MANILA, Philippines — After their surprising loss to Lithuania last Sunday, which marked their first one in the FIBA World Cup tournament, the United States responded to their wake-up call by making two key adjustments in their matchup against Italy: Turning up their intensity on the defensive end, and starting to play like the best team in the world.
The Americans did that by dominating Italy (100-63) from start to finish as the 37-point loss was Italy’s largest defeat ever in a FIBA World Cup game. It was the second-highest margin at a FIBA World Cup quarter-final game, just behind Slovenia’s 43-point victory against Slovenia in 2014, according to FIBA World Cup stats and data.
Team USA made an effort to address two of their biggest weaknesses so far in the tournament, specifically their inability to start games with a certain kind of intensity and their discipline on defense. Their defensive effort in Sunday’s statement victory against Italy was a huge reason why they were up by as many as 10 (24-14) by the end of the first quarter, and why Italy’s offensive rating was as low as 62.6 by halftime.
“I think we just set the tone. That’s what coach has been preaching to us. I think the bench has been doing a pretty good job but I think the starters have been letting them down a bit with the slow starts. That was the whole thing just to play with force the whole 40 and don’t wait too late, till the end. That’s what we did. Coach got us prepared and we just went out there,” Mikal Bridges, who led the team with 24 points, said after the game.
“Just a great defensive effort. Our guys got after it from the beginning. We put pressure and kept the pressure on and the next group came in and did the same thing. It was our best defensive effort of the tournament and that’s what it’s going to take to win two more games,” head coach Steve Kerr said.
With this victory, Team USA punched their ticket to the semifinals to face Germany, who defeated Latvia in a thrilling battle (81-79) exactly 20 hours after USA advanced. With a finals berth at stake, this battle means plenty for everyone involved — but most especially for former Lakers backcourt duo Austin Reaves and Dennis Schöder — who both have been looking forward to facing each other since the tournament commenced.
Reaves vs. Schroder
Before Reaves received an offer to represent the United States in this year’s FIBA World Cup, it was his former teammate Schroder who courted him first to suit up for Germany this summer.
According to Reaves, Schroder spent all year persuading the undrafted guard to play for his country (which explains why there were rumors about this last March), and while Reaves heavily considered it, he couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to play for Team USA when Kerr and his staff handpicked him to be part of the roster and presented their own offer.
“Dennis was obviously all year asking me about playing for the German team in the future, and I was open to it. Obviously, I told him straight up that I wasn’t going to play this summer because I wanted to rest and we had a long run, it was my first postseason run, and then the US opportunity presented itself,” Reaves shared moments before Team USA practice on Thursday.
“He [Dennis] was the first person I texted, and I said that I got this opportunity and I can’t say no to it. I just wanted to let you know before it all broke and obviously, he was super supportive like he said congrats and all that stuff so if this didn’t present itself, it was probably something that might’ve happened in the future,” Reaves added.
Both Schroder and Reaves have played a significant role for their corresponding teams in the World Cup — Dennis, in particular, has been the best player for the German team who are currently undefeated leading up to this game. While Reaves, the Manila crowd favorite, has not only been a consistent scorer for Team USA, he has also thrived in his role as the team’s connector off the bench.
Now here they both are, in the FIBA World Cup semifinals, about to face each other with their team’s championship hopes on the line. Reaves and USA already drew first blood in their final exhibition game against Germany last Aug. 20, when the Americans stormed back from a 16-point deficit but since then, the Germans have yet to lose a game.
Dennis Schroder on facing Austin Reaves in the semifinals:— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) September 6, 2023
“That’s my guy man. I aint got nothing but love for him. He’s my guy. Last year was special, what we accomplished as teammates and yeah, I’m looking forward to it.” pic.twitter.com/lSTvWHQfA3
It’s going to be an exciting battle between two teams who rely heavily on their depth and defense. Two well-coached squads have arguably been the best-performing countries in the tournament. The Germans are a physical team who have continuity on their side, while the Americans have superstar talent on theirs. Who is going to come out victorious?
We’ll know on Friday when USA and Germany take center stage at the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila, Philippines.
Notes and Updates:
- In Thursday’s Team USA practice, Kerr and Milwaukee Bucks forward Bobby Portis talked about the challenge that Germany presents and what makes them different compared to the opponents they previously faced:
I asked Bobby Portis about the challenge that Germany presents and what sets them apart compared to the other opponents that they’ve faced.— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) September 7, 2023
Portis: “They’ve got seven, eight or nine guys that can really impact the basketball game.” pic.twitter.com/760D2EeWlh
Kerr on Germany: “They’re really good, they’ve probably been the best team in the tournament. I don’t think they’ve lost a game yet. They’re connected and well coached.”— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) September 7, 2023
Kerr also talked about why USA’s transition offense is vital to their success. #FIBAWC pic.twitter.com/U2TPHqcPr5
- Schroder is coming off his worst game of the tournament against Latvia, after struggling from the field, scoring just nine points on 4-26 shooting. No one grilled him more than himself after his worst performance of the summer:
Despite this stinker of a game for him though, he’s been outstanding for Germany throughout the tournament — averaging 18 points, 6.3 assists and 1.3 steals in 27 minutes. Based on Portis and Kerr’s quotes in Thursday’s practice, it seems like the point guard is top the priority on their scouting report.
- If the Americans advance to the FIBA World Cup finals on Friday, it will be their sixth appearance on the big stage since the tournament included a “final stage” in 1978.
Team USA and Germany will tip off at 5:40 a.m. PT on Friday, Sept. 8. The game will be exclusively televised on ESPN2.
You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani