The USA was expected to be in the semifinals of the FIBA World Cup in Barcelona, Spain, but not how it got there.
On a team of guards such as Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and Derrick Rose, it appeared the United States would bury opponents under a barrage of 3-pointers with some strong drives to the basket mixed in.
However, its front court, led by the New Orleans Pelicans’ Anthony Davis and the Denver Nuggets’ Kenneth Faried, has been the engine that has pulled it to a 7-0 record in the tournament. The USA plays Lithuania at 2 p.m. Thursday on ESPN. The winner will play the winner of Friday’s France-Serbia game Sunday for the championship.
“As far as AD and our bigs, they have carried us the whole trip, and nobody expected that, because we were so guard-heavy, as everyone put it,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams, a USA assistant coach, said Wednesday. “But AD, Kenneth, (Sacramento Kings center) DeMarcus (Cousins) and (Kings forward) Rudy (Gay) have done a good job of giving us a boost from our big positions.”
Davis, 6-feet-11, leads the USA in scoring (13.7 points per game) and blocked shots (2.3). He has averaged 7.0 rebounds. Faried, 6-8, leads the team in rebounding at 8.1 and has averaged 13.0 points.
Davis, 21, plays power forward for the Pelicans but is the USA’s starting center, bringing a dynamic with his mobility and length. Not only has he been an excellent rim protector with his shot-blocking, his defensive play on the perimeter has stood out.
He has switched well on pick-and-rolls, made it difficult for 3-point shooters, and has gotten steals and deflections, which is why head coach Mike Krzyzewski gushed at the start of team practices about Davis and what he brought defensively to this team.
“I’m just trying to play hard, bring energy, play great on defense, whether it’s rebounding or blocking shots, altering shots or whatever it is,” Davis said.
Lithuania brings a physicality that this USA team has not faced in the World Cup, however. Davis will go against Jonas Valanciunas, the Toronto Raptors’ center. He scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against Davis’ Pelicans teammate, Omer Asik, in the quarterfinals against Turkey on Tuesday.
Joining Valanciunas in the front court are the rough-and-tumble Lavrinovic brothers, Darius and Kristof, along with Houston Rockets forward Danatas Motiejunas. Lithuania likes to get the ball to Valanciunas and have the Lavrinovics and Motiejunas crash the boards for offensive rebounds.
Davis said the USA has been prepared for physical play all along.
“We knew a lot of teams were going to come out and try to slow the tempo and try to alter our game,” he said. “But we try to play our game and always make sure we’re running.”
The USA, playing in Group C, has outscored foes by an average of 33.1 points. The games have taken on a familiar look, being relatively close in the first half before the USA clamps down on defense, pulls away in the third quarter and finishes off opponents in the fourth.
Lithuania will be hard-pressed not to let that happen. Mantas Kalneitis, its only true point guard, has been sidelined with a separated shoulder. Lithuania averages nearly 15 turnovers per game. However, it shot 40 percent on 3-point attempts, second in the World Cup, with Darius Lavrinovic shooting 63.5 percent and causing matchup problems.
The teams have a common opponent in Slovenia, which the USA demolished by 43 points Tuesday (119-76), getting 40 points on fast breaks. Lithuania edged Slovenia 67-64 in the teams’ fifth game of the tournament.
The semifinals are being played on the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 airplane attacks in New York City and Washington, which was not lost on Davis.
“We’re trying to represent our country,” Davis said. “We have a big game tomorrow on 9/11, and that’s going to make us play with even more energy and effort.”
An expected finals matchup against Spain was dashed when it was stunned by France on Wednesday. France will play Serbia in the semis. The semifinals losers will play in the bronze medal game Saturday, with the finals Sunday in Madrid.