U.S.A. Basketballs No-Win Situation Became Too Real – The New York Times

U.S.A. Basketballs No-Win Situation Became Too Real - The New York Times
USAs 58-game win streak with NBAers snapped
The U.S.A. mens basketball team had little to gain from winning the FIBA World Cup, but now its players are experiencing the harsh cost of losing.

DONGGUAN, China — When it comes to basketballs World Cup, this is how it works back home for American players: Only in defeat are you remembered.

In a tournament of such modest standing in our hoops culture, compared to the Olympics, typically only by losing does the United States mens national basketball team command the attention of the mainstream sports public.

The 12 players who agreed to represent the United States at the 2019 FIBA World Cup knew the deal, deep down, when they signed up to join a roster that had been shunned by some 40 top pros — including all the biggest American stars. Yet those volunteers discovered the true depths of their no-win situation on Wednesday night, when the United States was outclassed early and late in an 89-79 quarterfinal loss to France at the Dongguan Basketball Center.

The Americans are not winning a medal at this World Cup, after they got outplayed by France in the quarterfinals on Wednesday night and got relegated to a playoff where the best remaining option is finishing fifth. France won 89-79, meriting much credit. Evan Fournier made tough shots and tougher passes. Rudy Gobert was outstanding. The French defense, with the game on the line, thwarted the U.S. repeatedly.

Had they managed to hold their 7-point lead over France in the fourth quarter and find a way through the next two rounds against Argentina and the Spain/Australia winner, this group likely would have been celebrated for what it overcame — and then quickly forgotten when more established players returned to the program next summer for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Doesnt matter who is on the team, and I couldnt be more proud of these 12 guys who sacrificed their summer to come here, having never played with each other before, Popovich said. They put themselves in the arena and competed, and they deserve credit for that, just like France deserves credit for winning. Its not about, Well, the United States didnt have their other guys.

Video: France Eliminates Team USA In 2019 FIBA World Championships FULL GAME HIGHLIGHTS

Instead? Rather than fly overnight to Beijing for Fridays semifinals as planned, U.S.A. Basketballs entire humbled traveling party was forced to return to its hotel in Dongguan to rest up and brace for Thursdays nights game against Serbia in the fifth-place bracket — as well as the unkind commentary that is sure to come after Rudy Gobert and the French guards, Evan Fournier and Nando De Colo, halted the Americans 58-game winning streak in tournament play.

I know that people are going to focus on who we didnt have, but how about we focus on who we do have? U.S. guard Donovan Mitchell said after his 29-point performance Wednesday night. Our season ended, and we came out ready to work with Coach Pop and all his coaches. Its not about whos not here. Ive been saying that for a while.

Its all sort of sinking in right now, the Nets Joe Harris said. They outplayed us from the get-go, really. We were reacting the whole night.

You put in a lot of a time, a lot of work, you build up a special bond with these guys and the coaches. And then for it not to come to fruition at the end of it all, its a tough pill to swallow.

A lot of other NBA players might not have cared about the World Cup. Fans might not have, either. And theres not much incentive for multimillionaires to give up their time off, travel thousands of miles to risk injury by playing in a tournament in which most of the games are not nationally televised in the United States.

Said Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown: Everybody knows what we wanted to do. And we didnt do it. I guess you can imagine how we feel, right?

One locker-room observer suggested afterward that, in his time in the league, he had never seen such a despondent scene after a loss. Harris, unprompted, made multiple mentions of the 39 days that this group spent together trying to establish sufficient continuity to get through eight games and make their summer more of a non-story.

Video: Donovan Mitchell and Gregg Popovich react to Team USAs loss vs. France | 2019 FIBA World Cup

Falling short of the medal round completely, of course, means Gregg Popovichs debut as national team head coach didnt go any better than his painful stints as an assistant in 2002 and 2004, when the United States finished sixth at the world championship in Indianapolis and third in the Olympics. In six major competitions in between those lows, Dukes Mike Krzyzewski coached the United States to five golds — three in the Olympics and two in the World Cup.

Krzyzewski, mind you, always had far stronger rosters than this one and only managed a three-point win over France at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil with a team headlined by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Paul George.

The World Cup team losing, in a game where they were using guards and forwards against a big-time NBA center like Gobert out of necessity, that seems like it was only really upsetting to … the World Cup team itself.

Popovich, who has been head coach of the San Antonio Spurs since 1996, will have to answer questions about why he brought three centers to China if Myles Turner, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee could only merit 16 minutes combined against Gobert. Or why he decided to cancel almost every practice on off days for a group that has been so slow to mesh. But theres a reason Popovich has come across as wound tightly from the moment this potluck squad convened in Las Vegas on Aug 4.

And those players who made the commitment to come to China realized this was pretty much a no-win proposition — win and you were supposed to, lose and it becomes a giant failure.

Even before an exhibition loss to Australia last month and a near-loss to Turkey in first-round pool play, Popovich knew that the unreliability of his power players, his lack of depth and a backcourt pairing of Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell, who embraced the challenge of leading this group but clashed stylistically, could be problems.

Losing just makes everyone look for easy solutions because, well, the thought is USA Basketball shouldnt lose — even when the other team has NBA players.

Mitchell, who was not even initially among Popovichs original 35-player pool from last summer, rumbled for an authoritative 29 points through three quarters to help nudge the United States into the lead after it had fallen behind by double digits early in the second half. But France reeled off 22 of the games final 29 points, capitalizing on six missed free throws by the Americans in the fourth quarter and an off-key Walker (10 points on 2-of-9 shooting) dominating the ball in crunchtime instead of Mitchell.

Popovich spent much of his postgame news conference trying to play defense, calling it a disrespectful notion when a reporter asked Mitchell a question about the impact of all the no-shows.

Theres no such thing as other guys. These are the guys that were here, and they did a great job, and Im very proud of them.

France beat us — doesnt matter who is on the team, Popovich said. Theres no such thing as other guys.

Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown had big-time moments for this team and they, too, were not anywhere near the original U.S. wish list.

Nor did the French see any reason to apologize for taking advantage of the United States rare vulnerability. When Walker committed a backcourt violation late, Orlandos Fournier (22 points) and Charlottes Nicolas Batum, flourishing for France, celebrated with fist-pumping and arm-raising as if the Americans had their A-team on the floor.

De Colos 18 points prompted Harris to call him an N.B.A. player who happens to be playing in Europe. Even the Knicks much-maligned Frank Ntilikina played a key role to boost the backcourt production in support of Gobert, who attacked the rim as relentlessly as he defended it in racking up 21 points and 16 rebounds.

I dont think I realize it yet, Gobert told me after his own news conference, still sitting at the podium after fielding questions about the upset as if he didnt want the night to end.

The good news in all this is the loss Wednesday probably wont get a whole lot of attention at home.

You understood exactly what Gobert meant. He went on to explain that Frances first victory over the United States in 10 tries, as well as his personal triumph over his Utah teammate Mitchell, wont mean the same to him unless France can win the whole tournament.

Yet you struggled to imagine how the ever-patriotic Popovich, on the other side, can get much of this disappointment out of his system in a mere three weeks before his Spurs open training camp.

Especially when Americans still have to play two more consolation games here in the fifth-through-eighth-place bracket, starting with Thursday night against Serbia — in what so many had pegged as a likely matchup for the championship game.

Everyone knew what was at stake, said the Sacramento Kings Harrison Barnes, the lone member of the gold-medal-winning team in Rio also in China. You have to take ownership of it.

Marc Stein is a sports reporter specializing in N.B.A. coverage, with occasional forays into soccer and tennis. He spent nearly 15 years at ESPN before coming to The Times. @TheSteinLine • Facebook

DONGGUAN, China (AP) — USA Basketballs plan for a third consecutive World Cup title started going off the rails long before this tournament even began, after just about everyone who was originally asked to play for this team turned down the opportunity.

The Americans are not winning a medal at this World Cup, after they got outplayed by France in the quarterfinals on Wednesday night and got relegated to a playoff where the best remaining option is finishing fifth. France won 89-79, meriting much credit. Evan Fournier made tough shots and tougher passes. Rudy Gobert was outstanding. The French defense, with the game on the line, thwarted the U.S. repeatedly.

Of the 35 players originally picked last year by USA Basketball for its roster pool this summer, four made it to China. The group that ultimately got assembled for this mission was a bunch of guys not even on the radar screens when this selection process began, a group that decided playing with and against really good players all summer — while getting coached by Gregg Popovich — was worth giving up nearly two months of an offseason.

“I know that people are going to focus on who we didnt have, but how about we focus on who we do have?” U.S. guard Donovan Mitchell said after his 29-point performance Wednesday night. “Our season ended, and we came out ready to work with Coach Pop and all his coaches. Its not about whos not here. Ive been saying that for a while.”

It bears noting that Mitchell was not on the original player-pool list. He chose to play and didnt mind being asked in the second wave. Its hard to imagine where the Americans would have been without him over the last few weeks.

Joe Harris was supposed to be a practice player for this team and wound up becoming a starter. Derrick White wasnt supposed to be here either, and there were nights in this tournament where he was the first sub off the U.S. bench — not because Popovich was playing favorites with his San Antonio point guard, but because it was merited.

Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown had big-time moments for this team and they, too, were not anywhere near the original U.S. wish list.

A lot of other NBA players might not have cared about the World Cup. Fans might not have, either. And theres not much incentive for multimillionaires to give up their time off, travel thousands of miles to risk injury by playing in a tournament in which most of the games are not nationally televised in the United States.

Plus, plenty of players who have already won with USA Basketball often say they want to let someone else have a shot. Thats not a new concept.

Losing just makes everyone look for easy solutions because, well, the thought is USA Basketball shouldnt lose — even when the other team has NBA players.

Fact is, to most if not all players, an Olympic gold medal shines brighter than a FIBA gold medal. Same goes for an NBA title.

And those players who made the commitment to come to China realized this was pretty much a no-win proposition — win and you were supposed to, lose and it becomes a giant failure.

“Doesnt matter who is on the team, and I couldnt be more proud of these 12 guys who sacrificed their summer to come here, having never played with each other before,” Popovich said. “They put themselves in the arena and competed, and they deserve credit for that, just like France deserves credit for winning. Its not about, Well, the United States didnt have their other guys.

“Theres no such thing as other guys. These are the guys that were here, and they did a great job, and Im very proud of them.”

Popovich will be there next summer, when the U.S. looks for a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. Theres no way of knowing yet if any of the players from this World Cup team will be on the roster with him next summer. Mitchell and Kemba Walker will likely be strongly considered if they are healthy. Expect plenty of other big U.S. names to find the time that just didnt seem to be there this summer.

The World Cup team losing, in a game where they were using guards and forwards against a big-time NBA center like Gobert out of necessity, that seems like it was only really upsetting to … the World Cup team itself.

“We have 12 guys who are going to compete for America, just like every country,” Mitchell said. “It sucks that some of our country people dont feel that way about us, but we dont care. Were going to compete.”

Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds@ap.org


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