By Steve Silverman
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There is a constant pressure on the United States team any time it takes the court in international competition.
More than any of the great historical franchises in sports — the New York Yankees, Boston Celtics, Green Bay Packers or Montreal Canadiens — the USA is expected to win every time it takes the court.
That includes this year’s version of USA Basketball, which is getting set to compete in the FIBA World Cup in Spain, beginning Aug. 30.
In an effort to prepare for that tournament, the American team is playing exhibition games at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday and Thursday against the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, respectively.
The Americans dispatched an impressive Brazilian team in Chicago Saturday night by a surprising 95-78 margin, so it’s unlikely that the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico will cause head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team much angst.
But this American team is unlike most of its previous international teams. This is not the reincarnation of the Dream Team. You won’t find LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant. (You would have found Durant two weeks ago, but then he decided to, ahem, rest.)
Instead, this American team is one of emerging stars who are in the process of meshing quite well. Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and James Harden form the solid foundation. However, if this team is going to emerge with the World Cup title, it’s going to need a major contribution from its frontcourt players.
Therein lies the problem. DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Kenneth Faried, Rudy Gay, Gordon Hayward, Chandler Parsons and Mason Plumlee are USA Basketball’s frontcourt players, and they don’t inspire fear in the basketball-playing world.
But that doesn’t mean they are not a talented group, and it appears that Davis is ready for his basketball coming-out party. He was a dominant player in college at Kentucky, and he is coming off a season in which he averaged 20.8 points per game with the New Orleans Pelicans. Davis appears ready to make the jump from solid NBA contributor to legitimate superstar, and this tournament appears to be his vehicle.
Davis took the challenge in Chicago, as he scored 20 points, had nine rebounds and blocked five shots against Brazil’s powerful front line that included Tiago Splitter of the San Antonio Spurs and Nene of the Washington Wizards.
More than the numbers, Davis showed his value midway through the fourth quarter when he dove headfirst into the second row in order to keep a ball from going out of bounds.
“It’s about doing whatever it takes to win,” Davis said. “If that means scoring, I’m going to do it. If it means doing whatever is needed to get possession of the basketball, I’m going to do it. I think everyone on this team feels the same way.”
Faried, who hails from Newark and plays for the Denver Nuggets, is not a superstar. But he is a tough, athletic forward who plays fearlessly around the glass and will assert himself against the best international players. Gay is a late addition to the team. The former UConn star averaged 20.0 ppg this season for the Sacramento Kings, and is an earnest team player who excels at both ends of the court.
Eventually, the game will come down to guard play, and that’s where Curry and Harden will provide the outside shooting. If there’s a better shooter than Curry, I’d like to see him. The 26-year-old Curry has a chance to rank with the most talented sharpshooters in the history of the game if he can continue to produce the way he has throughout his first five years.
Harden can get his shot off seemingly any time he wants, and that makes him one of Krzyzewski’s bailout guys when the American needs a shot as the 24-second clock winds down.
Rose and Irving have unrelenting quickness that is going to help the Americans get key steals. However, Rose has reportedly been feeling some soreness in his knee, and that could limit his effectiveness throughout the tournament.
This American team played with maximum effort against Brazil, something that couldn’t have been easy after seeing former teammate Paul George suffer a gruesome broken leg when the team practiced earlier this month in Las Vegas.
That effort was grounded in defensive play, and the Americans have Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau supervising that aspect of the game. He is perhaps the top defensive guru in all of basketball.
Prior to the game against Brazil, Thibodeau put on a defensive clinic in schooling the team on the type of aggressive, switching man-to-man defense USA Basketball will play throughout the tournament. Thibodeau held the court for 45 minutes, and neither Krzyzewski nor assistant coach Jim Boeheim had to say a word while he was fine-tuning his system.
This tournament clearly means a lot to the coaching staff and managing director Jerry Colangelo. That was a given going in.
But this relatively unheralded group of players has bought in. They are not concerned with the pressure they will face, or that the whole world will be trying to take down the favorites. All they want to do is play basketball, and they appear to be prepared to put on a memorable show.
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