US gets needed practice, expects to look sharper
ISTANBUL—After one lackluster victory during pool play, Mike Krzyzewski encountered some feistier competition in his news conference than the U.S. faced on the court.
"Why didn't the USA score more?" one reporter asked.
"Why isn't the team practicing?" questioned another.
Maybe the two issues were related.
The Americans finally got into the gym for practice Saturday, the first step in what they believe will be cleaner play during the elimination round of basketball's world championship.
"We haven't played as consistent in the preliminaries as we wanted to for the most part, but I think this practice helps us get our execution and timing back and our aggression on defense," guard Stephen Curry said. "So I like where we're at going into Monday."
The U.S. will play Angola that night in the round of 16, which began Saturday with Serbia ousting Croatia 73-72 and Spain eliminating Greece 80-72. The Americans earned some extra time off by winning Group B with a 5-0 record.
Krzyzewski said the practice Saturday was the Americans' first since Aug. 27, the day before the tournament started. They then had games on three straight nights, opted not to practice on the group's off day before closing with games on consecutive days.
The players were given a day off Friday, with Krzyzewski saying "they needed to just get away from everything" before finally having what he called a hard practice Saturday. They'll work out again Sunday.
"Somebody said, 'Well, why aren't you practicing?' Well, we're playing games," Krzyzewski said. "And that's just the nature of international tournaments, how they bunch everything up at one time and all of a sudden you've got time. But hopefully it'll be productive time for us."
Forward Rudy Gay of the Memphis Grizzlies took part in the entire practice after sitting out the second half of the Americans' 92-57 victory over Tunisia on Thursday with a sore right groin.
That was just a four-point game early in the third quarter after a sluggish first half by the U.S. The Americans weren't impressive in the 88-51 victory over Iran that preceded that, but they believe the lack of sharpness was because they were playing overmatched opponents in games that didn't matter to their seeding.
"These practices are going to really help us, because we really didn't have any practice time in those games," forward Kevin Durant said. "None of those games, actually."
Krzyzewski had warned that teams can have slippage when just playing games and not practicing, so the players welcomed the chance to work, even in the steamy gym belonging to a Turkish club team.
"You can get better in the games, but when you have time to break down plays, run repetitions, just compete against each other, I think it definitely will get us excited and prepared for the next four games," Curry said.
Four games would mean the Americans would be playing next Sunday for the gold medal, and they have a draw that gives them a chance. They should be heavily favored against Angola and the Russia-New Zealand winner before they would likely face either unbeaten Lithuania, Argentina or Brazil, which the U.S. beat 70-68 in pool play.
"It's not so much about who we play, it's about how we play," USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said. "And if we take care of our business and we improve the way we feel we need to improve in those certain areas, then we're going to be fine. Do we win it? Time will tell. I think we have a great shot. I said that from the beginning and I believe it even more so now."
Krzyzewski said he expected Angola to attack on offense, and that's probably what the Americans need to bring out their best. They knew they were going to beat Iran and Tunisia no matter what, so they rarely even pressed and didn't use normal rotation patterns, not interested in embarrassing their opponents.
"They'll do better in a game where they know they can lose than in a game where you know pretty much, those last two, they're not going to lose those games," Krzyzewski said.
Unlike his NBA players, who play best-of-seven series in the postseason, Krzyzewski is used to playing games in a single elimination format from coaching in college's NCAA tournament. So he knows the consistent play that often was absent in the last round must arrive right from the start of this one.
"We need to play really well and get into the mood for this week, that one-and-done mood," he said.