With nothing to play for, the United States looked as if it didn’t want to play.
Outworked and outhustled, the Americans led winless Tunisia by only four points early in the third quarter before turning the game into a rout over the final 15 minutes of a 92-57 victory Thursday.
Eric Gordon scored 21 points for the U.S., which had already clinched first place in its group and was more interested in getting through this one healthy – which it didn’t do – than earning any style points.
”It happens,” center Lamar Odom said. ”These teams are pumped up to play against us. You’re not going to always blow a team out in the first three or four minutes of a game.”
That’s often what’s expected of the powerful U.S., though.
”It’s kind of like the Tour de France, except you have to win every stage,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ”You have to look good in every stage.”
The U.S. (5-0), seeded first in Group B, next plays on Monday against Angola, the No. 4 seed from Group A.
Reserve forward Rudy Gay sat out the second half with what was called a slightly pulled right groin. He is expected to be OK for the next game.
The Americans misfired on nine of 10 3-point attempts in the first half and failed to show any sustained stretches of good offense, an occasional problem for the team during the group stage. The Americans have time to clean it up, with three days off before playing their first elimination game.
”On these next few days, we have to get better,” Krzyzewski said.
The U.S. opened with its three toughest opponents, then faced easy ones in Iran and Tunisia. Chauncey Billups, who earned the nickname ”Mr. Big Shot” for his clutch play in big games, attributes the sloppiness the last two nights to the fact that little was at stake.
”It’s kind of tough, but the good thing about it is those games are over now and every game is as big as the next one now,” Billups said.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook each scored 14 points for the U.S. team and Stephen Curry had 13. Marouan Kechrid scored 15 points and Macram Ben Romdhane added 11 for Tunisia, which went 0-5 in its first appearance in the worlds.
”For our first participation, I am happy,” Tunisia coach Adel Tlatli said.
Krzyzewski played his starters the entire first quarter, which ended with the Americans up 19-13. The reserves went the whole second, and though they pushed the lead into double digits, Tunisia was within two in the final minute before the Americans got the final two baskets for a 39-33 lead.
Clearly taking advantage of the Americans’ lack of interest, Tunisia hustled to keep possessions alive, even ripping a couple of balls out of U.S. players’ hands. But those extra possessions usually ended in missed shots. Tunisia hit 28 percent after entering the game at 36 percent for the tournament, second worst in the 24-team field.
The Americans finally broke it open midway through the third quarter. An 8-2 burst turned an eight-point lead into a 55-41 advantage. Gordon and Curry made consecutive 3-pointers in an 8-0 spurt that extended it to 63-44 in the final minute of the period.
With Gordon making four 3-pointers and Curry three, the Americans finished 10 of 26 from behind the arc.
”We were giving up open shots,” Westbrook said. ”They came out and played hard and that’s what that team has been doing the whole time they’ve been here,” Westbrook said. ”They kind of caught us off guard.”