Form held at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain up until the quarterfinals when the host nation — one of basketball’s superpowers — was knocked off by a depleted French team.
Spain picked a terrible time for a shooting slump as the No. 2-rated team in the world fell to eighth-ranked France, 65-52. The team everyone had pegged in the final against the United States had been vanquished from the tournament by a squad that was missing arguably its two best players in San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker and Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah.
France faces 11th-ranked Serbia, which routed Brazil in the quarterfinals, in the semifinals in Madrid. It’s the rematch of the Aug. 31 group-play game won by France, 74-73. The other half of the semifinals pits the U.S. against Lithuania.
Team USA, ranked No. 1 in the world, has yet to be tested in the tournament, breezing through group play and barely broke a sweat in dispatching Mexico and Slovenia in the knockout round.
OneManFastBreak.net breaks down the two matchups:
USA vs. Lithuania
The Lithuanians (rated No. 4) and their rabid fans powered through the knockout round, and they present the first real threat to the U.S. in the tournament. Lietuva can play inside-out or outside-in, depending on the opponent. It wore down New Zealand with size and strength, and shot lights out from 3-point range against Turkey. Jonas Valanciunas (Toronto Raptors) and Donatas Motiejunas (Houston Rockets) present a good test for the U.S. frontcourt. Team USA’s three-headed monster of Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans), DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento Kings) and Kenneth Faried (Denver Nuggets) have looked dominant, and should one or two of them get into foul trouble head coach Mike Krzyzewski has Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons) and Mason Plumlee (Brooklyn Nets) waiting in the wings. Lithuania’s big men are not as athletically gifted as the Americans, so look for Davis and Faried to run the floor and look for lob passes. Renaldas Seibutis, Adas Juskevicius and Martynas Pocius are big guards but they’re not as quick, so expect Coach K to dial up ball pressure and to make Lithuania play faster. Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls) enjoyed his best game of the World Cup in the quarterfinals against Slovenia, and he could explode for another big game. Klay Thompson (Golden State Warriors) has been Team USA’s most consistent two-way player. Thompson is the ideal FIBA player: he has good size, plays great perimeter defense, and can shoot 3-pointers. If Lithuania can slow the pace and knock down half their 3-pointers, this could go down the wire. If not, expect another double-digit victory for Team USA.
France vs. Serbia
It still feels weird not being able to talk about Spain in World Cup semifinals, but give France a ton of credit for smothering the Spaniards with outstanding defense. French center Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz) played a huge role in denying the paint against Spain. The 7-2 center bothered Pau and Marc Gasol with his length and activity around the basket, and expect the 22-year-old big man to do the same against Serbia. Another unsung hero, point guard Thomas Heurtel, has had the hot hand from the outside. Nobody can replace Tony Parker in the lineup, but Heurtel has done a more than adequate job as a replacement. Boris Diaw (San Antonio Spurs) will present all sorts of matchup problems for Serbia, with his ability to post up small forwards and take power forwards out in the perimeter. Nic Batum (Portland Trail Blazers) is one of the most versatile wing players in the NBA, and he may draw the assignment to guard Serbian sharp shooter Bogdan Bogdanovic (Phoenix Suns). If the Serbians have an advantage it’s in the backcourt. Point guard Milos Teodosic and shooting guard Bogdanovic are averaging a combined 23 points per game, and their ability to knock down 3-points could be the difference in the game.
Championship prediction: Regardless of which team comes out of the France-Serbia side of the bracket, the Americans will be heavily favored in the finals and they should repeat as world champs.