Rose has clearly worked on his shot. Eric Gordon could cement himself on the team after a strong week of practice with a strong shooting performance from downtown today.