Posted Sep 12 2010 8:24PM - Updated Sep 12 2010 11:06PM
ISTANBUL -- They did what no American team had done since 1994. And they did it when there were so many reasons they couldn't.
They were too small and too young. They were as inexperienced as you can get when it comes to the international game. And though they had made it through pool play and three rounds of win-or-go-home situations, their final test would come in front of one of the craziest environments any of them would ever play in.
None of that mattered over these last 16 days in Istanbul, as the United States National Team went a perfect 9-0 at the FIBA World Championship, defeating hosts Turkey 81-64 to win the gold medal.
These 12 players -- a couple of veterans, a few borderline All-Stars, and a bunch of kids -- overcame all of the obstacles to make a statement to the world and to their doubters back in the States.
"We belong," Kevin Love said simply. "We belonged from the start. And we knew it."
They belong with the stars that won gold in Beijing two years ago. They belong with U.S teams that dominated in the first few international competitions with NBA players. And they belong in the discussion when a new Olympic team is chosen in 2012.
They earned that right, much more than they had ever earned the "B Team" label that pundits put on them last month.
"That [label] was everybody's motivation," tournament MVP Kevin Durant said. "We came out and proved everybody wrong."
Yes, the U.S. had the most talent of any of the 24 teams here in Turkey, even with the NBA's superstars staying home. But this group certainly didn't rest on that talent to win. This was a team that played hard and played together, making the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.
Durant was the unquestioned star of the team and MVP of the tournament, averaging 22.8 points, and carrying his team offensively through much of the gold medal game. With the Olympians staying home, Durant was given an opportunity to ascend to another level of basketball star. And he seized it with both hands.
But this championship was about much more than Durant, because the U.S. Team was strongest on the defensive end of the floor.
A huge Turkey squad was clearly their toughest test of the tournament. But rather than try to match up with a lineup that had four guys 6-foot-10 or taller on the floor, U.S. head coach Mike Krzyzewski decided to go even smaller than usual. He put Rudy Gay at center and had Russell Westbrook guard 6-foot-10 Kerem Gonlum.
The move paid off, because the smaller U.S. players simply outran, out-jumped and outworked the bigger Turks. With aggressive defense on the perimeter, they didn't allow easy passes into the post, forcing tough shots, as well as four 24-second violations. And on every miss, on both ends of the floor, they attacked the glass.
Above all, this victory was about effort.
As they had with each of their previous eight opponents, the U.S. overwhelmed Turkey with its speed, athleticism and energy. Statistically, these were the top two defensive teams over the first 15 days of the tournament. And on Sunday, holding what was also a very strong offensive team to less than a point per possession, the U.S. proved who was best.
And now, as both the current Olympic champions and current World Champions, the United States has once again established itself as the nation that all others compare themselves to on the basketball court.
It's another triumph for Krzyzewski and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo. The system that they put together in 2006 has developed into one that can take a completely new group of players and turn them into world champions in just six weeks.
"This is huge for USA Basketball," Colangelo said after Sunday's win. "This gets us over the hump."
Like the '08 team, this squad will make even more players want to put on that USA uniform. And come 2012, Colangelo and Krzyzewski should have an even bigger pool of talent to create a 12-man roster from.
Krzyzewski likes to recount stories of his basketball experiences to motivate his teams. And after six weeks with the 2010 U.S. National Team, he's got another story to tell. This is the one about the too small, too young and too inexperienced group of non-stars that proved that they belong.
"Everybody talked about who wasn't here, and how we couldn't do it," Chauncey Billups said. "We had too many young guys, no size. They made every excuse in the world for us not to be able to win. We blocked all that, came out here and just took care of business. There's something that has to be said for what we did this summer."
Durant was the star. The effort was the difference. And the United States is on top of the basketball world again.
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