This past weekend the 2014 FIBA World Cup—the 17th edition of the World Cup—got under way in Spain. Twenty-four nations and multiple NBA players are involved in international basketball’s biggest tournament, and 2010’s champions, Team USA, are looking to defend the title they won in Turkey four years ago.
Here are some of the biggest storylines from the past three days.
Brazil holds off France
In the first big match-up of the weekend, Brazil—the two-time World Cup champions and perennial medal threat featuring the likes of Nene Hilario, Tiago Splitter and Anderson Varejao—went up against France, the reigning European champions. The French entered the tournament without the services of Tony Parker and Joakim Noah, but still had plenty of NBA-calibre talent in the form of Boris Diaw and Nicolas Batum. That talent was evident early on in this match-up.
The French built up an early lead, with Brazil’s defence struggling to cope with the length and quickness of Portland’s Batum and size of Rudy Gobert inside. But it was Brazil’s bench lead by Varejao and NBA journeyman Leandro Barbosa that got things going in the second and third quarters—Brazil entered the fourth with a 46-41 lead. Brazil’s point guard maestro Marcelinho Huertas (he’s so much fun to watch!), who finished with 16 points, took over in the fourth quarter, putting Brazil up by seven with a beautiful runner and feeding the rolling Nene under the basket for an easy bucket. San Antonio’s Diaw did cut the lead to a single point off a three-pointer with two seconds left, but Brazil hung on to win 65-63.
Team USA given a scare by Turkey
On Saturday night Team USA thumped Finland 114-55—Coach K’s side led 60-18 at halftime and the tournament favourites barely broke a sweat. But on Sunday night, against a much more talented Turkey squad—the team that Team USA defeated in the gold medal game four years ago—the Americans were given a real test.
The Turks, lead by New Orleans Pelicans’ centre Omer Asik, forced Team USA to play their game in the first half. They stifled the Americans’ offence by playing zone defence and slowed the game down to a half-court slog. It didn’t help that Team USA contributed to the near-miss with their own sloppy play. They turned the ball over 10 times in the first half and took contested, out-of-rhythm shots way too early in the shot clock. Turkey deservedly led 40-35 at the half.
Presumably after receiving an ear-bashing from the coaching staff at the break, Team USA came out on fire in the third quarter and turned the game around. On defence they forced Turkey into making turnovers and were finally able to get out and score in transition. They also began to (wisely) feed the ball inside to Anthony Davis, who had 19 points in the second half, as well as the brilliant Kenneth Faried, who top-scored with 22 points. Team USA’s inside-out game allowed the likes of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to get open shots on the perimeter, finally breaking down Turkey’s resilient zone.
Team USA ran out comfortable 98-77 victors in the end, and the early adversity should keep them frosty for when things get tougher later in the tournament. They will need to work on their shot selection and pick-n-roll defence, however.
Lithuania and Slovenia: the teams to beat in Group D
Lithuania, a small Baltic country of 2.9 million people, has always punched well above its weight in international competition. Basketball-crazy Lithuania has won three bronze medals in Olympic competition, as well as a bronze World Cup medal four years ago in Turkey. They’re off to a good start in Spain this time around. Led by Jonas Maciulis, who finished with 19 points, they beat Gustavo Ayon and Team Mexico 87-74. On Sunday they followed up their opening victory with a dominant win over Angola, in which their two stars contributed. The Houston Rockets’ Donatas Motiejunas had 12 points, while Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors dominated the glass, pulling down 13 boards.
Slovenia, an up-and-coming basketball nation without Lithuania’s rich history of success, has looked equally impressive so far in the tournament. Ranked third in Group D, the Slovenes upset the second-ranked Australians on Saturday night, thanks to 21 points from the Phoenix Suns’ point guard, Goran Dragic. Australia are without the injured Patty Mills, but still possess NBA talent with Aron Baynes and Jazz rookie Dante Exum on the roster. Slovenia followed up that big win over Australia with a comfortable 89-68 victory over Mexico. This time Slovenia was led by Goran’s brother, Zoran, who plies his trade in the Spanish league. According to ESPN’s Marc Stein, Zoran’s performances are attracting the attention of more than a few NBA teams.
Croatia upset Argentina before being shocked by Senegal
The Croatian team, led by Philadelphia 76ers prospect Dario Saric, the Nets’ Bojan Bogdanovic and a host of other talented and young players, were considered a dark horse for a medal heading into the tournament. Over the past weekend, however, they’ve demonstrated that they’re both a dangerous team with a shot at the podium and a frustrating group that still might not quite have enough.
On Saturday they pulled out a narrow victory over Andray Blatche and the Philippines (yep, that Blatche was Filipino is news to me, too) before impressively beating the 2002 World Cup runners-up and 2004 Olympic champions, Argentina. The Argentines are without star man Manu Ginobili, who was prevented from participating in the tournament by the San Antonio Spurs, but they are still stocked full of experienced and talented players. One of those players, the Pacers’ Luis Scola, dropped 30 points on Croatia, but the Croatians pulled out a 90-85 win largely thanks to the fact that they were able to take advantage of their speed and shooting in transition. Krunoslav Simon top-scored for Croatia with 18 points in the win.
But after the highs of beating Argentina, Croatia was brought back down to earth on Monday, losing to Senegal 77-75. Heading in, Senegal was widely considered to be one of the weakest teams in the tournament, but after being thumped by Greece (the real talent in Group B), they pulled out a win over Puerto Rico and shocked the Croats. The Senegalese led for most of the game against Croatia thanks to a fantastic performance from Minnesota Timberwolves’ big man Gorgui Dieng, who had 27 points and eight rebounds in the contest. Croatia came on strong towards the end, but Senegal held on for the biggest upset of the tournament thus far.
Spain sends a message
Team USA’s biggest obstacle to repeat as champions is host nation Spain—the team the Americans narrowly beat in the 2012 Olympic finals. The 2006 World Cup champs are loaded with NBA talent. The Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka form a formidable frontline, while Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio provide great depth at the one.
Over the weekend the Spanish didn’t disappoint the home crowd, underlining their status as one of the tournament favourites by taking control of Group A with three straight wins. Spain crushed group minnows Iran and Egypt by a combined margin of 67 points, but Monday night’s victory over Brazil was their most impressive performance.
Heading into the game, Brazil were undefeated in group play and were buoyed by a win over the previous European champions, France. Even though Spain had defeated the South Americans in five straight World Cup games, Brazil represented a real test to the host’s title credentials. Spain passed that test with flying colours. Pau Gasol looked rejuvenated—probably happy to be putting his Lakers tenure in the rear-view mirror—and he absolutely dominated in the first quarter, scoring 12 points as Spain opened up a 30-14 lead. Gasol would finish with 26 points and nine rebounds. As a team Spain shot 50 per cent for the game and 45 per cent from three-point range.
Brazil slowed down Spain the second quarter, but the host’s lead was never really threatened. They ran out comfortable winners, 82-63. With Team USA still working out some chemistry issues, Spain currently look like the most polished, if not the most talented, team in the tournament.