If you needed a clear indication of just how different life was going to be for this Team USA at this FIBA World Cup, Tuesday’s opening-round matchup with Turkey made things very plain. The 17th-ranked team in the world—which, by the way, was not considered one of the tournament’s favorites to beat this U.S. team—stared the two-time-defending World Cup champions square in the eyes and didn’t blink. Turkey rode the inside-out craft of Ersan Ilyasova and the off-the-bounce juice of young wings Cedi Osman and Furkan Korkmaz to the brink of a hierarchy-shaking victory before a raucous crowd in Shanghai.
The Turks looked to have the U.S. beat twice but squandered each chance. First, Osman fouled Jayson Tatum on a 3-point try at the end of regulation, sending the Celtics swingman to the line for three free throws with the U.S. trailing 81-79 and just one-tenth of a second on the clock; he hit two of three to force overtime. Then, with Turkey holding a 92-91 edge in the last 10 seconds of the extra session, the underdogs missed four straight free throws—two by Texas product and longtime EuroLeague guard Dogus Balbay after an “unsportsmanlike” foul (meaning the defender made no play on the ball) by Joe Harris with 9.2 seconds to go, and two more by Osman on the next possession—to give Team USA new life.
The Americans took advantage, with Tatum snaring the defensive rebound, pushing the ball the length of the court, and dishing off to Khris Middleton, who drew a foul on his way to the rim. The newly maxed-out Bucks wing made his pair, putting the U.S. on top by one with 2.1 ticks left. A last-ditch look at a 3 by Ilyasova came up empty, and the U.S. survived, 93-92, to improve to 2-0 in group play and remain atop the standings in Group E.
Gregg Popovich’s squad will wrap up Round 1 of the tournament on Thursday against Japan, who fell to 0-2 on the tournament with a loss to the Czech Republic. The Americans will be favored to go through into the second round undefeated. But Tuesday’s game laid bare that this edition of Team USA has lost something: the ability to rattle its opposition.
Turkey—a team with three NBA players, plus a half dozen other players with EuroLeague experience—looked wholly unafraid of the guys in red, white, and blue. Fair enough: What about this U.S. team, at this point, should scare anyone?
Myles Turner’s an imposing shot blocker, but that sure didn’t seem to deter Osman when he drove the ball straight at him for an and-one late in overtime. Kemba Walker is an All-NBA player with a lethal stepback, but Scottie Wilbekin—last seen by many American observers starring for the University of Florida and now a naturalized Turkish citizen who plays his pro ball for Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv—felt plenty comfortable going right at him off the dribble on his way to 12 points in 15 minutes off the bench. And Ilyasova’s had more big-game international experience than every U.S. player combined, and he showed it, pouring in 23 points with 14 rebounds in 38 tough minutes.
Previous iterations of Team USA could rely on incendiary scorers, world-class defenders at every level, and an overwhelming avalanche of sheer, pure talent to bury lesser sides. We knew heading into the World Cup that the 2019 version wouldn’t have that, which would leave the U.S. more vulnerable than it’s been in modern history, but we still didn’t know quite what the team would actually look like on the court. In a tournament-opening win over the Czech Republic, the answer seemed to be “a swarming small-ball side with enough one-on-one scoring juice to get the job done.” That wasn’t enough to cow Turkey, who spent the bulk of the game sitting back in a 2-3 zone, betting the U.S. had neither enough shooting nor enough playmaking talent to unlock it.
The U.S. made 14 3-pointers but on 40 tries, which wasn’t enough to deter Turkey from standing pat. The result, too often, was a stagnant half-court offense in which a U.S. ball handler drove headfirst into multiple red jerseys before either lofting a low-percentage runner or trying to thread a pass through a thicket of arms. The U.S. shot just 13-for-37 inside the 3-point arc on Tuesday and mitigated its 20 assists with 14 turnovers. That included five by Harrison Barnes, who struggled as a creative force against a set Turkish defense.
Opponents will likely throw a lot more zone defense at Team USA as this tournament progresses. That means some member of the American frontcourt is going to need to be able to catch the ball in the middle of the floor, face the basket, and create a quality shot. Turner, by far the U.S.’s best option in the middle through two games, doesn’t excel in that sort of role, as evidenced by some of his awkward and wild drives against Semih Erden from the top of the key. Brook Lopez (four points, three rebounds, two blocks in nine minutes) lacks the playmaking touch to succeed in that spot. Mason Plumlee’s a solid passer but doesn’t offer the combination of shooting range and rim protection that Turner and Lopez provide; he was the lone American not to get into the action on Tuesday, after seeing just five minutes against the Czech Republic.
It’s likely, then, that Pop’s going to have to need a forward to play up a spot to get more passing, shooting, and scoring touch on the floor against zones. After a strong debut against the Czechs, Barnes (10 points on 2-for-6 shooting, six rebounds, five turnovers, four fouls, minus-1 in 28 minutes) didn’t really fit the bill against Turkey. It’s not entirely fair to ask Barnes to suddenly prove capable of doing a Draymond Green impersonation, but the U.S. will need better answers to handle what’s coming.
Popovich has spent the first two games searching for those answers. The best five he found on Tuesday came, briefly, late in OT: Turner in the middle, Walker at the point, and Harris, Tatum, and Middleton on the wings. It’s a lineup that maximizes shooting, keeps a legitimate big in the mix to clean the defensive glass and protect the rim, and gives Walker the screen partner and runway he needs to create off the dribble. It’s also one that didn’t include Donovan Mitchell, who missed nine of his 12 shots against Turkey and made some costly mistakes—like committing the blind-pass turnover that led to Ilyasova’s go-ahead putback late in the fourth quarter, and grabbing the rim while soaring in for an offensive rebound late in overtime, drawing a goaltending violation that knocked a Turner putback off the board with the U.S. down by one.
The Jazz star shined in Team USA’s first game and did make some critical plays, most notably when attacking the boards, but a team light on reliable scoring needs Mitchell to play more in control on offense—or, failing that, to at least make more of the shots he’s going to jack. His contributions could become even more important if the U.S. has to play without Tatum, who sprained his left ankle on the full-court drive that saved the game for the Americans. Tatum said after the game that he was already feeling better and that the injury didn’t appear to be serious, but a U.S. team whose offense has looked scattered and inconsistent can ill afford the loss of a viable scorer who can dribble, pass, shoot, rebound, and defend.
The wildest thing about Turkey’s performance and Team USA’s near-death experience, really, is that nothing about it seemed all that wild. Thanks to the globalization of basketball resulting in an improving collection of talent all over the world, and the various mitigating factors that led to most of the best U.S. players staying home, this is what can, and probably will, happen at tournaments like these: more close calls, more thrilling finishes, and more honest-to-goodness chances for a U.S. team full of NBA players to lose games that count. It’s not just Giannis and Jokic who can jump up and bite you. It’s a no. 17–ranked team with a sneer and enough experience to make you sweat it out until the final buzzer. This Team USA won’t beat teams before ever setting foot on the court; they’re going to have to earn it, every step of the way, from the opening tip through the medal round. Game on.