Bird, Whalen still drive Team USA

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Ready or not, the FIBA World Championship begins in less than two weeks.

That first part looked close to a coin flip for the United States for stretches of the first half of Monday's exhibition game against Canada. The second half brought a return to normalcy, or as close to it as was needed in a meaningless game played without several key players who recently wrapped up the WNBA Finals.

For a team that even in its current form has been together days, not weeks, the United States eventually looked ready enough in a 76-51 win.

Ready enough for Turkey in two weeks with a backcourt that has seen it all.

And perhaps ready enough for what comes after that, with a backcourt that is taking all of this in for the first time.

Team USA still needs Sue Bird and Lindsay Whalen to be who they are. When the time comes, it needs Skylar Diggins and Odyssey Sims to be who they can be.

"In one sense it was difficult, but it was best for us to play this kind of team because they make you grind it out," U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said of the result against Canada. "But I thought the young guys, when they came in, gave us a lot of energy. They really changed the tempo of the game and we were able to extend our defense a little bit.

"All in all, considering we've been together a week, there were moments where we looked like we could be a really good team down the road."

Down the road is often the toughest opponent for the national program. The real competition Monday night wasn't the team on the other side of the court. It rarely is, no matter what Australia, Russia or any other country musters in a given tournament. The challenge that never leaves and never gets easier is whether the United States can live up to its own standards.

Canada tried to make it about the moment. It really did. The team that lost to the United States by 43 points in the 2012 Olympics and 41 points in the 2010 World Championship trailed its neighbor by just four points at halftime Monday. In its final domestic game before it crosses the Atlantic -- first for more exhibition games in France and then Turkey for the start of the main event on Sept. 27 -- Team USA was stuck playing at Canada's pace and into Canada's hands.

"I trust Sue [Bird], I trust Diana [Taurasi] against anybody, anytime, anywhere, regardless of their age. And Lindsay's in that category. When Lindsay's on the floor, I have complete trust in her." Geno Auriemma on Lindsay Whalen

"Settle down, run our offense, communicate on defense and get out in transition," Team USA's Stefanie Dolson said of the halftime message. "Coach definitely said to us that our best asset is our transition ball and running. I think a lot of teams want to slow down and play half-court offense, but we want to run.

"We did that in the second half, and you saw the difference."

Familiar faces implemented that message, a lineup of Bird, Tina Charles, Angel McCoughtry, Maya Moore and Whalen extending a 35-31 halftime lead to 42-31 inside of four minutes in the third quarter. It helps having Charles to defend the paint, McCoughtry to jump every passing lane and Moore to be, well, Moore, but the ball also always seems to end up where it needs to end up when Bird and Whalen are in the backcourt together. Yet the roll didn't slow when Diggins checked in. And the night for the Americans reached its crescendo with Diggins and Sims, teammates in Tulsa during the WNBA season, speeding up the Canadians and playing with all the energy that comes with youth.

Stats didn't mean much Monday, when no player scored more than 10 points, but Diggins and Sims combined for 15 points, five assists and five steals in 33 minutes.

All that was missing was what no amount of talent can provide.

When Bird, who has three Olympic gold medals and two more in world championships, made her Team USA debut in a major competition 12 years ago, Diggins had only recently turned 12 years old. Sims was barely 10. Back then, Bird was the rising star, the youngest player on a team that still included legends like Dawn Staley, now a USA assistant coach.

Back then, Bird didn't know what she didn't know yet. Few point guards do before they are old enough to rent a car on their own.

"Isn't that the beauty of being young, that you don't know?" Bird chuckled. "Ignorance is bliss at that point, I think, but I learned I didn't know. My first experience was world championships in 2002. You check into a game, and the pace, the way they played, how everyone, no matter who we played, was going to give us their best shot -- you figure it out quickly. I realized quickly I better learn. I better learn this on the fly fast, or else I'm going to look pretty stupid."

It took more time for Whalen to make her mark in the international game, her first world championship appearance coming six years after she entered the WNBA. She, too, needed time to catch up with everything else she had at her disposal. When he coached against her in the national championship game in 2004, Auriemma saw what she was and what she wasn't yet.

"I thought Lindsay was just really creative with the ball, and she was very smart," Auriemma said. "But you could tell even back then she was a very tough kid, tough physically and tough mentally. The one thing she had to improve on was she had to become a better shooter, a more consistent shooter. And that's certainly happened, but every step of the way, wherever she's been, she's gotten better and better and better.

"I trust Sue, I trust Diana [Taurasi] against anybody, anytime, anywhere, regardless of their age," Auriemma continued. "And Lindsay's in that category. When Lindsay's on the floor, I have complete trust in her."

Physically and mentally tough, true to her own character, charismatic and missing only the wisdom and shot refinements that come with age. Sound like any former Notre Dame All-Americans?

The United States trimmed its roster to 13 players shortly before the game against Canada. All of the remaining players will make the trip to France, although how many of them are on the roster in Turkey will depend on six USA-affiliated players who participated in the WNBA Finals (it was seven such players, but Auriemma said Monday that Sylvia Fowles would not play in the World Championship because of foot pain).

Bird and Whalen will be there, along with Taurasi. Diggins and Sims? The math of the depth chart isn't in their favor, certainly not for both to make the final cut.

"That young backcourt looked really good, but I don't know how good they would look playing against 30-year-olds in Turkey," Auriemma said. "So I think trying to have a combination of the [youth and experience] might be really good. But it's going to be really hard. I've always said when you have experience, age and experience tends to win out over youth and talent. I'm glad we're adding somebody who is pretty good to our backcourt later in the week because it all starts with your guards."

Ready or not.

Forget Monday night. A decade or more into their post-college careers, Bird and Whalen have never been more ready.

And Team USA is ready for what comes after that.