So far Team USA’s vacation in Spain has been a relaxing romp — they are 6-0 at the FIBA World Cup in Spain and the closest game finished with a 21-point USA win. The Americans felt no stress and had plenty of time to take in the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and nosh on gambas al ajillo.
Team USA has averaged 99.5 points a game on 52.7 percent shooting as a team. Their pressure defense has overwhelmed everyone they faced and they have the best defensive points per possessions allowed in the tournament. More importantly, the depth and versatility of the American roster has allowed them to just beat their opponents at their own games.
Now the vacation part of the trip ends — starting Tuesday this is a business trip for Team USA.
There have been cracks in the USA armor — a stagnant halfcourt offense, defenders getting lost (they switch screens a lot and the communication has been an issue, defenders get lost on backcuts) — but they have not faced anyone who can exploit it.
Frankly, only Spain has the talent and system to exploit the flaws enough to beat Team USA, however the Americans will not see the host nation until next Sunday’s World Cup final.
Prior to that this week Team USA will see two teams that have the skill to pick at those flaws, to play the blueprint that gave the USA trouble against Turkey for a half. Team USA should win those games, likely handily, but if the Americans do not start to fix those flaws Spain will rip them wide open.
The Americans cannot just flip the switch against Spain.
First up for the Americans is Goran Dragic (and his brother Zoran Dragic) and the Slovenian team — a squad Team USA overran and beat by 30 in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden. On the surface it doesn’t look like much of a test, but there are a couple things at play here. First, Slovenia has seen the Americans and their system before, they will not be as overwhelmed and intimidated.
Also, the Slovenians run a lot of pick-and-rolls and that has been a minefield for Team USA — starting Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and James Harden always meant perimeter defense was going to be an issue. The Americans are running a very Tom Thibodeau influenced system where they are going under most picks, but Turkey zig-zagged off picks, which caused problems, and Turkey showed if you run some back cuts defenders get lost and easy shots open up. Slovenia runs a system offense and will look for these kind of actions, and the Dragic brothers have the skills to make the Americans work.
It’s not that Slovenia will win, but if they are getting a lot of clean looks and open layups, it will be a bad sign of things to come. This game will be closer than the game in New York a few weeks back.
Next up on Thursday will come either Turkey — who laid out the blueprint for beating Team USA (remember Turkey led by five at the half) — or a Lithuanian team that runs a good system and has talent. Lithuania rolls out NBA big men in the Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas and the Rockets’ Donatas Motiejunas, which would make the American front line works. Lithuania would be another real test for the Americans, but they don’t really have the talent to exploit the flaws enough to win.
Everything still points to a USA vs. Spain World Cup final Sunday in Madrid. They have clearly been the two best teams in the tournament.
Spain has Pau Gasol, who is having a tournament MVP level run, along with his brother Marc Gasol, and they bring Serge Ibaka off the bench. That front line is a serious challenge for the American front line of Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins (a group which has owned the glass so far). For guards the Spanish have Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon, Sergio Rodriguez, Juan Carlos Navarro, and on the wing there is Rudy Fernandez — they have great shooting, as well guys who are unselfish. They have guys who match up with the American wings (this is where they miss Paul George and Kevin Durant, they miss the size).
Also, all those Spanish players have played together for at least six years on the national team — they know their system. Their big men pass well and you can expect a lot of back cuts and pick-and-rolls, you have guards who can handle the Americans’ athleticism and pressure and not buckle. Lose your man on defense and they will get and hit the open shot.
Bottom line, the Americans need to play better against Spain than they have so far to beat them.
Which means Team USA needs to clean up their flaws against Slovenia and whoever they play Thursday. If they just try to flip the switch against Spain, it will not end well.