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Team USA narrowly survives to beat Montenegro to open Round 2 of World Cup

Austin Reaves struggled to get anything going all game, but came through in crunch time to help Team USA squeak out a win vs. Montenegro.

2023 FIBA World Cup - USA Men’s National Team v Montenegro Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Team USA started Group J action by beating Montenegro on Friday, 85-73. Austin Reaves was lukewarm all night long, but great when it mattered, hitting a crucial three in crunch time to end the night with 12 points, 2 rebounds and 3 steals.

The U.S. starters struggled during their opening shift, but once the bench mob was subbed in they took the lead, and then both teams exchanged blows for the rest of the game in the tightest game yet this tournament for the Americans.

With the victory, Team USA remains unbeaten in the World Cup and will look to win their fifth game in a row against Lithuania on Sunday.

An 11-4 deficit couldn’t have been the start head coach Steve Kerr wanted, but that's exactly where Team USA found themselves with under six minutes left in the first. Kerr’s first subs were Tyrese Halliburton, Brandon Ingram and Reaves, and he was rewarded for the substitutions with the U.S. regaining the lead in the closing moments of the quarter to take a one-point lead into the second.

Reaves didn’t have many highlights in the first half. He converted on five of his six free throws, had a steal and a couple of boards, but overall looked more like rookie Reaves where he would contribute for moments but was mainly relegated to just doing the dirty work and being a team player.

Instead, it was Haliburton and Paolo Banchero who shined for the Red White & Blue, with Haliburton doing everything on both sides of the ball, while Banchero most notably provided a nice lob dunk and a simply disgusting behind-the-back reverse layup that put fans in the Philippines into a frenzy midway through the second quarter.

But Montenegro kept hanging around and responding to every run Team USA made in the first half. Led by Chicago Bulls center Nikola Vucevic’s nine points in the first two quarters, Montenegro did what no team had been able to do so far in this tournament: Hold a lead against Team USA heading into halftime.

With 3:22 left in the third Reaves was back in the game with the U.S. up by one. Immediately Reaves made a nice pass from the top of the key to Jaren Jackson Jr. for a quick two, and concluded the quarter with an impressive steal by outmuscling Nemanja Radovic to force a turnover.

Entering the final frame the lead was just six for Team USA, and Kerr left his bench mob featuring Reaves on the floor to start the fourth. Reaves did what all good players struggling do; he put his head down, attacked the paint and drew fouls, ending the night 9-11 from the charity stripe. He had a Magic-esque behind-the-back pass to Banchero which led to more free throws for Team USA and midway through the quarter to give the U.S. a little more breathing room, up by three possessions.

Reaves finally made his first field goal of the game with 2:44 left in the game, hitting a huge three to extend the lead to seven. After a Mikal Bridges layup, the lead ballooned to double digits with 90 seconds left and Team USA avoided disaster to finally secure the win.

Key Takeaways

Reaves has (mostly) struggled in back-to-back games now, with his touches being reduced and not looking particularly impressive when the ball does find his hands. Could it be that Ingram moving to the bench is having a negative impact on Reaves’ fit and performance?

Perhaps, but one thing Reaves has always been good at with the Lakers is adjusting to an ever-changing role and finding ways to be a positive contributor regardless of such alterations. I’m confident he’ll figure it out, and given that he played most of the fourth during a tight game, it seems Kerr trusts him to do so as well.

For now, Reaves and the rest of USA Basketball will focus on their next matchup on Sunday, Sept. 3 vs. Lithuania. For those on the West Coast, tip-off is slated for 5:40 a.m. PT and the game can be viewed on ESPN 2.

You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.

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