Before it can win a world championship, the United States needed to start looking like a world champion.
Kevin Durant, Chauncey Billups and the rest of the Americans finally had that appearance Monday, powering into the quarterfinals with a 121-66 victory over Angola.
”Obviously we want to stay humble, but at the same time we have to know that we can do it,” forward Kevin Love said. ”We know regardless of what people are saying, that we still are the favorites and we should play and really act like it, too.”
They did, opening the knockout round with a quick knockout.
With Billups scoring 16 of his 19 points and Durant all of his 17 in the first half, the Americans saved their most impressive performance in Istanbul for the elimination stage, overwhelming the Angolans from the start after a couple of lackluster performances to close the group stage.
”We don’t want to be a team that’s going to turn it on and off,” Durant said. ”I think of course we’re playing with a little more sense of urgency when you know if you lose, you go home. Guys came out and responded from those last two games.”
The U.S. forced turnovers that led to easy baskets in transition, and when forced into the halfcourt, shot 18 of 38 from 3-point range, one off the team record for 3s in a world championship game.
”Our guys were sharp,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Eric Gordon and Rudy Gay also scored 17 for the Americans, who will face Russia on Thursday night. Gordon was 5 of 6 behind the arc.
Joaquim Gomes, who played at Valparaiso, scored 21 for Angola, which finished fourth in Group A. The Angolans advanced on a tiebreaker by virtue of their overtime victory over Germany, but had lost by 50 to Serbia, and 21 apiece to Argentina and Australia.
They were no match for the Americans, who had won the teams’ four meetings in the Olympics, starting with a 116-48 romp in the Dream Team’s debut in Barcelona in 1992, straight through to a 97-76 victory in Beijing two years ago.
This quickly became one of those no-contests.
”We can do a little bit better, but we tried our best,” Angola coach Luis Magalhaes said.
The Americans lacked some focus against Iran and Tunisia in their last two games, knowing victory was certain and not wanting to embarrass opponents or get any of their own players hurt.
But they expected to be sharper after a couple of days of practice, knowing they would press, substitute frequently, and raise their overall level of play with the games finally becoming important.
”This is what we all sacrificed our summers for,” Billups said of trying to win the Americans’ first world title since 1994. ”Right now we’re on the right path.”
The U.S. won the opening tip for the first time in Istanbul and scored the first five points. Billups and Durant nailed consecutive 3-pointers to cap a 10-0 spurt and make it 22-7, and the Americans led 33-13 after one.
Billups is playing out of his normal NBA position as a shooting guard, and he made only 4 of 19 3-point attempts in preliminary play. Krzyzewski was asked last week if he would consider a lineup change, and he said he would look at it.
The lineup stayed the same, but Billups looked much different.
The lead ballooned to 29 late in the second quarter. Durant shot 7 of 10 in the half and Billups was 4 of 6, all from behind the arc, and Durant’s 3-pointer with 7 seconds left sent the Americans to the half with a 65-33 advantage.
Derrick Rose made two straight 3-pointers and Billups added another to start the U.S. scoring in the third quarter, and the lead grew to 37 late in the period. The Americans were 6 of 9 behind the arc in the period, which ended with them leading 91-56.
The Americans finished with 30 assists on their 41 field goals and committed just five turnovers.
”That’s what we strive for, that’s what we’re here for, is to try to win,” Gordon said, ”and as long as we keep on using our talent and being unselfish, we should be able to win.”
Felizardo Ambrosio finished with 12 points and Roberto Fortes 11 for Angola, which played without leading scorer Olimpio Cipriano because of a leg injury.
”It was a different challenge tonight,” U.S. assistant Nate McMillan said. ”Their key guy didn’t play tonight, so that took one of their options away, but it was about us. I thought we established ourselves early defensively as far as we wanted to play.”