Team USA leaves mark on Goran Dragic

CANARY ISLANDS, Spain -- After every turned corner and every tricky dribble and every one of those trademark reverse pivots he's known to uncork, Goran Dragic saw the same thing.


Lots of long, American limbs impeding his path and his passing lanes.

"Their energy is unbelievable," Dragic told ESPN.com just outside Slovenia's locker room, having managed a mere six points in 21 minutes Tuesday night against the swarms of NBA peers that never left him alone in Team USA's 101-71 exhibition rout.

"It's hard. Especially on the pick-and-roll tonight, I didn't see any solutions."

Something else that confounds the Phoenix Suns' more typically dynamic point guard: Why an increasing number of folks in the international basketball community seem so eager to predict nothing more than a second-place finish for this admittedly weakened edition of Team USA.

It's a theory you'll be hearing with increasing regularity once the forthcoming FIBA World Cup, which opens Saturday for Team USA with a Group C game in Bilbao against Finland, inches into its later stages. The theory holds that host Spain -- having come so close to beating LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant & Co. in the title game of the 2012 Olympics -- is finally going to get its revenge if (when?) the teams meet on Spanish soil in the World Cup final.

It's a line of thinking founded on the notion that the Spaniards, who weren't far off six years ago in Beijing or two summers ago in London, will be facing a much more beatable Team USA should they survive their much more difficult road than the Americans face to get to the Sept. 14 championship game.‎

The roundball carrot dangling in front of the hosts, of course, is the prospect of facing a squad with no LeBron, no Melo and no Kobe ... but also no Durant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Russell Westbrook. The latter five stars all left Team USA voluntarily this summer in addition to the desperately unlucky Paul George, who didn't have a choice after his horrific compound leg fracture.

Yet here was Dragic, after Team USA's fourth and final exhibition this month and third successive laugher, cautioning the rest of the world against automatically assuming that the 12-man squad Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo ultimately picked -- which features six players yet to make an All-Star appearance -- is as vulnerable as folks are saying.

"The NBA can offer so many good players, even if those other guys didn't come, USA still has a good chance to win a gold medal," Dragic said.

"It's them and Spain. But the way they play so aggressively, they can pressure the whole court. They can beat anyone."

It's indeed a roster only half-filled with All-Stars and sporting a few undeniable warts. Team USA is clearly going to need its forthcoming five games in pool play, easy as they look on paper, to build up some semblance of flow with the ball to counter countries that sport a significant edge in terms of continuity. It's a group that's frankly still trying to establish its offensive pecking order and can surely expect to endure some extra free throw practice for the rest of the week after clanking 17 of 46 attempts from the line at a full-to-the-roof Gran Canaria Arena.

It's likewise important to bear in mind that Spain and a few other potential foes in the expanded 24-team field won't be nearly as one dimensional as the Slovenians, who have only one NBA player (Dragic) compared to Spain's six, France's five (even without Tony Parker and Joakim Noah), Brazil's four, etc.

Still ...

Krzyzewski's chosen dozen has no shortage of firepower that, in concert with all of Team USA's athleticism and high activity, can cause a multitude of problems. It's true even on nights like this one, when James Harden marks his 25th birthday with 3-for-10 shooting. And when the best lob thundered down by a better-by-the-day Anthony Davis is pitched high into the sky by rebounding specialist Kenneth Faried as opposed to one of Coach K's many top guards.

To beat Spain, in Spain, won't be easy. But this version of Team USA is more than capable if it can speed up the game to a warp factor Spain finds uncomfortable and gets Harden, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson shooting the ball like they can.

As long as the Davis-led defense can continue to dictate tempo and force turnovers like it has in its warmup games, there's no reason Team USA can't win its fourth major tournament in a row.

"[We're ready] for the next game, but not the medal round," Krzyzewski said. "We have to get a lot better before the medal round."

Countered Dragic: "You can see the coach is subbing them all after four minutes so they always play on a high level. It was crazy. It felt like three or four guys on me the whole time.

"I can beat one or two guys, but then they're so athletic, it's really tough to [get] open. Or even if you find [another] open guy, their rotations are so fast. It's tough."

Said Team USA guard Steph Curry: "Having six bigs that can rotate [between] the 4 and the 5 gives us that presence. We're very deep, so we still have the opportunities to go small and play fast. But the way those guys can defend the paint, rebound, block shots and then turn that into easy offense with the way they run the floor, it's pretty hard to score on us and defend us."

Put it all together and Team USA versus Team Dragon proved to be the mismatch everyone expected.

It was almost sufficiently lopsided, after a ragged first quarter for the Yanks, to make Curry feel some sympathy for his Pacific Division rival and presumed future Western Conference All-Star teammate.


"Nah," Curry said with a smile. "We have to [go against that sort of defense] in practice,‎ so I know how [Dragic] feels on the other end of the athleticism and the focus that we're playing with. Especially in pick-and-roll situations.

"The scary thing is it m‎ight make him a little better going into next season, having demanded all that attention."