MANILA, Philippines — The United States men’s basketball team’s first loss against Lithuania last Sunday was a reminder of why they were no longer viewed as undisputed favorites at the start of the 2023 FIBA World Cup.
Team USA was stunned, outplayed, and sent back to their hotel with the realization that a hot shooting night — similar to what propelled Lithuania to victory — by any of their competitors could simply seal their fate in the tournament moving forward. That 110-104 loss to Lithuania was a significant wake-up call for the United States.
“It’s possible to lose. Like you have this feeling of invincibility sometimes but you’ve got to understand that everybody’s playing hard and everybody’s coming out to win games so it’s definitely a little bit of a wake-up call,” Tyrese Haliburton said moments before Team USA’s practice on Monday. “We just have to be ready to go moving forward.”
Five games into the tournament, what’s become clear for Haliburton and Co. is that their two biggest problems have been their inability to start games the right way and their developing rebounding concerns.
For the second straight game in a row, the Americans were outrebounded on Sunday, as Lithuania dominated the boards 45-27. On top of that, Lithuania’s pristine offense propelled them to shoot 56% on their three-point attempts. They knocked down their first nine attempts in the first quarter alone, which caught the United States off guard early.
“Obviously, every time you give up 110 in a 40-minute game, that’s not ideal, but once again, they shot the ball really well. They made tough shots. They made a lot of contested threes as well. It’s not an excuse for the way we were guarding but like I said, you tip your hat at the end of the day. As much as it sucks to lose, they earned to win that game and it doesn’t change the situation we’re in,” added Austin Reaves.
And because they dropped the game against Lithuania on Sunday, the United States will face Italy first in the quarterfinals. Here’s what they can learn from their last two games.
It only takes one hot shooting night
What the Americans probably already know about this Italy team is that they live and die by the 3-point line. They ranked fifth in 3-point attempts in this tournament (156 attempts in five games) and have converted 31.4% of those. Led by their best player, Utah Jazz forward Simone Fontecchio, the Italians present a different kind of challenge.
U.S. head coach Steve Kerr, who also addressed the media prior to Monday’s team practice, perfectly described what makes Italy dangerous and why they’re a tad bit different compared to Montenegro and Lithuania.
“Italy’s a lot different. They’re more off-ball movement, a very pattered team, they run a lot of really good stuff. They play well together as a five-man unit. When they throw the ball in the post, it’s not to score like [Jonas] Valanciunas and [Nikola] Vucevic. It’s more run, split cuts, gaggles and a lot of movement and misdirection stuff so it’s a very different style,” Kerr said. “They’re really good so we have to be ready.”
If Team USA wants to win, they can’t allow Italy to find their shooting rhythm and momentum early, like what Lithuania did last Sunday. They can’t allow themselves to get run off the floor again in the first quarter and more importantly, it’s key for the United States to get off to a good start. If they don’t, the pressure of this being a do-or-die game could mess it all up for them.
Answering the wake-up call
Kerr said that one of the multiple lessons that the team learned in their first defeat is to embody a certain kind of appropriate fear toward its opponents. True enough, Team USA realized last Sunday that anything can happen in a FIBA game, such as their competitors shooting 9-9 from the 3-point line in the first quarter, or seven members of the opposing team scoring in double-figures in a game. It was a wake-up call that Team USA needed.
And now that the U.S. is in the quarterfinals, the competition is only going to get tougher. Instances like the ones mentioned above can easily happen in a do-or-die setting. Each team only has a day of rest in between games. Unlike in the NBA, a team only needs to beat the opponent once in order to advance. This is when the pressure and what’s at stake is greater than ever.
“It’s really the intensity for the whole 40 minutes. There’s no more coming out slow or having stretches in the game where we’re not playing as hard as we possibly could. It’s win or go home now, so every time you step out on the court, regardless of who’s on the court, there’s got to be complete focus and intensity to keep the main thing the main thing and that’s win,” Reaves said.
Now, we’ll see how Team USA answers this wake-up call, and if they can live to fight for another day against Italy on Tuesday.
Notes and Updates
- Like the United States, Italy’s record stands at 4-1, with their only loss coming against the Dominican Republic. The winner of this contest will advance to the semifinals and compete against the winner between Germany and Latvia.
- Anthony Edwards, who had 35 points in Sunday’s loss against Lithuania, has now led the team in scoring for the past three games.
- One player who will be under the spotlight against Italy is Paolo Banchero, who made headlines last June for turning down the opportunity to play for them and instead choosing the United States. Since then, both parties haven’t really been on good terms.
Team USA and Italy will tip off at 5:40 a.m. PT on Tuesday, Sept. 5. The game will be exclusively televised on ESPN2.
You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani