DONGGUAN, China — When it comes to basketball’s World Cup, this is how it works back home for American players: Only in defeat are you remembered.
In a tournament of such modest standing in our hoops culture, compared to the Olympics, typically only by losing does the United States men’s national basketball team command the attention of the mainstream sports public.
The 12 players who agreed to represent the United States at the 2019 FIBA World Cup knew the deal, deep down, when they signed up to join a roster that had been shunned by some 40 top pros — including all the biggest American stars. Yet those volunteers discovered the true depths of their no-win situation on Wednesday night, when the United States was outclassed early and late in an 89-79 quarterfinal loss to France at the Dongguan Basketball Center.
Had they managed to hold their 7-point lead over France in the fourth quarter and find a way through the next two rounds against Argentina and the Spain/Australia winner, this group likely would have been celebrated — and then quickly forgotten when more established players returned to the program next summer for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Instead? Rather than fly overnight to Beijing for Friday’s semifinals as planned, U.S.A. Basketball’s entire humbled traveling party was forced to return to its hotel in Dongguan to rest up and brace for Thursday’s night’s game against Serbia in the fifth-place bracket — as well as the unkind commentary that is sure to come after Rudy Gobert and the French guards, Evan Fournier and Nando De Colo, halted the Americans’ 58-game winning streak in tournament play.
“It’s all sort of sinking in right now,” the Nets’ Joe Harris said. “They outplayed us from the get-go, really. We were reacting the whole night.
“You put in a lot of a time, a lot of work, you build up a special bond with these guys and the coaches. And then for it not to come to fruition at the end of it all, it’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Said Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown: “Everybody knows what we wanted to do. And we didn’t do it. I guess you can imagine how we feel, right?”
One locker-room observer suggested afterward that, in his time in the league, he had never seen such a despondent scene after a loss. Harris, unprompted, made multiple mentions of the “39 days” that this group spent together trying to establish sufficient continuity to get through eight games and make their summer more of a non-story.
Falling short of the medal round completely, of course, means Gregg Popovich’s debut as national team head coach didn’t go any better than his stints as an assistant in 2002 and 2004, when the United States finished sixth at the world championship in Indianapolis and third in the Olympics. In six major competitions in between those lows, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski coached the United States to five golds — three in the Olympics and two in the World Cup.
Krzyzewski, mind you, always had far stronger rosters than this one and only managed a three-point win over France at the 2016 Olympics in Brazil with a team headlined by Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Paul George.
Popovich, who has been head coach of the San Antonio Spurs since 1996, will have to answer questions about why he brought three centers to China if Myles Turner, Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee could only merit 16 minutes combined against Gobert. Or why he decided to cancel almost every practice on off days for a group that has been so slow to mesh. But there’s a reason Popovich has come across as wound tightly from the moment this potluck squad convened in Las Vegas on Aug 4.
He knew this could happen.
Even before an exhibition loss to Australia last month and a near-loss to Turkey in first-round pool play, Popovich knew that the unreliability of his power players, his lack of depth and a backcourt pairing of Kemba Walker and Donovan Mitchell, who clashed stylistically, could be problems.
Mitchell rumbled for an authoritative 29 points through three quarters to help nudge the United States into the lead after it had fallen behind by double digits early in the second half. But France reeled off 22 of the game’s final 29 points, capitalizing on six missed free throws by the Americans in the fourth quarter and an off-key Walker (10 points on 2-of-9 shooting) dominating the ball in crunchtime instead of Mitchell.
Patty Mills blazed Australia into their first Basketball World Cup semi-final, starring again as the Boomers beat the Czech Republic 82-70 in China. The shooting guard finished with 24 points and six rebounds, 13 points coming in the first quarter in Shanghai where both teams struggled early but Australia flourished late.
Andrew Bogut (10 points on five-of-six shooting) played his best game of the tournament, turning the game in Australia’s favour in a decisive third term. It means a rematch with Spain in Bejing on Friday for a spot in Sunday’s final, the Spanish having denied the Boomers a bronze medal with a one-point win at the Rio Olympics.
Champions USA shocked by France in Fiba World Cup quarter-finals
Awaiting the winner in the decider will be one of France and Argentina, after both teams managed huge quarter-final upsets to oust the United States and Serbia respectively. It marks the first time in a World Cup that neither the US or Serbia – or formerly Yugoslavia – have not featured in the final four.
The Boomers lent heavily on Mills in the first half, but made six first-quarter turnovers to allow the plucky Czech side into the contest. Mills kept firing away in the third before his assist for a Jock Landale dunk made it a five-point game.
Lock down defence on the next play led to a Chris Goulding triple and they were finally up and about. Bogut then made plays at both ends to dull the boos, the Australians in the crowd responding with “Andrew Bogut” chants of their own.
Goulding then hit two more triples, with Tomas Satoransky’s (13 points, 13 assists, nine rebounds) dunk on the buzzer making it a 15-point game at the final break. It quickly became an eight point game but a time-out was followed by an Aron Baynes left-hand alley-oop to stop the run, and Bogut made a series of lay-ups to ensure the Boomers collected a sixth-straight Cup win.