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Team USA edges Spain by a single point, but claims their most significant victory yet

US Derrick Rose (C) celebrates their vic

US Derrick Rose (C) celebrates their victory on Spain at the end of their friendly basketball match at the La Caja Magica Pavillion on August 22, 2010 in Madrid. US won 86-85. AFP PHOTO/ DANI POZO (Photo credit should read DANI POZO/AFP/Getty Images)

AFP/Getty Images

Both Team USA and the Spanish national team were reluctant to reveal their full arsenals, but today’s friendly between the two FIBA powerhouses was easily the Americans’ most entertaining exhibition yet. Neither squad was flawless in their execution, but Team USA’s quality performance against their top opponent in the World Championships (even if Spain wasn’t giving it a proper go) leaves a far sweeter aftertaste than yesterday’s bitter win over Lithuania.

Spain isn’t going to shoot 22.7% from three-point range very often. They’re also not going to fumble so many passes out of bounds. Yet Team USA’s defensive success overall was no fluke, as the Americans’ length and athleticism caused all kind of problems for Spain both inside and out.

Marc Gasol, as expected, got his. He finished with 17 points for the day. But Gasol only shot 41.6% from the field. His turnaround jumper will be there against Lamar Odom and Gasol can really work the high post against Tyson Chandler. Still, Team USA can live with that. As long as Gasol’s production remains reasonable, he doesn’t offer an unmatchable advantage. The Americans can utilize their size on the wings and their quickness in the backcourt just as Spain can utilize Gasol, and the give and take of those positional match-ups is just part of what makes a USA-Spain collision course so intriguing.

The slim point differential (Team USA won by a single point, 86-85) shouldn’t be too concerning. Spain is just that talented of a team, and they’re understandably both the Americans’ most feared and most respected opponent. It showed. Team USA looked truly prepared to play against Spain. Not against an international opponent using FIBA rules, but against Spain. They played the screen-and-roll game well, knew where to cut off passing lanes, took away a pet play or two, and showed the impact or proper preparation.

I’m honestly not sure what the game plan was against Lithuania, but the Americans took a double-digit lead against what could be the top team in the tournament, all while letting Rajon Rondo and Danny Granger cheer from the bench.

Rondo is clearly a central part of Team USA’s plans at this point. That leads me to believe that Mike Krzyzewski was holding him back rather than “benching” him, and the same could possibly be true of Granger. While Spain’s coaching staff chose to play the entire game man-to-man rather than turning to their vaunted zone defense, Coach K opted to sit one of his top perimeter defenders and playmakers in Rondo, and a skilled shooter in Granger. Having both of those guys available for full-time duty changes the overall feel of the team (which I imagine is why Krzyzewski chose to sit them against an opponent he’s sure to see again later), even if allocating some of Rudy Gay’s minutes to Granger doesn’t seem like a tectonic shift.

For the first time in Team USA’s pre-tournament exhibitions, Kevin Durant looked like the star that he is. KD has had a rough stretch, shooting-wise, against China, France, and Lithuania, but he dropped 25 points on 56.3% shooting from the field this afternoon. Like it or not, this is about how dominant Durant will need to be for Team USA to put away their more competitive opponents.

Not that he didn’t have help. The burden of being his team’s primary scorer was lifted from Durant’s shoulders, as Derrick Rose took over on a pair of high pick-and-roll sets. Rose’s speed was lethal off the screen, and he was able to drop a bucket and draw a foul to score just enough for a USA victory.

The Americans’ clutch play on the other end, however, came down to two of their leaders: Kevin Durant and Mike Krzyzewski. Coach K called for a zone look -- the only zone Team USA played in the entire game -- on Spain’s final offensive possession out of a timeout, which completely shook Spain’s prescribed set. Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez were left to take heavily contested jumpers off of failed penetration, the second of which Durant swatted out of bounds as time expired. Leaning too heavily on the zone would undoubtedly come back to bite Team USA, but credit Krzyzewski with knowing exactly when to unveil it in this game.

The exhibition W may technically mean nothing, but Coach K has shown he’s willing to shake up defensive coverage to get the jump on other teams, and that’s valuable.

Closing thoughts:

  • Traveling violations continue to be a thorn in Team USA’s side. Some of those travels are legitimate (Durant seems to have a problem with taking a step before dribbling off the pump fake/hestitation), and others just a typical byproduct of FIBA officiating. The refs are bad. Really bad.
  • Ricky Rubio is 19 years old, and he’s fantastic. You take the bad with the good when it comes to Rubio; was it necessary to make a no-look pass on Spain’s final possession? Hardly. Did he really need to attempt the around-the-back-pass-turned-turnover that led to a key Team USA layup? Definitely not. Yet for each of those moves he had a beautiful find or a terrific on-ball steal, and then some. He’s so talented already, and we can only hope he makes his NBA debut sooner rather than later.
  • Lamar Odom got the start at center over Tyson Chandler, and played rather well. Odom was probably the Americans’ top screener, and Team USA’s squadron of point guards did a great job of finding Odom around the rim. He finished with 12 points and nine rebounds in 29 minutes.
  • Juan. Carlos. Navarro. He should still be in the NBA, but the basketball gods so rudely stole him away from us to hide him overseas, his floaters and jumpers never to be seen again by most NBA fans. Navarro was Spain’s top scorer with 20, and it’s clear that when these two teams meet again in the elimination rounds, Navarro will be a point of emphasis for Team USA’s defense. Iguodala did a good job of defending him, but I’d love to see Rajon Rondo have a crack at him as well.