Team USA’s Backup Squad Finally Falls in FIBA World Cup

Team USA’s 58-game win streak is over. The Americans dropped their FIBA World Cup battle with France in an 89-79 loss on Wednesday morning, marking the United States’ first international competition without a gold medal since 2006.

How did the French pull off the upset? A certain All-NBA center is to thank. Rudy Gobert completely stifled Team USA in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, deterring the Americans at the rim at every turn. Perhaps a more formidable USA squad could attack Gobert and the French defense, especially one armed with either elite isolation scorers (hello, James Harden) or athletic marvels like Anthony Davis.

Kemba Walker was smothered by Gobert on multiple possessions late in the contest, as were Jaylen Brown and Khris Middleton. Gobert even feasted on the offensive end late, punishing Team USA guards off switches for easy layups and dunks. The Americans gave up a seven-point fourth quarter lead, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Gobert was a complete force late, surrounded by a crew of solid-to-servicable NBA talents. France deployed Knicks point guard and defensive ace Frank Ntilikina throughout the fourth alongside Gobert, and Nicolas Batum provided necessary length and switchability in the final minutes. 

France was far from overmatched down the stretch; one could argue they held the athletic edge. Gobert swallowed nearly every Team USA pick-and-roll, deploying his length to shuffle toward the foul line before extending back for key rejections and impacted shots. Walker is one of the NBA’s leading pick-and-roll players, but neither he nor the rest of Team USA could put Gobert on skates a la Steph Curry. France switched at nearly every opportunity from its point guard to power forward. With Gobert as the anchor, even a manufactured mismatch resulted in a difficult shot for Team USA. 

- VCG/VCG via Getty Images
VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Donovan Mitchell provided an antidote to France’s imposing defense, at least for the first three quarters of Wednesday’s contest. Gobert’s Utah teammate carried Team USA for the opening 30 minutes, pouring in 29 points, including 12 in the third quarter. Mitchell’s willingness to attack the tin with abandon sets him apart from much of Team USA. Walker is diminutive. Harrison Barnes and Jaylen Brown are complementary players. Jayson Tatum missed Wednesday’s matchup with an ankle injury, and Marcus Smart finishing the morning as Team USA’s No. 2 scorer is a clear sign something was amiss. It’s hard not to imagine what the American team could have looked like with even a couple more All-Star talents. 

Even though head coach Gregg Popovich has largely treated Team USA as an equal opportunity roster, its frankly perplexing the degree to which Mitchell was frozen out down the stretch. The Jazz star didn’t take a shot in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter. He tallied just two shot attempts in the fourth, and his second attempt came with Team USA down 10 in the final 10 seconds. Walker entered the tournament as the Americans’ de-facto late-game scorer, and he continued to hold the mantle on Wednesday, albeit unsuccessfully. Facing an elite French defense, an audible was desperately needed. Mitchell has plenty of experience as a lead guard in big moments, carrying Utah in the postseason both as a rookie in 2018 and in his second NBA season last year. He had to take the reigns down the stretch for Team USA to advance to the semifinal. Instead, the gold medal will now go abroad.

We shouldn’t hit the panic button over the state of USA basketball following Wednesday’s loss. Just one All-NBA player (Walker) joined the 2019 FIBA squad, and even some of the more impressive American youngsters—Trae Young, Marvin Bagley—didn’t come to China. This version of Team USA will bear no resemblance to the squad that will play in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

But Wednesday’s loss should still leave a bitter taste in the mouths of American basketball fans. The 2019 roster was overshadowed by a slate of high-profile departures, and the performance in China wasn’t exactly impressive in the lead-up to France’s upset victory. The international basketball community is on the rise. Team USA will need to seriously raise its game in 2020 to win gold.

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