Team USA Is Getting Closer and Closer to Being Its Best Self – The Ringer

Team USA Is Getting Closer and Closer to Being Its Best Self - The Ringer
U.S. beats Brazil to reach World Cup quarters
But is that enough to survive the global powers awaiting as the FIBA World Cup turns to the knockout rounds?

The U.S. remains undefeated, exiting the second group stage 5-0 after double-digit victories over Greece on Saturday and Brazil on Monday. Gregg Popovichs team now enters the single-elimination knockout rounds of the tournament, taking on a good and deep France team on Wednesday. A win there would bring a semifinal matchup with either Serbia—whose dominant start to group play ended with a blitzing by Spain on Sunday but still looks like the toughest matchup for the U.S.—or Argentina, led by star EuroLeague point guard Facundo Campazzo and the aging-but-still-potent Luis Scola, the lone remaining holdover from the Golden Generation teams that felled the U.S. in 2002 and 2004.

Brazil: Vitor Benite led Brazil with 21, and well-known NBA names Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa each had 14. … Brazil has lost seven consecutive meetings with the Americans now, but always seems to be a thorny opponent for the U.S. in the World Cup. The teams last meeting in 2010, a 70-68 U.S. win, went down to the final second and a missed shot by Leandro Barbosa. And Brazil topped the U.S. in four consecutive meetings at worlds from 1959 through 1970.

Beyond that, the U.S. could meet old nemesis Spain—which rounded into form with an impressive thrashing of the Serbs—or Australia, which kicked concern over this iteration of Team USA into overdrive with a pretournament exhibition win that ended a 13-year American winning streak, and who are still undefeated and riding high after a thrilling 100-98 win over France on Monday. However the matchups shake out, it looks like a daunting path to an unprecedented third straight World Cup gold.

U.S.: Walker, who missed the morning shootaround with an illness, was in the starting lineup. … The Olympic berth was clinched because automatic spots go to the top two World Cup finishers from the Americas region, and the U.S. and Argentina are the lone quarterfinalists out of that group. … Smart, who has twice battled leg issues this summer, limped to the bench in the fourth quarter in obvious discomfort. He was walking normally not long afterward.

But the U.S. can ill afford to start thinking ahead; it can only focus on being its best self the next time the ball goes up. And after a brush with disaster against Turkey in its second game, Team USA has done a much better job of that.

Brazil coach Aleksandar Petrovic was ejected in the second quarter after picking up his second technical foul. His first came midway through the first quarter after arguing a kicked-ball call, then waving his hand dismissively at a referees warning to calm down. The second came when Varejao had a clear lane to the basket, got cut off by Myles Turner and no foul got called — so he went off, and was sent off.

When the U.S. opened the tournament with a solid win over the Czech Republic, it looked like this teams performance would hinge on both the quality of its defense and star-caliber offensive fireworks from Donovan Mitchell. The latter hasnt remained true: The Jazz guard is averaging just 10.2 points in 25.3 minutes per game while shooting 42.6 percent from the floor and 32.1 percent from 3-point range. Mitchell has remained a vital contributor, though—the U.S. is plus-102 in his 127 minutes, tops on the team—thanks in part to his complementary facilitating (22 assists against five turnovers) and his work on the defensive end.

The U.S. opened on a 14-7 run, then led by as many as eight late in the half — yet went into the break with only a 43-39 lead, unable to shake Brazil despite shooting 55 percent in the opening 20 minutes thanks largely to Walker and Turner. They were 9 for 11 in the half from the floor combined, while their teammates were 9 for 22.

Olympic bound US tops Brazil 89-73, gains World Cup quarters

Defense, on the other hand, has been Team USAs calling card through five games; the U.S. leads all quarterfinalists in points allowed per possession. The defense is ahead of the offense, thats for sure, Popovich told reporters after the win over Greece on Saturday. But thats expected when you have 12 guys whove never played with each other before. Thats pretty easy to figure out.

U.S.: The U.S. pushed its winning streak in major international tournaments – Olympics, World Cup and FIBA Americas – with NBA players to 58 straight games. … Walker, who missed the morning shootaround with an illness, was in the starting lineup. … The Olympic berth was clinched because automatic spots go to the top two World Cup finishers from the Americas region, and the U.S. and Argentina are the lone quarterfinalists out of that group. … Smart, who has twice battled leg issues this summer, limped to the bench in the fourth quarter in obvious discomfort. He was walking normally not long afterward.

The U.S. tightened the screws in the second group stage. The game plan against Greece wasnt all that complicated—stay in front of reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as much as possible and overload the coverage toward him as needed; close out hard on Ioannis Papapetrou, the teams most dangerous 3-point shooter; and make everybody else beat you. You dont have to be all that clever to be effective, though, and Team USA executed well. Harrison Barnes, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart—an undersized but ferocious fire hydrant, not unlike Brazils Alex Garcia, who flustered Giannis in group play—all hustled to deny Antetokounmpo position and make him work to get free. The off-ball defenders were active, flying around to shut down passing lanes and rotating hard to stay ahead of Greeces ball movement. The attention to detail paid off, as the U.S. held non-Giannis Greeks to 14-for-55 shooting (25.5 percent) from the floor, preventing Greece from mounting enough of an offense to really threaten the favorites.

Brazil: Vitor Benite led Brazil with 21, and well-known NBA names Anderson Varejao and Leandro Barbosa each had 14. … Brazil has lost seven consecutive meetings with the Americans now, but always seems to be a thorny opponent for the U.S. in the World Cup. The teams last meeting in 2010, a 70-68 U.S. win, went down to the final second and a missed shot by Barbosa. And Brazil topped the U.S. in four consecutive meetings at worlds from 1959 through 1970.

Oι Αμερικανοί γυρνάνε την μπάλα ψάχνοντας το ρήγμα και μόλις το βρουν, εκτελούν. Πίσω στην άμυνα, αναγκάζουν την ελληνική ομάδα να σουτάρει εκπρόθεσμα. Οι Kerr, Pierce, φαίνονται ικανοποιημένοι. #FIBAWC #USAGRE pic.twitter.com/5SgitVn8ei

Brazil coach Aleksandar Petrovic was ejected in the second quarter after picking up his second technical foul. His first came midway through the first quarter after arguing a kicked-ball call, then waving his hand dismissively at a referees warning to calm down. The second came when Varejao had a clear lane to the basket, got cut off by Turner and no foul got called – so he went off, and was sent off.

It certainly didnt hurt that Greece coach Thanasis Skourtopoulos (whose usage of his singular superstar came into question throughout the tournament) kept Giannis off the court for the entire fourth quarter to protect and rest him for Mondays game against the Czech Republic, which couldve sent Greece on to the quarterfinals. But you dont have to apologize for the choices of others; you just need to take advantage of them, and the U.S. did, keeping the Greeks at arms length en route to a 16-point win. (Giannis, by the way, fouled out on a questionable call with 5:32 to go against the Czech Republic on Monday. Greece was up by 10 when he exited, and held on to win 84-77 … but it needed to win by at least 12 to advance, so the Czechs move on instead.)

The U.S. opened on a 14-7 run, then led by as many as eight late in the half – yet went into the break with only a 43-39 lead, unable to shake Brazil despite shooting 55 percent in the opening 20 minutes thanks largely to Walker and Turner. They were 9 for 11 in the half from the floor combined, while their teammates were 9 for 22.

Brazil fared better for most of Monday, with guards Marcelinho Huertas and Leandro Barbosa finding openings in the pick-and-roll, Anderson Varejão getting into the teeth of the defense for layups and whipping passes out of the post, and reserve Vítor Benite coming off the bench firing, drilling four of his five 3-point tries for a game-high 21 points. Eventually, though, the U.S.s small-ball lineups began to tilt the game with a combination of quickness and aggression, stifling Brazils flow to force missed shots and turnovers that could then turn into transition opportunities:

They kicked off the tournament with a 21-point win over the Czech Republic, and following that one-point overtime win over Turkey, they dominated Japan in a 53-point blowout. Team USA then contained NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in a 16-point victory over Greece in its first game of the second round, and after that, dispatched Brazil to clinch the top seed from its group in the final stage of the tournament. 

Defense by Jaylen Brown helps spark Team USA spurt that has them ahead 59-48 with 3:44 to play in the third quarter. pic.twitter.com/BIu2qFQtmV

Team USA has played five games in the FIBA World Cup so far, and its handled its business each time. Save one overtime miracle against Turkey, the Americans have largely dominated their international competition so far. 

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Thats the way this U.S. team has to play—lock up on defense, push tempo in transition, and hunt easy baskets in early offense—because its still a work in progress in the half court. Team USA hasnt been shy about firing from distance (much, Im sure, to Pops chagrin), attempting a tournament-high 32.4 3-pointers per game. The Americans are struggling to connect, though, shooting just 32.7 percent from deep as a team, and theyre still working out the kinks against the zone defenses they could see more frequently in the knockout rounds.

They appear to be getting better at handling those, though. Saturdays win over Greece featured some improved ball and player movement to create better looks, and they more often flashed smaller players like Mitchell and Brown into the middle of the floor against Brazils zone on Monday, removing playmaking responsibility from big men like Myles Turner and Brook Lopez by putting more dangerous attackers in positions to puncture the zone:

One of the big questions of the knockout round will be whether this sort of downsized, uptempo, more-playmaking-heavy attack will stand up to scrutiny against bigger opponents. Can the U.S. afford to rely on Barnes and Brown as small-ball centers and power forwards against the likes of Rudy Gobert, Marc Gasol, the Aussie duo of Aron Baynes and Andrew Bogut, or a monster Serbian frontline led by Nikola Jokic? The opponents the U.S. may face all feature frontcourt players who can bang down low, clean the glass, and step out on the floor to either stroke a jumper or facilitate offense from the elbows. Maybe the U.S. can make up for the size mismatch by leveraging superior quickness and keeping its wings active as off-ball havoc-wreakers, but the run of play may tilt the other way, necessitating more minutes for Lopez or Mason Plumlee, which shifts the U.S. away from the style thats been most effective thus far.

If Team USA advances to the semis, theyd likely match up with Serbia. King-on-King action between Barnes, Nemanja Bjelica and Bogdan Bogdanovic is intriguing for Sacramento fans, but Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic leads the Serbian front line and just might be the best player remaining in the tournament. The Serbs lost to Spain in Sundays group-stage finale, but Serbian coach Aleksandar Djordjevic likely still has plenty of confidence about a potential matchup with the United States. 

Unlike its predecessors, this Team USA has to consider harder choices and tough trade-offs; unlike the best American squads, its got weaknesses that might be tough to paper over with sheer talent. On that score, though, its not alone. France needed a very controversial Gobert deflection that shouldve been a goaltending call to outlast Lithuania, and then lost to Australia thanks in part to the ongoing brilliance of Patty Mills. Serbia, a wrecking crew through four games, got drilled by Spain, which had previously battled to hold off teams like Iran, Puerto Rico, and Italy. Australias tough on both ends, and has already beaten the U.S. once in the last month, but that just evened the score between the two teams.

Team USAs not going to suddenly import a peak LeBron or Durant. All it can do is keep smoothing out the rough edges in the zone offense, getting crisper on the defensive rotations, work on getting Jayson Tatum healthy and back into the fold after missing three games with an ankle sprain, and hope that, if their backs are against the wall, theyll be able to dial up a star scoring performance from Kemba Walker or Mitchell when they need it most. The bad news is, the U.S. isnt unbeatable. The good news, though? Nobody else is, either.

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With Australia and Spain looming on the other side of the bracket, Barnes and Team USA will be well-tested if they advance to the World Cup final. Theyll first have to beat France on Wednesday, however. 

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At least the network listened after fans complained that it looked too much like a penalty-flag graphic

Marcus Smart fresh off his stellar defensive game vs. the NBA MVP, Smart again was solid in this game. Marcus Smart was involved in a little bit of everything to start as he bullied his way to the basket over the smaller defender in Garcias. He also skied for a brilliant weak side block on Cristiano Felicio:

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Kemba Walker worked well in the pick and roll early with Myles Turner and had two great passes to create Turner easy opportunities near the rim for his big man. 29-year old Walker has also been facilitating and creating for his teammates with elite effectiveness.

Baker Mayfield and Co. had a nightmare start to the season, but this offense isnt likely to stay down long. Plus: The new Vikings and Titans schemes got off to fast starts in Week 1, while the Cardinals and Jets returns arent quite so certain.

Coach Pop went to his Celtic trio of Walker, Brown and Smart late in the first half and his Celtics didnt disappoint. The trust that Popovich has shown in his Celtic players has been validating for fans as they continue to perform when called upon.

It was a close game at the half with the US holding just a four point lead but the US pulled away in the third and fourth.

In comparison to this version of Team USA, which came together exactly five weeks ago Monday, yes, the opponent typically has more continuity from summer to summer. The "they've been playing together for a long time" thing has also been drilled into American players as they prepare for FIBA play. It comes out of their mouths pretty easily when they're asked about an opponent or why a game was tougher than it should have been in regard to the talent on the floor.

Duke products Jayson Tatum and Mason did not play. Tatum was held out due to his injury and Plumlee was a coachs decision.

The U.S. had mostly been winning with a defense that ranks first in the World Cup (84 estimated points allowed per 100 possessions) through pool play. Defense will remain critical, because the offense of their opponent (France) in Wednesday's quarterfinal ranks second (123 estimated points scored per 100), behind only that of the potential opponent in the semifinals (Serbia, 129 per 100).

Team USAs FIBA win streak is up to 58 and the win puts them in the quarterfinals as the #1 seed, joining Argentina, Serbia, France, Spain, Poland, Australia and the Czech Republic. It also guarantees the US a berth in the 2020 Olympics.

In the gold medal game of the 2010 World Championship, Kevin Durant scored 28 points against Turkey. In the gold medal game of the 2012 Olympics, he dropped 30 on Spain. In 2014, Kyrie Irving and James Harden combined for 52 points against Serbia in the World Cup final. And in the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. took gold behind another 30 points from Durant against the Serbs.

Next up is France on Wednesday. Les Bleus, as the team is known, has its share of NBA talent, starting with Rudy Gobert, one of the best defensive centers in the world. He wont be easy to deal with.

In that Japan game, the U.S. never scored on more than five consecutive possessions. Prior to Monday at the World Cup, its longest stretch of consecutive scores was six straight against the Czech Republic in Game 1. In that ugly win over Greece on Saturday, the U.S. never scored on more than three consecutive possessions, and only twice scored on three straight.

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