World Cup of Basketball: Weakened US team aims for title


BILBAO, Spain — The bad news just kept coming, the only difference whether the culprit was injury or interest.

Some stars couldn’t play. Others wouldn’t. Then the losses really started piling up for the U.S. national basketball team.

Kevin Love pulled out while awaiting his recently completed trade to Cleveland. Paul George broke his right leg in a horrific collision that shook up teammates and perhaps the future of international basketball. Finally, Kevin Durant, the Americans’ best player and the NBA’s MVP, changed his mind about taking part in the FIBA Basketball World Cup.

The U.S. team that remains is good enough to win but vulnerable enough to lose — perhaps to the Spain squad that was so close against much more powerful Americans in the last two Olympics and could get a third shot on its home court.

“We still have a goal and that’s to win gold, and we can’t (say), ‘Oh, Kevin dropped out, Paul got hurt, so this is going to be tough for us,’” U.S. center Anthony Davis said. “We hear everybody saying that. We’re trying to prove that wrong.”

The former world basketball championship begins Saturday at four sites throughout Spain and the Canary Islands. The Americans start a fairly benign group here in Basque Country against Finland, with Spain facing the most powerful pool in Granada, joined by European champion France, Brazil and Serbia.

Eight teams will advance to Barcelona and the other eight to Madrid for the knockout rounds. The gold-medal game is Sept. 14 in Madrid, the only time the U.S. and Spain could meet.

The Americans held off the Spanish in Olympic thrillers in 2008 and 2012, fueled by LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony. It would now be up to a much younger U.S. squad — its youngest featuring professionals — led by Davis, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

And if they win, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said it would be even sweeter than the Olympic victories.

“When you have expectations based on what you think you had, and you get dealt those blows and you recover and you’re able to still get the job done, it’s sweet,” Colangelo said. “That’s why I said what I did.”

Other contenders are also short-handed.

Tony Parker is taking the summer off instead of playing for France, and Spurs teammate Manu Ginobili can’t suit up for Argentina because of a lingering leg injury. Lithuania starting point guard Mantas Kalnietas was lost to a shoulder injury Tuesday in an exhibition game, weakening a potential semifinal opponent for the Americans.

That could leave Spain as the team arriving in the best shape, a skilled and veteran unit featuring Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka up front and Jose Calderon, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro in the backcourt. The 2006 world champions went 8-0 in exhibition play.

“It’s a very special opportunity to try and achieve something big, which is nothing other than to be world champions again,” Pau Gasol told FIBA.com recently. “It would be incredible to achieve this at home but in order to do that, we need to follow a lot of steps, compete at the highest level, give everything and enjoy every moment.”

The Americans were beaten by Greece in the semifinals of the ’06 worlds but haven’t lost since, running off 54 straight victories. They are the only team deep enough to withstand the kind of player losses they’ve faced and still be considered by many the team to beat.

“They have a great team and I think they are the favorite in this world championship,” Slovenia’s Edo Muric said after the Americans’ 101-71 exhibition victory in the Canary Islands on Tuesday.

Familiar names

ANDRAY BLATCHE, PHILIPPINES. The veteran center is an NBA free agent at the moment but currently has a job as the man in the middle for the Philippines. If you’re confused, you’re far from alone, as how a native of the United States with no ties to the country ended up on their roster is the stuff of international mystery. But teams are allowed to naturalize one player and the Philippines ended up picking Blatche, who could use a good showing to persuade an NBA team to sign him after the Brooklyn Nets decided not to bring him back.

MIKE FRATELLO, UKRAINE. Fratello won 667 games as an NBA coach, though none since the 2006-07 season with Memphis. He’s best known now for his work as a TV analyst, and the Hackensack, New Jersey, native’s only work on the sidelines now comes with the Ukrainians. He has led them since 2012 and now takes them to their first appearance in the World Cup.

NICK CALATHES, GREECE. He had developed into the Memphis Grizzlies’ backup point guard by the end of his rookie season before it was cut short on the eve of the playoffs when he was suspended 20 games for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy by testing positive for tamoxifen. The former University of Florida guard’s work with the national team will be the last he gets for a while; he still has 13 more games to sit out when next season starts.

HANNO MOTTOLA, FINLAND. The last of his two NBA seasons came way back in 2001-02, four years after he helped the University of Utah reached the NCAA championship game. The forward will be 38 next month and said he’s had two shoulder and two Achilles surgeries in the last five years, but has recovered from a torn knee ligament at last summer’s European championship to be in uniform with the Finns when they made their World Cup debut Saturday against the U.S.

RENALDO BALKMAN, PUERTO RICO. Balkman never lived up to his promise in the NBA as a first-round pick of the New York Knicks, but the forward has found some success in the international game. He ranked in the top five in the 2013 FIBA Americas tournament in points, rebounds, blocks and steals per game, while making a tournament-best 66.3 percent of his 2-point shots, in helping the Puerto Ricans to a second-place finish that qualified them for the World Cup.