Before making its FIBA World Championships debut on Saturday, Team USA had been brewing concerns. Who was going to be the second scorer? Who was going to provide a dominant force inside? And was last week’s one-point exhibition win over Spain a sign of struggles ahead? But in its opening game, the United States put aside much of the anxiety and put away Croatia in dominating fashion 106-78.

Eric Gordon scored a team-high 16 points and Team USA outscored Croatia 26-6 in the second quarter to open up a 48-26 halftime lead in front of fans at the Abdi Ipekci Arena in Istanbul, Turkey.

The U.S. shot 40 percent from three-point range, led largely by Gordon’s four three-pointers. Critics had questioned whether the U.S. had enough firepower from the outside on a team full of streaky shooters, but the U.S. players displayed their range as eight Americans made at least one three-pointer. The United States also held its own on the glass, outrebounding Croatia 38-37. Los Angeles Lakers swingman Lamar Odom, who often operates as a small forward, is the team’s starting center. At 6-foot-10 inches, Odom isn’t going to be an anchor inside but Team USA plans on using its explosive speed to quicken the game. The game plan worked perfectly Saturday as the U.S. kept the Croatians in chase mode for much of the afternoon.

Leading man Kevin Durant wasn’t as explosive as he had been in exhibition play, scoring only 14 points, but he did add eight rebounds and lead a defensive charge that helped to bottle up Croatia’s offense. Croatia shot just 33 percent from three-point range and 43 percent from the field. Even when the Americans weren’t playing rotating zones and suffocating man-to-man defense, Croatia struggled to convert the easy ones, shooting 42 percent from the free throw line. The U.S. didn’t fare much better at the stripe however, shooting just 54 percent.

Aside from its free throw shooting, the U.S. team dominated the afternoon from the second quarter to the finish.

Highlighted by Gordon, the United States bench outscored Croatia’s 60-38 as three reserves scored in double figures for the U.S. team.

“We were pleased with the effort of our team,” USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters. “I thought they played us extremely well in the first quarter and then we went on a spurt … three three-point shots that kind of broke it open. We beat a really good team tonight and we have to turn around and face another really good team tomorrow afternoon.”

The Americans will take on Slovenia on Sunday followed by a battle with Brazil on Monday.

 

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO