Usual suspects step up for Team USA

Back in May, everybody who follows the WNBA was looking toward one climactic showdown: the defending champion Lynx against what turned out to be the ascending champion Mercury.

Minnesota and Phoenix were two teams so stocked with talent and noted for good chemistry it seemed inconceivable anybody else could possibly win the 2014 championship. That proved to be the case, with the Mercury fighting their way past the Lynx in the Western Conference finals and then sweeping Chicago in the WNBA Finals.

It was a month ago Sunday -- Aug. 31 in Minneapolis -- that we had the best game of the entire WNBA postseason: An 82-77 Lynx win that displayed the superstars on both teams and showed a national audience the WNBA at its finest.

That's what Serbia saw Sunday when it gave a great effort at knocking off the FIBA World Championship favorite United States. The "big three" from both the Mercury -- Diana Taurasi, Brittney Griner, Candice Dupree -- and the Lynx -- Maya Moore, Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus -- combined were just too much for Serbia.

The Americans' 94-74 victory essentially guarantees them a flawless record in Group D play, as they go against far-overmatched Angola in the third game Tuesday (ESPN3, 2:30 p.m. ET). The toughest test in group play was expected to be Serbia, and that proved to be the case. It took until the fourth quarter for the U.S. team to put away the win, and it was the Mercury-Lynx combination that led the way in preventing the upset.

Taurasi led Team USA in scoring with 20 points, and Moore added 17 points and 12 rebounds. Griner had 10 and 10. Whalen and Augustus each had eight points.

"It was a tough game," Taurasi said. "Every possession was a battle. They made us work on defense. There are some things we probably got to clean up. These games are good for us."

Credit goes to Serbia, no doubt. U.S. coach Geno Auriemma said before the game that the Serbs worried him, and you could see why, with how well they played for much of Sunday's contest.

Serbia led 21-17 after the first quarter, and soon after, Moore, in particular, stepped forward. At the 7:10 mark of the second period, with the Americans trailing 28-24, Moore did what Moore does.

She made a 3-pointer ... got a defensive rebound ... made another 3 ... made another 3. It was a one-woman scoring burst in a little more than a minute and was what the Americans needed to get the rhythm back in their offense. They outscored the Serbs 32-21 in the second quarter and took a 49-42 lead at halftime, and it seemed maybe the underdogs had given it their best shot.

In fact, Team Serbia wasn't done pushing the Americans yet. The Serbs retook the lead midway through the third quarter, 57-56, and kept it tight through the rest of the period. This time, the key U.S. player was Whalen, who was the most consistent player for the Lynx in their postseason.

Whalen came in at the 4:17 mark of the third quarter and had six points in the period, after which the United States led 70-64.

At that point, were the Americans a little worried? Sure, but then it was Mercury time. Or more specifically, Taurasi time. Just as she did so well in the WNBA playoffs, Taurasi was big in the fourth quarter.

In the Americans' opener Saturday against China, Taurasi actually looked kind of weary, which is understandable at this point in the marathon she has been running since the start of the WNBA season. But she summoned her best for the last quarter Sunday and scored 13 of her 20 points in the final 10 minutes.

No doubt the Lynx players liked the view of Taurasi's crunch-time mastery better this time than they did in Game 3 of the West finals.

What Auriemma has to like from the fourth quarter was not just Taurasi's offensive surge, but also his team's defensive clamp down. Serbia scored just 10 points in the final period.

Defense is the Americans' main concern in this tournament. It's the most difficult thing to perfect with a group of players who -- as a unit of 12 -- have spent relatively little time together.

"We have to keep getting better, defensively," Auriemma said. "Our offense is going to be there. We're going to score points every night. We have too many good players."

Indeed, they have the Best of the West.