Team USA: What lies ahead
MADRID -- It's time to see how Team USA performs in a hostile environment, and time to see whether Kevin Durant can stop being too unselfish.
The Americans will face their first tough test Sunday when they play Spain, the defending world champions (ESPN3, 3 p.m. ET). But first they'll go up against Lithuania on Saturday (ESPN and ESPN3, 3 p.m. ET) in a game that does not figure to stay close for very long.
Then again, strange things never cease to happen in international basketball, as Nenad Krstic learned Thursday. He spent the night in a Greek jail cell after throwing a chair during a nasty brawl in a Greece-Serbia friendly at the Acropolis Cup in Athens.
"Looked a little like Indiana and Detroit," coach Mike Krzyzewski said after a brief practice Friday. "If we did it, more of us would have gone to jail. And I want to keep me and everyone else out of jails."
Team USA is now listed on Internet wagering sites as a 3-4 favorite to win the world championship, while Spain is the second choice at 3-1. But one American staff member, who asked that he not be quoted by name, said in his opinion Spain should be considered the team to beat in Turkey.
So as we head into what should be, at the very least, an interesting weekend for Team USA, it's time for some questions and answers on the state of the U.S. team:
How important is Sunday's game?
On one level, it is completely unimportant. It is nothing more than an exhibition, but Krzyzewski assured a group of inquisitive Spanish reporters that the Americans will be playing to win -- although they'll also be trying to work on offensive and defensive schemes that they are only now starting to introduce at practices.
"This Sunday will be a big game, but it won't be bigger than the games we play in Turkey, and that's what we have to gear ourselves for. All the games in Turkey are bigger than any game here, or in Athens [where the Americans will play the Greeks next Wednesday]," Krzyzewski said.
"This is a good group of guys, but they need to get their international experience. They'll even get that through pool play. By the time the medal round starts, that's when I want to be at our best. If there is such a thing as peak, and I don't know if there is, I don't want to peak for this weekend. I want to peak for the medal round, and that's how we're approaching it."
What has the team been focusing on since arriving in Spain?
One of the main points of emphasis has been trying to get Durant to be more aggressive as a scorer, just as he is with the Oklahoma City Thunder. And Krzyzewski said Durant made a big step in that direction at Thursday's practice.
"He's been overpassing because they want to please one another, but he's a scorer, and I told him 'When you get the ball, they expect you to shoot it. And a pass should be more of a bailout for you.'"
Durant concurred that he needs to change his focus from bending over backward to be too much of a team player.
"Early on in camp I was passing, trying to fit in," he said. "These last couple days I've been really aggressive."
Will Spain bring its A-game Sunday night?
Doubtful. As much as it would mean to Spain to defeat the United States in front of its home fans, it does not want to reveal too many of its schemes.
Said Krzyzewski: "I know how the international game works, and nobody wants to show too much. We beat Spain by over 30 points in pool play [in Beijing], but in the gold-medal game we were up by just two points with eight minutes to go. We don't have our whole system in yet, what we're going to do offensively and defensively, whereas Spain -- they already know what they're doing. They've been playing together for a long time."
Whose stock has risen in the past week?
The coaches have been raving lately about Eric Gordon, who was on the cut bubble when the team held a minicamp in Las Vegas last month, "because we didn't know him as well," Krzyzewski said.
"He's really had a terrific practice every single day, and every day he's produced, he's just been steady. And he's a guy that doesn't need the ball long. On our Olympic team, Carmelo Anthony didn't need the ball long, and that helps. He's been very good. Very good. I won't say anybody's made the team until we're down to 12, but he's been very good. I'll leave it at that."
Whose stock has fallen?
Stephen Curry's has, simply because he missed two days of practice after spraining his ankle. But he was back on the court Friday, and it now appears it's a battle between him and Russell Westbrook for the 12th spot as Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose have emerged as the top two options at point guard, with Chauncey Billups spending most of his time at shooting guard.
What will be the key factor for the Americans to be successful?
Most of the talk has been about the need for them to rebound, since they are playing with only one true center, Tyson Chandler, while using Durant, Andre Iguodala, Lamar Odom and Kevin Love at the 4 and 5 spots.
But what will eventually make or break this team is its ability to hit 3-point shots from the shorter FIBA 3-point line -- 20 feet, 6.1 inches from the basket, as opposed to 23 feet, 9 inches in the NBA. (Note: FIBA is moving the 3-point line one meter further away for the 2012 Olympics, when they'll also switch from a trapezoid lane to a rectangular one).
Who is Team USA's starting five?
On Saturday against Lithuania, it'll be Chandler at center, Iguodala at power forward, Durant at small forward, Billups at shooting guard and Rondo at the point. But Krzyzewski has said he may eventually turn to Rose, Danny Granger and/or Rudy Gay as starters, depending on the particular matchup.
So, what's your prediction for Sunday's game, Sheridan?
It goes down to the final possession, and it could go either way. But as Krzyzewski pointed out above, it really doesn't matter who wins this weekend. Nothing really matters until Sept. 4, when the single-elimination round of 16 begins. So enjoy the game, but don't make too much of a fuss over the result, whatever it may be -- unless someone ends up spending the night in jail like Krstic did Thursday night.
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