Posted Aug 28 2010 4:24PM
ISTANBUL -- After four weeks of training and five exhibition games, the U.S. National Team had established an identity. And that identity was on full display in their opening game of the 2010 FIBA World Championship, a 106-78 win over Croatia at the Abdi Ipekci Arena on Saturday.
Strong defense and potent perimeter offense lifted the U.S. to a comfortable victory and a promising start to their tournament. Croatia is a team that should advance to the medal rounds, and they were no match for the Americans.
The pace of the game was slow, which helped Croatia keep it close for the first quarter. But the U.S. pulled away in the second by locking down defensively. Though they weren't able to force nearly as many turnovers as they had in their exhibition games, they held Croatia to just six points on their 18 possessions in the period.
They stayed in front of their opponent, didn't gamble, contested shots, and rebounded.
"I thought we got adjusted to the stuff that they were running and some of their personnel," Chauncey Billups said afterward. "And once we were able to lock in and kind of take away some things, grab the rebound and just get out and go, the game kind of changed up for us."
That decisive second quarter was part of an extended 50-15 run, from the end of the first quarter through the middle of the third, that turned Croatia's only lead (19-18) into a 34-point deficit. Croatia shot 6-for-34 during the stretch. And though their offense picked up in the last quarter and a half, the game had long been decided by then.
"We really forced them into tough possessions," Andre Iguodala said. "They really didn't get anything easy. And on the misses, we kind of got out on the break."
Croatia had just 12 turnovers total, and five of them came from center Ante Tomic. But the U.S. was still able to run, finishing with 19 fast break points.
When they weren't running, the Americans did most of their damage offensively from the perimeter. Only 54 of their 106 points came in the paint or at the free throw line (compared to 48 for Croatia). Big men Lamar Odom, Tyson Chandler and Kevin Love accounted for just 10 of the 106.
But the jumpers were falling. They shot 12-for-30 (40 percent) from 3-point range, better than they shot in any of their exhibition games.
"Our key is going to be getting shots up," Billups said. "If we get shots up, we've got guys that are going to knock them down. If we don't, and we're getting in there and overpenetrating and not getting a shot up because we're turning the ball over, it's going to be a tough game every night."
Turnovers had been a problem in exhibition play, but the U.S. committed just seven of them on Saturday, resulting in just two Croatia points. The starting backcourt, Billups and Derrick Rose, combined for 19 turnovers in the five exhibition games and didn't have a single one against Croatia.
The lack of turnovers created more opportunities for the shooters, and Eric Gordon took advantage. The Clippers' guard continued to silence his doubters and secure an important spot in the rotation by shooting 6-for-8 from the field and 4-for-6 from 3-point range, leading the U.S. with 16 points.
The U.S. did struggle a bit in dealing with Croatia's size up front. The 7-foot-2 Tomic gave Odom some trouble in the low post, forcing U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski to call on Chandler for a better defensive matchup. But Tomic was in foul trouble most of the night and aside from a short run late in the first quarter, never got into much of a rhythm. The U.S. also kept the clamps on his teammates until late in the game.
"We kind of felt like if he's making those tough twos all night, we can live with that," Billups said. "But if we double and he's kicking it out [for] 3-pointers and all that, then that makes for a long night."
Croatia also had 14 offensive rebounds, which they converted into 19 second chance points. And for the first time this summer, the U.S. was outrebounded, 41-39. The boards were Krzyzewski's main emphasis all night, and they will continue to be until the World Championship is over.
Right now, the U.S. is just happy that the competition has finally started. And they should be content with how their first game played out. Two more challenges lie ahead in pool play, but it's clear that this team knows who it is and how it will play. It's a bend-but-not-break approach on the interior, knowing that they can flourish on the perimeter.
The identity has been established.
John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.
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