Biggest Storylines to Emerge from First Weekend of 2014 FIBA World Cup
We've had two days of FIBA World Cup action, and it's already clear this tournament isn't going to stick to the script.
That's not to say a dark-horse club is going to come out of nowhere and stun the basketball world with a deep run; Team USA and Spain remain a notch above the rest of the competition. But we're learning that these teams are all taking the tournament very seriously, and even the squads who suffered deflating beatdowns on Day 1 had the resolve to rally on Day 2.
These clubs are competing, which has resulted in a spirited first weekend of group play that will set the tone for the coming contests.
It's too early to say definitive trends have developed, though we're seeing hints of a few narratives that could stick around throughout the tournament. Team USA showed exactly the kind of malaise-based weakness we expected might crop up, and Andray Blatche has developed into the competition's most enjoyable sideshow.
Here's a breakdown of the need-to-know and fun-to-watch angles from the World Cup's opening weekend.
Somebody Should Pinch Andray Blatche
The Philippines hasn't won a game yet, but Andray Blatche is probably still enjoying his time in the FIBA World Cup.
The big man has had the ultimate green light so far, and he's been firing up shots like mad. His 42 takes over the tournament's opening weekend were more than any other player's.
In an 81-78 loss to Croatia on Saturday, Blatche tallied 28 points, 12 rebounds and seven turnovers. He also registered zero assists. He hoisted up another 18 attempts in an 82-70 loss to Greece on Sunday, making just six.
He had one assist against Greece, but that's only because the official scorer didn't credit him with a dime for this off-the-backboard pass to himself.
Basically, he's living every NBA gunner's dream.
The Philippines doesn't have anyone else on the roster remotely as talented as the former Brooklyn Nets forward, so he can chase all the numbers he wants without hearing about being a ball hog. The Philippines went to bizarre lengths to acquire him, according to Rafe Bartholomew of Grantland, and you have to hope the Asian nation knew what it was getting in the bargain:
The Philippines chose to naturalize Blatche so he could represent them in international basketball competitions, beginning with the World Cup, but also — they hope — the 2014 Asian Games and the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship, which will serve as the qualifying tournament for the 2016 Olympics.
Watching Blatche play has always been a mixed bag. His talent is undeniable, but his shot selection and general defensive disinterest can be frustrating. In this tournament, he's become something of a novelty, essentially doing whatever he wants on offense with no repercussions for bad shots or errant passes.
Here's hoping he cracks the 30-shot mark in a game before group play ends. The Philippines won't be around for him to keep gunning after that.
Not Everyone's Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf
Finland was scared.
Team USA crushed its first opponent by a final score of 114-55, holding Finland without a bucket for an entire quarter and creating turnover after turnover. It was a walkover, a thorough destruction, a result that was assured from the opening tip.
Swarming defense put Finland on its heels immediately, and as players became tentative (and sensed there was no hope), things snowballed. Team USA hardly had to run any sets—so dominant was its turnover-fueled transition onslaught.
The second opponent reacted differently.
Turkey slowed the pace, threw in some strange hybrid zone wrinkles (which included something that looked an awful lot like a box-and-one defense) and played for much of the game like a team that believed it could beat the U.S.
It even took a five-point lead into halftime.
Kenneth Faried led an energetic charge after the break, and the game devolved into a laugher by the fourth quarter, ultimately ending with a 98-77 USA win. But there was no mistaking what happened in the early going: Turkey came out prepared, slowed the game down and confidently attacked a U.S. team that wasn't totally engaged until coach Mike Krzyzewski woke it up after the second quarter.
We've seen this happen plenty of times before. The most talented team in the tournament sometimes feels it can take games off—especially after a confidence-swelling blowout.
The U.S. escaped unscathed, but the rest of the teams in the tournament learned something important: The Americans are invincible when they're fully focused, but the comfort of being favorites sometimes saps that focus, creating vulnerability.
We'll see if anyone follows Turkey's blueprint to completion.
Spain Is as Good as Advertised
Pau Gasol played like a guy with something to prove in Spain's 90-60 thrashing of Iran on Day 1, scoring 33 points, grabbing eight boards and handing out two assists. Most impressively, he took 20 shots—as many as the next three trigger-happiest Spaniards combined.
Having proved he still had plenty of dominant play left, Gasol took on a diminished role on Day 2 against Egypt.
Not to worry, though, as the rest of the frighteningly deep Spanish team collectively picked up the slack.
Rudy Fernandez dropped 14 points in a starting role, Pau added another dozen to his tally, and Serge Ibaka hopped off the bench to lead the team with 18 points and eight rebounds. Plus, Ricky Rubio kept everyone involved with seven dimes, and the Spanish defense forced 20 turnovers from an overwhelmed Egyptian squad.
We have yet to see if Spain will trot out its ultra-big frontcourt of Ibaka and both Gasols, but it hasn't needed to resort to drastic lineup decisions yet. So far, Spain has been nearly as impressive as Team USA, justifying its status as the primary obstacle in the way of U.S. gold.
Two wins by at least 30 points and a seemingly healthy Ibaka coming off the bench?
Things are looking good—as good as advertised—for Spain.
These Are Not Friendlies
The camaraderie of exhibition FIBA basketball is long gone. In its place is seriously competitive hoops.
Dario Saric lost six teeth on Sunday against Argentina and still finished the game. No, seriously.
"Dario Saric played vrlo dobro this morning in a 90-85 victory for Croatia over an aging Argentina squad," wrote Sean O'Connor of Liberty Ballers. "Saric finished with 16 points (on 5-of-12 shooting) and had nine rebounds in about 26 minutes, and his teeth plus-minus rating was minus-six. Holy crap."
Frustrated Finland big man Gerald Lee flung DeMarcus Cousins to the floor, getting his money's worth on a fifth foul during the USA's blowout win on Saturday.
Leandro Barbosa took a nasty spill on an attempted tip-in dunk as Brazil battled for a hard-fought win over France on the tournament's opening day.
We even had a low blow from the Philippines' L.A. Tenorio in a Sunday loss to Greece—one that probably raised Kostas Papanikolaou's voice an octave or two.
There were even moments in Team USA's win over Turkey in which Kenneth Faried, James Harden and Cousins all came dangerously close to letting their dissatisfaction with the officials bubble over into dangerous territory.
The point is this: Things are getting physical out there, teams are competing hard, and nobody is treating this as a summertime lark.
These guys care, and that's good news for the rest of the tournament.
Officiating Is an Issue
Because of course it is.
You can't have high-stakes basketball without at least some mention of how the referees are affecting the outcomes of games. Nobody's saying the officiating is any worse in this tournament than it is in the NBA or anyplace else, but if we're isolating storylines, it's only right to include this one.
We saw Team USA's frustrations against Turkey, but that was nothing compared to the griping after France narrowly knocked off Serbia on Sunday.
A costly turnover by Bogdan Bogdanovic gave possession back to France with under five seconds remaining in a tied game. There was plenty of contact as Bogdanovic was stripped, but no whistle. On the ensuing play, France guard Joffrey Lauvergne drove the lane, created contact and flailed his arms to exaggerate the collision.
This time, the whistle blew.
Lauvergne hit one of his foul shots to give France a one-point victory over a (perhaps justifiably) unhappy Serbian team.
"Every bad call that was called today was called against us," Serbian coach Sasha Djordjevic said, per John Schuhmann of NBA.com.
As the stakes increase going forward, expect the referees to play an even bigger role in this tournament.
Coming into the tournament, everyone expected the crammed-together schedule featuring five games in six days would lead to fatigue and perhaps a decline in the quality of play. Whether that'll be the case remains to be seen, but we can say for sure that the condensed group-play schedule has yielded at least one positive result.
Teams that suffer blowouts don't have long to dwell on them.
Take Finland as the prime example. After getting run out of the gym against Team USA on Saturday, the resilient Fins bounced back to defeat Ukraine by a final score of 81-76 on Sunday. I'm not sure what that says for the quality of Ukraine, but it certainly proves Finland didn't let one brutal defeat ruin its whole tournament.
Australia's opening loss wasn't nearly as severe, but it evened its record at 1-1 with a decisive drubbing of South Korea, 89-55, on Sunday.
France recovered from its loss to Brazil with a win over Serbia, and Senegal notched its first FIBA win after losing to Greece.
We should probably expect things to normalize as we advance past the whirlwind of group play. Eventually, teams won't get the opportunity to bounce back as quickly.
For now, though, we should be careful not to assign too much significance to one particular defeat—no matter how large the margin.
Twice the Dragic, Twice the Fun
We all know who Goran Dragic is (the NBA's crafty Most Improved Player) and what he can do (score in bunches), but we're less familiar with his younger brother Zoran.
That may not be the case for long, as the junior Dragic helped Slovenia to its second tournament win on Sunday with 22 points on a perfect 8-of-8 effort from the field. Goran, still the team's unquestioned leader, chipped in with 18 points, but he missed two of his eight field-goal attempts.
What a slacker.
Slovenia is a ton of fun to watch. It plays at a slightly faster pace than most of the non-USA teams in the World Cup, and it boasts two of the most exciting guards in the tournament.
I guess the lesson here is: If one Dragic is good, two is better.
Anthony Davis Is Who We Thought He Was
Which is to say: Anthony Davis is (and I can't believe I'm saying this) the best player in this tournament.
The raw numbers aren't comparable to some of the gaudy totals Andray Blatche or Pau Gasol have tallied, but Team USA's center has a bigger impact on both ends than any other player.
He controls the paint on D, lurking in every offensive player's mind as a shot-blocking threat. He inhales rebounds. He scores fluidly, reaching impossibly high lobs in transition, flashing a jumper too smooth to be fair and cleaning up misses underneath.
And it's not like the numbers are underwhelming. In two games, Davis has averaged 18 points and five rebounds while connecting on an absurd 14 of 19 shots from the field. Not only that, but his 10 trips to the foul line are also more than any other American player—including James Harden, who basically lives to create contact on offense.
Most incredibly, Davis is dominating games while playing conservatively. He's operating in a system, hasn't forced a shot and simply doesn't ever try to do too much.
Davis' arrival as the NBA's next perennial MVP candidate will have to wait until November. Study up; it's going to look a lot like what he's doing right now.