U.S. looking comfy on way to worlds
ATHENS, Greece -- The circumstances didn't exactly call for it, but there stood Chauncey Billups at the free throw line with a smile so bright it made you want to ask what kind of toothpaste he uses.
Billups had just bricked a pair of technical-foul free throws (three actually, but he shot the first left-handed when the referee signaled that the ball was dead), and the smile was actually fitting because it was a moment he could laugh off.
That's because the whole night was a laugher for Team USA.
"That's the second time I've done that since I've been here in Europe, missing two in a row," Billups said following a 87-59 trouncing of a Greek national team whose players' minds -- not to mention their biggest bodies -- were not in the game as they waited to hear from FIBA how many of them would be suspended, and for how long, for their roles in a brawl against Serbia last week.
It was the final tune-up for both teams before the world championship begins in Turkey on Saturday, and the Americans were the ones who suddenly looked quite fine-tuned.
It what was by far their most dominant performance since they first came together as a unit at mini-camp in Las Vegas in mid-July, and it sent them into the games that count with a feeling that they can count on one another now that they know exactly which 12 players will be representing their homeland.
"The confidence of the team is really high right now," Billups told ESPN.com. "Not too high, but at the same time we expect to win, and we know if we play extremely hard on the defensive end there's always going to be two or three guys that get going on the offensive end, and another five or six guys just chipping in.
"If we can do that every night, we got a good chance to be successful."
Once again riding a strong start, the Americans pulled away early in the third quarter -- right about the same time the one and only chant of "Hel-las" was heard from a surprisingly timid crowd -- and put it on cruise control the rest of the way.
They will fly Thursday afternoon to Istanbul, where they can unpack their bags, put their shirts on hangars and settle in for 19 straight days of getting to know each other better.
And clearly, they have evolved into quite a comfortable unit.
"Since that first game against France, things are coming easier for everybody," said Kevin Durant, who recovered from a poor shooting first half to score 15 points and grab seven rebounds with three assists in little more than 20 minutes of playing time.
Eric Gordon led Team USA with 18 points off the bench, going 4-for-7 on 3-pointers, and Derrick Rose was named MVP of the game after shooting 6-for-7 and scoring 13 points in just 18½ minutes of playing time.
It was a night on which the Americans did some experimenting, opening up with a zone defense for the first time, mixing up their rotations and getting some burn for players on the end of the bench whose playing time had been previously limited.
Kevin Love played center and piled up the stats, scoring 10 points with 12 rebounds and three steals in 11½ minutes, and Stephen Curry got to run the show at point guard for a short spell after Russell Westbrook picked up two quick fouls.
The most impressive stat of all was the Americans' 15-2 edge on the offensive boards, once again showing that they can make up in effort what they lack in size when it comes to rebounding.
"We're starting off games well, pushing the ball, making sure everyone runs the floor, getting used to playing with each other, and I guess we're coming along as a team," Rose said before being asked how different this team has become in the short time since last Saturday when the since-departed Rajon Rondo was the starting point guard and they managed just seven points in the first quarter of an exhibition against Lithuania.
"It's totally different. We have confidence and trust in one another, and we go out there we already know that we can win the game."
The distractions facing the Greek team were compounded just 15 minutes before tipoff when center Sofaklis "Baby Shaq" Schortsanitis rolled his left ankle during warmups, depriving them of one of the strongest weapons they had four years ago when they stunned Team USA in the semifinals of the world championship in Japan.
Greece was also without power forward Ioannis Bourousis, who is recovering from a finger injury, and got a good game out of only one player -- center Kostas Tsartsaris, who scored 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting by exploiting the Americans' lack of size in the interior.
Greece had defeated Canada by 74 points, Russia by 38, Germany by 28 and Croatia by nine in exhibition games prior to the fateful match against Serbia, and they were expecting some measure of closure after being told they would learn Wednesday what punishment would be handed down by FIBA.
But that news never arrived, and the Greek players were as passive as their fans throughout the 40 minutes -- not even bothering to run upcourt after several of their 24 turnovers, many of which led to easy breakaway buckets for the Americans.
"They didn't have the Big Fella playing, and he's a tough matchup for anybody. They weren't the Greece that I'm sure we'll see if we play them in Turkey," Billups said. "We have a good competitive rivalry with that team, as well. They wanted to win, but we came out and played hard and pretty good."
For the Americans, everyone played confidently and contributed.
"It's hard to single any one of these guys out, they're all bringing different things to the table," Lamar Odom said. "Look at Eric Gordon coming off the bench and leading us in scoring. These guys can all play, they can all shoot, they can all make plays, they're all great basketball players."
And the fact that they seemed to have turned a corner, beginning with their one-point victory over Spain in Madrid on Sunday, does not bode well for the rest of the world.
They may be a B-team, but they were playing their "A" game on the night before they leave for Turkey.