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John Schuhmann

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Russell Westbrook and former UCLA teammate Kevin Love were instrumental to the U.S. win over Slovenia.
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Once again, U.S. defense carries the day at Worlds


Posted Aug 29 2010 1:53PM

ISTANBUL -- This was not perfection.

The U.S. National Team's 99-77 win over Slovenia on the second day of the 2010 FIBA World Championship had its peaks and valleys. But the U.S. was again able to count on its defense to carry it through its second straight comfortable victory.

There was a time in this game where it looked like the pro-Slovenian crowd and the FIBA rules for traveling were knocking the Americans off their game. The low point was a stretch of 25 offensive possessions spanning the first and second quarters when the U.S. had twice as many turnovers (12) as they did scores (six).

Four of the 12 turnovers were travelling calls. The whistle was quick to blow when a U.S. ball-handler took a step or two before putting down a dribble after receiving a pass, a call that is not made in the NBA and that will come into play often for this team that wants to push the ball every chance they get.

"It's tough when you're going full speed to catch the ball, stop on a dime and dribble," Andre Iguodala said afterward. "It's almost like you can't catch it."

That travelling rule seems to be officiated differently every night and is one that the U.S. was rarely whistled for in the 2008 Olympics. In fact, after Sunday's game, Slovenian forward Bostjan Nachbar said that not enough of those travelling calls were made against the U.S.

"Too many times, the refs don't call that when Team USA's on the floor," Nachbar said.

Either way, it's a call that this team will certainly have to adjust to as this tournament goes on, because their margin for error will not be as great in the medal rounds as it was on Sunday.

A smaller margin of error also means they won't be able to withstand an ugly 25-possession stretch like they did against Slovenia. That stretch cut an early 12-point lead down to six. It reached five a possession later, keeping the crowd very much into the game.

"The game was getting away from us a little bit," U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterward. "You're just going to have stretches like that when you play five games in six days. We had to regain our poise. And I thought we did by the end of the first half to get a double-digit lead."

The poise came from a pair of 21 year olds who have been making the most of their minutes since camp opened up six weeks ago.

Russell Westbrook ended a 7:20 stretch without a field goal with a pull-up jumper from the foul line. On the next possession, he ran a pick-and-roll with Kevin Love, connecting with Love for an and-one under the basket. A few possessions later, Love had the highlight of the game, a one-handed put-back off the glass with Slovenian power forward Uros Slokar draped around his left side.

Love missed the free throw, but the U.S. was able to finish the second quarter on a critical 14-5 run to push their lead back to 14 points going into the locker room. Slovenia never threatened in the second half.

Love wasn't in Krzyzewski's initial rotation on Sunday, but with the other two centers on the roster failing to make an impact, the coach called on his third big man to provide a spark. And by the second half, Love had taken Tyson Chandler's spot in the rotation.

Love finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds in just 13 minutes of action, giving him 21 total boards in less than 27 minutes of playing time thus far in the World Championship. Westbrook was one of four other U.S. players in double-figures, scoring 11 points on an efficient 5-for-7 from the field.

Kevin Durant led the way for the U.S. with 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting, with many of his buckets coming on the break - courtesy of the U.S. defense that was strong from the opening tip.

Slovenia scored on just five of its 21 possessions in the first quarter and didn't score on more than two straight possessions until midway through the third. With the U.S. playing aggressive defense on the perimeter all game, Slovenia's top scorers - Nachbar, Goran Dragic and point guard Jaka Lakovic - never got into any kind of rhythm and combined to shoot just 8-for-25 from the field.

"I had to expend a lot of energy getting the ball," admitted Nachbar, who was defended by Iguodala most of the game.

The U.S. team's defensive stopper knows his role. And he knows that it's better to deal with some offensive issues than struggle on the other end.

"The defense was there," Iguodala said. "The only thing that really stopped us from going up 20 points in the first half was a couple of travel calls. So we've just got to adjust to it. That's a small adjustment to make. It's not like we're giving up threes or not getting stops."

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