MADRID — The Red Foxes dance team held their practice right after Team USA held its practice, and many of the American players stayed around to watch.
And why wouldn’t they?
The Foxes, from Ukraine, are an extraordinary confluence of genetic brilliance with a ballerina meets pole dancer sexiness. Not one of them is shorter than 6 feet tall. The should call themselves the unicorns.
They are a pleasure to watch, and a number of the American players did just that before posing for photographs with them. Only one day remained Saturday in the tournament that Team USA’s 12 players have dedicated their summer to winning, and few people outside of Serbia were expecting anything other than a demolition Sunday night when the 2014 World Cup concludes. Serbia is a 22-point underdog and a 16-1 bet on the money line.
For them to win, it would take an extraordinary confluence of events to happen simultaneously — sort of like what happened when each of the Red Foxes was born.
Serbia does not have a single player currently in the NBA, although there is NBA talent there. Point guard Milos Teodosic plies his trade for CSKA Moscow, Nenad Krstic is now long-departed from the New Jersey Nets and is suiting up during the regular season for Anadolu Efes in Turkey. Miroslav Raduljica spent last season with the Milwaukee Bucks, was recently traded in the Jared Dudley deal and then was waived by the Los Angeles Clippers. His beard is Hardenesque, but that is about the only comparison that can be made between him and an actual NBA player with a contract back in America. Bojan Bogdanovic is a rookie-to-be for Phoenix, and the remainder of the roster is a mishmash of mystery men that the Americans will have to figure out as they prepare for the inevitable — winning the gold medal.
Unless that outcome is somehow not inevitable.
As we discussed in yesterday’s column, the Serbs are not ready to concede anything — and when they play in a gold medal game, extraordinary things can happen. Moreover, their coach has already informed them that the pressure is squarely on Team USA. They truly have nothing to lose.
So what would it take for the unlikeliest of occurances to occur?
I reckon at least five things need to happen. Here they are:
1. Eight vs. Five
The referees have not yet been announced, so we do not yet know if Darko Milicic’s, ahem, favorite is going to be bringing his whistle to the game. But whether Luigi Lamonica or Michael Aylen or any other official who has been whispered to have an anti-American bias is assigned to this game, it would not be surprising to see those whistles get blown a lot in the first quarter. Not would it be unprecedented. In the 2008 gold medal game at the Beijing Olympics, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade were taken out of the game early by suspect calls that gave each of them two fouls. In this tournament, Stephen Curry and DeMarcus Cousins have been foul magnets, and if Klay Thompson or Kenneth Faried get taken out of the game by the refs, the Americans could be without their two most reliable players for long stretches. It is important to remember that FIBA wants a close game. This tournament has not drawn much interest in the United States, and it would be a black mark for FIBA if Team USA is able to roll through this tournament unscathed despite sending a team without a single superstar.
2. Serbia is able to play from ahead
The Americans are not accustomed to looking up at the scoreboard and seeing themselves trailing. It happened once during pool play, against Turkey, and it hasn’t happened since. In fact, it has been eight years since Team USA found itself trailing a good team, and when that happened in Saitama, Japan against Greece in 2006, panic set in. Rushed possessions and shoddy defense turned an 8-point deficit into a 22-point deficit in a matter of just a couple of minutes, and the Americans’ subsequent comeback fell short. Several teams have been able to stay within striking distance of Team USA through halftime, but a pair of third-quarter onslaughts have wiped out Team USA’s last two opponents, Lithuania and Slovenia. If Serbia can play from ahead rather than stay within striking distance, it could be a game-changer.
3. Serbia makes 12 to 15 3-point shots
The 3-point shot is the big equalizer in international basketball, and Team USA has been outstanding taking that weapon away from its opponents. Lithuania came into the semifinals shooting 40 percent from long distance, and the Americans held them to 2-for-18 shooting. Serbia comes into the gold medal game as a 39.9 percent shooting team from 3-point range, having make 59 3s in eight games. Milkos Teodosic 22-for-45 and Bogdan Bogdanovic (15-for-36) are their main threats. Team USA (51.6) and Serbia (50.1 percent) are the two top-shooting teams in the tournament.
4. Team USA misses its free throws
Way back in training camp Bobby Gonzalez identified this as the Achilles’ heel for Team USA. The Americans are making only 69.4 percent of their foul shots, ranking them 16th among the 24 teams that started this tournament. The poor foul shooting has not had an impact on any of their games, because none of the games has been close in the fourth quarter. But … and this is a big but … if foul trouble takes Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins and Kenneth Faried out of the game, the big men will be Mason Plumlee (2-for-9 at the line in the tournament) and Andre Drummond (2-for-7). That could be a problem.
5. The crowd has an impact
It will be an anti-American crowd Sunday night, and many of the tickets that were purchased by Spanish fans will end up in the hands of Serbian fans, who are streaming toward Madrid at this very moment. The last time Serbia (then Yugoslavia) played for a gold medal, every Serbian within 500 miles of Indianapolis made the drive, and the arena formerly known as Conseco Fieldhouse had never and has never rocked like it did the day Yugoslavia defeated Argentina in overtime to win the 2002 World Championship. All of the Americans have played in hostile arenas before, but they have never faced a hostile crowd in this tournament. The arena where the championship game is being played is small by American standards, with a low roof and deafening acoustics. It could be a factor.
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. He has covered every senior men’s U.S. national team since the 1996 Olympics. Follow him on Twitter.