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Team USA vs. Slovenia Preview

Now, we enter the realm of games that Team USA can actually lose. Can the Dragic brothers create enough chaos on the perimeter to tip things in their favor, or will Team USA's ability to score inside pull them through?

Different uniforms, same tenacity.
Different uniforms, same tenacity.
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
2014 FIBA World Championship Quarter-Finals
(6-4 in prelims)

(4-0 in prelims)
September 9th, 2014
Palau Sant Jordi, Barcelona, Catelonia, Spain
2:00 PM Central Daylight Time
TV: in the USA, Internationally
Injury Report: All players are expected to be ready.
Previous Matchups: W 101-71
Probable Starters
Goran Dragic PG Kyrie Irving
Zoran Dragic SG Stephen Curry
Domen Lorbek SF James Harden
Miha Zupan, Jaka Balazic, or Uros Slokar PF Kenneth Faried
Alen Omic C Anthony Davis

If there was any doubt about Team USA taking this game seriously, it had to have been erased following today's practice in Barcelona. The session ran 15 minutes long, and despite the heavy recent schedule, players were seen running suicides and keeping their shots in form. Steph Curry talked to the media after the practice, and admitted something about his opponent that you might not expect. "They're a very capable team. And if we don't come and play, they can definitely beat us."

Coach K was also very aware of the team he's facing. He was kind enough to break them down to the media present:

"They're unusually good. They have one of the great guards in the world in Goran Dragic. His brother is outstanding too. With Lorbek, those three guys on the perimeter provide probably, outside of Spain, the most experience on the perimeter that you have in the tournament. Then you surround them with three point shooters. You can have, really, 5 guys who can shoot the three. So they have great spacing, they share the ball after shots or threes, and they're going to be a tough team to defend. We think they're one of the best teams."

Indeed, Slovenia is probably the best squad to face this incarnation of Team USA so far. But they're not only a threat offensively. In their Round of 16 game against the Dominican Republic, they managed to go on a 16-0 run at the end of the half. Their guards, Zoran Dragic in particular, are extremely good at applying pressure and forcing turnovers in the backcourt. Admittedly, though, the Dominicans never really had a big or inside presence to tie their team together. Coach K was quick to highlight that fact. "[Slovenia does] not defend, in their normal practice, a lot of the stuff that we do. So they're not accustomed to being inside. So our guys have to take advantage of that. Not so much posting, but for offensive rebounds."

Offensive rebounding will certainly be a key issue. Despite winning against Mexico, Team USA actually lost the battle of the offensive boards, and have either lost or kept relatively even in that category with all of their other opponents in the tournament so far.

Defensively, aside from covering the perimeter, Team USA should do all they can to force Slovenia into mid-range shots. Generally, the Slovenians are either focused on charging to the hoop or spreading the ball around the perimeter. It's only during times that they struggle to find shots offensively that they hit the mid-range emergency button. Hitting that button can be detrimental, as Slovenia went 0-5 from that range during the third quarter against the Dominican Republic, allowing the Dominicans to re-enter the game.

Offensively, I feel like Team USA is going to have to make a few more passes than they're used to on some possessions. Slovenia is capable of locking down perimeter players, as they did against Francisco Garcia. Coming into his game against Slovenia, Garcia averaged 20.2 points per game and shot 61% from the floor. Against Slovenia, he was held to 5 shots and only scored 7 points. Garcia is the exception rather than the rule though, as on the whole teams have been able to shoot generally good percentages against Slovenia.

Where Team USA will really have to watch out is turnovers. Out of Slovenia's 6 opponents so far, the only team that has managed to have a positive assist to turnover ratio against them is Korea. And Korea shot so poorly that it didn't matter. Given that Team USA has basically lived on forcing turnovers and getting out on the break, it's going to be interesting seeing both teams employ a similar strategy.

The main difference, obviously, will be Team USA's offense inside. Both Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried have proven themselves to be extremely capable offensively. Neither of them will post up particularly often, but both of them are high energy players that will get easy points via offensive boards, weak side cuts to the hoop, or good positioning underneath. Team USA does have a more than capable post up player on the bench in DeMarcus Cousins. Coach K talked about how Cousins might do against Slovenia specifically. ""If Omic is there, he's a good matchup for [Cousins]," Coach K said. "If they put Zupan at the 5, that's a tougher matchup, because they can spread you. But DeMarcus can move.... Again, it's an unusual team to defend."

Because of that, we might see some smaller flex lineups with four or even five guards at once. I've been present at all Team USA games and can't remember them ever not using at least two bigs at once, but my memory is garbage and I have no way to check. Coach K acknowledged Slovenia's unusual style, though. "They basically have four guys away from the basket all the time offensively. And the fifth guy can be a ball screener, who's also away from the basket. So when a shot's taken, defensively, we have to be ready for long rebounds."

Anyway, I'm expecting this one to be competitive for a least a while. Team USA has gotten off to slow starts before, and generally struggle to find good shots early in the game. The Round of 16 game against Mexico was the exception, and I can see Slovenia throwing Team USA's fast breaks right back at them, especially given that they've played together for longer. But at the end of the day, Slovenia just doesn't have the defense to handle Team USA down low. Jonas Valanciunas, Aron Baynes, and Yannick Moreira (of Angola) all had absolutely no problem doing efficient work against Slovenia in the post. Moreover, Valanciunas and Moreira finished their games against Slovenia without a single turnover. Lithuania, Australia, and Angola were the only three teams to seriously challenge Slovenia in group play, so that pretty much tells you what you need to know.

Slammin' Quotes:

  • Coach K, on the difference between this practice and the earlier practices stateside: "Now, you're saving legs. I mean, we played 6 games in 8 days. You know, you can't have hard practices. Otherwise, the expression, "diminishing returns". So what you try to do is have short, crisp practices. And make sure your timing is there. And make sure you're as fresh as possible. But, you can't have contact. Or you could, and lose. So, we just try to keep our guys sharp and fresh."
  • Steph Curry: "On this team, you don't play that many minutes. You might be subbed out here or there. You normally wouldn't in the NBA. So you have to be ready and get that experience, so when you go back to the NBA you can know what certain guys on your team feel like."
  • Coach K on Derrick Rose: "A lot of the time, when he's in the game, we have the lead. I think that he's trying to get everyone else involved. And he looks for his stuff, not just 5th sometimes, but 6th or 7th. On the court. And we need him to look at it like he's 1 or 2."
  • Tom Thibodeau, on what he'd like to see out of Derrick Rose: "Just continue to build. We knew that there would be some steps we would have to take. I'm not surprised that he's been rusty, that's to be expected. But I want him to be aggressive. I want him to attack on both ends, be who he is. Throw all caution to the wind, go."
  • James Harden: "Four of them are left handed. It should be interesting, we're not used to seeing so many left handers. .... Our bigs are going to have to talk and communicate."
  • This isn't a quote, but here's Irving and Dragic's head-to-head stats in the NBA, if you're interested.

Prediction: Team USA 99, Slovenia 89.

What do you think of tomorrow's game? Drop a comment and let us know!