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MADRID, Spain -- Safe to say Team USA is not going to have to worry about peaking too early.
After one of the worst quarters ever played by a senior U.S. national team -- a seven-point first quarter in which it missed 18 of 21 shots and even went just 2-for-3 on dunks, Team USA righted itself in the second half of a 77-61 victory over Lithuania on Saturday night that will go down as exactly the learning experience this inexperienced team needed.
Rock-hard, slippery ball? Check.
Brand new logos on the court that made the playing surface not just slippery, but outright dangerous? Check.
A level of physicality more common to UFC than the NBA? Check.
All in all, a reality check.
"I would rather have it started like it started," Chauncey Billups said. "We couldn't have played any worse.
"I would rather start like that and have to fight and have to grind and scratch and claw your way back in the game, as opposed to coming put on fire and getting a false sense of where we're at right now. So it was a good lesson we had to learn."
Indeed, with a roster that is not only short on size, but short on international experience, this was probably the best thing that could have happened to Team USA -- as painful as it was to sit through it in person, or to watch it on TV back in the States.
The Americans played a slow tempo and didn't run a single pick-and-roll in the first quarter. They were repeatedly burned by backdoor cuts. They struggled in the halfcourt when they went up against a zone. The missed a third of their free throws. There were countless missed box-outs.
To say they looked ordinary would be to give them an undeserved compliment.And the fact that this particular abomination came against Lithuania, a middle-of-the-pack team at best, adds all the more intrigue to the upcoming games against the two teams widely considered the class of European basketball, Spain and Greece.
They were, in a word, awful.
"It's one of those experiences that when you go through it, you don't want to go through it. But after you go through it, it's a good thing to go through it," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "It's a good thing our defense was good throughout the whole game or else we could have been down big in the first half."
Not only did the Americans manage just seven points in the first quarter, they scored just one point in the first 3½ minutes of the second quarter (they were 3-for-26 from the field at one point) and didn't take a lead until almost three minutes of the third quarter had elapsed.
Led by Rudy Gay (14 points) and Russell Westbrook (12 points on 4-of-5 shooting), the bench scored 48 of the 77 points and vastly outperformed a starting five comprised of Kevin Durant (0-for-4 on 3s), Rajon Rondo (1-for-4, two points, one assist, four turnovers), Andre Iguodala (2-for-5, five points), Chauncey Billups (1-for-4 at the line, seven pts, no assists, four turnovers) and Tyson Chandler (0 points, five rebounds in 22 minutes).
The game turned when Gay was on the receiving end of a cheap shot flagrant foul midway through the third quarter after Lithuania center Robertas Javtokas was hammered at the other end and the referees swallowed their whistles, leading to a 3-on-1 opportunity that never achieved closure because Gay was leveled before the Americans could finish off the fast break.
Moments prior, the crowd was on Lithuania's side, chanting "Hands up, this is a robbery" as the Americans repeatedly got away with what the crowd thought were traveling violations.
Javtokas earned a technical foul for jawing at the referees while Gay was being helped up after the flagrant foul, and Gay sank all four free throws to turn a 50-49 lead into a five-point bulge that the Americans eventually turned into a 65-49 lead by the time the 24-2 run was complete.
The school of hard knocks did not have Gay as its only student.
At one point Kevin Love late in the game positioned himself to draw a charge and got steamrolled, banging the back of his head so hard against the floor it was more than a minute before he got up. There was no whistle on the play. Derrick Rose went down, too, after getting poked in the face midway through the fourth. Again, no foul.
"We're going in there getting bumped thinking 'Where's the foul at?'" Billups said. "But that's how they play here. We've got to get adjusted to that.
Said Durant, who led Team USA with 15 points: "It was tough to go through, but afterward it's a great learning experience. And it's kind of good to see us fight through adversity."
A truer reality check will come Sunday night against Spain, and then again Wednesday versus Greece in Athens.
"We have a lot to learn before Turkey," Krzyzewski said.
Suprisingly, Spain was listed Sunday morning as a 1½-point underdog for Sunday night's game. But if the Americans sleepwalk into it the way they did Saturday night (Coach K said he could tell during warm-ups that his team was not ready to play), it's safe to say they're going to get slaughtered. (Do I expect that to happen? No. As I wrote in my preview piece for this weekend, I expect the game to come down to the last possession.)
"They are a well-oiled machine, and they're going to be crisp, run their stuff and do what they do, and of course they're going to be excited to be playing at home against us," Billups said. "So I expect to see their best tomorrow, I'm looking forward to it."