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Thursday, September 12, 2019

France Defeats Team USA 89-79 in the FIBA World Cup

At least Team USA qualified for the Olympics--barely. Just one win after ensuring an invitation to the 2020 Olympics, Team USA lost to France 89-79 in the FIBA World Cup quarterfinals. Team USA will not win a medal, and the highest Team USA can finish is fifth--and that will require a victory against Serbia, whose loud mouth (but possibly prophetic) coach said before the tournament that Team USA would need divine intervention to beat his squad. As it turned out, Serbia lost 97-87 to Argentina to join Team USA in the (no) consolation round. It is not clear if Team USA is interested in and/or capable of making the loud mouth coach eat his words, particularly with no hardware at stake, but one would hope that Team USA will still strive for the best finish possible.

What should we make of Team USA?

This result is not shocking, or even surprising. As I explained a week ago, "This is not a dominant FIBA team. This is a team that, if it plays well and maximizes its potential, is capable of winning the gold medal, but this is a team that also might have to struggle to win a medal at all...In order to win the gold medal, Team USA needs to develop more chemistry/cohesion at both ends of the court, and someone needs to emerge as the go-to option down the stretch in close games. Those two tasks might sound divergent but they are not. Cohesion and chemistry keep things together for most of the game, but in a close contest you need to have a player who is so confident and so deadly that he must be double-teamed; that in turn opens up opportunities for players who are not good enough or not confident enough to create their own shots down the stretch. Against the better teams that also have skilled big men, Team USA will need at least 25 productive minutes from Turner."

While not surprising, this result is nevertheless disappointing. Granted, this was not our A team or even our B team--one could legitimately argue that this is our third string or possibly even fourth string squad--but should the United States be satisfied that a squad comprised entirely of NBA players finished no higher than fifth? It would be nice if our elite players understood the significance of representing their country and of being ambassadors for the sport, but a squad that, on paper, is easily talented enough to qualify for the NBA playoffs should not be bowing out before the medal round.

Gregg Popovich will likely be given a pass for this failure. He is popular with--or at least, respected by--the media, and already there have been articles published saying that Popovich is not to blame and that he did not do a bad job. Perhaps both of those statements are true, but it is evident that he did not do a great job, either--unless you buy the premise that a team with 12 NBA players maximized its potential by finishing no higher than fifth. Consider that France's starting lineup versus Team USA was Rudy Gobert, Evan Fournier, Nic Batum, Frank Ntilikina and Amath M'Baye. Team USA started Myles Turner, Harrison Barnes, Joe Harris, Donovan Mitchell and Kemba Walker. We know that FIBA playing conditions are different, and that most of the other FIBA teams have more experience playing together--but NFL Coach Bum Phillips once said of the legendary Coach Don Shula, "He could take his'n and beat your'n and he could take your'n and beat his'n." If Popovich could not win with the starting lineup that he had, I am less than convinced that he would have won if he switched seats with France's Coach Vincent Collet; it seems more likely that Popovich could have lost with either squad, kind of the FIBA anti-Don Shula. Keep in mind that Popovich was also an assistant coach for Team USA in the 2002 FIBA World Championship (now known as the FIBA World Cup) and the 2004 Olympics--and the less said about those squads, the better, but just know that Popovich has now had three chances in FIBA tournament play as a coach and he still does not own a gold medal.

Popovich's snarky routine with the media is getting more than a little old, too. I will be the first to admit that many media members ask stupid questions, but Popovich is often rude even to questioners who make legitimate inquiries. After the loss to France, Tim Reynolds asked Popovich if France's defense took away Donovan Mitchell or if Team USA just went away from Mitchell down the stretch. That is a fair question considering that Mitchell, who scored a game-high 29 points, did not score in the fourth quarter. Popovich replied, "Just write, don't coach. Just write."

I don't pretend to be a better coach than Popovich, but it is fair to say that many media members did their jobs better during this tournament than Popovich did his job, and there is no excuse for Popovich to brush off a legitimate question--unless his sarcasm is meant to mask the reality that he did not in fact have a good answer. If I had asked that question and Popovich had provided that answer, I would have followed up with, "Based on that non-answer, is it fair to say that you and your coaching staff had no counters for the fourth quarter strategies employed by France's coaching staff?" Popovich likes to star in little press conference soundbites, and most reporters are too scared or slow-witted to fire back, but respect is a two-way street and accountability should be expected of a Team USA coach who will return home without a medal.

Popovich is an all-time great NBA coach but he may not be a great FIBA coach and--regardless of how great he is--he should treat other working professionals with the respect that they deserve.

Popovich has a propensity for going with small lineups at questionable times. This possibly cost the Spurs the championship during the 2013 NBA Finals when Tim Duncan watched from the bench in game six as the Heat grabbed an offensive rebound that led to Ray Allen's series-changing three pointer. This almost cost Team USA in FIBA World Cup play against Turkey--and this played a role in Team USA's loss to France that eliminated Team USA from medal contention. Myles Turner played just 10 minutes; as I noted a week ago, Team USA was not going to beat any of the top notch FIBA teams if Turner played less than 25 minutes. Brook Lopez played less than five minutes and Mason Plumlee barely played a minute. Turner's benching while Rudy Gobert dominated Team USA's smaller players (21 points, 16 rebounds, three blocked shots) makes no sense, nor does it make any sense that Popovich used/wasted two roster spots for Lopez and Plumlee if he did not plan to incorporate them into the rotation.

Contrary to recent popular belief, small ball is not the cure for all ills, particularly when the opposing team has a dominant big man. Contrary to another persistent myth, the key to Team USA success in FIBA play is not that Team USA make a ton of three pointers; Team USA's advantage is having the size and athletic ability to play stifling defense.

France outscored Team USA 26-13 in the fourth quarter. FIBA quarters last only 10 minutes, so over the course of a 48 minute NBA game France scored at a 125 points per game pace during the decisive final stanza. Again, maybe this is not Popovich's fault and maybe he did not do a bad job--but he clearly did not do a great job in terms of roster selection/management, and in terms of developing a defensive game plan that this roster could execute under pressure.

Of course, Team USA's fourth quarter offensive output of 13 points is nothing to write home about, either, but Team USA led 74-67 with less than eight minutes to go in regulation. If Team USA had played lock down defense the rest of the way, they could have still won even without having an offensive explosion.

If Team USA's A team or B team shows up in the 2020 Olympics, Team USA will probably win regardless of who coaches, but it would be nice if Team USA--from top to bottom--took this more seriously and had a more professional approach regarding roster construction, player rotations and in-game strategy.

Maybe this was not a bad job--but it was not a great job, and it did not represent the best product that Team USA is capable of putting on the court, even considering the absence of Team USA's superstar players.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:02 AM



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