Mark R. Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
Team USA is officially headed to the 2020 Olympics.
I like the current version of Team USA. They all want to be there, they seem to enjoy playing with each other, and it will be fun to watch them be tested and try to solve problems together. I imagine they’ll find a way to win the World Cup later this month, but it’s also fine if they eventually lose. America has never seen a deeper talent pool than the current generation of U.S. stars in the NBA. Whatever happens in China this month or Japan next summer, no one needs to wring their hands about AAU culture or the soul of basketball the way we did when Team USA lost in the middle of the last decade.
Both the U.S. and Argentina advanced to the quarterfinals of the FIBA World Cup, and this tournament guarantees Olympic admission to the top two finishers from the Americas, so those two teams will be playing in Japan next summer.
Getting there meant beating Brazil, who did not make it easy for the Americans. Team USA led by only four at halftime, and Brazil kept things close for most of the game. Its stellar offensive rebounding and hot shooting display caught the Americans off guard, but Team USA opened up its lead in the second half and didn’t look back en route to an 89-73 victory.
Myles Turner and Kemba Walker led the way for Team USA with 16 points each, but the real story was how many easy baskets the Americans managed to generate in this one. They shot 64 percent on 2-pointers, a major weakness throughout the tournament.
As the winner of Group K, Team USA will now face the second-place finisher from Group L in the quarterfinals — set for Wednesday at 7 a.m. ET. That will be France after its narrow loss to Australia on Monday. In some ways, that matchup is a blessing for Team USA. Australia handed the Americans their first loss since 2006 when the two played during the exhibition season leading up to this tournament, and those two games gave the Boomers a real understanding of Team USA’s overwhelming athletic advantage. Avoiding them, at least for now, would have been preferable.
But it’s not as if France is going to be a cakewalk. It is the No. 3 ranked team in the world right now, according to FIBA, with only Spain separating it and Team USA. Perhaps no team the Americans face in this tournament will have as much NBA talent as France does. Rudy Gobert, Nicolas Batum and Evan Fournier lead the way for a squad that has been among the world’s best for years.
Team USA’s path to the World Cup championship is going to be absolutely brutal from here on out. A win over France likely earns the Americans a battle against Serbia, a team many projected would beat them before Serbia’s recent loss to Spain. If Team USA manages to get by Serbia, Spain is likely going to be waiting in the championship game. The warm-ups are officially over for Team USA. The real tournament starts now. Here are the biggest takeaways from Team USA’s win over Brazil.
How the offense got its groove back
Team USA scored only 69 points against Greece. That was the culmination of a troubling trend: a team of American stars was struggling to get the ball into the basket. Those struggles persisted early in this game, but Team USA mostly got back on track by the end.
How did Team USA do it? For one thing, it finally started making those easy shots. Not only did it shoot 64 percent on 2-point attempts, but Myles Turner went eight-for-11 with most of his attempts coming near the basket. Team USA hasn’t been able to rely on its big men for scoring in this tournament. If Turner can get buckets that efficiently, though, the Americans will have their interior option.
Harrison Barnes, center?
Turner was stellar in his minutes. The same cannot be said for Brook Lopez, who missed all four of his shot attempts. Team USA was outscored by six points when he was on the floor, and with Mason Plumlee sitting out yet again, it seems as if both of them have lost their chance to be a part of the rotation in the knockout stage.
Fortunately, Harrison Barnes has emerged as a viable backup center for this team. They were plus-10 in his minutes as the team’s nominal big man, but more importantly, he actually looked the part of a center. Team USA played five-out with him offensively, but he was perfectly willing to bang bodies with Brazil’s big men as necessary. Barnes can’t play center for too long like his former NBA teammate Draymond Green, but he has played well enough at the position in this tournament to protect Team USA from the struggles of its other big men.
Team USA’s 3-point shooting woes continue
Team USA shot only 8 of 25 from 3-point range. That leaves them at 32.7 percent for the tournament. Only Spain (31 percent) and Poland (29.9 percent) have been worse from behind the arc among teams still in the tournament.
There is a lesson to be learned here when USA Basketball builds its 2020 Olympic roster. Perhaps there is a meaningful difference between NBA shooting and FIBA shooting that needs to be accounted for. Perhaps differences in the ball — or the arenas — are to blame, but with only three games left in the tournament, it seems unlikely that the Americans are going to magically find their stroke from 3-point range.
Kemba takes control
There is no longer any doubt who this team belongs to. Kemba Walker runs the show here. Team USA was plus-22 when he was on the floor in this game. He has been among the team’s leading scorers in every game, and when it needed him most against Turkey, he was the one who stepped up and led Team USA to a nearly impossible victory. He is going to be the key to an American championship in this tournament. If he can be the best player on the floor against NBA stars like Gobert, Nikola Jokic and Marc Gasol, Team USA can win this thing.