Durant delivers despite limited minutes
ISTANBUL -- The question needed to be asked, so it was asked: Why, Coach K, did you pull Kevin Durant from the game just past the midpoint of the first quarter?
Durant had gotten Team USA off to a torrid start against Slovenia with 7 points, 3 steals, 2 rebounds and 2 assists in the first 5½ minutes as the U.S. jumped out to an 18-6 lead.
But after he was subbed out, the Americans struggled noticeably, falling into an offensive drought in which they failed to make a field goal during the first 6½ minutes of the second quarter as their lead dwindled to five.
"Well, it's a long tournament, and we need to develop our entire team," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "My position is based on running a marathon and not a sprint. That's something I've learned over the last five years. We need 12 guys to win. As we keep going along, it's not one guy. Not one guy."
Fair enough, but the team's difficulties when Durant was not on the floor were something of a worrisome afterthought following Team USA's 99-77 victory over Slovenia on Sunday, the second day of FIBA World Championship competition.
The Americans were never in danger in this one, but the early substitution was a curious one. They were playing so well from the get-go that they could have rode Durant's hot hand to a 20-point lead after the first quarter, then given him 30 minutes of rest to have him in top form for the final game of a back-to-back-to-back Monday against Brazil.
As it was, Krzyzewski gave Durant a longer run to open the second half, leaving him in for the first 7 minutes, 37 seconds of the third quarter while subbing out the four other starters. He then pulled him for good after Durant fed Kevin Love for a dunk, completing one of the niftiest passing possessions of the game to extend the lead to 26 points.
"Coach does a great job of letting me know when I'm coming out and when I'm getting extended minutes, too. I'm totally fine with that," said Durant, who finished with a game-high 22 points in just 22 minutes. "I just try to give them a great spark when I come back into the game."
That he did, as did Love, who produced 10 points and 11 rebounds in yet another hyperactive performance in limited time (13 minutes).
Love and Durant stood out the most, and Rudy Gay played well, too, by chipping in 16 points. But for the second straight day the Americans showed a disturbing proclivity to turn the ball over -- at one point in the second quarter, they were averaging almost one per minute.
"Each game has gotten tougher and tougher, and tomorrow is going to be a huge challenge for us," Love said. "We can't have a lapse like we've had the last two games, where we've had turnover after turnover. We have to clean that up because it can hurt us down the stretch."
There is no shame in having defeated its latest opponent by 22 points, but Team USA is not fooling itself into thinking it's a well-polished product.
What's getting it done for the Americans more than anything (aside from Durant's offense) is their defensive effort, which assistant coach Jim Boeheim described as "on par" with that of the 2008 Olympic team.
"Offensively we make some errors and there are some mistakes that we need to work on, but defensively this team's playing very, very well," Boeheim said.
Durant spearheaded that defense in the early going, coming up with a steal on Slovenia's first offensive possession and going in for an uncontested dunk. He then came up with another theft and fed Andre Iguodala for a slam that made it 18-6 before the starters were subbed out with more than four minutes remaining in the first quarter.
"Kevin can play two games a day. He's fine," Boeheim said. "He's not having to play big minutes right now. If he had to, he could play big minutes. If we could hold him around 20-something a game for a while, that'd be good. But Kevin is one of those guys that could play 30 minutes very easily if he had to, probably 35."
Krzyzewski already has shown he will ride Durant when necessary. He did it the previous weekend in Madrid when the Americans defeated Spain in a tuneup game in which Durant logged nearly 38 minutes.
Coach pulled me to the side and told me to just be who I am, score the basketball.” -- Kevin Durant
But what's important to the Americans now is that Durant is being aggressive defensively. "He's letting me go out there and gamble a little bit," Durant said. "We're not used to that in Oklahoma City." He's also gambling offensively, something Krzyzewski told him he needed to do when the team was finishing up training camp in New York.
"In practice I was passing too much, passing up open shots and trying to find an open man," Durant said. "Coach pulled me to the side and told me to just be who I am, score the basketball. That's one of my greatest attributes, and he told me go out there and play like I play in Oklahoma City.
"I didn't want to be that guy who comes in and everybody doesn't like playing with, but my teammates were very cool in letting me know 'We're going to feed off you on offensive end.' So my teammates made it easier for me."
He is making it easier for them, too. And the hard part of this tournament is still more than a week away.
The Americans are certainly gold-worthy, but what happens in the first week of pool play is meaningless once the knockout round begins.
"As always they have a very athletic team, that's the first thing you notice," Slovenian small forward Bostjan Nachbar said. "They have a young team, a team that's very hungry -- you can sense that; they want to win, they play together and they have shooting.
"The one negative I see is their main players don't have the experience at FIBA level. The basketball is a little different, especially when you go into the semis and the finals, with the rules, the referees, the pressure and this and that. It is going to be different, and hopefully they're going to adjust by then and play well. I'd like to see it because it seems like they have a good group of guys and they want to win."
But it'll take more than one guy, which is why their main guy is being held back for now.