When I entered Bilbao Arena about 15 minutes before game time, you could tell that the Finnish fans were ready for this game. It was the country's first appearance in a World championship, and the entire arena was lined with fans wearing the white and blue. Constant and spontaneous chanting was rampant as the game approached, and there was nary a Team USA fan to be found. For a split second, I actually thought Finland stood a chance.
Unfortunately....they didn't. Finland is a team that lives and dies by the jumpshot and the ability of both Gerald Lee and Petteri Kopponen to create. Lee and Kopponen are both good players in their own right, but their skillsets are such that they struggle against higher tier defenses. Also, both rely heavily on their size, which is a completely useless strength when facing the bigger Team USA. This left Finland to basically shoot jumpers all night long. Eventually, their cold shooting caught up with them, and a cascade of mistakes started flowing. Finland's players were jumpy, missing passes and throwing up absurd lobs. By the end of the second quarter, the game was basically an exhibition, with Team USA regularly stealing the ball and not needing to pass it more than once on offense.
Let's give credit where credit's due, though. Finland did play a respectable game over the course of the first five minutes, using their quicker big men to their advantage and forcing a few difficult shots. But their turnovers and missed shots soon piled up, and it was curtains early. Post-game, coach Henrik Dettman was quick to point out the differences between the two teams. "We all see we can play a bit better", he said. "But today we just looked scared." He also noted that his players weren't used to playing in front of such huge and passionate crowds. Petteri Kopponen, arguably the team's best player, confirmed the sentiment a minute later.
The interesting part of the Finnish post-game press conference, though, was hearing about what went on at half time. It was probably the lowest point in the game for the wolves, after they had endured a two point quarter with no field goals. "We decided to go out and leave everything on the floor." Kopponen said. "Try to show everybody that we can play some basketball."
The pep talk worked, and Finland was able to actually outscore the US 14-12 over the first 5:15 of the third. And as much as I admire them for that, I also don't want to take anything away from what Team USA in the second half. Most telling was Coach K's reaction to their effort in the post-game presser. "For our guys to play that hard in the second half was actually better than what they did in the second quarter." Coach K said. "Most guys would stop fighting." It sounds a bit like fluff, but when you consider how many excellent teams Krzyzewski has led over the years, the statement rings strong.
Indeed, there was no shortage of effort from the Americans at any point in the game. The worst you can say about them is that they got a bit too sloppy at times, or that they took a few too many jumpshots. There just wasn't much Finland could do to stop them physically or mentally.
- The Finnish fans stayed until the bitter end, and had chants going the entire game. Much respect.
- Coach K was very gracious post-game. "Congrats to Finland. They played hard for 40 minutes, we played for 40 minutes. Their effort was at a high level. ... We won by a lot of points, but I think Finland's a good team. They're well coached, their fans are terrific, it was a nice atmosphere, and it was an honor to play them."
- Klay Thompson discussed his role on the team at length. Specifically, he talked about how there was less responsibility for him here than there is in Golden State, and how he can focus on the catch and shoot or working off the pick and roll.
- Coach K, on Turkey's performance today: "I think they're well coached. They didn't seem to hit shots, but all of a sudden they showed great heart."
- Also from Coach K: "Asik didn't play much this afternoon, but we expect him to play a little bit more tomorrow."
- There's always a certain point in Team USA games where they're able to effortlessly rattle off 3-4 scores in a row. It's only then that I realize how truly unfair these games can be sometimes.
- The Finnish fans got dead silent in the second quarter, and there were a few whistles before halftime. The team's effort in the second half won the fans back over, though.
- Just going over some of these numbers....Finns had 5 assists to 31 turnovers. Yet still won the offensive rebounding battle 13-11.
- Also, Gerald Lee somehow managed to foul out in 7 minutes and 11 seconds of action. That won't beat the record that Nellie and Popeye share, but it's still strange nonetheless.
- Andre Drummond was able to strip point guard Petteri Kopponen late. That's no small accomplishment for a center.
- Every Team USA player on the roster got a minimum of 10 minutes and a maximum of 22:41. Now that's what I call good lineup management.