The unthinkable happened to Team USA on Saturday when it. That 98-94 defeat at the hands of Australia was a tough one to swallow, but likely did the Americans far more good than harm leading into the FIBA World Cup of Basketball.
Whether or not they’ll admit it, any U.S. basketball team going into international competition is going to think of itself as the favorite. Most American teams have every reason to believe that, but this team, given its lack of superstars, stood to benefit from being humbled. Losing to Australia was a reminder that talent alone will not win this tournament.
Team USA played like a team that had learned its lesson early Monday morning, beating Canada 84-68 in its final exhibition game. With less than a week before its first World Cup game, here are the biggest takeaways from today’s win.
Back to basics
Team USA doesn’t lose often in international competition, but when it does, those losses tend to follow the same basic pattern. They are almost all shootouts, as the Americans typically boast such a talent advantage that they can get complacent on the defensive end of the floor, but the opposing team gets hot down the stretch and manages to steal a victory from right out under Team USA’s noses. That is what happened on Saturday when Australia handed Team USA its first loss since 2006, and it was a game that the Americans clearly learned from.
They did not score particularly effectively in this game. Much of their offense boiled down to one-on-one creation, but their energy level was so high that it hardly mattered. This was the best defensive game that Team USA has played during its exhibition season, and the rebounding battle wasn’t even close at a resounding 55-37 margin. If this team can consistently combine its superior talent with this degree of effort, it is going to leave China with a gold medal.
An obvious weakness
Team USA may have tightened up its defense in this game, but its offense remains a problem for one major reason: turnovers. They play sloppy basketball, and it showed once again today.
The Americans hit double-digit turnovers in every game that it played during exhibition season. That number jumped as high as 24 in their Blue-White scrimmage, and landed at 19 in this one. Team USA’s half-court defense was stellar in this game, but they gave away far too many easy points off of those turnovers. They may have been able to cruise to a 16-point win against an undermanned Canadian team, but those easy points became far more meaningful against top teams.
More lineup shuffling
Gregg Popovich still hasn’t settled on a starting lineup. Though Donovan Mitchell and Myles Turner appear safe as full-time starters during exhibition season, and Kemba Walker likely is as well, thanks to his status as a captain, the forward slots remain highly unstable. Harrison Barnes and Jayson Tatum started in this game, but Jaylen Brown, Joe Harris, Khris Middleton and Marcus Smart have all started exhibition games as well, and Popovich has not named starters for the World Cup.
If anyone earned a starting spot in this game, it was Brown. He led all scorers with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, and his defense throughout these exhibition games has been a strong positive. Popovich will likely make changes on a game-by-game basis, but Brown has been the standout at forward so far.
Team USA had already been playing fairly small by putting four shooters around one center, but for the first time in this game, they found real success without a single big man on the floor. They outscored Canada by nine points in around nine minutes of total game time without a center on the floor.
Myles Turner has been excellent throughout these exhibition games, but Mason Plumlee has not, and Brook Lopez has not played much. There will likely come a point in the World Cup in which Team USA needs to play without a big man. If nothing else, it is a nice wrinkle to have prepared against some of the tournament’s top teams. Rudy Gobert has struggled in the NBA against five-out lineups, and Nikola Jokic is not known for his perimeter defense either. Don’t be surprised if Popovich unleashes one of these small lineups at a critical point against either France or Serbia down the line.