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USA vs. Montenegro FIBA Preview: On to the second group phase

Steve Kerr’s latest lineup adjustment might just have an impact on Austin Reaves’ scoring production for Team USA

USA v Jordan - FIBA World Cup Basketball 2023 Photo by Dante Dennis Diosina Jr II/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

MANILA, Philippines — After passing the first group phase with flying colors and remaining undefeated (3-0), the United States will now take on Montenegro in the second group phase of the FIBA World Cup tournament. They’re now officially in Group J, together with Greece (whom they previously defeated by 28 points), Montenegro, and Lithuania.

Among the teams listed above, it’s only the United States and Lithuania that remain undefeated in the tournament. But as expected, the Americans are the favorites to come out on top once again, and their performance in round one — where they recorded a point differential of 103 against their fellow group C members — speaks volumes for that.

In fact, Anthony Edwards, who treated the Manila crowd to a spectacular show in Monday’s victory against Jordan, is confident that they’ll cruise past their next two opponents just like what they did in the last eight days. The Minnesota Timberwolves rising superstar is well-aware that Lithuania — the country that the United States will face after Montenegro — is undefeated as well, but he knows that won't last for too long.

“I think we’re gonna win,” Edwards said after putting up a game-high 22 points along with eight rebounds and four assists against Jordan. “We’re unbeaten also. So yeah, I think we got a great chance to win. We’ve got a great coaching staff, we’ve got great players. Our confidence is at an all-time high. We’re not really worried about those guys,” Edwards added.

Talk about extreme confidence; that’s certainly how Team USA is playing right now. The Americans should feel great entering the second round, especially after head coach Steve Kerr’s intriguing and notable move to tinker with the starting lineup.

Out goes Brandon Ingram, in comes Josh Hart

Perhaps the biggest story in Team USA’s dominant 48-point victory against the Jordanians on Wednesday was the new starting lineup that took the court. After two straight slow starts, the Kerr finally decided to pull the plug and replace Ingram with Hart in the first unit.

According to the Golden State Warriors head coach, it was a way to test new lineup combinations and perhaps make more of an effort to get Ingram, who has been struggling to start the tournament, going with the second unit.

True enough, Ingram had his best performance of the tournament after tallying seven points and five assists. It was a win-win move for both the New Orleans Pelican and Team USA, because the latter also produced its best start of the tournament as they concluded the first quarter against Jordan with a commanding 31-12 lead.

While Kerr did mention that this may not be a permanent move, it’s clear that his first significant adjustment for Team USA in this tournament was replacing a shot-creator type of player in Ingram for a connector-type of role player in Hart — whom Kerr also said boosts the starting unit’s ball pressure defense alongside Edwards and Mikal Bridges.

How does this affect Austin Reaves?

Win Ingram playing in the second unit, it was clear that the team made more of an effort to increase his shot attempts to try to get him going. If this continues, then there’s a possibility that Reaves’ scoring production — which was a huge part of the second unit’s success in the first two games — decreases moving forward. Against Jordan, the Lakers’ guard rendered his lowest-scoring game of the tournament with eight points.

Nevertheless, the best aspect of Reaves’ skillset is his ability to impact the game in more ways than just one. So while it’s a possibility that the new starting lineup adjustment could decrease his scoring production, that won’t stop the Manila crowd favorite from pushing the pace for the second unit, competing hard on defense, and doing the dirty work for Team USA.

At the end of the day, what Reaves ultimately only cares about is winning and focusing on whatever the coaching staff assigns him to do. He told me himself in last Sunday’s Team USA’s practice:

Now, we’ll see how Reaves and Team USA continue to adjust to the lineup change on their first game for the second group phase against Montenegro on Friday.

Notes and Updates:

  • Team USA is stumbling upon a Montenegro squad that went 2-1 in Group D in the first phase of the tournament. Their only loss was against Lithuania. The Europe-based team, led by their front court of Nikola Vucevic and Bojan Dubljevic, is the tallest team in the FIBA World Cup tournament. They get multiple scoring contributions across their roster so watch out for Kendrick Perry, Marko Simonovic and Dino Radoncic.
  • For Team USA to book a spot in the quarter-finals, they must once again at least end up as one of the top two teams in their group.
  • Team USA forward Paolo Banchero is reportedly dealing with a sprained right thumb, according to AP’s Tim Reynolds. Although Banchero confirmed that he’s fine and is expected to suit up against Montenegro.

Set your alarm clocks again (or pull an all-nighter for this one), because this game starts earlier than usual. Team USA and Montenegro will tip off at 1:40 a.m. PT on Friday, Sept 1. The game will be exclusively televised on ESPN2.

You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani

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