BARCELONA — Quite the bizarro scene in the post-game press conference after Team USA destroyed Lithuania in the semifinals of the World Cup.
There was a reporter from Slovenia who had been going back and forth with coach Mike Krzyzewski over the past several days — he wanted to ask questions that Coach K did not want to answer, and Coach K told him he’d answer his questions over a glass of wine when the time was appropriate.
So the guy from Slovenia brought a bottle of wine with him Friday night, and he was not going to take “no” for an answer from Krzyzewski under any circumstances, no matter how uncomfortable it was making the FIBA media officials.
“I have a gift for you,” the reporter said.
“Don’t bring anything up here,” Coach K warned.
But security being just a tad lax at this event compared to previous versions of the World Cup (back when it was known as the World Championship), the reporter was undeterred.
“It’s not such great wine, but sometimes you have to be modest,” the reporter said as he walked the bottle up to the podium and handed it to Coach K, who was gracious enough to go with the flow and accept it.
Which brings up a relevant point.
You’ve gotta hand it to Krzyzewski.
Here is a guy who didn’t even have to be here. He could have resigned as national team coach following the London Olympics, having brought the American federation full circle from the debacles of 2002 (three losses at the WC in Indianapolis) and 2004 (three losses at the Olympics in Athens) and had coached the Americans to gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, 2010 Worlds and 2012 Olympics. He could have quit while he was on top, but he didn’t.
And when Russell Westbrook, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love withdrew from the team before training camp, and when Kevin Durant quit the team following training camp, and when Paul George broke his leg in the team’s intrasquad scrimmage, Coach K could have lowered expectations even more than he already has.
“We feel we could lose, so we feel that anyone can lose,” he said Thursday.
That point was driven home the previous night as France stunned Spain, the host nation that had all its best players back from the gold medal games at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, a Spanish team whose federation arranged a change to the tournament format to ensure that Spain and the United States could not meet until the final night in Madrid.
Spain’s loss was not only shocking, it took a lot of the luster off this tournament and paved the way for the Americans to cruise to the gold medal. But first Team USA had to fend off a team that has been a persistent pest since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, playing the Americans six times, winning once while losing the other five games by 5, 15, 8, 2 and 9 points.
And when Stephen Curry, Kenneth Faried and James Harden all picked up two quick fouls in the first quarter, and when Lithuania hung around and stayed within striking distance right until halftime, it seemed another nail-biter was in store. And then, in an eye blink, it was a runaway.
The Americans had a 12-0 run early in the third period to get the lead up to 20, and it was good night, Vilnius.
“When you play a U.S. team you cannot lose control for even one minute or two minutes. The game can get away from you that quickly,” Lithuania coach Jonas Kaslauskas said.
Kaslauskas came into this game with a team that was shooting 40 percent from 3-point range for the tournament – the highest percentage of any of the final four teams. The Americans held them to 2-for-18 shooting from the arc.
Kaslauskas also came in with a secret weapon, shaggy-haired 12th man Mindaugas Kuzminskas, who was able to repeatedly post up a foul-plagued Harden to score. It was the first time an opposing team tried to exploit the Americans’ use of an undersized player at small forward, and it worked. Kuzminskas, who had played a total of just 45 minutes and scored 12 points in five appearances (with two DNPs) over the first seven games, totaled 15 points.
But as Kaslauskas said, if you have even a one-minute letdown, it’s over. And with Klay Thompson (16 points) leading the way, the Americans made it a blowout. Thompson, who comes off the bench for Team USA, is now among the leading candidates to be named MVP of this tournament, with Faried in the running as well, depending upon what happens in the gold medal game against France or Serbia.
The Americans will win, of course. Yes, we can keep telling ourselves that. Nothing fishy or unexpected ever happens in FIBA tournaments, right? Well, if you want to go with that, go ahead. But I have seen too many of these tournaments take too many crazy swings to speak in any kind of an absolute.
Would I bet on France or Serbia? Only if it was an alternative to lighting a stack of Euros on fire. There is no way that either Serbia or France should be able to keep pace with this U.S. team for a full 40 minutes, unless what happened Thursday (and Tuesday against Slovenia) fails to happen again.
What we are talking about is that one- or two-minute period of time in which Team USA takes complete control. It has happened every time they have been tested in this tournament, and this is a U.S. team that has not had to endure a single close fourth quarter. Heck, four years ago in Turkey a team with Westbrook, Durant, Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Tyson Chandler, Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom had one of their games go right down to the wire, a two-point victory over Brazil that wasn’t assured until Leandro Barbosa missed the final shot of the game.
So it ain’t over.
That’s why they play the games.
In this game, Lithuania took 42 free throws to 20 for the Americans. Coach K said he had never seen that before since he took the job nine years ago, so there was an unfamiliar element in this one as the Americans ran their wining streak to 62 games (including exhibitions) since they losing a semifinal against Greece in Saitama, Japan in 2006.
That team, in case you have forgotten, included LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard. And they lost to a Greece team that did not have one single NBA player.
So again, it ain’t over.
“There are more than one or two good teams,” said Krzyzewski, who ended his personal blackout of watching the host nation and tuned in to the second half of the France-Spain shocker. “Really, nothing surprises me in international basketball.”
Watching him take that bottle of wine, and watching him take such a cool approach to the back-and-forth that preceded its presentation, you had to believe him.
And you had to hand it to him. This is one of the finest coaching jobs of coach K’s career at the college or pro level.
One more win, and he’ll bring home a gold medal that he’ll appreciate as much as the ones he won in Beijing, Istanbul and London.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He can covered every senior U.S. national team since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Follow him on Twitter.