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Monday, September 6, 2010
New mentality has USA on right track

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

ISTANBUL -- You can't get too excited by a win over Angola. Or can you?

Whether or not Team USA was overly excited by it, there was no getting past the fact that the team was exceedingly gratified by what transpired in its 121-66 steamrolling of the African champions.

The Americans made 18 3-pointers. They led by 20 after one quarter. They had 30 assists on 41 field goals. They won by 55 points.

They looked, in a word, "Olympian."

Westbrook
Russell Westbrook and Team USA coasted to the FIBA quarterfinals.

"We have a long ways to go, but this was a steppingstone for us," Kevin Durant said. "Coming into this tournament, we wanted to win four [elimination] games, go 4-0. That's our goal. We're 1-0 now, and everybody knows the opposing teams are going to get better and better, and they're watching us. But we're looking forward to that competition."

That phrase -- wanting to go 4-0 -- was something that was never heard from the Americans four years ago when they competed in the FIBA World Championship in Japan. Instead, they spoke of dominating every single quarter of every single game they played: exhibitions, pool-play games, even scrimmages.

And as a result, not only were they dead tired when they reached this phase of the tournament but they were ignoring the most important part of competing in international events. You don't want to peak early; you want to peak late.

But there has been an evolution in thinking among the USA Basketball hierarchy, and Monday's victory was the first night of a new beginning: One week to go, four wins needed to accomplish what is truly meaningful -- winning this tournament for the first time in 16 years.

For Chauncey Billups, who broke out of a 3-point shooting slump in a big way by going 5-for-7 from behind the arc, that meant a change in preparation the past two days.

"I have a routine that I do during the [NBA] regular season, and I have a routine that I do in the playoffs. And that was pretty much my playoff routine, getting extra shots up, knowing I have to be better," Billups said. "More shots, both before and after practice, focusing on shots I normally have to shoot and shots I feel like I'm going to have to make. I don't know what the number [of shots] is; it's just the routine I do."

Eric Gordon was also a marksman from 3-point range, going 5-for-6, and Derrick Rose was 3-for-4 for an American team that finished 18-of-38 (47 percent) behind the arc but was over the 50 percent mark for much of the second half before missing a few late ones.

None of the starters played more than 21 minutes, and four of them played less than 20. That will leave the U.S. -- a team so rested after three straight days off that it started this game with a level of effort, energy and enthusiasm it hadn't displayed before in the entire tournament -- extra rested for its quarterfinal match Thursday against Russia.

"They were very unselfish. It showed in the extra passes that were made, and I thought we stayed aggressive the whole game," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "The couple days of practice really helped us, and the guys have responded. So I'm just pleased that we played like we practiced, which is what a coach always wants to see."

The enthusiasm was evident right at the start, with the reserves vocally encouraging the starters on Angola's first possession.

USA
Kevin Durant & Co. salute U.S. fans after a beatdown of Angola.

"Yeah, Chaunce! Yeah, Chaunce!" Tyson Chandler yelled at Billups as the latter pressured guard Carlos Morais (he of the 10 first-half turnovers in a 2008 game against Team USA) on Angola's first possession. Billups hit a 3 to begin the scoring, and the Americans got a transition dunk from Durant after Angola's first shot was an air ball. Midway through the quarter, the Americans executed something the 2008 Olympic team did consistently -- scoring on a fast break after a made basket, this one a layup by Lamar Odom off a pretty pass from Rose (9 points, 6 assists, 0 turnovers, 2 blocks).

The second unit kept up the onslaught in the second quarter, with Rudy Gay (17 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals) coming up with a steal and a layup on Angola's first possession, then forcing a 24-second violation on the Angolans' next possession, then getting a steal from Stephen Curry after a 3-pointer by Kevin Love -- a 94-second burst that tripled the number of forced turnovers the Americans produced in the first quarter.

"Tonight showed we're all right. We've gotten a lot of rest here. We know it's going to get tougher, and everybody's coming out and not pacing themselves. Guys are going hard," Durant said. "Our defensive pressure was unbelievable. It was fun to watch from the bench, watching our point guards press their point guards and making them call their offense with five or six seconds left on the shot clock. That's what we want to do.

The only question in the second half was how many points the Americans would put on the scoreboard; their 121 points was the most by a U.S. team at an international competition since the 2007 team dropped 135 on Puerto Rico at the Tournament of the Americas in Las Vegas.

But again, this victory did come against Angola, which was without its best player, Olimpio Cipriano (thigh contusion).

So there's no use getting carried away with one victory when the goal is to get three more.

"Yeah, we're beatable. We're not unbeatable," Krzyzewski said. "There's no one in our country who has a greater respect for international game than me, there are so many good teams, so many great players. It's an honor for us to be in these competitions, but we also know that we're beatable. And there's nothing wrong with that. So we just have to work hard and hopefully be our best, and that might be good enough to win."