Team USA avoids Ataman-induced stumble

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
10:23
PM ET
videoBILBAO, Spain -- The name shouldn't be completely unfamiliar. The diehards among us will undoubtedly remember hearing plenty about Ergin Ataman just a few summers back.

That's the same Ataman who coached Deron Williams in Turkey during the 2011 NBA lockout. You'll recall he tried to sign Kobe Bryant, too.

And I suspect you won't forget him now, after Sunday night's scenes at the Bilbao Exhibition Center, where Ataman re-emerged on our screens as the newest international tormentor of USA Basketball.

On and off the floor.

Thanks to the tempo-controlling game plan Ataman hatched, which his players then executed almost flawlessly for nearly three quarters, Team USA was made to look ordinary and vulnerable far sooner than anyone expected in this 2014 FIBA World Cup. Only at the end did Mike Krzyzewski's tournament favorites, fresh off a 59-point hammering of Finland, finally find some separation from Ataman's Turkey and pull away for a 98-77 triumph in Group C that looks far better in print than it did in person.

"It was not a 20-point game tonight," Ataman declared.

It was a wake-up-call game, rather, that featured a first-half clinic in slowdown basketball from the Turks and generated plenty to talk about should these teams meet again in this tournament. And that's because Ataman went on afterward to level a string of complaints about the officiating and what he sees as preferential treatment afforded the United States by FIBA.

Ataman accused the refs of letting the Americans get away with too much contact, too much hand-checking and too many traveling violations. He then alleged FIBA is forcing five of the six teams in Group C to stay in one hotel while the United States is sequestered in a hotel of its own.

Who said Team USA wouldn't face any serious resistance or generate any intrigue until its expected championship date with Spain on Sept. 14?

You're right: I've been saying precisely that for days. I simply didn't see a team in Group C or D that could legitimately worry Team USA, no matter how many times I studied the other rosters, especially after Lithuania lost influential point guard Mantas Kalnieitis last week. But yours truly severely underestimated the Ataman Empire.

As did Team USA itself, judging by that 40-35 halftime deficit.

The Turks threw a steady dose of zones at Team USA that made the Americans tentative. They also dominated the backboards for a half, sparked by their lone NBAer Omer Asik, to limit Team USA's second-chance opportunities at the same time no one was hitting from outside. And they baited the increasingly desperate stars from the best league in the world into too much fouling and gambling, which led to a procession of free throws that only slowed the pace further on top of Turkey's unwillingness to run.

"For 28 minutes," Ataman said, "we played perfectly."

They just couldn't sustain it. With no Ersan Ilyasova to help out -- and with Hedo Turkoglu retired from the international game -- Turkey eventually gave in to the United States' second-half pressure despite a pace-managing performance from point guard Ender Arslan that drew praise from Krzyzewski. The stat sheet said Team USA ultimately forced 28 turnovers, but it didn't feel like it.

[+] EnlargeAtaman
Rafa Rivas/AFP/Getty ImagesErgin Ataman pointed Turkey to an upset bid, playing Team USA to a tie until 2:20 was left in the third.
"For me, it was a very important night," Ataman said. "To coach against Coach K is one of my dreams. And tonight I think our technical staff showed good basketball against Coach K."

Yet it can be argued that the evening, in the end, worked out OK for Krzyzewski as well.

There will be some inevitable panic back home about the Americans' lackadaisical start and poor shooting, their inability to impose their will for so long and offensive woes that seemed to engulf pretty much everyone on the squad not named Kenneth Faried or Anthony Davis.

Krzyzewski, though, ultimately did coax a positive response out of the group, after surprising some of them with a very measured message at intermission.

"I was shocked," Faried told ESPN. "I thought Coach was gonna be furious with us. He relaxed everybody."

Said Krzyzewski: "We just talked about the fact that we all knew we didn’t play well in the first half and to just say that it’s because of us is wrong. Turkey is good, so they made us play poorly.

"The tempo of the game the entire first half was dictated by Turkey. We never really attacked the way we were able to [against Finland] and the way we did in the second half. I think sometimes when you have a game like we did the night before, where you’re just scoring at will, you can take it for granted. The big lesson for our team is you can’t take things for granted, especially when you’re playing teams the caliber of Turkey."

Even before Team USA arrived in Spain, Krzyzewski warned of nights such as this when he said: "You can't practice responses. You can only be in a situation and see how you respond."

Well?

"We responded to game pressure very, very well and really played an outstanding second half [after] a very poor first half," Krzyzewski said. "And we can’t do that going forward."

Definitely not a good idea if Ataman's next dream materializes.

"I hope to play semifinal [against] USA," Ataman announced before leaving the interview room, sounding like someone determined to stay on the NBA radar for good this time.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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