Warriors

Team USA's cloak of invincibility has all but vanished on world stage

kembausaap.jpg
AP

Team USA's cloak of invincibility has all but vanished on world stage

Let’s not bother with aggressive probing next week when the United States Men’s National Basketball Team, No. 1 in the world, returns with its worst-ever finish in major international competition. There is no mystery beyond two reasons that don’t require investigation.

First, this group, despite having the best talent, was not the best team in this FIBA World Cup. After being bounced from the medal round by France on Wednesday, Team USA's response was a loss to Serbia on Thursday, ensuring no better than a seventh-place finish.

This roster of Americans, coached by Gregg Popovich, with Steve Kerr as his top assistant, entered as a gold-medal favorite largely out of respect and tradition. The reality is it would be no better than a first-round out in the NBA playoffs.

The second and more significant reason for the disappointing performance is that most of Team USA’s opponents no longer genuflect at the sight of Americans dribbling onto the floor.

The fear factor is gone. That was Team USA’s biggest advantage of all, providing a psychological edge that matched its prodigious talent. It did not exist with this roster, no matter the coaches. It didn’t not exist in this tournament, at this time.

Probably not ever again.

Comments made last month by Serbia’s coach, Sasha Djordevich, revealed not only an absence of fear toward the Team USA but also an astonishing degree of confidence that at the time sounded like runaway hubris.

"Let’s let them play their basketball and we will play ours,” he said in a TV interview. “And if we meet, may God help them.”

Yeah, we’re past the days when Team USA members went swaggering through entire tournaments, beer in one hand, scepter of superiority in the other. Those fat times are relegated to the past, along with starry-eyed opponents that would take a 40-point beating and then pose, wearing enchanted smiles, for photos with Team USA stars.

There are too many quality teams, from too many countries yearning for the national pride that comes with besting the Americans. They relish the challenge because they believe they can win.

Led by Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and Sacramento Kings swingman Bogdan Bogdanovich – two highly skilled NBA players – the Serbians glanced over at Team USA before tipoff, narrowed their eyes and came fast and hard, taking a 25-point lead in the first quarter before a puzzled crowd in Dongguan, China.

When the consolation game was over, with Serbia hanging a 94-89 loss on the Americans, Team USA members had to cope with the truth, that this version was a C team and that the rest of the world is catching up and only going to get better.

France owned Team USA in the quarterfinals because its four NBA players, notably Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert and New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina, played with more verve and cohesion. The French are accustomed to playing as a unit; most of the key players were a part of the 2016 Olympic team that took a three-point loss to a Team USA squad that had, you may recall, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Paul George, Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins.

And, again, beat France by three. In the Olympics, which carry much more cachet than the World Cup.

While Team USA players tried to conceal their dismay – “No regrets,” Kings forward Harrison Barnes told reporters in China – at the latest setback, there was simmering displeasure at the top. Team USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo laced his postgame comments with bitterness directed toward stars that bowed out for a variety of reasons, from physical fatigue to other commitments to general apathy.

"I can only say you can't help but notice and remember who you thought you were going to war with and who didn't show up," Colangelo told reporters in China "I'm a firm believer that you deal with the cards you're dealt. All we could have done, and we did it, is get the commitments from a lot of players. So, with that kind of a hand you feel reasonably confident that you're going to be able to put a very good representative team on the court.

"No one would have anticipated the pullouts that we had."

[RELATED: Kings' Barnes, Bogdanovic shine as Serbia tops Team USA]

Colangelo knows that anytime Team USA rides with five or six MVP candidates, it will have the goods to crush all in its path. A squad with the likes of – in alphabetical order – Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard would and should be a gold-medal favorite on any international stage.

But even that squad could not presume success. Not when so much of the world is at the heels of Team USA, believing it can win and sometimes proving it can sprint right on by.

Warriors' hard work finally 'rewarded' with skid-busting win in Memphis

Warriors' hard work finally 'rewarded' with skid-busting win in Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- For much of the young season, the Warriors have been in search of a small piece of continuity. 

With three of its four All-Star pieces out due to injury, the quest has been arduous for the Warriors, leading to the team's longest losing streak in since 2012. 

Those troubles momentarily paused when the Warriors beat the Grizzlies 114-95 on Tuesday to snap a seven-game losing streak while validating the progress the team has made in recent weeks. 

"I'm happy for the guys," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "They've been playing hard and working hard and It's good to see them rewarded."

Tuesday's win comes as the Warriors have played just well enough to lose in recent games. In Friday's loss to the Celtics, the team held the Eastern Conference leaders to just 40 percent from the field, with Boston guard Kemba Walker making just 6 of his 19 shots. Two days later, the Warriors held the battered Pelicans to 41 percent from the field, before losing 108-100. Entering Tuesday, the team allowed teams to shoot just 41.1 percent over their last two outings. 

Keeping with a recent trend, Golden State held the Grizzlies to just 40 percent from the field and forcing 14 turnovers. Rookie of the Year candidate Ja Morant struggled much, making just 7-of-20 from the field as the Warriors diversified its defensive sets for most of the night. 

"We came out and competed hard and executed the gameplan like we talked about and I'm proud of the guys," Warriors forward Glenn Robinson said. "I knew it was coming because of the way we played, we're trying to play hard and play the right way." 

"I think we just challenged ourselves," Warriors forward Draymond Green added. "That's something we've talked a lot about, getting better on the defensive end and we've been stepping up to the challenge." 

For much of the season, the team's defensive woes have coincided with its uncommon rash of injuries. The trend started on the eve of training camp when the Warriors announce Willie Cauley-Stein would miss most of October with a foot strain. Two days later, rookie Alen Smailagic rolled his ankle and Looney strained his hamstring in the same controlled scrimmage. 

In the last month, Curry broke his hand, sidelining the guard until at least February. Two nights later, forward Green tore a ligament in his left index finger. Last week, two-way guard Damion Lee fractured his hand. All the while, one of the league's most vaunted defense has plummeted to last in the league. 

Even as injuries mounted, signs of promise were apparent around the locker room. Rookie Eric Paschall is averaging 16.7 points and 4.8 rebounds, including a 30-point performance in Sunday's loss to the Pelicans. Veteran guard Alec Burk -- who signed a one-year contract with the team last summer -- is averaging 13.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 11 games. 

"The great thing with these guys is they've stayed with it every step of the way," Kerr said. "They haven't taken a day off, they haven't stopped working." 

[RELATED: Warriors get good news on Looney, Smailagic]

"You can definitely see that there's some improvement," Green added. "And with the improvement, we've been talking after each game about 'We're getting there, we're getting there, just keep on working.'" 

While their recent play has been promising, the real progress will be dictated by what the Warriors have been about for nearly a decade. 

"We've also been talking about don't get comfortable with just being there," Green said. "Don't get comfortable with 'Hey we're getting better.' Let's try to make this 'Hey, we're getting better' equal some wins."

Warriors takeaways: What we learned in 114-95 win over Grizzlies

Warriors takeaways: What we learned in 114-95 win over Grizzlies

BOX SCORE

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- For much of the season, the Warriors have been searching for a complete performance amid an unusual amount of injuries. 

They achieved that goal Friday evening, beating the Memphis Grizzlies 114-95 at FedEx Forum with nine inactive players. 

In its best performance of the season, the Warriors used a big second quarter to blow the game open. Rookie Eric Paschall finished with 17 points, aiding an offense carried by Alec Burks, finishing off an impressive bounce-back performance after losing to New Orleans Sunday evening.

Here are the takeaways from Tuesday night 

Alec Burks

After signing a one-year deal last summer, Burks has used his time with the Warriors to revitalize a once-promising career. On Tuesday, he continued towards that goal, scoring 29 points and grabbing eight rebounds in 36 minutes. 

Despite missing all of training camp with an ankle injury, Burks has become a dependable scorer, averaging 13.5 points through 11 games. Two weeks ago in Houston, he scored 28 points, adding eight rebounds, showing his promise. 

Burks seemed destined for big things after the Jazz selected him No. 12 overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. Through his first five seasons, he averaged 10.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game. However, a series of stress fractures limited Burks to just 100 games from 2014 through 2016, and he has not played in more than 75 games in a season since 2013-14. 

But if he continues to play at his current level, he could not only revitalize his career, but play his way into a lucrative deal.   

Defense

Keeping with a recent trend, the Warriors were stout defensively Tuesday evening, holding the Grizzlies to just 40 percent from the field and forcing 14 turnovers. 

Grizzlies Rookie of the Year candidate Ja Morant struggled all night, making just 7-of-20 from the field as the Warriors diversified its defensive sets for most of the night. On occasion, they'd switch from a traditional man-to-man sets to a 2-3 zone. 

The performance is on par with Golden State's output of late. Entering Tuesday, the team allowed teams to shoot just 41.1 percent over their last two outings. 

While the Warriors have shown improvement, Tuesday's performance did highlight the team's need for a frontcourt presence as the Grizzlies outscored them 52-46 in the paint.

[RELATED: Looney, Smailagic clearned for on-court work]

Second-quarter magic

For years, the Warriors have used big runs to blow games wide open. Despite not having most of its All-Star core, Golden State gave a glimpse of the past. 

After Memphis took a two-point lead following the first quarter, Golden State outscored Memphis 33-16 in the second quarter. Alec Burks scored 10 of his game-high 29 points as the Warriors held Memphis to just 36 percent in the first half. 

Following Tuesday's shootaround, Warriors coach Steve Kerr cited that the team is finally getting comfortable playing with each other despite Golden State's myriad of injuries. If the team can keep up the recent trend, it will bode well for their development as its stars rehab.