Things are already getting too close for comfort for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup in Shanghai. After cruising past an inferior Czech Republic team on Sunday, 88-67, the Yanks faced a much stiffer test on Tuesday, narrowly escaping with a 93-92 OT win over Turkey which required the Turks to pull a Nick Anderson-esque choke job at the free throw line down the stretch. They missed four consecutive freebies — two by Cedi Osman of the Cleveland Cavaliers — at the tail end of overtime to keep the Americans’ hopes alive, followed by Khris Middleton calmly nailing two free throws of his own to retake the lead and seal the win. The wild finish punctuated an up-and-down performance by Team USA, and after the first two full games of the tournament, some patterns are beginning to emerge.
Kemba Walker is the team’s leader, but Jayson Tatum may be its most important player. First, the news-y part: Tatum sprained his left ankle in the final moments of the game on Tuesday, and team doctors say he will be re-evaluated in five days, meaning he’ll miss at least the next two games (Thursday against Japan and Saturday in a second-round game, opponent TBD). So long as he can come back soon thereafter, the temporary loss shouldn’t hurt the Americans too badly, but they will absolutely need what he brings when the elimination games begin.
For a team lacking the elite, top-line talent of previous iterations of Team USA, Tatum is critical because he acts as a “ceiling raiser” for this squad. Coming into the tournament, critics pointed to his lack of aggressiveness off the bounce and his deficiencies as a playmaker, but Tatum has shown flashes of real improvement in those areas in the early stages. He still has a tendency to float through sections of games, but on a roster thin on guys willing to drive to the cup — note how Turkey eviscerated them in paint points on Tuesday — the bouts of off-the-dribble dynamism Tatum has exhibited have been tremendously effective.
His knack for finding open teammates seems to have improved as well. He made several nice reads to get the ball to shooters against Czech Republic, as well as the on-a-full-sprint perfect bounce pass to Khris Middleton which led to the game-winning free throws against Turkey. [And his ankle injury, unfortunately.] And then there’s this wraparound beauty to Myles Turner in the first clip here:
He’s been equally aggressive defensively, and his propensity for timely blocks and steals ignited some of the rare transition opportunities they had vs. Turkey, affording them easy points they couldn’t seem to generate otherwise. [The steal/layup sequence in OT, as well as the rebound/push/dish play at the very end, were game-savers which would echo a little more loudly down through history if the stakes of the game were a bit higher and, you know, anyone was actually watching. More on that later.]
Team USA is just more complete and less predictable when Tatum is on the floor. He’s the only big wing they have who can shoot, drive, defend, rebound, and make plays for others at a high level, and he doesn’t seem to be walking on eggshells like some of his teammates. He has no qualms about asserting himself and going to get the damn ball. Hopefully he’ll remain as aggressive when/if he’s able to come back next week because the team will need those game-changing types of plays when it’s time to face the real contenders, like Serbia. [Especially Serbia. They look like literal world-beaters out there so far. They shot 75% for an entire game!]
The performance of the other wings has been solid but inconsistent. Khris Middleton, the only other reigning All-Star on the roster besides Kemba, has begun to find his footing of late after struggling with his shot in the exhibition games. [Reports out of Team USA camp were he was having difficulty with the different ball used in the FIBA game, which seems both kinda dumb and totally understandable at the same time.] He hit two threes against Turkey, along with the aforementioned game-winning free throws and a key putback on an offensive rebound. His defense, as always, is unspectacular but generally mistake-free. As with his NBA career, there is never any indication of when he is about to catch fire from the perimeter, but he will at some point, and it will probably turn a game. I wish he were more aggressive going to the hoop, but he just doesn’t seem to have it in him.
Jaylen Brown is having a tough time carving out a role, and he only got six minutes of burn against Turkey. Perhaps Tatum’s injury will open the door for him, but he seems to have been passed in the rotation by Joe Harris. Brooklyn’s sharpshooter has impacted the game in ways beyond his sweet stroke, playing better defense than I thought him capable of, grabbing tough rebounds in traffic, and leveraging his own gravity to draw defenders and kick to open teammates. Coach Pop appears to trust him to be a mature player and not make costly errors, and so far Harris has repaid that trust.
Much like Tatum, the other guy who determines how high this team can fly — sometimes literally — is Donovan Mitchell. He was too much for the Czech Republic to handle, but he was not locked in against Turkey. Spida made several critical mistakes, including one errant pass after getting caught in the air, and grabbing the rim unnecessarily for an offensive interference violation on what would have been a key tip-in by Myles Turner late in OT. [Yes, I know he also got the crucial offensive board at the end of regulation which led to the bail-out foul on Tatum’s three, one of a half-dozen miraculous things which had to happen for the US to survive the no. 17 team in the world. Ugh.] Coach Pop has talked at length about wanting Mitchell, despite his tender age, to be one of the leaders of this team, but Donovan still seems to be feeling out where he fits within the hierarchy. He needs to figure it out soon because it’s about to get late early in this tournament.
The lack of continuity shows. Talent can cover for a lot of flaws, but there are certain areas of the game where the only solution to a problem is the collective pattern recognition which our cobbled-together roster lacks. On defense, the overall effort has been excellent, and Myles Turner has proven to be a tremendous deterrent at the rim. Where they’ve gotten into trouble, as has been the case with past teams, is in containing guards in the high pick-and-roll. Defending screens (both on- and off-ball) requires a mind meld between the players directly involved, the weakside help, and the coaching staff. International opponents — many of whom have played together for a decade or more — are happy to exploit the Americans’ lack of experience and cohesion at the point of attack.
Again, Turner’s effort has been phenomenal, and he’s doing yeoman’s work for a roster lacking other realistic options at the 4 and 5, but he is having a difficult time containing ball handlers as they come off the screen. It’s unclear if the strategy is to have him read and react in terms of how he plays his coverage, but there doesn’t seem to be a consistent framework in place, at least not one he’s executing, anyway. Sometimes he drops back into the paint, other times he stays at the level of the screen, and still others he hedges and recovers. The last of the three options has seemed the most effective, at least in that it scuttles the initial penetration into the lane and forces the opposition to ping the ball around to get an open look. Turner and Mason Plumlee both have the foot speed to make it work — Brook Lopez, not so much — so perhaps it will inform Pop’s rotational and strategic decisions going forward, because they can’t just keep giving opponents’ guards a clear runway to the hoop like they have in the Australia exhibitions and the first two tournament games.
Overall, the defense has been solid. Talent and effort should mostly be able to keep them afloat on that end. The offense is a thornier issue. It’s nearly impossible to microwave an offensive ecosystem, and the other teams know it. If players don’t have established roles and responsibilities, shot selection, aggressiveness, and efficiency can all suffer. When it’s sphincter-clenching time, even teams with endless experience and repetitions tend to devolve into iso-ball and “I got this” mode, and it’s even more pronounced when the players haven’t gone through it together. Kemba is the obvious “I got this” guy, and he can create space with his step back jumper nearly any time he wants. I’m not going to wade into the whole debate about the efficacy of the midrange shot, but by frequently pulling up from 18 feet against a set defense, Walker is taking the exact shot these defenses want him to take, regardless of the result. Both Turkey and Australia seemed to realize they were overmatched on defense, and instead of beating their heads against the wall trying not to concede open shots, they set their minds to taking away the easy stuff and allowing the “right” sorts of open shots. They took care of the ball on offense to prevent transition opportunities, and corralled Walker and Mitchell into the middle of the floor, rather than give up threes, layups, and dunks. And when all else failed, they would hack the hell out of our guys on drives and count on the occasionally inconsistent FIBA officiating (OK, I’m being generous — I don’t know what the hell constitutes a foul) to bail them out.
Turkey did it with a simple zone, and it flummoxed the US for most of the second half. NBA teams don’t run much zone (except as a change of pace) because, by and large, they are easier for elite athletes and shooters to beat than man-to-man schemes. I suspect the Americans will find their way against other teams trying to employ zones, but they can’t allow the opposition to turn them into a half court, jump shooting team and negate their athleticism advantage with such a simple gimmick.
Making the games available only on ESPN+ is some nonsense. I don’t want to harp on this too much, but it just feels greedy and short-sighted. FIBA, the NBA, and ESPN should all have a vested interest in making this exact sort of tournament more accessible to fans outside of hardcore basketball circles, and instead they’ve done the exact opposite by putting it behind a paywall. Perhaps it’s a guinea pig for them, or a sneaky way to get a bunch of people to sign up for the streaming service and then forget to cancel it, but either way, it smacks of opportunism when magnanimity would have been more appropriate. Also, the announcers are mostly lousy. If we’re going to pay ESPN above and beyond what we already do every month, couldn’t we at least get some Doris Burke for our trouble?
Things are only going to get tougher for Team USA. They should cruise past Japan, and they’ll have some margin for error once the second round begins. But if it wasn’t already clear before the Turkey game, it should be crystal now: this is not going to be a cakewalk, and not only do the other countries not fear the Americans, many of them actively think they are better. The chemistry will continue to grow as the tournament progresses, and it will need to in order to overcome the weaknesses discussed above. The absence of Tatum will stress-test the rest of the roster. They just got manhandled by Ersan Ilyasova to the tune of 23 points and 14 rebounds, and stronger, more skilled big men await. There are potential games on the horizon (against Serbia with Nikola Jokic and Greece with Giannis Antetokounmpo, specifically) where the US definitively will not have the best player on the floor, a situation which hasn’t unfolded since before most of the current team members were born. Experienced outfits like Spain, France, Argentina, and Lithuania also loom as threats. The US justifiably remains the favorite to bring home another gold, and perhaps the close call against Turkey will be a galvanizing moment. But the smart money is probably on “the field” at this point, and as we saw this past NBA season, isn’t it a bit more fun when there’s a chance the superpower doesn’t win, even if the underdog hails from another country?
Of course I still hope the US pulls it out; I am a patriot after all, at least in this strange, myopic way. And even if casual fans aren’t paying attention (with ESPN doing all they can to make sure of it), this could end up being the most meaningful title for Team USA during the era of pro players, not because those who came before didn’t work hard for it, but rather because this team would be the first to do it on a court not heavily tilted in its favor. Your mileage may vary, but I suppose that possibility is worth the extra $4.99 it costs to find out. The capitalists always win in the end.
Top Photo Credit: usab.com