Everybody knew the Team USA that took the court in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup would be the most vulnerable version in more than a decade, once virtually every elite option in the prospective player pool (and a bunch of not-so-elite ones too) started choosing to forgo national duty. Everybody knew a roster lacking the incandescent offensive talents of the post–Redeem Team era—no Kobes, LeBrons, Durants, Kyries, Hardens, ADs, or Stephs—would struggle to score against the best international defenses, and that getting enough stops to carry the day would be a tall order when the best player on the floor wasn’t wearing a U.S. jersey. What happened Wednesday in Dongguan, then, wasn’t a shock or a fluke; it was something we all could see coming since July.
But seeing something coming doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for it. The onrushing headlights are only helpful if you can get off the train tracks; this U.S. team couldn’t, as Wednesday brought the impact for which we’d all been bracing: an 89-79 quarterfinal loss to France. With Rudy Gobert and Evan Fournier leading the way, the French squad roundly outplayed the Americans for three of four quarters, closed the game with a 20-5 run over the final 6:59, and handed a U.S. team featuring NBA players its first nonexhibition loss in 58 international tournaments, dating to the 2006 FIBA World Championship. France advances to take on Argentina in the semifinals; the U.S. will play Serbia in the consolation bracket. Streak snapped, medal hopes dashed, disappointment complete, cycle still in spin.
The weakest spot on this U.S. roster was its frontcourt rotation, and Gobert spotlighted that shortcoming. The Utah Jazz star set crunching screens and dove hard to the rim to create space for France’s ball handlers to attack in the pick-and-roll, helping Fournier, Nando De Colo, and Frank Ntilikina combine for 51 points on 18-of-36 shooting. He beat smaller U.S. defenders on switches and bullied them under the basket, grabbing seven offensive rebounds, getting to the foul line 10 times, and pouring in 21 points, his highest-scoring performance in the tournament.
Late in the game, with the U.S. scrambling to staunch the bleeding, Gobert showed why he’s the NBA’s reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year. Playing with a little extra oomph after U.S. center Myles Turner, who finished fifth in DPOY voting last season, fired a broadside at his bona fides, the 7-foot-1 “Stifle Tower” took control of the paint, altering one driving layup by Kemba Walker, blocking another, and coming up with a massive swat on Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell to keep France up by four with 53 seconds to go.
RUDY GOBERT BLOCKS UTAH JAZZ TEAMMATE DONOVAN MITCHELL FOR HIS 3RD BLOCK OF THE GAME AND THIS MIGHT BE IT pic.twitter.com/G6kYaObMIA— Play Gary Clark (NBA (@Itamar1710) September 11, 2019
Gobert dominated Turner, who’d been the best U.S. center in this tournament, but who seemed alternatively too tentative and too frenetic in this marquee matchup Wednesday. The Indiana Pacers big man struggled in pick-and-roll defense early, failed to make a mark with the ball in his hands, and barely played after halftime, finishing with more combined turnovers and fouls (five) than points, rebounds, and blocks (three) in 10 feckless minutes. With Brook Lopez looking uncomfortable on defense and missing both of his 3-point tries—continuing a brutal run that’s seen him go 2-of-14 from distance in China—and Mason Plumlee again an afterthought in the rotation, head coach Gregg Popovich went small after France opened up Team USA’s first 10-point deficit of the World Cup in the third quarter.
It worked. Lineups featuring Harrison Barnes and Jaylen Brown up front, with heavy doses of Mitchell, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White in the backcourt, cranked up both the defensive pressure and the offensive tempo, spreading the floor and attacking the rim. With Smart tilting the game with his trademark activity and defensive skill—he bodied Fournier up top and Gobert down low on switches, notching deflections and snaring offensive rebounds—and Mitchell carrying the offense, the U.S. ripped off a 20-9 run to regain the lead, heading into the final frame with a 66-63 edge.
The U.S. pushed the lead to seven against a reserve-heavy lineup early in the fourth, but French head coach Vincent Collet put his best lineup back on the floor around the eight-minute mark, and everything flipped. Gobert started controlling the game on both ends. Fournier got loose, and de Colo got to the foul line. Ntilikina, the New York Knicks’ much-maligned 2017 lottery pick, continued his strong World Cup performance by drilling a pair of clutch late jumpers. Team USA did itself no favors by missing seven of 11 fourth-quarter free throws and turning the ball over three times in the final 3:07, but France earned the win … and the U.S. got the result it deserved.
After a balanced scoring attack carried the U.S. through group play, you got the sense that Pop’s club would need a star performance when facing the top competition. Through three quarters, Mitchell fit the bill; his 29 points tied Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning for the 10th-highest-scoring individual performance in U.S. World Cup history. In the fourth, though, it was Walker—who had scored just three points through the game’s first 30 minutes—who tried to take the reins. Walker was Team USA’s steadiest contributor and most dangerous creator for most of the tournament, but just couldn’t find the range against the length of Ntilikina and Gobert, and never located his rhythm. He missed two of three free throw attempts after pump-faking his way to the foul line with the U.S. down six in the final minute, icing the game and ensuring that there will be a new World Cup champion crowned Sunday.
Before Wednesday, it was possible to imagine a version of the World Cup where the U.S., even without its most decorated and talented players, still won gold. Maybe Walker and Turner wouldn’t have their worst games at the worst time; maybe Jayson Tatum wouldn’t miss the last four games with a sprained ankle, and maybe the Americans wouldn’t go 7-of-20 from deep and 14-of-21 from the line in a knockout game. It didn’t shake out that way, though, so now USA Basketball has to figure out what’s next.
The U.S. has already secured a spot in the 2020 Summer Olympics, the tournament that always draws a brighter brand of U.S. star than the off-year World Cup. There’s a good chance that by this time next year we’ll be discussing the performance of a roster featuring multiple MVPs rather than one featuring a single All-NBA performer. And perhaps that’s what matters most—getting USA’s A-team, or at least something close to it, rather than fretting too much about how the pieces all fit together.
It’s worth remembering, though, that the last three Olympic teams featuring those All-Star names still had to sweat against international opponents with lesser NBA-caliber talent, but much more cohesive rosters. This result isn’t just about the best and brightest feeling stirred enough to commit to turning out next summer; it’s about those who do then devoting themselves to the pursuit enough to develop the familiarity to produce a more consistent offense and better defense against the pick-and-roll and off-ball cuts. If that doesn’t happen, a loss like this can happen again, on the grandest stage in the international game. The fear is gone, there’s blood in the water, and now it’s time to react. For 16 years, it’s been considered a given that Team USA is exceptional. This loss shows that it isn’t, and won’t be, if those involved don’t treat it as such.