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Cousins helping U.S. defend post game

BARCELONA, Spain -- United States versus Mexico basketball in 2014 looks a lot like Mexico versus United States soccer did throughout the '70s and '80s and, realistically, decades before that.

Hombres contra niƱos.

On hardwood, as it used to be for the Americans on grass for so long until they finally started kicking back in the '90s, Mexico is a neighboring country only because it says so on the map. Saturday's showdown at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup that brought together North America's two largest populations made it look as though the gap between the NBA stars in red, white and blue, and their foes from south of the border is still an ocean or three.

Give Mexico this much, though:

Through the crafty work inside of star center Gustavo Ayon, who was Dream Shaking on a few possessions like a vintage Hakeem Olajuwon, Team USA saw that its frontcourt defense definitely has some vulnerabilities to address over the next week as the prospect of that widely anticipated championship game against Spain draws ever closer.

The Mexicans also hit back just hard enough, in an 86-63 triumph for Team USA more lopsided than the scoreboard suggests, to get Steph Curry revved up.

In the Americans' sixth game in eight days, Curry drained six 3-pointers to finish with a team-high 20 points. He also launched the most demonstrative celebratory fist pump ever seen from anyone on this particular Team USA after sinking three of those 3s in a bust-out third quarter. Curry then insisted he senses momentum and confidence building game by game within the squad, reminiscent of the 2010 FIBA World Championship team in Turkey that showed up in Istanbul with even less top-flight experience than this group has and beat the host Turks to win it all.

"In 2010 we did that," Curry said.

"Now [that] we're here in Barcelona and got our first [elimination] game under our belt, we got the wheels going."

They've indeed got Curry firing at last after his slow start to this tournament. And with an assist to Ayon, they've also apparently got a new impact player in DeMarcus Cousins.

It remains to be seen how much Boogie we'll be treated to in Tuesday night's quarterfinals, because Team USA will be facing the small-ballers from Slovenia after brothers Goran and Zoran Dragic led the Group D runners-up to a 71-61 triumph over the Dominican Republic in Saturday's second game.

Yet you can otherwise count on some steady doses of Cousins for the rest of the way whenever Team USA needs more of a bulky presence.

One of the few holes in Anthony Davis' wonderfully blossoming game is dealing with bigger bodies in the post -- hence New Orleans' recent acquisition of Omer Asik -- or dealing with crafty big men who can fool you with their good fakes.

Like Luis Scola. Or Spain's Gasol Brothers. Or, yes, Ayon.

The Americans are betraying no real concern about Ayon's 25 points in 37 minutes, since they largely single-covered the still-unsigned former Atlanta Hawk to make sure that none of Mexico's shooters got off. That said ...

If Ayon can hurt the American bigs in single coverage, you can be sure Pau and Marc Gasol possess the same capability in everyone's hypothetical USA-Spain final Sept. 14. And that's why Cousins is gradually starting to get more playing time.

Cousins' interest in defense has always been questioned (loudly) in Sacramento, but put him on the same list with James Harden and Kyrie Irving when it comes to players who appear to be digging in harder on D for their country than we're accustomed to seeing when they're at their NBA day jobs.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski, for one, had nothing but raves for Cousins' 11 points, seven boards and game efforts to bang with Ayon in 14 minutes of work.

"We have believed in DeMarcus right from training camp," Krzyzewski said. "All the reports about him not making the team and all that were all not right. We felt he would be the perfect guy with or in place of Anthony at times, but more in the place of Anthony.

"I think his defense has really improved. He tried to take three charges today. He played Ayon pretty well without getting help.

"I thought he played ... he’d get an A-plus from me today. Let’s just put it that way."

Krzyzewski quickly followed up with the announcement that he'd be declining to grade anyone else on the squad publicly, but he ultimately did share the one thing USA Basketball officials think about more than any other of the more commonly suggested reasons to go looking for the panic button, such as coping with the Spanish big men, trying to beat Spain on Spanish soil, or the dangers of playing eight games as easy as the Mexico game as a prelude to the title game.

Continuity.

The lack thereof, specifically.

That's pretty much the only thing you'll ever hear USAB folks openly envy.

Curry, Cousins and the rest of Team USA's chosen dozen have been together for a total of 25 consecutive days since reconvening in Chicago last month in the wake of the stomach-turning Paul George injury. It's not a lot of time to become a team.

Rest assured that the Spaniards have their own list of internal concerns when it comes to coping with the Americans' speed, athleticism and potential to smother them defensively, that no one seems interested in discussing much. Yet you can also rest assured that Spain is a team in the truest sense.

Speaking about his guys, Krzyzewski admitted: "I wish they knew each other better."

But ...

"You can’t force that maturation process," Coack K added. "It's just got to happen."

For the big, bad Yanquis -- who just halted Mexico's year-long Cinderella ride back to the highest level of international hoops for the first time in 40 years -- it has to happen in the space of a week.