Guard issues rise before title game
ISTANBUL -- No question Kevin Durant was the story of the US-Lithuania game. One of the biggest questions for Team USA going into Sunday's gold-medal game against Turkey at the World Championship is this: Has Mike Krzyzewski lost faith in Derrick Rose?
Rose had one of the best seats in the house for the entire fourth quarter of an 89-74 victory over Lithuania on Saturday night, sitting courtside with the American subs as Eric Gordon and then Russell Westbrook played alongside Chauncey Billups in the backcourt.
Rose was 0-for-4 in just 12 minutes, and his lack of an outside shot was the reason his warm-ups never came off for the final 10 minutes.
"The zone, you know the zone, I thought with Andre [Iguodala] and Derrick out there, they were playing off of those two guys. So it became more difficult for Chauncey to get a look, or Kevin Durant. And Russell can really penetrate against any defense," Krzyzewski said. "So you had that, and Eric has been our best shooter outside of Kevin Durant, and Chauncey at the point in that situation is something that we talked about as a team and as a coaching staff.
"So we went to that, and that was a good thing to go to."
Indeed it was.
Coach K has been playing Billups off the ball at shooting guard, away from his natural position at the point, and has been getting mixed results. Billups was in the zone from 3-point range in the Americans' round of 16 game against Angola, but he has been spotty with his perimeter shooting in practically every other game.
Rose has run even more hot and cold, finding it especially difficult to deal with the big man he always finds waiting for him in the lane when he is able to shake and bake his way past his primary defender. Rose's shot selection was particularly brutal Saturday, and the Lithuanians sagged off him after his 3-point attempt from 22 feet away early in the second quarter traveled 25 feet in the air, hitting the glass where the FIBA sticker is affixed to the lower right side of the backboard.
Gordon has been the Americans' best 3-point shooter in the tournament, making 19 of his 38 attempts. But he went just 1-for-3 from downtown against Lithuania, and the player aside from Durant (38 points) who was the difference-maker on both ends of the court was Westbrook, who logged 24 minutes and had 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Gordon and Westbrook have both gained their coach's confidence more than any of the other U.S. bench players, but Westbrook has consistently gotten the job done on the defensive end.
During a key juncture of the first half, Westbrook came sprinting seemingly out of nowhere to block a fast-break layup from behind, snuffing Lithuania's chance to pull within six, then made a pair of free throws at the other end on the next possession for a four-point swing that gave the U.S. team a 35-25 lead.
Durant was the one who killed every Lithuania rally from that point on, but Westbrook's aggression was the reason he was in the backcourt alongside Billups when the Americans needed to put this one away in the fourth quarter when Lithuania was still within 11 as the clock ticked under 5 minutes left.
Westbrook's two free throws after he grabbed an offensive rebound off a rare miss by Durant made it 79-64, and Durant supplied the dagger with a 3-pointer with 3:52 left as he broke Carmelo Anthony's U.S. record (35) for most points in a world championship game. (Obscure trivia: Jae Hur of South Korea holds the tournament record of 52 points against Egypt in 1990.)
So the Americans move on to the gold-medal game against Turkey, which defeated Serbia 83-82 in a game filled with high drama.
Turkey trailed by eight with 5½ minutes left but rallied while relying on an acting job by Omer Asik that was worthy of an Oscar.
Asik, a horrible free throw shooter (he had missed 26 of 41 in the tournament), was grabbed around the waist as he caught the ball under the basket with 1:18 left. He immediately collapsed to the ground holding his head, and Turkey brought him an ice bag and took him out of the game because of the, ahem, injury, and selected Ender Arslan to shoot the free throws. He made one of two, and Turkey led until Marko Keselj hit a pair from the line with 28.7 seconds left to make it 80-79.
Semih Erden scored for Turkey with 16.8 left, but Serbia went back ahead 82-81 when Novica Velickovic made a layup with 4.3 seconds left. After a timeout, Turkey inbounded to Hedo Turkoglu, and Serbia sent too many defenders at him, allowing Kerem Tunceri to break free for a layup with a half-second left.
The clock expired, and it appeared Turkey had won. But Serbia coach Dusan Ivkovic had requested a timeout when the ball was inbounded (under FIBA rules, only coaches can ask for timeouts), and a half-second was put back on the clock.
An alley-oop pass to Velickovic was absolutely perfect, but Erden got a fingertip on the ball to block it, and the place went absolutely nuts.
So the Americans wound up with the tougher of the two opponents, in large part because they'll be playing against a singing, cheering crowd of 15,500 that'll make for the toughest atmosphere a U.S. team has faced since playing Greece in Athens at the 2004 Olympics.
But that game was only in preliminary round play, and this one is for the gold medal at the World Championship -- something the Americans haven't won since 1994.
And whether they have to play from behind or are able to play from ahead, it'll likely come down to who is on the court in the fourth quarter, who the coaches trust, and whether Durant can be a superhuman in one of the wildest atmospheres he'll ever experience (earlier this summer, he said Stillwater, Okla., was the most hostile arena he had played in).
I've picked the Americans to win, and I'm rooting for my pick. But I also hope this one comes down to the final seconds just like the second semifinal did, because witnessing one of these one-and-done games, on the road in a country where the home team and the home crowd are united as one, is to witness international basketball at its very, very best.
Be sure to remember that if you find yourself deciding whether watching the second half of a Week 1 NFL game can compare to watching Durant and the rest of Team USA try to accomplish something that hasn't happened in 16 years, in the toughest atmosphere imaginable.
"We'll see what happens," Turkoglu said, refusing to bite an hour after the second semifinal when asked for a prediction of who would win. "Every game is different."
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