MANILA, Philippines — The USA men’s basketball team faced their most challenging opponent yet in Montenegro last Thursday, who they managed to escape from in a thrilling fourth quarter to remain undefeated in the FIBA World Cup tournament.
Led by Nikola Vucevic’s dominant 18 points and 16 rebounds, the Montenegrins’s height and physicality kept the Americans vulnerable throughout the game. Team USA may have had an answer for their opponent with their depth and firepower, but what was clear in their most recent game is that this round of the tournament won’t be a breeze like the first group phase was.
In fact, their next game against Lithuania — who also currently remain undefeated in the World Cup — will be their toughest battle yet. Led by New Orleans Pelicans big man Jonas Valanciunas — who had 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting, nine boards, three assists, and two blocks in 27 minutes against Greece last Friday — the Lithuanians are currently ranked fifth in average points (93.0) and are first in rebounds per game (44.5) in the tournament.
“They’re really good. We watched a little bit of their game against the team we just played. They’re physical, they play the right way and it’ll be a good match for us to come back and battle. We know it’s not going to be anything less than a battle and we’ll be ready for that,” Austin Reaves said about Lithuania.
As always, let's start with the rating chart. Lithuania has averaged very good values, but, TBH, has played against medium-level teams so far. On the— Cappe (@Cappe90) September 1, 2023
I would have expected a better defensive level from Greece. #FIBAWC pic.twitter.com/rVLwOIlidM
The first factor to look for in this game is the front court battle between Jaren Jackson Jr. and Valanciunas. Jackson found himself in foul trouble six minutes into the first quarter in their previous game against Montenegro. Kerr had to rely on Paolo Banchero and Walker Kessler to take over Jackson’s role but that didn’t stop Montenegro from dominating the paint.
Montenegro out-rebounded Team USA (49-31) and scored 39 of their 73 points inside the paint. This can be the case again versus Lithuania, and it’ll be interesting to see how Kerr prepares the team heading into Sunday’s tilt. How will Team USA attack Valanciunas? Will JJJ be utilized as a roamer once again? And more importantly, can the Americans’s depth, defense, and transition offense carry them once again to their fifth victory of the tournament?
Another factor to watch out for is Kerr’s lineup adjustments. He might have just found his closing unit, the same one that built an 11-point lead with two minutes to go against Montenegro, but has the starling lineup (who trailed 11-4 to start the first quarter last game) been solidified? Will there be any more changes to the second unit? Who will be the odd man out like Cam Johnson — who didn’t see any playing time — was for this game?
We’ll get our answers on Sunday as both undefeated teams battle to stay perfect in the tournament.
Notes and Updates:
- Aside from Team USA and Lithuania, the only undefeated teams left in the tournament are Slovenia and Germany. All four teams have punched their ticket to the Qualifiers round. This also means that Sunday’s match between the Americans and Lithuanians don’t mean much standing wise but it’s a battle for pride, bragging rights and who can remain undefeated.
- Anthony Edwards, who rendered 17 points against Montenegro and 22 versus Jordan has led the team in scoring for two games in a row now. It’s not a coincidence that he’s been on a scoring tear since Brandon Ingram was replaced by Josh Hart in the starting unit. The Minnesota Timberwolves star continues to prove that he’s the best player on the team.
- Two games to look out for on Sunday’s slate are the matches between Italy and Puerto Rico as well as Serbia versus Dominican Republic. The winners of these games will take on the United States in the quarterfinal round. Meanwhile, the winner between Canada and Spain as well as Latvia against Brazil will play Slovenia and Germany next round.
This game will start later than the last two as Team USA and Montenegro will tip off at 5:40 a.m. PT on Sunday, Sept 3. The game will be exclusively televised on ESPN2.
You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani