Posted Sep 11 2010 8:44PM
ISTANBUL -- The United States National Team has passed every test on its way to Sunday's gold medal game (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) of the 2010 FIBA World Championship. But the test they will face against hosts Turkey on Sunday will certainly be the most difficult of all, because they will be playing in an environment unlike anything most of them have ever experienced.
The 15,000 people who pack the Sinan Erdem Dome on Sunday will be the most hostile crowd most of these players, with the exception of maybe Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom, have ever seen. They will be waving their Turkish flags, singing all night long, and whistling every second the U.S. has the ball.
And the Americans will be facing a lot more than the crowd on Sunday. Turkey is better than any team they've faced thus far in the World Championship, ranking third offensively (117.9 points scored per 100 possessions) and second defensively (91.8 points allowed per 100 possessions).
Turkey is the best 3-point shooting team in the tournament, connecting on 43 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc. And they force more turnovers (21.9 per 100 possessions) than the Americans do.
Turkey will mix up its defenses, but the U.S. will likely see a lot of its vaunted 2-1-2 zone that extends past the mid-court line and is so strong because of its length. Turkey has a big and athletic frontline, and will sometimes use a lineup with four players 6-foot-10 or taller.
Size has been the U.S. Team's biggest concern since they lost four big men early in training camp. But thus far, the Americans have made up for their lack of true big men with speed, athleticism, and as much chemistry as any team could have after just six weeks together.
With all 12 members of the 2008 Olympic team declining to participate this summer, this edition of USA Basketball has been labeled the "B Team." But they've already made it further in the World Championship than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard did in 2006. And if they win on Sunday and earn an automatic bid to the 2012 Olympics, it's very possible that this squad will be just as represented as the 2008 team when the 2012 roster is put together.
This team came in to the World Championship small and inexperienced, but they've worked hard and have done everything head coach Mike Krzyzewski has asked of them.
"This group, we've said from Day 1, appeared to be a very low-maintenance group, and that's turned out to be true," USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said Friday. "It's a terrific group of guys. They've really been close. So from a coaching standpoint, in terms of our staff, it's been a terrific group to work with."
There are no egos or individual agendas - just 12 guys in search of gold and the United States' first World Championship title since 1994. Only one active NBA player, Shaquille O'Neal, has won a World Championship for the U.S. And these guys know how special it would be to become Nos. 2 through 13.
"It's a great feeling [to play for the gold medal]," Rudy Gay said Saturday. "We have the chance to make history."
The formula for success was established early and the U.S. has followed it to a perfect 8-0 mark in Istanbul thus far. They've been the best offensive team in the tournament through Saturday, but their success really starts with their defense.
"It's the most aggressive defense in this competition," Lithuanian coach Kestutis Kemzura said after his team's 89-74 loss to the U.S. in Saturday's semifinal. The U.S. forced Lithuania into 14 turnovers on Saturday and had countless additional deflections. And a key against Turkey will be to turn turnovers into transition baskets.
The U.S. has played at the fastest pace in the competition, while Turkey has played at the fifth slowest. And if the Americans can get out and run, they won't allow that Turkey zone to get set up.
The U.S. and Turkey have been the two most dominant teams in the tournament, and this matchup was seemingly made in basketball heaven. For Turkey, it would be a tremendous boost for both national pride and its basketball program.
A U.S. loss on Sunday would render the previous six weeks meaningless in the minds of many. And it would also bring the prospect of having to qualify for the 2012 Olympics at the FIBA Americas tournament next summer in Argentina, possibly without NBA players if there is a labor dispute.
A win would be a statement that the United States has more than just the best basketball talent in the world. It has players that are willing to sacrifice their time and their individual basketball talents for the good of their team and their country.
For these 12 players, it's an opportunity to establish their place in USA Basketball history. And to do it against the home team in what will be an incredible environment will be extra special. For each of them, even the two with NBA titles, it will be an experience they'll cherish forever.
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