DONGGUAN, China – Sometimes the worst insult can be apathy.
Wednesday night, when France beat Team USA, some French players had tears in their eyes and star Rudy Gobert said he’d fulfilled a lifelong dream. Thursday night, when Serbia jumped out to a 25-point lead in the first quarter and beat the Americans, 94-89, for the first time ever, avenging a 30-point loss in the gold-medal game in 2016, there was … nothing.
No emotion. The Serbian players just walked off the floor.
It’s true the game had no material stakes. Team USA had already qualified for the Olympics and Serbia couldn’t qualify and was just playing for pride. But when Australia beat Team USA in a friendly last month in Melbourne the victors celebrated it as one of the great achievements in the country’s basketball history.
Nikola Jokic, the first team All-NBAer who the USA was fretting about playing for weeks, sort of went through the game at medium speed. He scored 9 points and had 7 assists but Serbia didn’t need him to be great.
The full report is after getting down 25, the U.S. battled back with spirit. Gregg Popovich kept coaching, deploying different lineups and trying different things. Khris Middleton and Myles Turner led a meaningful comeback. Harrison Barnes had his best game of the World Cup with 22 points. Kemba Walker had 18 points despite a bothersome neck injury.
“We’re not here to get moral victories, we’re here to win,” Donovan Mitchell said. “To lose two in a row stings.”
Team USA will play for 7th place Saturday in Beijing. It will be the worst finish ever in a World Cup for the country. Sad to say, that positioning is probably about right. That’s right where they belong in this event. Had they pulled off the win over France, they likely didn’t have the horses to win two more.
FIBA’s promotion of Friday’s World Cup semifinals came with the tagline: “The throne is empty.” Let’s translate that: The king is dead. Since they left for Australia to play a three-game exhibition tour, this group is 7-3. Had Turkey not completely botched several chances to beat them last week, it would be 6-4.
It’s hard to judge this team. They have indeed showed character, they haven’t taken shortcuts. Their intensity to start games could’ve been better. And it was curious that Popovich didn’t hold a full practice for nearly two weeks despite a number of players struggling with shooting when extra work might’ve paid off. They never bought into the ball movement offense Popovich tried to install in training camp and it made them easier to guard. But honestly, these are nitpicks.
This team didn’t underachieve, and that is sobering. Whether it’s a call to action to more talented American players remains to be seen. But that’s obviously the first step. Maybe Popovich will have to do some more recruiting over the next 10 months. Maybe Jerry Colangelo, who put the team together with other USA Basketball executives, needs to evaluate process. But they’d do that anyway, even if they’d won a medal. It’s not an indictment.
Looking at this completely fairly, it’s a true accomplishment they got the Olympic berth and didn’t force playing in a series of qualifying games next summer. At this point, who knows what would happen there.
They were down to 10 players Thursday because Jayson Tatum (ankle) and Marcus Smart (leg injuries) were out. Losing Tatum was a killer, at his size and the way Popovich wanted to play with wings moving down and guarding opposing bigs, he was a crucial player. There just wasn’t spare talent.
Brook Lopez, who is a good guy and a quality player for the Milwaukee Bucks, hasn’t made a shot all tournament and was rendered next to unuseable. Mason Plumlee has a gold medal and is a great guy to have around the team but he’s a backup on his NBA team playing against the guy ahead of him on Serbia’s roster (Jokic). It was just a tough ask.
In the locker room after the game, the Americans looked at each other and realized there is a lot of work to do with the national team going forward. And many of them might not be asked back to do it.
Say whatever you want about this group, they have had their eyes wide open this entire time.Their understanding of the situation, like the Serbs’ collective indifference, just said it all.
“For some of us, potentially all of us, Saturday will be the last chance for us to wear a Team USA jersey,” Barnes said. “We have to savor that opportunity.”