The United States, who will be chasing a fourth Games gold in a row, secured their berth for next summer after beating Brazil 89-73 at the World Cup.
“Were thrilled that we qualified for the Olympics,” said San Antonio Spurs mastermind Popovich, whose team will now face France on Wednesday in the World Cup quarter-finals.
“With this new situation of qualifying, you dont want to have to do that every year. So its a pretty big grind,” said the 70-year-old.
But first, the US have the small matter of winning a third world crown in a row and Popovichs young team is building up a head of steam in China.
They were already assured of a place in the last eight but they still made it five wins in a row to top Group K in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
Myles Turner of the Indiana Pacers led them against the Brazilians with 16 points and eight rebounds.
Brazil saw their coach Aco Petrovic ejected in the first half and they refused to attend the post-match press conference.
Having struggled to defeat Turkey in overtime in the first round, this Team USA missing its megastars seems to be warming to the task.
Sundays victory for Spain over Serbia, who had been title favourites after the Americans slow start, put Popovichs men back as the team to beat.
One of Team USAs bigger question marks throughout the 2019 FIBA World Cup has been its lack of size.
While Myles Turner has been impressive on both ends during his minutes, the Americans have needed creativity when he sits, particularly since Mason Plumlee appears to be out of the rotation. On Monday, for an important stretch in the fourth quarter, Team USA went to Boston Celtics wing Jaylen Brown at the five — a hyper small-ball unit, but an intriguing idea.
The risk paid off handsomely. While former NBA center Anderson Varejao was able to take advantage of his height in the post against Brown on a pair of possessions, Brazil struggled with Team USAs speed and versatility. The Americans got into transition and outran Brazil in the second half — splitting open a close halftime score and claiming an 89-73 victory.
At the center of that rally (literally) was Brown, who was excellent on both ends with 11 efficient points, four assists and four rebounds. Defensively, he held his own and forced Brazil into matchup-based offense that didnt fit their personnel. Offensively, he punished slower defenders (Varejao in particular) and showed some passing chops that were a bit of a surprise, given his struggles as a passer in the NBA. Twice in transition, Brown looked off defenders by attacking the rim only to dump off to an open teammate for a layup. In the fourth quarter, Brown collapsed the defense off the bounce, then shoveled a pass to Khris Middleton for a layup.
The Celtics will face plenty of teams who have big centers Brown cant handle (Joel Embiid leaps to mind), but against others, throwing Brown out as a big man might be a tempting option. Clearly, he has the speed and agility to navigate the pick-and-roll defensively, and if he forces the opponent into inefficient iso post-ups, the Celtics might really benefit from his speed and versatility on the other end.
– Marcus Smart dropped 11 points as well with red-hot 5-for-7 shooting to go with his usual defensive highlights. His biggest shot: A buzzer beating, falling 3-pointer to end the third quarter which prompted a legendary call by FIBAs generally excellent announcers: Half American, half amazing: Marcus Smart!
That triple, combined with Brown at center, seemed to lift the Americans — the lead expanded the rest of the way, and Brazil never threatened again.
– Smart left the game in the fourth quarter after tweaking his ankle. He never re-entered, but he remained on the bench and hopped up to cheer for his teammates on multiple occasions, suggesting he is likely fine.
– Jayson Tatum sat again on Monday with his ankle sprain. He has now missed three games after a nasty-looking twist against Turkey helped the Americans narrowly maintain their perfect tournament record.
– Kemba Walker finished tied with Myles Turner for a team-high 16 points and five rebounds. He has consistently proven to be Team USAs best scoring option, although he has taken a back seat as a facilitator when it benefits the team. For anyone who questioned whether Walker would be comfortable finding more talented teammates in Boston than the ones he had in Charlotte, Walkers tournament run — during which he has walked a tightrope between coming up big in key moments and facilitating to keep everyone involved — has been a good sign.
– Team USA will face France in the quarterfinals after Australia dropped the French in a tight 100-98 contest Monday morning. Aron Baynes went 4-for-5 from three (21 points) and took three key charges, while Patty Mills went off for 30 points, and Australia once again looked like a real contender against a tough opponent.