Knockout Round Next After Team USA Tops Tunisia
Tunisia, perhaps the worst team in the World Championship, was within six points of Team USA at halftime Thursday. OK, so the final margin was a 92-57 defeat, but it was a good enough showing for family photo albums.
When the game at Abdi Ipekci Arena was over, Tunisia players got out their cameras. They then posed with American players for snapshots.
"I feel very happy playing against very good players like Derrick Rose and Chauncey Billups,'' said Tunisia guard Marouan Kechrid. "It's a dream of mine to play against the USA.''
Just before he did a post-game interview, in the bowels of the arena, Team USA's Lamar Odom was stopped by Amine Rzig, his Tunisian counterpart at center. Rzig gave his camera to somebody and then posed with Odom.
"That's the ultimate compliment,'' said Odom, whose Lakers are the world's most high-profile team. "It's after the game. Of course, they want to beat us and kick our butts. But, of course, they're watching the (NBA) games from November to June on satellite. So it's the ultimate compliment.''
Losing to Tunisia would have been the ultimate disgrace for the Americans. Not that there was any chance of it happening, but the Americans actually led just 35-33 late in the second quarter and 39-33 at halftime before blitzing Tunisia 53-24 in the second half in a game that had an exhibition feel to it.
The Americans, who raised their record to 5-0, already had wrapped up Group B entering the group finale. They already knew they would be playing for keeps in the knockout round starting Monday, and their opponent became known Thursday in Angola.
"There's a tendency for an athlete that knows they have to be at a higher level in a few days to just be careful,'' said Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski. "World records usually aren't established in the events leading up to the (finals). Like a great runner might come in second or third (in a heat).''
While Krzyzewski could sense his team might not have top-level intensity, it doesn't mean he was pleased with much of anything he saw in the first half.
"He got on us (at halftime) and said we need to turn it up defensively,'' said reserve guard Eric Gordon, who said his team "didn't have any energy'' in the first half. "We should have done that in the first half. But we really did in the second half.''
Gordon also played some offense after having three mediocre games since he shot 4 of 6 from three-point range and scored 16 points in the World Championship opener last Saturday against Croatia. Gordon scored 13 of his game-high 21 points in the second half Thursday and was 4 of 7 from beyond the arc for the game.
When Team USA has been sluggish in the tournament, it sometimes can be blamed on inconsistency from the bench. But not against Tunisia.
Krzyzewski used his starting lineup for the entire first quarter, and the Americans led just 19-13. So much for that plan.
Krzyzewski said Team USA will go back in the knockout round to substituting more quickly. He said he would consider a change in the lineup, although he didn't say if Gordon or any other current bench player is a candidate to start.
"Yeah, we'll take a look at it,'' Krzyzewski said of a possible change. "We're always open for everything.''
At least starting forward Kevin Durant always plays well. He logged just 18 minutes Thursday but had 14 points, giving him 89 points in 121 minutes in the Worlds for a 17.8 scoring average.
Krzyzewski said Tunisia played hard. But adding to the exhibition-game feel of it, guard Chauncey Billups said his Americans didn't want to triumph by a ridiculous margin.
"You really don't want to win by 50 or 60,'' said Billups, also referring to an easy matchup Wednesday with Iran, won 88-51 by Team USA. "You want to be respectful to different countries. But at the same time you want to get a little better. That's why you see the lapses.
"When you look at these two games (to conclude group play), it's like having the No. 1 seed wrapped up when you have two games in late April in the NBA season and knowing you just want to be safe when the first round (of the playoffs) starts.''
Well, Team USA wasn't completely safe. Forward Rudy Gay suffered a minor groin strain in his 10-minute first half stint and didn't play in the second half for what Krzyzewski called precautionary reasons.
"I think we'll be fine,'' Krzyzewski said of the injury.
It was surprising Tunisia players didn't suffer groin pulls rushing after the game to get cameras to be photographed with American players.
"It was a little different,'' said Team USA guard Russell Westbrook.
Krzyzewski said one Tunisia player approached him afterward to offer thanks.
"(The player) said, 'Coach, it was an honor to play against your team,''' Krzyzewski said. "That's what I tried to tell these guys. That's a big moment for them. As a result, it should be a big moment for us.''
Well, maybe not. After Rzig posed with Odom, the Lakers big man did not get out his camera or pass on his e-mail address for a copy of the photo.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @christomasson